The link below is to an article that considers the purpose of libraries.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the libraries of Finland.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at secret libraries of history.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of book acquisition for the world’s libraries throughout history.
In the age of the globalisation of everything – and the privatisation of everything else – libraries can and must change. In fact, it’s already underway, as new technologies take books and libraries to places that are, as yet, unimaginable.
That’s what we’re unpacking today on Essays On Air, where we bring you fascinating long form essays in audio form.
Today, Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor of Writing at the University of Notre Dame, reads her essay, titled Why libraries can and must change.
Nelson takes us from the ancient Library of Alexandria to the New York Public Library and explores the problems that arise when books are excluded, destroyed, censored and forgotten. And, indeed, when libraries are decimated.
Join us as we read to you here at Essays On Air, a podcast from The Conversation.
Snow by David Szesztay
Big chain by daveincamas
Traffic noise in the street by jcgd2
Automatic door by Kyodon
Kids Birthday Party Crowd by jakobthiesen
Cardboard burning by Rare Mess Recordings
Plunger-pop by Quistard
environment 1st floor by mariiao2
Moderate waves on the edge of a river by Duophonic
breaking objects by deleted_user_3667256
Vacuum cleaner, by InspectorJ
Morning docks by nathanaellentz
Tearing paper by ScreamStudio
This episode was edited by Jenni Henderson. Illustration by Marcella Cheng.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the relevance of libraries in the era of fake news.
There is a chapter towards the end of Stuart Kells’s The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, in which the author envisions the library of the future as one in which “dreary hordes of students” stare mindlessly at “computers and reading machines”, ignorant of the more refined pleasures of paper and ink, vellum and leather.
This – the death of the book – is a familiar lament recounted by bibliophiles everywhere; a tragic epic in which the Goliath of technology slays the David of art and culture.
It may be superficially appealing to some. And yet, it misses the reality that writing itself is also a technology. Along with the wheel and the lever, it is one of the greatest technologies ever invented. The history of writing predates the invention of the book. It parallels and is a part of the history of other technological forms.
The history of the library is replete with mechanical marvels.
Take, for example, the book wheel, the scholar’s technology of the 16th century, an ingenious mechanical device operated by foot or hand controls, allowing a reader to move backwards and forwards across editions and volumes, referencing many different books as quickly possible.
Closer to our own century, there’s the Book Railways of the Boston Public Library installed in 1895, with tracks laid around every level of the stack to transport books. Or the ultra-modern teletype machine and conveyor belt used to convey book requests by the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1927. Or the current book retrieval system used at the University of Chicago, which boasts a system of robotic cranes.
Unlike Kells, I think there is a fabulous quality to the dream of an infinite library that can assemble itself in bits and bytes wherever a reader calls it into being. It sits well with the democratic dream of mass literacy.
It may well take an archaeologist – working a thousand years from now – a lifetime to unlock the data in our already defunct floppy discs and CD Roms. Then again, it took several hundred years of patient work before Jean-François Champollion deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822, and even longer for Henry Rawlinson to unlock the secrets of the cuneiform scripts of ancient Mesopotamia.
Of course, Kells’s new book is not a history of reading or writing. It is a history of books as artefacts. It tells of books of doubtful or impeccable provenance, discovered in lost libraries or inaccessible private collections, purloined by book thieves, or crazed and nefarious book collectors, or at the behest of rich or royal patrons. It is a narrative – albeit with an unfortunate, cobbled together quality – brimming with strange anecdotes about a small handful of books owned by a small handful of people; lost books yielding strange surprises, from discarded condoms to misplaced dental appointment slips.
Kells’s favoured haunts are the chained libraries of medieval monks, and the bawdy or scandalous collections of wealthy 18th century patrons. The library of St Gall, for example, which houses one of the largest medieval collections in the world. Or the Bodleian at Oxford, which was never intended to be an inclusive collection, but rather, as its founder Thomas Bodley put it, sought to exclude “almanackes, plaies, and an infinit number” of other “unworthy matters” which he designated “baggage bookes” and “riff-raffe”.
I am a great lover of books. I have been lucky enough to while away the hours in libraries from Beijing to St Petersburg, Belgrade and Buenos Aires. But in an age of economic disparity and privatised public services – of pay walls, firewalls and proprietary media platforms, not to mention Google and Amazon – it is difficult to feel convinced by this bibliophile’s nostalgic reveries.
