It’s been a quiet week here in the Library. I can’t give you an exact figure for the number of Easter eggs which have been consumed by the Enquiries team, but it’s fair to say it was quite a few.
And it was while staring, with a slightly glazed expression, at one of these seductive ovoid confections that I suddenly realised… the Library is just like an Easter egg!
Way back in the mists of time, actual eggs (from chickens, ducks, birds etc) were decorated by hand with paints and dyes, and given as gifts. The practice of decorating eggshells is ancient, predating Christian traditions – decorated ostrich eggs, and representations of ostrich eggs in gold and silver, were commonly placed in graves of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 5,000 years ago!
These eggs were both valuable and prized. The work which went into them was immense, and was reflected in the way people gave and received them.
The ancient Egyptian Library of Alexandria was an enormous center of learning, with a reference collection which scholars traveled vast distances to use. The papyrus scrolls containing works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects were fragile, susceptible to damp, fire, vandalism and decay, but were highly prized due not only to the contents but the work which went into creating them.
Can a parallel be drawn, therefore, between the early eggs and the early library?
Chocolate Easter eggs were first made in Europe in the early 19th century, with France and Germany taking the lead in this new artistic confectionery. Some early eggs were solid, as the technique for mass-producing moulded chocolate had not yet been devised. The solid egg, filled to the brim with content, is a full library, it’s shelves crammed with books. In the days when most libraries were reference only (books were far too precious to lend!) this is an appropriate metaphor. Libraries had traditionally been chained (where they literally chained the books to the shelves to prevent them being removed) or restricted access – the concept of a “lending library” was a long way off, so all of the stock was always available, all of the time.
The Victorians also had cardboard, ‘plush’ and satin covered eggs filled with Easter gifts and chocolates. The contents were all concealed inside the egg, like books in a library, waiting to be discovered. The increasingly elaborate designs made possible by the availability of a greater selection of fabrics mirror the way libraries, especially those built by local organisations, employers, beneficial societies and councils, designed their buildings to be more and more decorative, like cathedrals of learning. Interestingly, beneficial societies and employers often gave the children of their members and employees Easter eggs too, both to reinforce their religious paternalism, and to garner goodwill.
The height of elaborate egg-shaped Easter gifts were the fabulous jewelled creations of Carl Fabergé made during the 19th century for the Russian Tsar and Tsarina (now precious museum pieces). These eggs contained “surprises”, but were as much about the exterior as the interior. The height of Victorian Gothic architecture could be argued to be very similar, and there were certainly some libraries whose collections were probably worth very much less, financially, than the walls and roof that covered them!
But what about today? How are today’s mass-produced chocolate eggs like the library we work in?
The sweets are usually left outside the egg, the hollow space within remaining empty. Library design has become more minimalist, space is valued over shelving, light and air are as important as books. The sweets themselves are still there though, nestled in the box, circled around the egg. Our electronic resources give us access to all sorts of content, but it’s not physically *in* the building, it’s floating around in virtuality. Some eggs come with mugs, or other “collectible” gifts. These are our extra facilities; our cafe, our IT equipment, our self-service machines. They’re all adding value to the original, basic library.
This year, you could even buy a famous brand of Easter chocolate which came with fluffy bunny ears. And now we too have a furry face to represent us in Pablo, our friendly penguin.
So where do we fit in? What about the staff? Well we’re obviously the packaging. We protect and support the egg. We help you to find the right egg. We are here to help you have the best Easter egg experience you can.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Librarians, the Easter egg boxes of the library world.
Easter egg photo by www.publicdomainpictures.net