“…in the Library… with the Revolver”

by Chris Hancock

Let me paint a picture in your mind of my early-teen self, brimming with youthful brio, inflating the tyres on my bicycle before pedalling confidently away towards the Public Library in the centre of town (population 90,000. That’s the town, not the library).

Railings outside the red-brick building were perfect for chaining my bike to. Unbeknownst to me or indeed anyone else, my bike lock was 30 years ahead of its time in that it had a 4-digit PIN long before they were introduced for credit card transactions. Given that the lock is now lost (or possibly has lain undisturbed in my Dad’s garage for at least 25 years) it’s probably safe to reveal that the combination was 3775. But don’t spread that information unnecessarily.

Steps from ground level led up to the door of the library, but this was no ordinary door. This was a revolving door and, I’ll wager, at that time the only revolving door within a 10 mile radius.  Am I alone in still feeling a frisson when pushing a revolving door?  In warm weather, the door would be set into an open position to allow in a cooling draught. This was always a disappointment, and I would resolve to rectify this injustice by making several complete revolutions in the door on my next visit.

Leading off from the atrium (adorned by a huge portrait of Sir Winston Churchill), the library was split into three main areas: Children, Adult and Reference. I’m pretty sure I allowed my mouth to form itself into a self-satisfied grin as I strode confidently away from the Children’s section and towards the Adult area. I was now a “grown-up”.

In the pre-electronic age, the process for borrowing and returning a book involved the transfer of a little card associated with the book between the book itself and one’s Library Ticket (a little cardboard envelope). Whilst the book was borrowed, the ticket was retained by the library in a long narrow wooden tray. The book was stamped with a date by which it must be returned. Returning a book “overdue” (i.e. after this date) incurred a small fine but, more importantly, felt at the time like an appalling transgression. I recall apologising profusely to the librarian who – I’m sure – couldn’t have cared less as long as I had the right change for the fine.

Sadly libraries are no longer the refuges from noise they once were. Back then, the story was told of a man coming into a library, who goes up to the desk and says in a loud voice “Can I have a pound of sausages?” The librarian is shocked and replies “This is a library!” to which the man whispers “Oh, sorry. Can I have a pound of sausages?”

Finding fiction books was a comparatively simple process – if you knew the author. Fiction was arranged in alphabetical order of author surname in bookcases around the walls of the library. To make life easier, some genres had their own designated area: Historical, Thriller, Crime. During one craze, I would make straight for the Crime section and scan the shelves for any Agatha Christie whodunnits I hadn’t read.

Searching for non-fiction was a different scenario, as it brought you into contact with a new mystery: the Dewey Decimal System. Created in 1876 and still widely detested today, it allows all books to be classified (and therefore located in a specific area of the library shelving) via a number system. For example, the broad category of “Language” is covered by Dewey numbers 400 to 499, with “English Dictionaries” (a personal favourite) at 423. Narrower subcategories have a decimal portion. Thus, “Dinosaurs” have the designation 567.91 (for those interested, 567 is “Fossil cold-blooded vertebrates”, 560 to 569 is “Paleontology; Paleozoology” and 500 to 599 is “Science”. For those not interested, that’s still true).

I like to imagine the Librarian who writes a “Lonely Hearts” advertisement saying “My interests are 780, 641.5 and 822.33”.

My non-fiction interests would have marked me out as a geek even at this stage. Games and Puzzles, Magic, Juggling. Naturally I have now put away such childish things [quickly stuffs juggling balls behind the sofa cushions].  Non-fiction books could be located by riffling through musty index cards in a bank of wooden drawers. A given book could be located by three methods: title, author’s name, or subject (but in alphabetic rather than Dewey order). All three led to a Dewey number and thereby the second part of the quest – finding where that range of Deweys was located in the library. And, of course, nine times out of ten, the quest ended in failure – you found the shelf, you located the place where that Dewey number would be… and the book was “out”.

No matter, here were books on a similar subject, books with pencilled notes from previous borrowers, or books that hadn’t been borrowed for years. And what an odd set of people they were who browsed the same aisles as I did! People who never spoke or so much as acknowledged my existence, yet might pick up the same book that I had just put back on the shelf.

I’ll leave you with a sobering thought. That the entire textual content of a small library could probably fit onto a single 32GB memory stick. Progress? I suppose so… just don’t tell that to the teenage boy strolling along the bookshelf-lined aisles of wondrous knowledge and delicious flights of the imagination.