Embodying an idea of society
More than 20 years ago, when I was living in New York, eking out a living as a copyeditor and more often as a waitress, I became a regular at the 42nd Street Library (also known as the New York Public Library), on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, a few blocks from the apartment that I shared in Midtown.
It was not just the size of the collection that drew me in – the 120 kilometres of bookshelves housing one of the largest collections in the world – or the ornate ceilings of the main reading room, which ran the length of a city block, with 42 oak tables for 636 readers, the bookish dimness interrupted by the quiet glow of reading lamps. I was fascinated by the library’s pneumatic system.
This labyrinthine contraption, which had been state-of-the-art around the dawn of the 20th century, sent call slips flying up and around through brass tubes descending deep underground – down seven stories of steel-reinforced book stacks where the book was found, then sent up on an oval shaped conveyor belt to arrive in the reading room.
The pneumatic system – with its air of retro, steampunk or defunct book technology – seemed to intimate the dream of a future that had been discarded, or, at least, never actually arrived. Libraries are not just collections of books, but social, cultural and technological institutions. They house not only books but also the idea of a society.
The predecessors of the New York Public Library, the Carnegie libraries of the 1880s, were not just book stacks but also community centres with public baths, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, and in at least one strange instance – at the Allegheny library in Pittsburgh – a rifle range in the basement.
Earlier in the 18th century, with the rise of industrial printing technologies and the spread of mass literacy, not only libraries but as many as a thousand book clubs sprang up through Europe. They were highly social, if occasionally rowdy places, offering a space not only for men but also women to gather. Monthly dinners were a common feature. Book club rules included penalties for drunkenness and swearing.
So too, the fabled Library of Alexandria – where Eratosthenes invented the discipline of geography and Archimedes calculated the accurate value of Pi – was not a collection of scrolls but a centre of innovation and learning. It was part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and lecture halls. Libraries are social places.
Kells’s Catalogue of Wonders is at its best when it recounts the stories of these ancient libraries, charting the accidental trails of books, and therefore ideas, through processes of translating, pirating and appropriation. And the trades and technologies of papermaking that enabled them.
The library of the Pharaoh Ramses II in the second millennium BCE contained books of papyrus, palm leaves, bone, bark, ivory linen and stone. But “in other lands and other times,” Kells writes,
books would also be made from silk, gems, plastic, silicon, bamboo, hemp, rags, glass, grass, wood, wax, rubber, enamel, iron, copper, silver, gold, turtle shell, antlers, hair, rawhide and the intestines of elephants.
One sheep, he says, yields a single folio sheet. A bible requires 250. The Devil’s Bible, a large 13th-century manuscript from Bohemia, was made from the skin of 160 donkeys.
Ptolemy founded the Library of Alexandra around 300 BCE, on a spit of land between a lake and the man-made port of Pharos. He sent his agents far and wide with messages to kings and emperors, asking to borrow and copy books.
There are many stories about the dissolution of this library: that it was burnt by invading Roman soldiers or extremist Christians or a pagan revolt – or that a caliph ordered the books be burnt to heat the waters of the urban bathhouses. Or just as likely, as Kells points out, the scrolls, which were made of fragile papyrus, simply disintegrated.
But the knowledge contained in the scrolls never entirely disappeared. Even as the collection dissipated, a brisk trade in pirated scrolls copied out in a nearby merchant’s district ensured that the works eventually found their way to Greece and Constantinople, where other libraries would maintain them for another thousand years.
One thing that Kells fails to address in his book is the problems that arise when books are excluded, destroyed, censored and forgotten. And, indeed, when libraries are decimated.
Any list of destroyed libraries makes startling reading: The libraries of Constantinople sacked by the Crusaders, the Maya codices destroyed by Franciscan monks, the libraries of Beijing and Shanghai destroyed by occupying Japanese forces, the National Library of Serbia destroyed by the Nazi Luftwaffe, the Sikh Library of the Punjab destroyed at the behest of Indira Gandhi, the Library of Cambodia destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
More recently, thousands of priceless manuscripts were burnt in the Timbuktu library in Mali and rare books spanning centuries of human learning were burnt at the University of Mosul. Yet more book burnings have been conducted by ISIS, in a reign of cultural devastation that includes museums, archaeological sites, shrines and mosques.
