There’s a photograph in one of the private meeting rooms at my local library of the building’s foundation stone being laid in 1895. Following the example set by Andrew Carnegie in Dunfermline, the benefactor in Perth was Archibald Sandeman, heir to the Sandeman port fortune and one of a series of drink magnates who made their mark on the city.
Also prominent in the photograph is Lord Provost Dewar, then chairman of distillers John Dewar & Sons; while today, the modernised building has been re-named after AK Bell of the Bell’s Whisky distilling family. (This probably says more about the commercial acumen of local farmers and the quality of their water and barley, than it does about the role of liquor in the quest for knowledge.)
But back to the photograph, which is surprising in one particular. In the foreground is a cluster of top-hatted, bewhiskered dignitaries, all staring solemnly at a large lump of dressed granite that dangles on the end of a rope a few feet above its resting place. Nothing so odd about that. No, it’s the sea of spectators that’s astonishing. Townsfolk throng the street beyond, shoulder to shoulder, several hundred of them – maybe even a thousand, blocking the thoroughfare in all directions, all in attitudes of rapt attention despite the fact that the detail of the proceedings – including the exciting possibility that the lump will at the last moment detach itself and crush one of the highheidyins – is invisible to them.
This, remember, is the foundation-laying ceremony for a public library. Granted, in 1895 some of the spectators may have been there because they’d been given the afternoon off, or because it was a good opportunity to pick a few pockets, or because they wanted to gawp at the top hats. But even at this distance in time, the photograph transmits an air not merely of civic pride but also of reverence for what that square of granite symbolises. Alongside the photograph is the following inscription: ‘Professor Sandeman’s bequest benefited the citizens of Perth, young and old, more than any other civic project of the time.’ It was ‘a notable milestone in the cultural, educational and literary life of the City of Perth.’
Today, in the highly improbable event of a new library being built anywhere, its foundation-laying would most likely be attended by a couple of drunks and a dog. We have become blasé about knowledge. We have become used to the idea that information is ubiquitous. We are growing accustomed to the thought – though some of us continue to resist it fiercely – that libraries have no special immunity from budget cuts. But knowledge, of the kind in which one can steep oneself over long, silent hours in a library is different from the kind one gains in the course of a five-minute canter through an article in Wikipedia. Wiki-knowledge is often nothing more than the intellectual equivalent of junk food – consumed quickly and just as quickly forgotten. Library-gained knowledge can be transforming. It’s a safe bet that many of the spectators on that October day in 1895 were hungry for the change that knowledge – as embodied in a free public library – could bring to their lives.
I was in that room in the library and saw the photograph because I was running a writing workshop there – a connection between venue and activity that was made by at least one of the participants who, when asked to write for a few minutes starting with the words ‘Here I am now’, found herself musing on the books she had recently read.
She and her colleagues were public servants and we were working on the letters they write to their customers. We had already spent a day together and between that first workshop and this one a transformation had taken place – a transformation that had been made possible, of course, by knowledge; in this case the knowledge that writing letters to people in the language of everyday conversation makes a proper, human connection whereas writing to them in the language of officialdom doesn’t.
But for that knowledge to take root and do its transformational work, my group had first to value it, to acknowledge its true weight – like Archibald Sandeman’s square of granite. And if the world of digital, pixellated information we increasingly inhabit seems slight and insubstantial, there’s a danger that the knowledge that proceeds from it may be equally flimsy. We’re not so advanced that we no longer need the presence of solid structures, such as free public libraries, in our lives.