The thing I most remember from my student days about the main Aberdeen University library was the carved mouse climbing the leg of each chair. It was a lovely touch, irreverent yet also somehow appropriate to what I remember as being quite an intimate nineteenth century reading room.
On Wednesday I was back at the university for a meeting. I was a little early so I bought a sandwich and ate it in the sunshine outside King’s College – a glorious setting with the medieval buildings, the lawn and shady trees, and little groups of students, also enjoying the sunshine, sprawled on the grass, deep in conversation.
It was a moment of intense nostalgia as I remembered my own summers there, especially the last; and the long, long days, reading outdoors till eleven pm, as we revised for exams. It must have been round about this week, I thought, mid-June. And then it struck me that having graduated in 1971 I was, quite accidentally, marking the fortieth anniversary of my finals. It was an odd feeling, both pleasant and disconcerting. I really don’t think of myself as someone who graduated forty years ago.
Then came another surprise. As I got up to walk to the meeting, I noticed a large glass cube towering into the sky, just the other side of the campus – the brand new £60 million university library, due to open in September. I know all about it because I wrote much of the original literature for the project, but I hadn’t yet seen it in the flesh, so to speak. I couldn’t go in, but from what I know it will be a marvel, a library of the future, a mere stone’s throw from the fifteenth century buildings of the old campus. It seems entirely right that the university has chosen to make its most conspicuous architectural statement with a library.
Yesterday it was another library, as we launched the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s 2011 programme in the grand, second-floor reference section of Edinburgh’s splendid Victorian Central Library. It’s a big space, lit by huge south, west and east-facing windows, and it was packed to the gunwales with authors, publishers, agents, journalists, sponsors and people from all the other organisations, including competing festivals, that make up literary Scotland.
It was an inspiring event with brilliant presentations by both Janet Smyth, the new children’s programme director, and Nick Barley, the main programme director, now into his second season. Revolution, inspired particularly, but not exclusively, by the Arab spring, is the theme this year. There was a buzz afterwards, a sense of collective engagement with the big events that are shaping the world around us; and as always I felt privileged to be part of this festival, the largest of its kind in the world, which may have books and authors at its heart but is in reality about so much more.
This year there was something else as well: a deeper sense of connection with our purpose, coupled with a palpable feeling of solidarity, arising from the fact that we were in Edinburgh’s main public library. A library is, after all, the ultimate symbol of a free and civilised society. What does it say that we live in times when they are being closed?