Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: library (page 1 of 1)


Carolyn Dever, writing about the ransomware attack on the British Library:

We’re past the days of card catalogs, alas: the modern library has long since converted to digital recordkeeping. What this means is that readers request books electronically, and the institution charts those books’ locations electronically, too. If I wanted to see what I had been working on last summer or a decade ago, I could look up my own user record to confirm. Well, I can’t do this right now, but researchers have taken this capacity for granted for a long time. If librarians wanted to see who’d laid hands on a certain volume of Michael Field’s diary, or on the manuscripts or earliest published work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, the Brontës, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and so many more writers familiar today and others languishing,  awaiting rediscovery, presumably they could, with a simple request within a digital file. Most importantly, if I wanted to request to see a specific book, I could look it up electronically, and then ask the librarians to find the physical copy.

Until Halloween, 2023, that is.

How ironic that the most quaintly analog form of research possible, using physical books in a physical library, has been devastated by the hijacking of a digital system. I am experiencing this irony as especially bitter this morning, having arrived at desk 1086 with my list of tasks, hoping against hope that the crisis had resolved. It hadn’t. I hope it will someday soon. 

The books and manuscripts are there, the staff are there, the scholars are there — but the research can’t be done, because without the digital cataloging system there’s no way to access the materials. 

There was a period in the Nineties (mainly), when libraries were gradually converting their systems from analog to digital, when you could use either system — though there were always warnings that not everything had been entered into the computer databases. Then, later, the warnings were that newer acquisitions were not to be found in the card catalog. 

I had very mixed feelings about all this. In the mid-Nineties I was regularly using telnet to scan the holdings of libraries around the world, and that seemed miraculous to me. (In those years I led several summer study programs that were housed at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and I could find out in advance which of the books I needed were available at St. Anne’s, at the other Oxford colleges, and at the Bodleian — though access to the Bodleian was hard for outsiders to get in those days.) On the other hand, I loved looking through card catalogs for the same reason I loved browsing the stacks: serendipity. I accepted the end of the card-catalog system, but with regrets. 

In every library I regularly used, for some years after the system had gone fully digital the cabinets holding the cards stayed around. There had always been, sitting on those cabinets, pencils and sheets of paper on which you could write the call numbers you needed, but those had been taken away — oddly, because you could use them in exactly the same way you did before to find older books. But we were all being nudged towards the computer terminals. Eventually the cabinets were taken away and replaced by comfy chairs. The smaller cabinets are now widely available on eBay. 

libraries vs. publishers

Dan Cohen:

Libraries have dramatically increased their spending on e-books but still cannot come close to meeting demand, which unsurprisingly rose during the pandemic. Because publishers view each circulation of a library e-book as a potential missed sale, they have little incentive to reduce costs for libraries or make it easier for libraries to lend digital copies.

All digital transitions have had losers, some of whom we may care about more than others. Musicians seem to have a raw deal in the streaming age, receiving fractions of pennies for streams when they used to get dollars for the sales of physical media. Countless regional newspapers went out of business in the move to the web and the disappearance of lucrative classified advertising. The question before society, with even a partial transition to digital books, is: Do we want libraries to be the losers? 

The answer certainly appears to be Yes. But, as Dan writes later in the essay, 

libraries are where the love of reading is inculcated, and hurting libraries diminishes the growth of new readers, which in turn may reverse the recent upward trend in book sales. This will be particularly true for communities with fewer resources to devote to equitable access. Ultimately, we should all seek to maximize the availability of books, through as many reasonable methods as we can find. The library patron who is today checking out an e-book, or a digitized book through Controlled Digital Lending — should the practice be upheld on appeal — will be the enthusiastic customer at the bookstore tomorrow. 

Dan does’t emphasize this point in his essay, but one of the fruits of the last few decades’ Merger Madness in publishing is that the industry — a telling word, that — is now controlled by international mega-conglomerates who have the financial muscle to bring massive legal pressure to bear against libraries, whom they obviously consider their enemies. And then when our political representatives try to take action to protect libraries and readers, that same financial muscle is used to throw angry lobbyists at those representatives. Nice elected office you have there, shame if something happened to it.

