Every now and then a writer will be asked to nominate a favourite word, and out will come "magenta" or "elfin" or "thrash" or whatever else floats up through the murk. Writers cannot have favourite words because every word in its proper place is perfect, but, if there were to be a word that remains lovable for me, even when set adrift on meaninglessness, it would be "library". "Tea and buns" may be nice, but "tea and buns in the library" is rhapsodic. For all those unschooled girls over the centuries, who sat atop library ladders devouring their fathers' and brothers' books without permission, the library was Samarkand. Excitement, adventure, happiness bloomed in the sunlight filtered through tight-drawn linen blinds, as they gathered up treasure that no one could steal. The most adventurous, like Lady Mary Wortley, taught themselves Latin, so they could plunder Martial and Juvenal and Ovid, and learn as much about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll as their brothers knew. Libraries are places where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity.This was the whole piece, but here's the link to it at the Guardian.
Dying of boredom in my parents' bookless house, I was tall enough at 13 to con my way into the Melburne public library. I didn't know how to use the catalogue or even what I wanted to read; I just grabbed a book, any book, off an open shelf, pulled a chair up to one of the red cedar desks that rayed out from the supervisor's high pulpit at the centre of the panopticon, clicked on the reading light in its green glass shade, and read away with might and main. Some of the people around me would fall asleep, their open mouths dribbling on to the green blotters, but I read on and on. There would be time to sleep on the long train journey, 16 stations, back to my beachside home.
Though they are the best way for the keeper of books to watch that his readers don't deface or damage books, panopticons are no longer in fashion. Libraries are no longer intimidating but inviting. Where once libraries went to considerable lengths to keep people out, now they struggle to entice all kinds of people in, the young, the poor, the lame, the blind. When Damilola Taylor was fatally wounded on the eve of his 11th birthday, he was on his way home from Peckham library where he was a member of the computer club. It's not unusual now for even quite little kids to hang out in libraries.
The boldness of Will Alsop's concept made Peckham library famous even before it was built. Now, deliberately unstable, a top-heavy box propped on wonky pins, half armoured in green copper, and half transparent, it has more than half a million visitors a year. There are baby and toddler sessions, teenage and adult reading groups, family reading groups, a homework help club, and a huge collection of music CDs and DVDs, with the bookish bit at the top, above the hubbub. It lends more than 300,000 items a year. As a structure, it collected a clanking list of prizes.
For an elderly bookworm like myself, the Peckham library is a bit challenging. Its top-heaviness seems to court catastrophe. I like my libraries stable, durable, serene. I am looking for adventure in the books, rather than in the building. More to my liking is a much humbler and friendlier building, the Johnston central library and Farnham centre, which opened six months ago in Cavan, in the Republic of Eire. Peckham library defies you to understand how it stays up, whereas the Cavan library is all elementary post and beam construction like the Royal Villa in Knossos.
Harmony in architecture created by lucidity of structure; the full-height atrium enables you to comprehend the full extent and mass of the Cavan library's components and how they fit together. Cement columns and piers support reinforced concrete beams, gently replicating the proportions of the golden mean; the glass doesn't feel like curtain walling but like windows. In the children's library on the ground floor, every glazed section has a window seat. The seats correspond to the age sections of the library, so brothers and sisters stop quarrelling about who goes where and divide naturally into age sets. Teenagers have funkier furniture and slightly more privacy in their windowed niche. A hundred small touches make the space seem like the library in a great house, where every family member could find a space.
Cavan library shares some important motifs with Peckham; the understorey is transparent, there is a sheltered space before it, and the quiet study areas are held aloft as they are in Peckham, but the building doesn't trumpet its cleverness. Like Peckham, it uses new technology in making the most of natural ventilation and light; it is heated by geo-thermal pumps and lit with low-energy bulbs. It may not flaunt a coat of costly copper, but its soft red bricks are handmade, its mortars and plasters lime, every bit as luxurious and rather less intimidating. Peckham library is inextricably connected with the huge creative ego of Will Alsop. Cavan library reminds you at every turn that it has taken shape after years of close collaboration between the community, the staff and the designer, whose name can be seen nowhere. She is Alice Bentley of Shaffrey Associates. If a community library's what you want, she's your man.
From the Comment section of the Guardian, Germaine Greer on libraries: