Libraries: life in the margins

Christopher Bigsby considers their changing nature

April 2, 2015

The first Chinese book arrived at Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1604, 80 years before anyone could read it. I rather like the idea that something totally useless will suddenly discover its moment, like teenagers. The Beinecke Library at Yale University has a book – the Voynich Manuscript – written in an unknown writing system that no one can understand. I’ve had one or two students like that.

There was a time when libraries were like mausolea where one could contemplate dead authors in respectful silence. The librarian, despite himself being something of a poet, measuring out his life in smudged index cards typed with impressive irregularity, might venture to the second floor to make sure that no writer represented there still had a detectable pulse. This was before the days of the ISBN, when in the distance could be heard the sound of a Roneo machine, whose reassuring rhythm was reminiscent of a train passing over an equally reassuring non-continuous, unwelded railway track.

Letters indicating overdue books, and the consequent fines, were written much as an officer would inscribe a note of condolence to the family of a subaltern fallen on the Western Front. Due dates were stamped in the inset pockets of books with the vigour of an immigration official at the Russian border. Twinsets were preferred for female librarians, with pearls on the Queen’s birthday. Men wore suits with ties as if this were a London club where the discipline of dress justified the crimes of Empire.

There was a whiff of dust and regret, this being a place where time stood still. The professor of Classics, smelling faintly of mothballs and sherry, would sit contemplating the gerund, a non-finite verb form in a finite life

There was a whiff of dust and regret, this being a place where time stood still, as for others beyond the heavy wooden doors it proceeded recklessly. Here the word “research” conveyed a sense of moral rectitude no matter how broadly it was defined. The professor of Classics, smelling faintly of mothballs and sherry, would sit contemplating the gerund, a non-finite verb form in a finite life, even as the professor of French, for whom it was not only verbs that were irregular, would have Rimbaud in his mind and Rambo in his heart while wondering whether existence truly precedes essence. Historians would breathe in the past while scientists breathed out the future, shocked to discover that some people wrote books rather than papers, and those books were produced by a single author instead of a dozen or so jockeying for position, separated only by commas.

The Spanish Civil War was fought at one stage around the library of the Complutense University of Madrid. The Republicans used books as a barricade, works of philosophy proving the most effective at stopping bullets because of their inordinate length and the profundity of their arguments. This is perhaps why librarians have a tendency to be on the Right.

Some librarians were regretful that they were not in charge of the Reading Room of the British Museum, where readers were expressly forbidden to seek out books for themselves, arriving after breakfast and returning late in the afternoon, by which time their requested books might possibly have arrived.

But time passed, as time will. Computers arrived, their screens spelling out words in the kind of green usually deployed by the deranged, threatening authors of historical novels with violence because someone had ascribed five buttons to a naval jacket in 1763 rather than SIX! Then green gave way to black; and one weekend the computers escaped the back office, where they were kept to mystify the staff, and began to invade the library itself, demanding ever more space. Students appeared who behaved rather differently. At my own university, the comedian and writer Arthur Smith, in later years a Grumpy Old Man, came to compare the literature and was assigned a library carrel, which he filled with food, beer, something that was not tobacco, and slippers.

Other students discovered the highlighter pen and entered into a glowing yellow or pink dialogue with authors whose observations needed, well, highlighting, sometimes adding comments in the margin where they thought Wittgenstein had got things wrong. Living writers now appeared on the shelves, with Life of Pi being classified to four Dewey Decimal places.

The library is now open for 24 hours, seven days a week, for those who reserve sleeping for lectures, while comfortable seating and areas for eating, drinking and using mobile phones make it look like a branch of Borders, were it not for the fact that Borders went bankrupt, a warning of some kind, perhaps.

Meanwhile, the twinsets and pearls have gone, even on the Queen’s birthday, although suits occasionally underpin a vestigial seriousness. There are still books on the shelves, although now they also materialise on tablets, phones and soon, no doubt, electric toothbrushes, so it is no longer necessary to enter through the electronically controlled gate before a machine issues the books and accepts payments for fines – although happily, as yet, failing to wish users a nice day. After all, you’re not in a library to have a nice day.

Librarians have a greater sense of impending apocalypse than most. The Library of Alexandria gathered books from around the world only to be destroyed by fire. For Ted Hughes, its loss “brain-damaged the human race”. Norwich Central Library, while falling some way short of containing all the world’s wisdom, also burned down (in 1994). It was 20 yards from the fire station. Not big readers, firemen. As the author Ray Bradbury reminded us, Fahrenheit 451 is the autoignition point of paper. The temperature of the Norwich fire was 1,832°F, which was overdoing it a bit. Burger King provided free refreshments for those warming their hands at this bonfire of knowledge, which might have seemed a shade insensitive when 400,000 books had just been chargrilled. To look on the bright side, the librarian waived all fines.

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