What does the library smell like? Working from home vs returning to work

We asked Library staff to write about their experiences of working from home during lockdown. Lizzy shares her thoughts.

By Lizzy

There’s been a lot of discourse around “returning to the office” recently in the press and on Twitter. “OFFICES ARE COOL AND FUN AND NECESSARY” say one side. “OFFICES ARE HELLHOLES DESIGNED SOLELY TO PROP UP PRET AND TRAIN SEASON TICKETS” say the other. Of course, the more boring and nuanced and less clickbait response is to say that maybe those two statements both have elements of truth and will apply to some people and not to others.

Some people enjoy the sense of community an office can provide. Other people find they’re much more productive at home. Some people hate that their commute takes away from family time. Others relish the opportunity to have a bit of peace and quiet in their car or on the bus or train.

Personally I like working from home. I like being able to sing along to music with my feet up on the desk, answering emails with wet hair and one hand in a bag of crisps. I even like the Zoom meetings, trying to make out what books people have on their bookshelf backdrop and watching cats, dogs and kids pop up at the best, most inopportune moments. The lines between work and home blur and suddenly you’re seeing colleagues in their natural habitat, in a space that you might not normally be allowed access to – their homes. It’s revealing and it’s intimate and it can feel strange after only knowing someone in an office context for years and years.

I also like working in the library. I like saying good morning to at least six different people before I’ve even sat down at my desk. I like that you can’t keep a secret in the library, gossip travelling around the different floors at the speed of light. I like the random moments that temporarily unite staff and students, running after a rogue dog streaking across the ground floor or linking arms to try and stop a lost and confused bat from causing havoc in the rest of the building. I like seeing exhausted but happy students running out of the gates carrying a freshly printed final dissertation that represents more to them than I could ever know.

Also, the library has a particular smell. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, you probably haven’t. I don’t notice it unless I’ve been away for a few weeks, either because of holiday, sickness or in this case, complete global shutdown. I don’t even know what the smell is. It’s not unpleasant but it’s not delicious either. It could be the cleaning products used. It could be books. It could be a rat rotting away in the walls.

Whatever the smell is, whenever I’ve been away from the library for a while and scan my pass to open the door to the staircase leading to the basement – wham, there it is. I’m instantly transported to my first few weeks on the job back in 2016 when every staircase, doorway, corridor in the library was a mystery, an exciting and scary mystery. It reminds me of being four years younger, fresh from a horrible break up, staring down the barrel of a long hot summer in a new house, with a new job and a new start.

Since then the library has seen me through another break up, two new houses, a new postgraduate course and a new career path. It’s given me drunken nights out dancing, karaoke sessions, board game parties, hungover fry ups and sea swims. Soon I’ll make a best woman speech at the wedding of one of my best friends, someone I met at the library.

Sometimes the morning journey up the steps or through the North Door is hard, dread at the coming day and a scary meeting clutching at my heart. Other times going up the steps is easy, laughing with a colleague so hard I need to pause and grab the railing.

For some the library is just a building that they go to work in, a building that’s sometimes cold around the edges and full of pigeons. For others the library means noise and life, a contrast, good or bad, to the emptiness and quiet of home. Everyone will have different feelings and interpretations of what the library means for them. For everybody, the library will have a different smell.

2 thoughts on “What does the library smell like? Working from home vs returning to work

  1. Dear Lizzi,
    You are so right, books do smell! I always thought that my inner crazy thought so but now I know that I am not alone when it comes to library smells, thank you.
    I am one of the BSMS librarians and miss it horribly to work at Sussex Library.
    Before the lockdown, I worked between the Brighton, Sussex and NHS Trust libraries. Since March I am in my very own team of one. It has been lonely.
    Working from home has also provided great opportunities to learn new ways to teach and communicate. When we emerge, I hope that we can combine the best that home working and working at libraries have to offer.

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