Whatever forces are arrayed against libraries are also arrayed against readers. But publishing conglomerates don’t care about readers; they only care about customers. If they had their way reading would be 100% digital, because they continue to own and have complete control over digital books, which cannot therefore be sold or given to others. They are the enemies of circulation in all its forms, and circulation is the lifeblood of reading. 

Brewster Kahle, Internet Archive:

The dream of the Internet was to democratize access to knowledge, but if the big publishers have their way, excessive corporate control will be the nightmare of the Internet. That is what is at stake. Will libraries even own and preserve collections that are digital? Will libraries serve our patrons with books as we have done for millennia? A positive ruling that affirms every library’s right to lend the books they own, would build a better Internet and a better society.

New York City Libraries End Late Fees, and the Treasures Roll In

When New York’s public library system announced last October that it would be eliminating all late fines, its goal was to get books and people back to the city’s nearly 100 branches and research centers after a year and a half of limited hours and access.

The goal was achieved: A wave of returned overdue materials came crashing in, accompanied by a healthy increase (between 9 and 15 percent, depending on the borough) of returning visitors. 

Since last fall, more than 21,000 overdue or lost items have been returned in Manhattan, some so old that they were no longer in the library’s system. About 51,000 items were returned in Brooklyn between Oct. 6 through the end of February. And more than 16,000 were returned in Queens. (Libraries are still charging replacement fees for lost books.)

Some books were checked out so long ago that they had to be returned to different addresses. In December, Flushing Library in Queens received a package containing “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” a novella by the English novelist James Hilton, that had been checked out in July 1970 from an address that is now associated with a shopping plaza.

bibliotheca-sanctus: The Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. I visited this library a couple of years ago when I was giving a talk at Vassar — it’s really an exceptionally lovely building.


Enter the labyrinth, exit with your next read.

bibliotheca-sanctus: Shiba Ryōtarō Memorial Museum Library in Higashiosaka, Japan


bibliotheca-sanctus: Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland


The Museum at war

The British Museum:

Britain officially entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. This is a look back at some of the measures the Museum took to cope with the threat of war.

During the First World War there was a new wartime threat – the air raid. Early air raids were carried out mostly by Zeppelins (airships), as few aeroplanes had long enough ranges to be effective or the ability to carry worthwhile quantities of munitions by 1914 and 1915. This archive photograph shows how objects in the Museum were protected against German air raids. Many of the large sculptures were too heavy to move and were protected in situ. The Egyptian gallery is eerily quiet, with the sculptures hidden away behind walls of sandbags.

This work is by war artist Henry Rushbury, who was 25 when war broke out. He served as an aircraft mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps (precursor to the Royal Air Force) during the war and earned the rank of sergeant. In 1918 he was invited by the Ministry of Information to become an official war artist, and sent out to depict scenes of life in London. He produced a series of drawings of the British Museum, showing the ‘sand-bagging’ of antiquities as a defence against German air raids. In this scene three sculptures in the Egyptian gallery have been surrounded by sandbags – Rushbury has labelled them as Amenhotep I, Amenhotep III and the goddess Sekhet.

The most important portable antiquities (such as the Rosetta Stone) were transferred to a station on the newly completed Postal Tube Railway, 15 metres below the surface of Holborn. Bombs did land on Holborn during the war, but no objects were damaged. Books, manuscripts, prints and drawings went in fifteen van loads to the National Library of Wales in their new buildings at Aberystwyth. This was such a westerly location that the threat of air raids was substantially diminished – aircraft at the time did not have the range to fly a return mission this far from the continent, and there were few strategic targets immediately nearby.

No damage was inflicted on the British Museum during the First World War, with the nearest bombs being dropped on Smithfield and Holborn.


I’m working in the British Library this morning and it feels like sanity, you know? People of all shapes and sizes and colors seeking to discover and share knowledge. I think of what old AEH says in Stoppard’s The Invention of Love:

“A scholar’s business is to add to what is known. That is all. But it is capable of giving the very greatest satisfaction, because knowledge is good. It does not have to look good or even sound good or even do good. It is good just by being knowledge. And the only thing that makes it knowledge is that it is true. You can’t have too much of it and there is no little too little to be worth having. There is truth and falsehood in a comma.”