In the Library… with the Revolver. The revolving door.

Chris Hancock

About Chris Hancock

Chris Hancock (@cjhancock) is an IT consultant and dictionary enthusiast in the UK. He’s worked in Engineering and Computing since leaving University, all the time hoping that the post of Crossword Editor for “The Guardian” will come up. It hasn’t. Yet.

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280 Responses to ““…in the Library… with the Revolver””

  1. “I like to imagine the Librarian who writes a “Lonely Hearts” advertisement saying “My interests are 780, 641.5 and 822.33”.”

    I miss the old, musty card catalog.

    • Oh, yes. The picture that accompanied the article brought it all back. The ones at our library were *exactly* like that, Carrie.

  2. Oh, how beautiful, a lovely trip down memory bookshelves *gives approving nod from behind my own wordnerdy glasses*

  3. I wonder what happened to all those index cards? Maybe there’s a whole library of them now!

    • Good question! They can’t all be folded over and under table legs, keeping them from wobbling.

      • My aunt used to be a librarian and brought the old index cards home. She has them in her hall, but she says they make her sad now, because they all point to books that don’t exist.

  4. Chris, thank you, I want to go to the library now! I also wonder what Dewey’s shelves at home looked like.

  5. A gem again, Chris. Bravo.

  6. Growing up we had no library, but the mobile one came through the town once every two weeks. It was better than the ice cream van, hearing the news that the library was in town. A lovely lady at the door would ask “what’s your fancy or what’s your need” and then disappear into the van and produce, magically, whatever it was you wanted – or something almost like what you might have wanted. When you were sixteen you were allowed onto the van yourself. I must say Kindle makes life easier out here, but I do miss that mobile library.

  7. That’s a great little bit of colour, Ray. I do use a Kindle, I confess, but there’s still something about having a well-thumbed book in your hands… that musty-but-not-unpleasant smell.

  8. Oh, the library…and catching people’s eyes through the shelves. Such a delightful setting for all sorts of liaisons, and of course this lovely column. Thank you!

  9. I want index cards! I want those like in the picture. I can organize my books at home finally.

    • Agreed! That would be awesome. To arrange all my books at home under Dewey, and have wooden index drawers like those. #dream :-)

  10. Like it, Chris. I could never figure why library books all smelled the same – of library books! :-)

    I formed my own library when I was 8 and made my brother join. He had a membership card and everything. My catalogue system wasn’t as complicated though. It went from 1 to 14 if I remember… :-)

  11. This sounds *exactly* like my local library growing up. Not from Darlo are you? LOL. Loved this, brought back many happy memories, I can almost smell it.

  12. Yes! It’s the main library in Crown Street!

    • Oh my! I was a regular there in the late sixties! Oh how wonderful!

      • How bizarre! I suppose the Churchill portrait was the clincher. I wonder if that’s still there. I’d have been in the children’s section in the 60s. I guess I’m describing circa 1973 in the article. Well, well :-)

      • Yes, the combo of Churchill and the revolver made me dare ask. Oh I’d have been in the children’s section in the late sixties too, graduated to the “adults” in 71 but then left for four years. Oh Chris, how delightful to have this of “my” library! Thank you!

  13. We were probably browsing the same aisles at the same time! Looking on Google Streetview, the railings are still there and I’m sure the revolving doors will still be there though the library was shut when Google went past. I don’t live far – I’ll pop down some time and check the other details. Thank you so much for asking a “dumb” question and being right! :-)

    • Maybe I should meet you there and get you to autograph my library card! Seriously though, do let us know if Churchill still graces the wall. LOL!

      • I will, but I’d better check I returned all my books. I wouldn’t want to be recognised and liable for a fine running into £000s!

  14. Lovely piece this, just lovely, spoke to this old librarian’s heart! Thank you Mr Hancock!

  15. That’s a lovely thing to say! Thank you, Cynthia :-)

  16. Oh my. My daughter mailed me the link to this, and I’m so grateful she did. I worked at a library in Northern England for 35 years, and you’re describing my life! I must have written out thousands of those index cards in my time. Thank you for this beautiful article, and your wonderful, wonderful site.

    • Thank you, Felicity. How I envy you your life in a library. Incidentally, the library in question is the main one in Darlington. I must go back and check, but I’d like to think it looks much the same, apart from those wooden index drawers no doubt lost to new technology.

