A great library serves many functions: research laboratory of the humanities, archival database of human accomplishment, repository of a culture’s stories. For me the library is also a place of escape, a sacred space where quiet enables clear thinking, and sometimes an overwhelming place. This last is a little hard to explain, except by noting that the possibilities for mental over-stimulation are ever present in well stocked reading rooms; in this sense Matthew Battles’ Library: An Unquiet History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003) rightly starts by evoking the library’s capacity to induce vertigo:
As the reader gropes the stacks – lifting books and testing their heft, appraising the fall of letterforms on the title page, scrutinizing marks left by other readers – the more elusive knowledge itself becomes. All that remains unknown seems to beckon from among the covers, between the lines. In the library, the reader is wakened from the dream of communion with a single book, startled into a recognition of the word’s materiality by the sheer number of bound volumes; by the sound of pages turning, covers rubbing; by the rank smell of books gathered together in vast numbers. Of course, the experience of the physicality of the book is strongest in the large libraries, where the accumulated weight of written words seems to exert a gravity all its own.
When I was growing up, during the summer school breaks I would ride my bike down to the public library in West Lafayette, Indiana, and pass the afternoons in the cool air conditioning reading books. My tastes were pretty lowbrow – most of one summer I spent reading one after another Perry Mason mystery, another I passed reading Lincoln biographies – but I loved the place, and still find I can lose hours in libraries and their for-profit equivalents (Borders, Barnes & Nobles, or any good used book store). I consider both a nightmare and an inspiration the story retold by Battles (19) about Jorge Luis Borges, whose slowly deteriorating eyesight finally disappeared altogether at about the same time he was appointed to direct Argentina’s National Library:
No one should read self-pity or reproach
Into this statement of the majesty
Of God, who with such splendid irony
Granted me books and blindness in one touch.
Unlike the small library kept by Seneca, whose collection was supposedly limited to only those volumes summarizing the best of human wisdom, the contemporary library is a much vaster archive that often grows by more volumes in a year than any single reader could absorb in a lifetime. Today the books form a “collection” to be catalogued and counted and tallied, and whose consumption is measured not by the number of actual readers but by metrics that document checkout and reshelving. Battles (a Harvard University rare books librarian) quotes Thomas Jefferson’s articulation of an alternative creed, where “a library book… is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital.” Jefferson is defending the enlightenment ideal reflected in the impulse of his age to catalog everything and accumulate knowledge and to create encyclopedias and universities organized around the systematic investigation of all the world, social and natural.
Such an aspiration is subverted by the realization of how many bad, mundane, poorly written, and now irrelevant works are forever stored on hard copy compact shelving or in digital databases. Battles notes the irony that shelved next to the original Shakespeare Folios are whole shelves of conspiracy theories, alternative authorship treatises, little books translating the plays into limerick form, works of mediocre criticism, and so on. Speaking only of those works that aspire to faithfully reflect or tell the truth (i.e., those self-identified as nonfiction), the irony, of course, is the larger the library the greater are the odds that lies outnumber truths within the collection. This is irrelevant, of course, to the logic that justifies libraries in the first place – books are worth cherishing because they reflect the most careful intellectual labors of any given generation whether ultimately right or wrong, and serve as our best roadmap to the history of scholarship. And putting the point into the language of truth versus lie makes it too strong, of course. But even within the registers of pragmatism it is most likely the case that the vast majority of books in an ambitiously large collection do not contain useful knowledge, and more often than not make claims specifically rejected or subsequently ignored.
This fact doesn’t diminish the extraordinary accomplishment of the contemporary research library, of course. But it does emphasize both its paradoxically relevant and anachronistic character and the extent to which the work of the library collection is mainly to form a parallel world of representations and theories and information. Battles writes: “For any question, the library offers no hope of a definitive answer: though it necessarily contains prophesies of the lives of everyone who has lived or will live, as well as theories explaining the origins and workings of the universe itself, it must also contain unimaginable numbers of spurious accounts, with no means of sorting the true and immanent from the fallacious and misleading” (18).
I love libraries anyway.