My Libraries

Inspired yet again by the Carlquist & Järv anthology of library history I mentioned recently, I decided to write something about the libraries of my life. I'm fortunate in that I have always been able to take libraries for granted. I feel at home in them.

Learning to read at age four or five, I may have been taken about that time to some forgotten library in Greenwich, Conn. But the first one I remember and one of the two most important ones in my life so far is Saltsjöbaden public library, located at the Dump, Tippen, the local mall which took its name from being built on the site of a former dump. My mom took me to the Dump library at age six and got me a library card, and then for years helped transport loads and loads of books between the Dump and our home. An early favourite of mine was Philippa Pearce's Minnow on the Say. And there was Irmelin Sandman Lilius, Tove Jansson, and as I grew older, Hans-Eric Hellberg, J.R.R. Tolkien, and more and more science fiction such as Robert A. Heinlein, Clifford Simak and Arthur C. Clarke.

From age twelve to eighteen me and my geek friends spent most of our recesses in the library of Saltsjöbaden samskola ("co-ed school", a designation that had by that time of course long been meaningless). We flipped through magazines, read 17th century poetry for the funny spelling, played Vector Race, wrote absurd poetry and chatted with the punk chicks. I don't remember finding many good books on the shelves, but a friendly high-school senior had a huge impact on me right at the start by simply lending me a grocery bag full of American paperbacks just when I'd run out of fantasy in Swedish: Raymond Feist, David Eddings, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Piers Anthony.

During my early twenties I was even an amateur librarian, being head of the Stockholm Tolkien Society's book guild and caretaker of its fantasy library. "Library" is bibliotek in Swedish, and so of course I named the library Bilboteket.

The second really important library in my life is the Library of the Royal Academy of Letters, one of Scandinavia's largest research libraries for archaeology and adjacent disciplines. I've used it regularly for almost two decades, and getting any work done there is somewhat complicated by my tendency to run into people I know. On my way to Vitterheten I always buy cake enough for at least two people, as there's invariably someone to share with.

Another library where I have always found it hard to concentrate is the Stockholm University Library. There are simply way, way too many pretty girls there. And though I pass by the Royal Library every Monday on my way to work at the Academy, I only use it on the rare occasions when I need a book that's not available at the Academy's library.

With my local, Fisksätra public library, I mainly interact in two ways: I frequently donate books and magazines, and I collect the inter-library loans I sometimes order over the internet there. But I never read there. It's close to home, and they don't have many books I want to read: I care little for Swedish novels, the Anglophone ones they carry are mainly in translation which I avoid, and for reference purposes I use the net.


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Since I graduated from college, my office has always been located in the basement of a University Library. I guess I really take for granted having almost any reading material I wanted a couple floors up or an interlibrary loan request away.

You wrote that you don't read Swedish novels. Not even Henning Mankell? :)

Indeed, I have never been tempted to read him. Nor Stieg Larsson or Lisa Marklund, who are other best-selling crime writers. I did read The Big Sleep recently, though.

I love Minnow on the Say! A pity that sort of thing has gone out of fashion rather. Is it normal in Sweden to donate books to libraries? I've never heard of it in the UK.

One of my earliest memories is of going to the library with my father - I'm not sure if I remember the library itself, they all look rather the same inside, but my memory of the flooring and the lighting is so vivid I recognised it at once when I went back a decade later. We stopped going to that library when I was 3, I think, so the floor was probably the only bit I had a good view of. Shockingly, I've hardly been to a library at all while I've been at university - mathematicians don't, as a rule. I'll have to actually learn how to use an academic library next year.

By Charlotte (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

I don't think it's normal in the sense that most people do it. In fact, very few people seem to be aware of the possibility. But as long as you give them good books and fresh magazines, stuff they can actually find readers for, the librarians will love you. I get VIP treatment at my local library. And they're amazingly well read -- I dropped my paperback editions of Lovecraft's collected fiction on them, and they were delighted.