  17. Chris, what a delight! I’m sending this on to my librarian elist, I’m sure many will value your nostalgic column!

  18. Thanks, Samantha. That would be lovely :-)

  19. Long live libraries! Long live real books we can touch and feel and breathe! Long live Chris Hancock! Long live That Word Site!

  20. Lovely! This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for all the booklovers of the world, and the author.

  21. Ooh, good CLUE in the title. LOL!

  22. Dewey has been my life’s companion, and I am grateful for his wisdom every day, however random it may sometimes appear! Great article.

    • Thanks, Sarah-Lynn! I say “detested” in the article but just for fun. It’s a brilliant system that’s stood the test of time.

  23. What a lovely thing to read on a Thanksgiving morning, and what a lovely site to add to my “favourites”!

  24. Fantastic memories, ta.

  25. Our library here in Queenstown still has index cards, although we also have a digital system. I find many folks still prefer the cards.

  26. Oh how lovely, tempted to place that personal ad just to see who responds! Thanks Chris Hancock.

  27. Music cooking and Shakespeare, eh? Sounds like my kinda woman :-)

  28. Graduating to the adult section was such a rite of passage, it seems a shame that not so many kids experience that these days. Thank you Mr Hancock, superb column.

  29. Yes, I’m afraid you’re right. And thanks for the compliment, Desray!

  30. I met my wife in a library. I’d like to say that it was romantic, but she was the assistant librarian and I was returning a stunningly overdue copy of a book of an extremely “adult” nature, and was at pains to point out that it was part of my psychology research and not “pleasure”. I spent half an hour repeating this point, and she spent half an hour begging me to just pay the late fine and go away. I suddenly realized, mid-sentence 453, that she was devastatingly beautiful, and I was a twat. It wasn’t until a year later when she had to help me look up something in the index cards that I dared ask her name. If there’d have been a digital system, I’d never have had the nerve.

  31. Jolly good column, you have a lovely touch of nostalgia and humour there.

  32. I say, it’s getting awfully noisy in these comments, I may be forced to walk around with my finger pressed to my lips exhaling shhhhhhhhhhhhh! at all and sundry.

  33. Why Mr Hancock, you’ve done it again, made a pedant very happy.

  34. Hurrah! Thanks very much, Lucien!

  35. It warms my heart to think that people might have such fond memories of their libraries. I love that ours is still full of author readings and frazzled students and school parties. Books tell us stories about ourselves. I am most grateful, I’m going to print this out and stick it up on the noticeboard.

  36. We’ve started lending out Kindles with a selection of books on them. I wonder how people would react if I hauled the old index cards out! Splendid piece.

  37. I do approve of your choice of favorite Dewey section :-)

  38. Mr Hancock, this deserves a place on our shelves! I hope you and your fellow “wordnerds” will soon bring out a book so that we can index you appropriately.

  39. I feel I ought to petition our library management immediately to get a revolving door fitted, then I can hang a portrait of Churchill and pretend you wrote about us!

  40. Marvellous stuff, you have a way with words, sir.

  41. I still have a library book I took out when I was 15. I discovered it aged 19, when I was leaving for college, but I was too ashamed to return it then, as was my mum. I’ve kept it with me though. One day I’ll work up the nerve! Thanks for the memories.

    • Ha ha! I like to think of you having a life “on the run”, or jumping every time the front doorbell goes. Go on, turn yourself in 😉

  42. Do you write regularly? I do hope so. I’ve been indulging in all your past articles, and I am a Chris Hancock fan already.

    • Thank you, Sylvia! Apart from one obscure blogpost elsewhere, my entire output is this article and the ones linked at the bottom of it. But with such lovely comments as yours, I could get a taste for this writing game :-)

  43. Chris, what a pleasure to revel in your words. So much tosh on the internet these days, gems like yours are rare and welcome.

  44. I felt like I was there with you, from the chaining of the bike to being left strolling the aisles.

  45. My delight in libraries was always finding the marginalia, the comments others had made, often to future readers of the book. My favorite was one where suddenly, very large was written “THE NEXT PAGE CONTAINS SIN SKIP IT”. As you can imagine it was clearly the most thumbprinted page!

    • Ha ha! I love that. I was reminiscing on Twitter the other day, about the time a teacher grabbed the “dirty” book we boys were reading and held it up to see where it fell open. Sure enough, at the rudest bit!

  46. Write on, Mr Hancock.

  47. I have only as an adult discovered the delights of libraries, and I envy your childhood sir. Please do write more for us, I value your words.

