The hert-felt book swap

Students gather around the Hertford temporary bookcase on International Book Giving Day (14 February 2023)

By Katherine Knight, Assistant Librarian

My favourite book is any which can fit in a pocket. This isn’t just a sign of my diminishing attention span (though I’m certain social media has done a number on that) – but in a busy life, the best kind of reading is that which gets done at all. I’m often on a bus, so any book which can fit into a bag is a winner. If it can fit in a pocket, then it comes with me everywhere.

Since arriving in September, I’ve been delighted to find Hertford Library has a wonderful collection of playtexts – and I’ve worked my way through Butterworth’s Jerusalem, Wade’s Posh, and Josephine’s I, Joan so far. I still carry my favourite – Annie Baker’s The Flick with me anywhere. When I’ve needed something to keep me occupied, it’s always Martin Crimp’s electrifying interpretation of my favourite play, Cyrano de Bergerac (complete with a moody James McAvoy on the cover). They’re episodic, they’re portable, and they’re perfect. (And, unlike my phone, they don’t run out of charge on my commute.)

People often ask me if I think print libraries are fading – often people who haven’t had time or cause to go to a library in years, because a quick trip to Oxfordshire County Library quickly dispels that notion (as do the 52 copies of the latest Richard Osman book they currently have out on loan). I tend to say that books aren’t diminishing, but they are evolving. Ebooks are themselves amazing, bringing with them the promise of readability anywhere and everywhere – but again and again, we find that we’re drawn to the physical copy.

To the reading naysayers, I would like to direct them to our wonderful Fellow Librarian Emma Smith’s Portable Magic, but a book might be an unconvincing medium for someone who doesn’t believe in the written word. Maybe the Matilda film might be a better choice – it’s quite hard to levitate an ebook copy of Moby Dick towards you. But what better way to tell someone how in-demand the written word is than to show them?

Which brings us to the 14th of February, which was of course Valentine’s Day, but also International Book Giving Day – and the date of Hertford’s inaugural book swap. College members were invited to drop off a copy of a book they loved, with a note explaining why they were enamoured with it, and pick up a new friend in return.

A student holds the book 'The shed that fed a million children' by Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow next to the Hertford Bookcase alongside a heartfelt dedication written on a card.
A student holds the book ‘The shed that fed a million children’ by Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow next to the Hertford Bookcase alongside a heartfelt dedication, written on a card.

Decked out with love hearts and dressed in a brilliant shade of baby pink, the book swap case certainly made a statement outside Hertford’s Lodge. (“It’s so cute!”, as one passerby gushed as I walked past it at lunchtime!)

The temporary bookcase at Hertford where book swapping was celebrated on International Book Giving Day (14 February 2023).

The event was a resounding success, with a huge array of volumes from students, fellows and staff hitting the shelves – with both non-fiction and fiction featuring prominently, and many classics including works by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, and Matt Haig.

What was even better to see was the turnaround of books through the day – hardly any book which had been placed there in the morning was there by the evening, but the shelves were still teeming with books, proving that Hertford really is a community committed to sharing.

By the time I left in the evening, there were still some stragglers reading the blurbs on the back of the remaining books – it was practically impossible to walk by without seeing what had changed on the shelves. Proof, perhaps, that even though the written word might be changing in form, our love for physical books remains. (Especially ones you can put in your pocket.)

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Article written by Assistant Librarian at Hertford College, Katherine Knight


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