Why you should borrow books from the Billy B

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For those of us who’ve been checking out books instead of people at the Billy B since first-year (Bailey kids may not be as quick to relate as the Hill fresher squad on this one, geographically speaking), we know that there’s nothing quite like a well-borrowed book. 

“There’s nothing quite like a well-borrowed book.”

While old-fashioned library cards and lined lists of previous borrowers’ names are customs of the past at Durham’s libraries, the books they shelve still brim with history. Some of the hardback covers are old enough to have their dates written out in word form; a copy of Okakura Kakuzo’s musings on the simple beauty of tea reads ‘Published in November, Nineteen hundred and nineteen’. Some of them house small, beautiful illustrations, intricately attached to the pages in an endearingly makeshift way – a kind of glorified scrapbook, if you like – that you just don’t see in most books these days. 

Aside from being cheap alternatives to buying books you need to read for your degree, I’ve found from personal experience that library books can sometimes also act as free study guides. My tutor for my Renaissance Literature module once asked the class their thoughts on the character of Bosola in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and what we felt about his speech of repent at the play’s end. My personal thoughts on Bosola, I told the class, were inextricably clouded by some comments, written in angry pencil next to the lines he was referring to, that a previous reader had left in my library copy of the book. They were something along the lines of ‘Well who cares you’re still a misogynistic pig’. 

When I borrowed the collected poems of Sylvia Plath for my American Poetry exam, I found some other interesting intellectual views from previous borrowers, etched onto the title page. This one was a particularly fun read, because it appeared to be a dialogue between three Durham students who did not know one another, and would probably never meet. Scrawled at the top of the page were the words: ‘Why do only feminists study Plath? She wasn’t a feminist.’ Below, in different handwriting, was an arrow, leading the captivated reader’s eye to the counter-argument: ‘But she was a woman’. Underneath that was another arrow, and, in another person’s handwriting, the astute point that ‘Gender is a social construct’, thus, apparently, closing the debate. A justifiable conversation-ender in any well-reasoned argument, I suppose. 

What I loved about these brief – and for the record, completely true – encounters with books I have borrowed from the Billy B was not just that they made me chuckle during pretty gruelling academic moments in various terms, but that they shared something personal with me about complete strangers. They told me that Durham students before me, or perhaps during my time – part of the beauty of it all is that I’ll never know when these were written, and by whom – had felt strongly about characters in early 17th-century literature as well as modern, and somewhat controversial, poets, both on the curriculum. I enjoyed knowing that these people, fictional and real, had elicited impressions strong enough that they had to be written down, and somewhat immortalised, in the books themselves. 

In a way, these comments, carelessly or indignantly scrawled, are legacies left behind. They are a conversation between anonymous students, championing their own causes, however tongue-in-cheek. They’re words between students written for the public consumption of other students. An informal publication of ideas and arguments, to some degree. 

At the Billy B, you can’t sit at the same desk Tolkien may have occupied at the Bodleian Library, but you can read the raw thoughts of passionate, emotional, and probably very sleep-deprived and grumpy Durham students, secret histories left to be unearthed in between old, leafed-through pages. That’s kind of special in its own right. 

I’ve found that sometimes, you can even find something of yourself. In my first year of uni, I borrowed May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude. Last October, two years later, I was looking for books for my dissertation, when I saw it on the same shelf. Fondly, perhaps out of some affection for my younger self and the books I’ve borrowed that have somewhat characterised my university experience, I took it off the shelf and began to leaf through it. Nestled between the pages was a printed train ticket, one of those ones that come in a letter when you order your tickets to your address, with my name on it: , Grey College, South Road, Durham, DH1 3LG

“A third-year looking back on her first-year self.”

For a minute, I was just struck by the serendipity of it all. It felt like a miniature time capsule, this little, orange slip of paper. I found myself reflecting on a lot of things: how environmentally unconscious silly fresher me had been, for a start; how I probably just like really unpopular books, for another; but also on my time at Durham, and how I’d changed since then. A third-year looking back on her first-year self. Twenty-one offered, by complete chance, a retrospective glance at nineteen. It made me smile. 

I guess my main point is that borrowing books from the library is a rite of passage every university student should personally undertake to go through, and a habit that can bring forth many surprises, both funny and poignant. 

Love our library. Treat it as a taster session for books you’ve always wanted to read, but aren’t fully convinced you’ll like enough to buy. For disciples of Marie Kondo and joy-sparking minimalism, a library is the perfect form of reducing the number of books you own without adversely affecting your enjoyment of literature. And if your degree is in English literature, you probably didn’t have to read this article to know what a saviour the library has been for your bank account and shelf space. 

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