  48. Libraries contain everything that is possible, I think – thank you for taking us through some of the pages of yours. I also enjoyed visiting your childhood shelves, the precursor to the wider world of words. And now you are a master of them!

  49. Your words are becoming like a delightful show I must remember to tune in to!

    • Thanks, Sally! Hopefully you’ve signed up for the That Word Site notification email. There’s plenty of other good stuff on there.

  50. You have better pencils than me, your library has a revolving door: I WANT YOUR LIFE oops sorry *whispers* I want your life. Nice column.

  51. I kept thinking “I wonder if he’ll mention – oh yes! He has!” :-)

    • Somebody pointed out the “seeing an attractive stranger through the shelving” scenario, Sheldon. How did I forget that?!

  52. And people keep wanting to close our libraries down! The politicians should read your article, Mr Hancock, I implore them to make books available to all!

    • Yes. It’s very sad. I don’t want to be hypocritical – I use the internet and e-books a lot now and they’re great. But I’d hate to think the town library could ever go.

  53. Books are everybody’s friends – and oh the joy of those index cards and the magic of Dewey’s logic or lack thereof!

  54. The text might fit on a memory card, and the books might fit in your memories, but the feeling of all that knowledge in one space, bursting to be known…that’s irreplaceable. Thank you.

  55. It’s great to get such lovely comments. Thank *you*, Sara :-)

  56. The library – a safe haven from bullies, rain, parents, and all the ills of the world. Thanks for reminding me of a childhood joy that I really should revisit.

  57. Impressed that you remember your bike code, and all those Dewey references! Obviously a childhood in libraries is good for one’s memory – and your memories are good for one’s soul.

  58. Oh I agree with a lot of the other commentators, I was right there with you! Brilliant stuff.

  59. We need more pieces like this! Reminders of what’s valuable.

  60. I too sought refuge in libraries as a teenage boy – and spied many a lovely lass between the shelves. Dear me…the memories!

  61. I miss browsing those cards and shelves by subject, and coming upon that which you didn’t know you wanted to read! I gravitated towards the Science Fiction, but dabbled in all sorts of dewey numbers!

    • Yes, and possibly finding something better than what you were originally looking for. I suppose online we have “People who bought that also bought this” but it’s not the same.

  62. My, Mr Hancock, once again I do love your words, you leave me all aflutter!

  63. Weekly visits to the library in search of undiscovered treasure are still one of the greatest joys in my life! Thank you thank you for this beautiful article!

  64. You had me at ‘youthful brio’ 😉

  65. Ha ha! You’re my kind of reader, Charmaine :-)

  66. Five star article

  67. Chris an army of library lovers say ‘hell yes’!

  68. Chris Hancock, some lovely words, some excellent memories, my gratitude.

  69. You can visit my library anytime Chris!

  70. Well aren’t you just a beam of light in these crazy times?

  71. Maybe hipsters will make libraries trendy again, and index cards will make a comeback!

  72. Waiting for a book that you had reserved but some other bugger still had out was maddening! I’m a fan of late fines!

  73. Bloody good this.

  74. Oh I want to dance down those aisles with you and have a good rummage through your index cards…

  75. If as you say in a previous comment your only writing is here then I must applaud thatwordsite for either discovering or encouraging you!

  76. Why this is just glorious!

  77. So, your childhood shelves, your library daze, what next? The books you took with you when you left home? More please!

    • I’ll see what I can do, Traci. In the mean time you’ll have to read my other pieces, as linked from this one. Thank you!

  78. Lol chris hancock wow you are a great writer, almost make me want to go to the library but ebooks are so much easier

    • Yes – even I accept that, Shaney. It’s a nostalgia piece for a rapidly disappearing world. Thanks for your lovely comments :-)

  79. I love this piece so much, and I went through all your links and love ’em. Do you think this ‘wordnerd’ business is catching?

  80. Dude, you totally make libraries sound cool.

  81. This site is spectacular: brilliant words, interesting insights, and writers like Mr Hancock of such high caliber. Now following.

