Loving libraries IRL

27 February 2019

Tilly's face fell. "Oh", she paused, looking apologetic.

The cardiParty at Incendium Radical Library (playfully abbreviated as IRL) in West Footscray had just ended, and we were working our way through a box of books I'd offered to donate. IRL is, officially, just the shelves along one wall of the IRL Infoshop, but the guests from newCardigan pushed back a little on this, seeing the activities of the Library and the Infoshop as a seamless whole - just as public libraries run storytime, provide internet access and also lend books. Anne-lise from IRL asked us to each tell the group "Why you love libraries". When my turn arrived, my head was still spinning from the audacity of the question. Do I love libraries? Why did Anne-lise assume we all loved libraries? Should I love libraries? What if I said I don't? Was this a trick question? I mumbled something incoherent and set up a false dichotomy with archives, whilst Michaela glared at me in her 'Archivists against history repeating itself' t-shirt. I wished not for the first time that I could be a silent bystander at a cardiParty - or if that wasn't possible then at least be swallowed up by the earth.

But "Why do you love libraries?" was a great provocation. It's a ridiculous question to ask librarians, which I realised later is probably why Anne-lise asked it. Asking a group mostly consisting of librarians why they love libraries is like asking people why they love their families. A few might say they don't, particularly, but this provocation is much more interesting than the question that occassionally gets thrown at librarians who dare to apply critical theory to library practices. "Why do you hate libraries?" sounds like the opposite question, and perhaps it is: but not in a straightforward sense. Why do you hate libraries? is an accusation - underlaid with an assumption that if you don't profess unconditional love you are expressing hate. It assumes that you should love libraries. That they are beyond criticism or reproach. Why do you love libraries? is an open invitation to say whatever you want: maybe even to say "I don't". It was such a simple question, and yet, despite (or perhaps because) my first attempt to answer it was so poor, I've been thinking about it ever since. One can love one's family and still see their flaws. Families that love each other fight, and bicker, and hold grudges, and embarrass each other. But they also forgive, and support each other, and show their love by helping each other to be better people individually and together.

I do love libraries. I find them mesmerising and wonderful, frustrating and painful, inspiring and embarrassing, awful and awe full. Libraries and librarians in all their various incarnations are some of the greatest examples of human creativity and ingenuity. They are also sometimes some of the most frustrating examples of conservatism and intransigence. Libraries are large; they contain multitudes.

When I was between paid jobs in July I weeded my personal library. Out went everything I had read but knew I'd never read again, and everything I hadn't read and was never going to. Most of the discards went to Brotherhood Books, but I set aside a box for Incendium - some introductory maybe-capitalism-isn't-so-great-after-all texts, some early Naomi Klein, as well as the sort of books I felt I should read if I was to uphold any sort of inner-city lefty credibility - Beaudrillard and a couple of other Semiotext volumes. I hadn't really understood much of anything in these last ones, of course, so I was passing them on to others who perhaps might glean something more. It was one of these that Tilly was frowning at. A big, chunky thing with densely packed text, by a philosopher who delights in courting controversy but has been accused of not really having much to say. I hadn't opened it in the two years it sat on my shelf, and as both the man and his writing became increasingly problematic, I realised I never would. Being unapologetically selective about what goes into the IRL collection, Tilly gently placed it in the "free books" box rather than the to-be-catalogued pile.

The small team that keep IRL running do so on a pile of donations. Donated time (mostly their own); donated books (some having migrated through four anarchist and radical libraries); a donated building, and donated money. But it was their ethic of care that struck me forcefully as Tilly and Anne-lise talked about their work building and maintaining IRL. The thought and consideration they put into how they build the collection, the effect any given title might have on the people they want to welcome to IRL, and how they can make the space itself welcoming and safe was obvious and inspiring. They're not professionally trained, but they're certainly librarians.

It's a library that is full of love.