There is also destruction for which the so called “Coalition of the Willing” must accept responsibility. Dr Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, reported the devastation of the library in a diary posted on the British Library website: archival materials 60% lost, rare books 95% lost, manuscripts 25% lost.
There may be something not quite right in mourning the death of books in a time of war, as people are dying. But the problem remains that without books and documents, the history of the world can be rewritten.
Indeed, as Iraqi librarians sought to preserve the bookish remains of their country in the still working freezer of a bombed out Iraqi officer’s club, the US military quietly airlifted the archives of the Baathist Secret Police out of the country.
These are the dark places where, as George Orwell once said, the clocks strike thirteen, and Kells does not go.
Of course, the great irony of censorship and book burning is that books are destroyed because it is believed that they are important, and they possess a certain power.
Libraries of the future
In the age of the globalisation of everything – and the privatisation of everything else – libraries can and must change. It is seldom discussed that one of the great destroyers of books are actually libraries themselves, bearing cost cuts, and space limitations. But this process can be ameliorated by companies such as Better World Books that divert library books from landfill, finding new owners and funding literacy initiatives – you can even choose a carbon neutral footprint at the checkout.
Libraries, by which I mean public libraries that are free, open and accessible, will not become extinct, even though they face new competition from the rise of private libraries and the Internet. Libraries will not turn into mausoleums and reliquaries, because they serve a civic function that extends well beyond the books they hold.
Libraries can and must change. Quiet study areas are being reduced, replaced not only by computer rooms but also by social areas that facilitate group discussions and convivial reading. There will be more books transferred to offsite storage, but there will also be more ingenious methods of getting these books back to readers.
There will be an emphasis on opening rare books collections to greater numbers of readers. There is and must be greater investment in digital collections. Your mobile phone will no longer be switched off in the library, but may well be the very thing that brings the library to you in your armchair.
The much heralded “death of the book” has nothing to do with the death of reading or writing. It is about a radical transformation in reading practices. New technologies are taking books and libraries to places that are, as yet, unimaginable. Where there will undoubtedly be new wonders to catalogue.
When libraries lend books to the public, authors and publishers receive remuneration from the Government under the Lending Rights schemes, but this is not the case when libraries lend e-books. Is this fair?
This year, the government has distributed almost A$22 million under these Public Lending Rights and Educational Lending Rights Schemes. For each book in public library collections, creators receive $2.11 and publishers receive $0.52.
The amount that each claimant receives is often not very significant, with the majority of authors receiving between $100-500 annually. Still, a previous study has revealed that this remuneration constitutes the second most important source of income for creators from their creative work.
E-books, however, are not covered by these Lending Rights schemes. This may not be a big issue at the moment, since only 3.5% of library holdings are e-books and most publishers still release books both in print and e-book formats.
But e-book lending is increasing and, according to the Australian Library and Information Association, e-books are likely to reach 20% of library holdings by 2020. Also, most, if not all, self-published titles are done so in digital format only. Such self-published titles, if lent by libraries, would not qualify for any remuneration.
For this reason, authors and publishers have been lobbying the Government to extend the Lending Rights Schemes to e-books. Although the Book Industry Collaborative Council made such proposal already in a report of 2013, nothing has happened of yet.
One of the main reasons why e-books are not covered is that e-book lending is quite different from print book lending. In case of print books, authors and publishers are arguably losing on customers and revenues when libraries loan their books for free.
At present, in the case of e-books, many publishers chose not to sell these books to libraries. Also, publishers assume that libraries will lend e-books to many readers so they often charge libraries three or more times the price that consumers are paying for the same e-books.
While publishers charge libraries high prices for e-books, writers complain that these amounts do not reach them. Publishing contracts often don’t specify whether and how much authors receive for e-books sales or for e-lending.
How other countries deal with this question
This year, a Public Lending Rights scheme was extended to e-books in Canada, with no payments for e-books yet. A few weeks ago, the Court of Justice of the European Union has confirmed that European Lending Rights scheme applies at least to certain e-lending models.
Should Australia follow the trend? Australia’s publishing industry, like the industry worldwide, has been in a decline for a number of years. Despite this, it is still our second largest creative industry and it is of no question that Australian literature is greatly important for local culture and identity.
Government support for this industry, however, has been declining over years. In addition, the Productivity Commission has recommended that the government eliminate the restrictions on parallel imports of books. If the government acts on this, it will likely reduce the income of Australian publishers and authors.
