I write this from Utrera, Spain, a city of about 50,000 just outside of Seville. I am sitting in Utrera’s public library (above) during after-school hours, and just about every table is occupied. Books and notebooks are open; pens are writing. There’s chatter for sure, but it’s quiet; there’s only the occasional “shhh!”
But I’m struck by my fellow library-goers: They’re young—middle and high schoolers. Some are studious, some are quietly giggling or gossiping, and some are undoubtedly trying to strike the right tone of cool as they walk amid the tables. They all seem to share one thing: They want to be here, in the public library, after a full school day.
A few weeks back, I cobbled together a list of fun differences between the American and European high school experiences, but missed this one: Kids in Spain flock to their local public libraries most days after school. This is different.
Recall from that earlier post that, in most of Europe, there’s no school-sponsored sports, so there’s no practice or games to keep school kids otherwise occupied in the afternoons. In Spain, this void is filled by the public library. And young Spaniards wouldn’t be much interested in simply going home anyway; I’ve been able to observe over many years how Spanish kids do everything in huge packs—cliques of 30-plus people, if you will. In Spain, your clique is going to the library after school. Every day.
It’s what I’d call Spain’s “library culture.” It’s confounding on one level: Spain is renowned for its noise (it’s actually been named “second noisiest country in the world”), and here we have Spain (noisy country) filling up its libraries every day with middle school and high school students (noisy demographic) for hours of quiet study and a generally age-appropriate level of socializing.
And there I was, sitting on the stairs at the library entrance, marveling at all the kids eagerly heading inside.
To be sure I wasn’t misreading all this, I double-checked with my wife, who is Spanish:
“Dear, when you were in school, all the kids went to the public library after school, right?”
“Yes, cariño,” she answered, if less than sweetly. She doesn’t enjoy cultural interrogations as much as I do.
“And even the jocks?” I persisted.
“What are jocks?”
“The sports-hero types,” I clarified.
“We don’t have those, cariño.”
Ah. Indeed not. Cultural fact-check cross-check! This one checks out.