The Resurgence Of The Library
Any bookworm would be downcast when faced with a news cycle telling us that public libraries are closing – almost 800 since 2010 in the UK alone. But there is hope: small, specialised libraries are popping up all over the world, using digital and physical spaces to bring books to us all.
The Oslo-based International Library Of Fashion Research has over 5,000 items ranging from lookbooks to magazines from 1975 onwards and also offers a digital arm. In 2021, Solange Knowles’ multidisciplinary brand Saint Heron launched a virtual library and archive of Black authors where members can borrow books for 45 days at a time. Then there’s Phoebe Lovatt’s Public Library, a space in London where visitors can browse the collection of books and zines and discuss texts in regular salons.
All this comes at a time when books are especially fashionable. BookTok, the corner of TikTok dedicated to reading, is increasingly powerful. The hashtag has a whopping 136 billion views and helped publishers sell 20 million printed books in 2021, according to The New York Times. Pictures of celebrities including Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski reading titles such as Hilton Als’ White Girls and Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else have made them so-called ‘hot girl books’.
Meanwhile, piles of finished or ‘to be read/TBR’ books are now a familiar feature on Instagram feeds (see @bibliostylefile by Nina Freudenberger for posting inspiration). Adding to the trend? More connections between fashion and publishing – see author Ottessa Moshfegh modelling for Maryam Nassir Zadeh AW22 and Rachel Comey’s collaboration with the New York Review of Books. The result is that books – once seen as hopelessly geeky – are the height of fashion right now.
If that sounds throwaway, those involved in the book industry believe the rise in interest comes from a desire to think more deeply. Writer and consultant Lovatt started her Public Library in 2021 as a place in which to read books, but also to talk about them. The salon events are popular – possibly because they provide a different kind of date in your diary. “In a way, the books are not the point; they are symbolic,” she says. “I want to foster space for a different kind of exchange and a different kind of connection. I enjoy going out for a drink, but I also really enjoy the exchange of ideas.”
Lovatt adds that books provide a counterpoint to our digital lives. “We hear a lot about how dumbed down our culture has become,” she says. “But I haven’t found that to be true at all. People are hungry for nuanced conversation. Social media is amazing for communicating and connecting on one level, but there’s so little room for nuance.”
Lovatt admits she is as guilty as the rest of us when it comes to mindless screen time, hence reading provides a much-needed reboot. “Even if I don’t feel like [reading], I make myself do it,” she says. “You pick up a book and you’re having a totally different sensory experience – one that I crave and need.”
7 Incredible Libraries To Visit Worldwide
- The Morgan Library, New York City – opulent, with illuminated manuscripts on the walls, it houses original manuscripts by Balzac.
- Royal Portuguese Cabinet Of Reading, Rio de Janeiro – a treasure trove for bibliophiles, it has the largest collection of Portuguese texts outside Portugal.
- Beitou Public Library, Taipei – Taiwan’s first green library, with rainwater used for the toilets and natural light reducing the need for electricity.
- The British Library, London – home to one of the world’s biggest collections – with more than 170 million items including one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks.
- Stuttgart City Library, Stuttgart – this minimalist structure designed by architect Eon Young Yi is something to behold.
- Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria – the city was considered a hub of knowledge 2,000 years ago before its library was burned. This 2002 building aims to right that wrong.
- Woollahra Library At Double Bay, New South Wales – an inclusive, collaborative community space designed as a garden within a library.
Lauren Cochrane is a senior fashion writer at The Guardian and author of The Ten
Stuttgart City Library, Alamy; Beitou Public Library, Alamy; Phoebe Lovatt’s Public Library; Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading; Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Shutterstock; The British Library, Shutterstock; The Morgan Library, Alamy; Woollahra Library, Alamy