So here we all are, seeking to know truth from falsehood, in a miscopied line or an artfully told tale or even, yes, in a comma. I’m writing this while sitting twenty feet from a copy of the Magna Carta, a few words with the power to restrain the whims of a proud King; and the Codex Sinaiticus, a big book full of Good News about God’s love for us.

There are wicked books too, of course, and people who use good books wickedly. But for the moment it’s comforting to be here among the records of the wise and the living, breathing bodies of those seeking wisdom. It feels sane. It feels safe. Not everyone has either sanity or safety.

It turns out that if you’re a curious, motivated individual in the Swat Valley or Ado-Ekiti, access to knowledge and information means a lot to you: it can, in fact, be central to your values, your education, your livelihood, and the way you explore and understand the world. “Knowledge is a weapon to change the way of people’s thinking,” Kusmarni told me from Jakarta, in a sentiment that was echoed by everyone who answered my ad. But information, they all reminded me, is only valuable if you can get it, and use it, where  you live.

Joseph, from the Ekiti State University in Nigeria and Owusu, from Donkorkrom, Ghana, told me of the insurmountable difficulties they and their classmates face when attempting to use Western collections: paywalls, geoblocking, and membership requirements routinely stand in their way. “You can imagine my frustration when I stumble across a site that has all the information I am seeking only to be informed that my geographic location does not have access to this,” wrote Joseph. Owusu’s stories echoed these frustrations, but he added hopefully, “To have an online digitized library that is free to be accessed is in my opinion the best thing that can ever happen to me and most of my mates at the University.”

It is an article of faith in our community of scholars, institutions, and collections that we work for a noble purpose: that building, preserving, and disseminating knowledge is one of the defining acts of a wise and enlightened society. But our success in these endeavors will be defined by the choices we make—what we choose to catalog and digitize, what we share with the world, and under what conditions we permit or restrict access to our wealth of resources. Remarkable people like Kusmarni, Owusu, and Joseph seem to be  everywhere—all over the globe as well as in our local classrooms and communities. Will we in the Hidden Collections program act as if we believe in their genius? We can and we should.

A wall covered in spines, shelved from floor to ceiling, recognises the correspondence between bricks and books.  It is the point at which knowledge becomes embedded in structure and the appearance is of books holding up the ceiling.  The implication is that enlightenment, the journey towards the sky or the sublime is available within these pages.  It is a metaphor made clearer by the special pieces of furniture, the chairs and stools which ingeniously convert to become ladders or in the sliding steps which glide along the floor scanning the shelves.  And just as bricks humanise the scale of even a vast wall by introducing an element of human scale – a solid unit designed to fit perfectly into the hand, so books define the space and give scale to even the largest the wall.  They are endlessly reproduced and faked in a game of trompe l’oeil in which their symbolic role alone is invoked.  There are bookish wallpapers, there are rows of fake books spines, there are hidden jib doors hidden amongst the bookshelves which open, just as do books themselves to reveal another world and there are dealers who specialise in slightly-worn, leather-spined books by the yard, not for reading but for recreating a country house effect, the impression of history and wisdom.    Already in the 1st Century AD Seneca swore by a small library, for knowledge rather than vanity, not ‘endless bookshelves for the ignorant to decorate their dining rooms.’

One of a series of wonderful photos of people using the New York Public Library, here, via Slate Vault.

You have no computers – or none that I have seen. So many libraries today have become sheds for computers, with books being edged out, put away. You have none of that. Let books who are exiled by computers seek refuge here in your little reading room. You are there to receive them, to comfort them in a world that is turning against the book.

You are so generous. You were a free library back in the seventeenth century, and you still are. In keeping alive this tradition you are reminding us of what libraries are all about. You are about knowledge and the open and generous sharing of knowledge. You are about the good that comes from the written word in an age when there are so many lies around.

You are the senior library in Scotland. You are loved by those who know you, but you are happy to take on new friends. You are a little beacon. You really are.

Alexander McCall Smith on the Innerpeffray Library