Books In A Modern Era

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Robert Van de Noort, talks to CONNECTED and reflects on why the Library and its books are still so important for learning and our imagination.  

Modern universities are global institutions. Our students today come from all over the world. And whatever their background, everyone has a chance to learn languages, spend time in other countries, or travel during their time at Reading.

In an increasingly globalised world, this is an essential part of learning. Yet the official reopening of our Library this term, after a major refurbishment, reminded me that there is a form of travel that is even more valuable: the transporting of imagination through books.

Our new Library is wonderful. If you studied on our Whiteknights campus at any point in the past 50 years, you’ll no doubt have fond memories – maybe tinted with a rosy glow of nostalgia – of last-minute exam revision, writing up precocious essays, or hunting the shelves for that crucial last available textbook.

Your memories are now hopefully preserved, along with the building, for generations of students to come. The Library now is more comfortable, more energy-efficient and has more space to study either individually or in groups. The café is a popular place to meet up for our students and my colleagues alike.

But unlike some library refurbishments, there is one thing we have kept: the books.

Books can take you places that a train or plane never could. You can go all over the universe, into the future, or back in time, all from the comfort of your chair; or perhaps, if you’re in our Library, from the comfort of your stylish study pod.

I can recall, as a young teenager back in the Hilversum, near Amsterdam, reading every single novel of Karl May’s “Shatterhands” stories – a series of Westerns, in which the hero fought danger and sought adventure in, quite frankly, an alarmingly colonial way. While elements of the stories may not stand up to modern scrutiny, I can still remember being transported around the world and back in time in a way that nothing else in my life gave me. I’d quite often be kicked out at closing time, and was devastated to reach the end of the last of the 26 stories. I’m sure the experience of finding joy in books helped to encourage and guide me through school and onwards through my career.

Luckily, being kicked out of the Library is not something our students have to think about – it’s open 24 hours a day during term time. And while I doubt anyone in there is reading nineteenth century gunslinging pulp fiction, I hope that every visit to our Library will provide everyone with a unique adventure into the marvellous world of learning.