Apparently, the majority of local taxi drivers are oblivious of Morrab Library's existence. And it has to be said that it is one of those places that, while a few folk may have heard of it, most know precious little about it. We were no exception, so our visit had been carefully planned to coincide with the Friday 'tour', and at 2 o'clock sharp we were rounded up by our tour guide, Dawn.
We learned about the Library's origins: from the ladies' bookclub in 1770 that started the ball rolling, to the eventual leasing of the grand private residence, Morrab House, at the end of the 19th c. (see poster). We discovered that it is one of only 30 privately-run libraries in the country and, as a charity, the majority of its staff are volunteers.
We were shown around the various rooms, each housing books on a particular topic. These include the usual subjects of Geography, History, Politics and Literature, but there are also some less expected themes: the impressive Crime section which is regularly topped up with the latest editions by a local book reviewer, and the comprehensive Local History section in the Jenner Room.
Four times a year a number of new books are chosen and purchased, but the majority have been donated, inherited or given, in one way or another. Many date back to the earliest days of the library and there are some extremely rare and extraordinary volumes among them. And, by way of illustrating this fact, our attention was drawn to small leather-bound book entitled 'Things not Generally Known' by John Timbs.
As well as the books, there is a comprehensive archive of newspapers, manuscripts, maps, paintings and photographs, which in the main are of local relevance. The largely unexplored collection of photographic prints, transparencies and negatives is currently being catalogued, and is set to be properly housed in the new £1 million extension, which has been funded by a single member. Aside from this astonishing gesture, money for general upkeep to the building is an ongoing issue; parts of the basement are worryingly damp.
The library is also a place to work. While we were there, students, scholars and bookworms, young and old, were hunched over library tomes or laptops. The academic surroundings, the peace and quiet, and the sea views make for an idyllic learning environment. On certain days, library rooms host various clubs, including the Shakespeare Club, who are indomitably working their way through the entire works. In an effort to keep the Library alive and vibrant, it often plays host to members' events and talks by local authors (including the odd famous name).
Tour over, we reflected on what we'd seen and heard. In many ways the library is a relic from another time, but one that appears both odd and refreshing to modern sensibilities. Because it's a private institution, it exists outside the rigid regulations of other similar organisations. For example, Health & Safety directives are limited to discreet typed placards. We found one that read: '…so please, if you can't get up, in, out or over something, just ask, someone will help you.', and another that advised: 'Samuel Arnold, composer of the immortal opera Baron Kinkvervankotsdorsprakingatchderm died on 22nd October 1802 as a result of falling off his library steps. SO PLEASE BE CAREFUL! or ask for help.'
If you're the type of person to whom the image of sunlight falling onto old leather warms your very soul, and who hankers after a library where a handwritten card is favoured over a barcode, then Morrab Library is for you.
Anyone is welcome to join and membership currently costs £27 per year. Non-members are able use the facilities by paying £3 for the day. Take a look at the library's website and blog, which often features choice finds from the local archives and has all the news about forthcoming events.