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.
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.
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?
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.
For some years we have been researching the how, why and wherefore of exhibitions of Australian art. We have tracked down retired curators and art museum directors, recording their memories before they fade.
We have crossed the country to see exhibitions. But most of the time we have been buried in archives and libraries. While large public libraries are excellent for general research, those small specialist libraries attached to state and national art museums are our essential tools of trade.
With the exception of the Edmund and Joanna Capon Research Library at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, these libraries are by appointment only. All the meticulously researched exhibitions of Australian and international art depend on their museum libraries – they track down works of art and tease out ideas from distant publications.
These libraries are our treasure trove. The Art Gallery of New South Wales press cuttings book goes back to the 1890s. There are international art journals dating from the 1890s, invitations to every imaginable exhibition, annual reports from the most unlikely places – as well as transcripts of scandalous court cases.
Most art museum libraries hold material associated with their own collections and exhibitions. Two institutions, however, have made their libraries international research hubs. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a succession of librarians have collected archives from Australian artists, curators and institutional records. The renamed National Art Archive is central to the proposed Sydney Modern Project.
For many years its secret weapon has been the head librarian, Steven Miller, the author of scholarly books and erudite blog posts while the visual resources librarian, Eric Riddler, has an uncanny ability to track down obscure archival photographs and identify the protagonists.
At the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, James Mollison, its first Director, knew that an outstanding research library was an essential tool in positioning the gallery as an international leader. He acted accordingly in funding the library. When he was a young education officer at the National Gallery of Victoria, he had access to the specialist records that have been expanded into the Shaw Research Library, presided over by the ever helpful Luke Doyle.
Thanks to Mollison’s foresight, for almost 40 years the catalogues, books and archives at the National Gallery of Australia have been the envy of those who don’t live in the city. The monetary value is A$37 million, but the worth is much more.
The Chief librarian, Joye Volker, and the senior librarian, Helen Hyland, are both well-known to interstate and international visitors who have have benefited from their detailed knowledge of the collections. Their assistance to researchers has extended to sending digital versions of archives meticulously recorded over many years.
The retired Betty Churcher wrote most of her book, Australian Notebooks (2014), in the library, while Sasha Grishin’s Australian Art: a History (2014) says of Joye Volker and her staff: “It would not have been possible to complete this book without their assistance.”
When the Federal Government announced in September it was eliminating 63 positions from national cultural organisations, both Volker and Hyland were “let go”. With the “natural attrition” from other staff, this means the National Gallery library is now only open four days a week. Tough times mean hard decisions.
But libraries without librarians are just storerooms. Specialist librarians can make apparently tangential leaps and suddenly produce a raft of documents that give answers to questions the researcher is yet to ask.
As well as hard copy resources, when we visited Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art Research Library Jacklyn Young and Cathy Pemble-Smith gave ready access to digital files and data bases. Specialist research librarians save months of time for hard pressed academic researchers and curators.
At the Art Gallery of South Australia Jin Whittington is surely one of the state’s living treasures with her specialist knowledge and generous spirit, answering constant queries on the finer details of the archive and library. Specialist librarians and archivists are crucial for primary research.
At the recent Art Association of Australia and New Zealand annual conference, the subterranean topic of conversation was the very future of the National Gallery’s library. Budget cuts may lead to its holdings being transferred to the equally under-resourced National Library.
Anthony White, president of the association, which represents art historians, curators and artists, said:
The art-specific knowledge that art librarians provide, as well as their unique expertise in advanced research skills, are indispensable for those historians, critics and curators who are opening new avenues in thinking about global visual cultures that speak to contemporary concerns.
This sorry tale is not unique to art, or even to Canberra. It is a part of the inevitable consequences of a succession of “efficiency dividends” by the Commonwealth Government which is placing public institutions on a diet akin to anorexia.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the most popular library ebooks in the USA for 2016. Do any of our readers read library ebooks? If so, what has your experience been like? Let us know in the comments.