Sunday, April 12, 2009

More on libraries

A number of things that have happened recently make me want to say a few more words about libraries. For one thing, there have been persistent and worrying stories in the press about cuts in the public library service in different parts of Britain. For another, opening this morning’s paper, I have just read a story about Manchester University library, where Chris Stringer’s Homo Britannicus, a book about the beginnings of the human species in Britain, has been shelved in the gay and lesbian section. For yet another, I’m worried that every time I go into my local library there seem to be fewer books on the shelves. Libraries, for all their PCs, bright paintwork, and rebranding as “knowledge stores”, seem to be in decline.

I was in a local library the other day. While I was sitting at a table sorting my papers I earwigged a conversation between one of the librarians and a teenager. The young library user told the librarian that she was doing a project on the Romantic poets at school, and needed to read some poems by two of the English Romantics. She knew that she wanted one of the poets to be Blake, but wasn’t sure about the second – Wordsworth, maybe, or Coleridge, or Shelley. The librarian explained that no books by the English Romantics were on open shelves – they were in the basement store. She’d go down and bring up a selection so that the girl could make her choice. After a few minutes the librarian, who I must say was helpful, polite, and knowledgeable, returned with a small pile of poetry books, including one or two Romantics, such as Byron, who had not been mentioned so far, and the young student looked through them and chose.

So all ended well, with the librarian offering valuable assistance, the library’s collection yielding the required volumes, and the student getting what she wanted. But wouldn’t it have been much better if Wordsworth, Coleridge, and co had been on open shelves, so that people could check them out for themselves without asking for them to be brought up from the basement? I wandered over to the library’s poetry section. It consisted almost entirely of books by recent poets, plus a shelf of anthologies, plus one or two ‘classics’ including Milton and Keats (aha! a Romantic on open shelves after all!). It seems to me that the library was diminished by this unwillingness to display the classics of English literature on its open shelves, as it is diminished too by the small number of novels published more than 50 years ago – and by the relatively small number of books generally visible.

Why does all this matter when the girl got what she wanted anyway? And when you can find the whole of English poetry on the internet, and even download for free the complete works of Shakespeare to read on your iPhone?

Well. Because books are actually a rather good medium for sustained reading. Because there are people who don’t know quite what they’re looking for, but who will make important discoveries and have their eyes and minds opened by browsing books on open shelves. Because books properly shelved in the context of other similar books show knowledge in context and continuum – there are all the Metaphysical poets together, all the books on Norman history next to one another. Because librarians ought to be allowed to make sensible, educative, structured choices about what books to display. Because there are clear and specific advantages to reading literary works such as the poems of Byron or Keats in book form instead of, or as well as, online.

For example, not every copy of a literary work has exactly the same text. This is because, for all kinds of reasons, the original words of the poet don’t always make it into print exactly as they should have done. Or, in some cases, it’s by no means clear precisely what those words were in the first place. So different copies have different texts. And some copies have useful notes, provided by the editor, to clarify meaning, sketch in historical background, or discuss precisely those pesky variations of wording.

A reader discovering poetry needs the best text they can get, properly edited, and preferably with explanatory notes and an introduction. This is not the kind of plain text that you usually find on the web. This is the kind of thing that should be in libraries, and was, not so long ago. Now if it is there it’s hidden away in a basement, waiting for readers who know what they want and a helpful member of staff to find it for them.

Books can be life-changing. I came from a family with few books and 40 years ago my eyes and mind were opened by libraries. I could follow the evolution of English literature, satisfy my nascent passion for architecture, and discover all kinds of things about history by just browsing. I didn’t have to ask anyone’s help; I could follow the shelves. So much was right there because librarians as competent and knowledgeable as today’s had put lots of good, revelatory, inspiring books on shelves, in order, under my nose. People today have the right to expect a service that’s just as good.


potok said...

The decline in libraries is mirrored by the decline of independent bookshops, including those lovely second-hand bookshops that impress both by unlooked-for pleasures and that wonderful old book smell. Browsing shelves was how I too discovered so much in my youth. To lose both libraries and bookshops is to deprive young people and future generations of a treasury of knowledge. Web browsing is great (as this blog proves) but it should be available as well as the chance to enjoy physical books rather than instead of.

Erin said...

I agree - well said! Or should I say written? ;)

Peter Ashley said...

As an old ex-library toiler, I couldn't agree more with your overview of the state of libraries today. How do we start a campaign, who do we get in touch with. So long as it's not Ed Balls I don't mind getting down to it. Is it the Olympics Minister? That's half the problem, I reckon.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks for these comments.

Potok: Look out for a post on secondhand bookshops soon.

Peter: There are already some library campaigns on the go, including the one featured here.

Ed said...

My favourite library was Newcastle' s Literary and Philosophical Society. I stopped being a member when I left Newcastle 25 years go, but I remember having direct access to all the shelves and the store rooms. Even better, you could take your books to read at a large table where you could get a cup of coffee from a nice lady and also have a fag! I'm pleased to see from its website that the Lit and Phil is still going strong although I guess that smoking is now definitely not on.

I do wonder, though, about the purpose of most libraries in the internet age. A quick visit to Wikipedia will yield access to the text of 44 poems by William Blake plus links to a variety of Blake-related websites including one that looks rather good on the Tate Learn Online site. I would argue that serendipitous discoveries are much more likely online than in the library. We have in the world wide web a true treasury of knowledge.

Copyright laws mean that the printed word will still be around for a long time to come and the service provided by the British Library and other academic libraries is magnificent.

There will come a time, though, when going to the library for most people will be about as relevant as taking your film to the chemist to be developed.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ed: I agree, the web is a treasury, a useful place to make serendipitous discoveries (although 44 Blake poems is just the tip of a much larger iceberg), and a source of some good information in the shape of sites such as the Tate's. And the web is unparalleled for looking things up. But the web needs to develop software that organizes the information it contains, so that discoveries can be put more easily in their intellectual context and so that it's easier for newcomers to sort out the good information from the bad. At the moment what the web tends to do is just give you a lot of everything. That's marvellous in a way, but what people also need is information that has been sorted and presented in an ordered way. A list of links is fine, but it doesn't quite do that.

Ed said...

Thanks for your response, Philip. I know the web is anarchic and is populated by more than its fair share of nutters and contains plenty of rubbish, but it does organise itself brilliantly. Thanks to Tim Berners Lee and his invention of hypertext and links, it is possible to distinguish the wheat from the chaff - follow the sites that rise to the top of Google searches and have plenty of links to them. Type in "english buildings" into Google and guess what site comes to the top of the list! Essentially, the web is quality-controlled by peer review (that's how Wikipedia works) rather than top-down organisation. I like it that way.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ed: I agree (how could I do otherwise when you've so conclusively demonstrated the quality of the search process?!). I just think there's a place for libraries too.