Libraries are many things to many different people

Our newest staff member, William Wood, reflects on how a surprising find at State Library of Queensland changed his outlook on libraries.

Libraries are centres of wisdom and education, they are community hubs and meeting spaces that connect people with each other and with the information that they need; they are places for contemplation and private study; and they are social spaces for collaboration where all ages can practice lifelong learning.

Student in the library - LSE library

Student in the library – London School of Economics & Political Science library, IMAGELIBRARY/535, Flickr Commons

As a new librarian I often consider what libraries represent and how they are perceived, what impact they have on society and how they could better provide for the information needs of diverse communities. This blue sky thinking left my head in the clouds so I was taken by surprise when a note I discovered on the library floor, tucked away under a table, brought me back down to earth and focused me squarely in the present.

Image of letter found in SLQ

Found letter.

It was a letter of love and appreciation, written by two young people, to the stranger who would find their note. It told a story of how they had had their first unofficial date here at the State Library and how they had found a poem written by an anonymous author that was left hidden in a book. For them; finding this poem was a moment of ‘sonder’. This is a word that was created by freelance designer John Koenig for his work ‘The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’ that aims, “to fill holes in the language” and is the realisation that each individual in this world is living a life as vivid and complex as your own, in which you may only appear fleetingly, as an extra in a background scene.

To some, this would mean that it is a made up word that doesn’t carry the weight of those that filled the tomes lining the shelves around me. I would like to refer those people to a quote from lexicographer Erin McKean who was asked, “How do you know if a word is real?” His response was that “anybody who’s read a children’s book knows that love makes things real. If you love a word, use it—that makes it real. Being in the dictionary is an arbitrary distinction; it doesn’t make a word any more real than any other way. If you love a word, it becomes real.” In my opinion this sentiment could not be more true. John Koenig has a real talent for summing up relatable, human experiences with a single word and if these words resonate with you then what can be more real than that?

Sitting in the stacks

Sitting in the stacks. Goshen College. Photographs. Library, 1984-85. V-4-11 Box 20 Folder 71. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana. Flickr Commons

In their letter to a stranger our two anonymous authors shared how they had met in a writing course at QUT and outlined the moments that had brought them together. It was brief and touching and gave me pause for thought. I stood quietly in the library that was yet to open to the public for the day and thought of all the lives that had walked through the doors since the building was opened. All of those lives were unknown to me and yet we all shared a commonality. The library. Though each of us are on a journey full of individual experience we had all found something within these walls, be it comfort, solace, support, friendship or in their case, even love. They closed their letter by saying that through sharing their thoughts on the small, lined page in my hand they were now more familiar to me than I could ever be to them.

If those two young authors are somehow reading this I wanted to thank them for reminding me that every person that I meet while doing my job here at the State Library is living as rich a life as I, full of ambitions, regrets, routines, and hopes for the future. They reminded me that it is not the building, services and collections that give life to a library but rather it is the people who use it and those, like myself, who are here to help them.

William Wood

Librarian, Information Services