  82. A fab read, I feel better now.

  83. Oh beautiful. Just beautiful.

  84. Thank you for letting us into your world. It’s a beautiful place.

  85. I’d check this book out again and again, Brill.

  86. Index cards! I love index cards!

  87. I have been swept back to a world of discovery and delight! Thank you!

  88. I want to marry your mind and have its children

    • Ha ha! Might be tricky. I’ll see if there’s a book in the library about that… *flicks through Dewey catalogue* 😉

  89. Shweet article, I feel safe in libraries.

  90. Ah Mr Hancock, you transport me to a simpler happier time, when every shelf housed a potential friend.

  91. Libraries are such sexy places.

    • Ooh! An interesting hypothesis, Traci. Somebody mentioned that “seeing someone attractive through the shelving” scenario in the comments. I think we can all relate to that :-)

  92. Why, it’s like you plucked memories straight from my head!

  93. Lovely lovely stuff.

  94. Dewey, now there was a man who could make a decent list.

    • Yes! When I did a bit of research on it I was amazed by how logical it all was. That’s why it’s lasted over 100 years, I guess.

  95. Libraries are like wordnerd churches!

  96. From one Chris to another: thanks for your words.

  97. This is crazy good! Fab!

  98. Bless you for bringing me some happiness!

  99. I could read your words all day long – do write us that book!

    • I’m blushing… A book? Hmm… it’s taken me long enough to write these eight little articles. Maybe I’ll try. Thanks, Molly!

  100. Lovely, wordnerds ftw!

  101. Cheers for this, good memories.

  102. Seven different people recommended this piece to me and now I see why. Am off to recommend it myself.

  103. That singles ad joke had me chuckling for hours!

  104. Every time I read something by you I want to know more. More!

  105. I really did enjoy this, compliments to the ‘chef’

  106. I know it’s all been said but I can’t NOT tell you how very much I loved this. Your writing is a great gift.

  107. That is a sobering thought, but I’m in two minds – I love libraries, but I love the possibilities of digital – like my entire Encyclopedia set on my phone. Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

    • Oh, yes. I work in IT, so am all for new technology. But it’s nice to look back to the way things were, and perhaps to mourn the loss of one or two aspects. Thanks for the comment!

  108. Sharing a life through a library, borrowing books one after the other…a delightful thought.

  109. I’d like to say, very quietly, that really loved this piece, and all your others. Am following the site now, and look forward to seeing more!

  110. Gulp! I hope I don’t disappoint. Delicious comments like yours certainly give me an incentive, Jayelle. Thanks!

  111. Oh yes, it can’t be said enough: great article, great site, great talent.

  112. (The comment system is a bit weird. I can’t directly reply to you, Lara – it only allows 3 levels). You are too kind. I have a quirky true story in mind, or some other topic might jump into my head. Or I might never think of anything to write about again. I hope that doesn’t happen – I’d miss the compliments :-)

  113. I see in the previous comments you were going to go back – did you ever?

    • I did, Jake. Over Christmas. You know what they say… never go back. The revolving doors have gone, replaced by automatic folding ones. The portrait of Winston Churchill is no more. Also it felt tiny compared to how I remember it. Should have stuck with my memories…

  114. Oh now you’ve made me guilty. I’m remembering my own library days, and realising with a jolt that I never take my own kids. That’s it! We’re going now! Thanks for the delightful wake up call.

    • Wow! Positive action. I love it! Hope you had a good experience and given your kids the bug to return. Thanks, Chrissie :-)

      • Absolutely stunning experience. At the end of it my daughter said “This place is better than the arcade, mum”. I honestly can’t thank you enough for spurring me into action!

  115. How amazing. Even though my childhood library was in small town Canada, it feels like we were in the same place. Beautiful.

  116. Oh you don’t know how you’ve cheered me! I read recently about pole dancing in libraries and thought how tragic that we have to bribe people to attend libraries. Make reading gimmicky. Every wordnerd knows that reading is absolutely thrilling in and of itself. You’ve captured that, and made me so happy! Far sexier than poledancing.

  117. Tales of a misspent youth – much like I misspent mine!

  118. Articles that leave me misty eyed but grinning are my favourite.

  119. Agreed! What a lovely piece!

  120. I hope we never see the end of libraries, and thank you for reminding us of their joys.

  121. Bravo! Long live the card catalogue! And long may you keep writing for us.

  122. Have you ever felt like something woke you up, and you hadn’t realised you’d been asleep? I read this, and then thought “I miss the library”. And then sat and thought some more and couldn’t think of a single decent reason as to why I should “miss” one, other than laziness. They’re still around, and still offer the same thrills as before. I shall go back to mine this week. I am hugely grateful to you!!

    • That would be great, Lilly. As I mentioned to Jake a few comments back, I returned to “my” library only to find it quite changed. The huge portrait of Churchill and the revolving doors gone. Oh well…
      Thanks for taking the time to comment :-)

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