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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 12 - Chapter and verse of a lifetime of public library pilgrimages

I AM, I suppose a book worm; I’ve been that way since I first found that the character motivation, pace and plot of the tale concerning the cat that sat on the mat had come up to scratch.

I have gone on paginal pilgrimages among literary giants. Night’s candles have burned out and jocund day has seen me still journeying from Golding, Gorki to Gogol, from Blyton, Bennet, Bellow and beyond, while Haggard is what I have become after storming Kipling’s barrack-room bastions.

Sometimes, I sit in my little grey home in Edinburgh South and browse over a gripping, fast-action chapter or two of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Luddy Wittgenstein or, maybe, if I want a few laughs, something - say Towards a Genealogy of Morals by that old reliable, Freddy Nietzsche. You never lose the plot with the genial old Jerry.

If nothing else is available, I will curl up, with an out-of-date Edinburgh street directory, or a list of vital ingredients on a sauce bottle label.

Books are my main reading material, and I am with Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote: "We should gloat over a book, be wrapt clean out of ourselves and rise from the perusal, our minds filled with the busiest kaleidoscopic dance of images. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers and the story repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye."

While I have more than 4,000 books scattered on shelves and various strategic areas of my house, I am also an enthusiastic public library borrower. I am particularly fond of my local branch, staffed by cheerful, informative and helpful assistants who, if I had a sudden yearning for a paperback edition of The Domesday Book, would search for it without a tremor.

I have been a member of Edinburgh’s excellent public libraries since around the time Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan was setting up his 1930s film jungle business with branches everywhere. The children’s lib-rary was then in the George IV Bridge Central Library building where the Fine Arts section is now. It was an enclave of wooden tables and chairs with shelves stocked with books from fairy tales to the best of classical literature deemed suitable for moulding the minds of those whose tastes would be exposed to literary landscapes from Mother Goose to Lady, Don’t Fall Backwards.

Then, under the librarian’s stern but just eye, children were expected to read, mark and inwardly digest books and not shatter the monastic calm by larking around. Offenders who ignored rowdy behaviour warnings were told to leave, Biggles unopened and Tarka the Otter untouched.

How different from today when branch libraries are often the scene of unchecked-by-parents, rampaging children and where once studious quietness has been shattered and replaced by sounds suggesting a zoo’s feeding time. Old age pensioners in groups can also be noisy and when children are in full babble and wrinklies at top bellow, a reader who is grappling with Freud while trying to be Jung at heart, can find concentration difficult.

Still, public libraries are great places and we are lucky to have them but, according to a recent report by the Audit Commission, those in England and Wales are in serious decline, with visits to them falling by 17 per cent in the past ten years, book loans dropping by a quarter and 23 per cent fewer people using libraries for borrowing compared with three years ago. Among reasons for the decline are that buying books has become more popular and the internet is replacing libraries as information source.

In Scotland, book-issue figures were also down with 43,605,353 in 1997-98 compared with 38,724,000 in 1999-2000 and later figures are also believed to be downwards. Library visits have, however, increased in these periods from 30,457,557 to 30,761,505.

Library officials who believe that information technology brought more people into libraries, have revealed plans to equip all of Edinburgh’s ones with computers and free access to the internet. Also planned is a pilot scheme involving three libraries for Saturday and Sunday afternoon openings.

Great stuff. I understand that, despite receiving the latest technological equipment, books will remain the core concern of Scottish libraries. As a bookworm who only wants to read in quietness, I rejoice to hear it.

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