Our new Library and Garden – why they are so important

Jorge Luis Borges, the noted Argentinian writer and Nobel Laureate, had deep connections with libraries.

In 1938, on the death of his father, he was unable to make a living out of writing alone, and with the world in financial crisis, Borges took a job at a branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library, classifying and cataloguing the collection. If that sounds as though he should have loved it, he didn’t, and later referred to his time in the role as ‘nine years of solid unhappiness’. His colleagues were time-servers and inevitably failed to share his almost religious reverence for books. But the fact that the practice was to spin every task out as long as possible – the collection was apparently quite small in reality – meant that Borges soon realised that he was able to do enough work in the first couple of hours of the day, allowing him to spend the rest of his time reading and translating foreign authors including William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf into Spanish and in fact to write many of the works on which his reputation was built.

Borges eventually became the director of the National Library in 1955, after the end of the Perón regime, an appointment he himself recognised as political as much as professional, especially given his failing health. He wrote about the irony of receiving this honour in the same year that he was informed he would never recover enough sight to be able to read or write on his own again, most likely due to a combination of cataracts and a series of failed surgical procedures.

Not surprisingly, libraries crop up regularly in Borges’s works. In The Library of Babel (1941) he envisaged the whole universe as a vast collection of information in the form of a library that was imagined to contain every book that ever was, or ever could be, written. The Library is divided into hexagonal galleries, in each of which four walls are lined with books, the remaining two providing access to other rooms, forming a kind of universe – and being of that scale too. However, the order of the books is random, as a catalogue would be of a complexity and extent comparable to the Library itself. It’s easy for us today to draw a parallel with the ever-expanding phenomenon of the internet, and the struggle to know how to navigate the huge volume of information it now holds – much of it immeasurably lower quality than the books in a traditional library.

‘Paradise is a library, not a garden’, Borges famously said, but both are very significant to all of us here in Calne at the moment with the opening of our fantastic new library and learning hub, and of the lovely Lime Kiln Garden. In fact, we have chosen a quote from Cicero for the new garden which very much reflects the importance of both to us: ‘If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need’.

One of the messages from The Library of Babel is that the possibility of accessing information is important but it is not enough. We also need to be able to understand what we’re being told and to make judgements about it, in order to be able to assimilate and use it appropriately.

And it’s that which I hope our new facilities, library and garden, will help the girls to do. We have worked hard, with the huge generosity of our donors, to create spaces that will motivate them and give them the scope to spend time thinking about what they want to learn about, and then to access and use information wisely. I urged them, in our first chapel at the start of this term, to use this opportunity to go beyond the core curriculum and pursue the subjects that are most meaningful to them – whether for instance it’s climate change and the environment, technology or the social change initiatives that have been such a focus in recent months. We all want the new facilities to allow and encourage them to piece together their own world views and opinions at this most formative time of their lives.

Learning should also be a life-long process, but it’s so important that it starts at school. I suspect that many people never embark on the journey if that does not happen. Our girls are tremendously fortunate to be able to be doing so in such fantastic new spaces.