The Commission has suggested that the government replace parallel import restrictions with some other cultural support measures. However, in the current neo-liberal climate, with constant pressure to decrease public expenditure, it is unlikely that government will create additional schemes to support local writing.
One option could be the extension of Lending Rights schemes to e-books. However, extension alone would do little if the current funds under the schemes were merely re-distributed from books to e-books. For effects to be felt, there would need to be increased funding under the schemes.
Having spent 15 years researching public libraries and trying to emphasise their contribution to education and society as a whole, you might expect that I’d be delighted at the good news that our public libraries are finally receiving the media attention and recognition they deserve? Sadly not.
The recent boon in media interest is of course linked to a large-scale BBC investigation into the “real” picture of library closures, staff redundancies and budget cuts which have taken place since 2010, the year in which UK Chancellor George Osborne “unveiled the biggest UK spending cuts for decades”.
I was one of a number of people interviewed as part of the investigation, and have been quoted in two two depressingly entitled articles: one on how a quarter of staff jobs have been lost as hundreds of libraries close and another entitled “Libraries: the decline of a profession?”
The first article presented some stark statistics – based on an extensive series of Freedom of Information requests by the BBC – which revealed the extent of closures, planned closures and job losses, as well as the concurrent increase in community-run libraries – where the local authority hands over the management of a library service to a group of community volunteers – and volunteer staff.
Libraries aren’t over, they will just look different. A similar view was expressed by Elizabeth Elford of the Society of Chief Librarians, who observed “there will be fewer public libraries when we come out the other side, but they will be better and more innovative.” I sincerely hope that she is right, but I question whether the closure of so many public libraries could be characterised as a positive development.
Of course, not all libraries have “closed”. In addition to the 343 libraries no longer in existence since 2010, the BBC also reported that 232 libraries have been “transferred”, 174 of which have moved from council control to management by community groups (whether or not these should also be counted as “closures” remains a point for ongoing debate).
For Ian Stephens, chair of the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sport board, it is testament “to how much people value their libraries that so many have volunteered to help keep them open.” This might well be true but it provides little comfort to those volunteers who would have preferred the library service to remain council run rather than being forced to fend for themselves without professional training or long-term council support.
Community-run libraries are also under no obligation to conform to council standards and, as I keep being told by people working in community-run libraries, they feel that they are in competition with other libraries in the city or county, and are certainly not connected to them as they originally thought they would be.
This would appear incongruous with the public library service so familiar to many of us, with one large central library providing the greatest range of resources, and a number of smaller branch libraries serving the different parts of the community. The community-run service, at least in its current form, does not appear to replicate this service, and, as the statistics show, we now have an utter lack of consistency of provision across towns and cities.
Volunteers have long supported library services by supplementing existing work – shelving, routine enquiry work, storytelling sessions, and so on – or by adding value to a service with more specialised skills, such as cultural awareness sessions from members of local minority ethnic communities. This is extremely valuable work, and in no sense devalues the existing service. Many of our students will work as volunteers in library services before coming on the masters programme, and it serves as excellent preparation for an information career.
However, some politicians and other commentators seem to forget that there is an important distinction between volunteers used to supplement an existing service, and volunteers either replacing the specialised roles of paid library staff, or working in “community-run” libraries. The second of these seemed at the time to relate very closely to the coalition government’s Big Society ideology, the impact of which is still being felt, particularly in terms of the ongoing drive for local authorities to make the most of ever-decreasing budgets. Certainly before 2010 the community-run library was a very rare phenomenon.
Last year I was told that public libraries – and, by association, any research into them – were “dead in the water”. No such demise has occurred, as I wrote in a blog last year. Nevertheless, the recent media coverage is a clear reminder that we cannot be complacent about the future of public libraries. These are very difficult times for these organisations and those who work in them, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise.
People who have devoted their lives to supporting public libraries are now suggesting that we have gone past the point of no return. Yet there are still a huge number of individuals and organisations who still firmly believe in the role of the statutory public library service in a democratic society, and are working tirelessly to ensure that it remains.
To those fortunate individuals who appear not to have seen the extent of the contribution a public library makes to its community, I repeat a point made by David McMenemy, in his book The Public Library: “In all of the discourse around the diminishing use of public library services it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that many people within our communities continue to need the services they offer.”
Public library services remain one of the most significant and democratising assets within our communities and should not be sacrificed for economic or political expediency.