Writing in the library

Some brief reflections on an evocative writing space

I’m working on a book at the moment. It’s largely drafted and I’m trying to work it into shape. I always find it a bit of a slog when I’m having to read my own words back, again and again. I keep the writing and editing stages very seperate, which means that I’m often working with an extremely rough draft that need lots of work over several months. It’s a slow process. This is when I tend to turn to the library. When it comes to the trickier bits of writing and editing — whether it’s books, chapters or articles I’m working on — I’ve found that relocating to the library can help a little. The slog is the same, but being surrounded by books seems to give the work a little bit of an encouraging nudge.

The library is a bit of a bubble. I use it more in the gaps between terms. In the ebb and flow of the academic year — described beautifully in Les Back’s book Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters — the library space is most welcoming at the time when my own diary is at it’s thinnest. I’m in the library now, writing this short piece as a way of getting warmed up for a few hours of editing. The library space just seems to invite thinking and writing. Wifi connects me into the usual networks, but the space seems somehow to provide a refuge from the distractions and endless flows of information that call for our attention. It frowns on anything too fivilous; Twitter mentions and the like. The attention economy still calls to us through our devices, but somehow the quiet contemplation of the library space suggsts to us that we should be ignoring it and directing our attention elswhere.

In terms of our connectivity, the spaces of the library are no different to anywhere else. They just feel different. Part of the this is the kind of affective properties that are designed into the spaces — they are put together to make you feel a certain way. But the bigger presence is that of the books. Even if we are not taking them off the shelves, the books set the tone for the space. Their physical presence, looming down from the shelves, reminds you of the history of knowledge. This is partly liberating because, as when looking at pictures of outer space, I’m reminded of the meagreness of what I am contributing. The enormity of knowledge is there on display in the library. This frees me up becuase of the perspective it gives to the writing.

I think though the tone of the library is also a product of how evocative the books are. A little while ago I wrote a short piece about the properties of old books. That short piece used both Sherry Turkle’s notion of ‘evocative objects’ and Walte Benjamin’s account of the importance of the materiality of books to reflect on why working with old books is so interesting. Their yellowed pages suggest something of their past and istantly evoke a history of use — a material biography. When we sit amonst them rows of them we are placed within a mass of those historcial traces. The presence of shelves full of old books has a collective effect. The impact of evocative objects is multiplied when they are displayed in concert. The library space is where these evocative obejcts intersect and their dusty dogeared and sun-lightened spines tell stories of accumulating knowledge. The aura of these obejcts is powerful in itself — we need not always be working from these books to feel a sense of the weight of knowledge and the history of thinking that they evoke.

Writing spaces matter. The environment we write in inevitably shapes the work (as an example, I previously I wrote this short piece on the book I wrote whilst sitting in a fold up chair and leaning on a towel box). The liberating enormity and evocative presence of the library’s books make it a place to think and work that, I think, adds some energy and a bit of fizz to what I’m doing. It’s a space I tend to turn to when I need a bit of a push to keep writing or to keep editing. Sometimes I fetch those books come down from the shelves to inform what I’m doing, but often they sit there suggesting to me to think more, to be a bit freer and to get on with it.