Viewpoint: Things are different in a good way

The other day I met with Gita Wolf from Tara Books in Chennai, India, at Gothenburg City Library. She was visiting Gothenburg to talk about her publishing house, which works with amazing handmade books and traditional techniques. Now she wanted to see the library, and we decided to meet up there for lunch.Illustration: Helena Bergendahl

I told her about how the library had been built just the other year and how opening hours and visitor numbers have increased, but the amount of lending has gone down. I told her how the library has grown, how they have experimented with different interior design solutions when the departments of the library were relocated during the reconstruction, and how they have now invested in the children’s departments, from infants to young adults. 

We talked about the kind of things that people who love books and libraries tend to talk to each other about all around the world: how children and adults are reading and borrowing less and less.

Violent and immoral

I still feel both amazed and hopeful that so many people want to be at the library, more people than ever before in fact – to read and study and just be, at least relatively, quiet together.

Gothenburg City Library holds a special place in my heart. I got to take the tram here all by myself at the tender age of seven. This was in the early seventies, and it was a little bit frightening; at the exit, you had to walk through a passage and show your bag to a scary old man, a rather sternlooking attendant.

There were quite a few things that were forbidden; as a child, you were under no circumstances allowed to borrow books in any department other than the children’s department. The comic books that I was tempted to read were considered commercial, American, violent and generally immoral, but there was a select collection of Tintin and Moomin books.

But the library was still a safe place, because the best person ever was there – the children’s librarian. She was beautiful, kind and knew everything. She instilled a certain feeling in me – I was welcome here. Everything here was for me. Nothing you could find in the children’s department was out of bounds, it held a thousand worlds to discover.

It became a ritual, I went there one day a week, it was my own journey, my decision, my loans, my librarian, my library.

A new start at the library

Twenty years later, when I had just become a mother for the first time, the library was also the saviour when everything felt unsafe, when the baby needed changing and feeding. I was a happy new mother, but also restless and tired.

I had graduated from the School of Design and Crafts in Gothenburg just before, right in the middle of the nineties recession and I was keen to put my new degree to use. I longed to do something real. Finally one day, I plucked up the courage to go – not surprisingly – to the information desk at the library.

“I will do anything for free, as long as I get to do something!”

Library as image bank

And sure enough, they had an old folder with opening hours for me to sink my teeth into. One thing led to another, of course I got paid, and in the end I did the motifs for the plastic bags several years in a row, a task I thought was a real honour.

It was a start. In February 2016, my private business turns twenty years old, and I can look back on two decades of some graphic design, but mostly illustrations for magazines and children’s books.

As an illustrator, I used my first years at the library as an image bank of inspiration for all kinds of jobs, everything from monkeys to strange machines. That part of the job has now been mostly replaced by the internet, which is great, of course. But it takes time, sometimes an unreasonably long time.

Different times

The fact that librarians are experts at finding exactly the information you want is something that I have tried to convey to my children. One dull, rainy summer, my 12-year-old became very interested in the assassination of John F Kennedy.

“Are there any books for children about that?” he asked me.

“There may be,” I responded, “just go to the library and ask them.”

And there was! After a bit of looking, the children’s librarian came back with the book Politiska mord genom tiderna (Political assassinations through history), and for the rest of that summer, all we talked about was Gustav III at the masked ball and Lincoln at the theatre.

Gita Wolf and I stood for a while looking through the glass wall at the very small children crawling around on the soft carpet in the infants’ department, where no shoes are allowed. Today, none of the mums and dads are looking at their iPads, like they did the last time I was here.

“Things are different here than in India,” said Gita, and I think that things are different from when I was a child too. In a good way, that is.

I hope that these children will get to come here without their parents once they’re older.