Codrington Library, All Soulâ€™s College, Oxford, 1751
The history of college library design illustrated by photographs in the Atlantic:
The division of rooms into stalls seen at Merton College, Oxford and later in libraries such as Queensâ€™ College, Cambridge, was widely adopted in Oxford and Cambridge in the 17th century. Elsewhere in Europe the normal solution was to place the shelving against the walls. This left the problem of where to put the windows. In the Codrington Library in Oxford the windows are down one side and placed high above the bookcases. The result is a library of extraordinary spaciousness and light. The reading desks were moveable. The front of the shelves projected to act as a bench. The room was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in 1751 by James Gibbs.
One winces when one reads: “Recently the Yale University library unceremoniously junked its old card catalogue drawers, filling a large dumpster with them.”
David A. Bell, in the New Republic, describes how cataclysmic change is coming to libraries everywhere and discusses what all this is likely to mean.
For how long will providing access to physical books remain a central mission for libraries? Even as reading on screens becomes more and more common, the number of books easily available in electronic form seems likely to increase, and a consensus for allowing some form of free access to â€œlibrary copiesâ€ of digital files seems likely to emerge. True, the legal wrangling over Google Books has shown worrisome signs of stretching out, Bleak Houseâ€“ fashion, toward the next century. But with the digital files of copyrighted books already in existence, and with money to be made from their distribution, it still seems probable that within twenty years or so, it will be possible to download virtually any book ever printed, anywhere, to any device. The chances will be better for readers with access to some sort of subscription serviceâ€”most often through universities where they study, or have faculty positions. But even for those without this sort of privileged access, some form of free access may very well emerge. And then, what future for libraries?
One nightmare scenario is all too easy to imagine. The year is 2033, and the Third Great Recession has just struck. Although voters have finally turned the Tea Party out of office in Washington, the financial situation remains dire across the country. New York City in particular faces skyrocketing deficits as a result of the most recent Wall Street wipeout, and the bankruptcy of Goldman Chase. In City Hall, a newly elected mayor casts a covetous glance at the grand main branch of the New York Public Library. Think how much money the city could save by selling it, along with the thirty remaining branch libraries scattered throughout the five boroughs. After strenuous negotiations, the mayor announces a deal with Googlezon, under which the company will make fifty electronic copies of any book in its database available at any one time to city residents, for two-week free rentals on the reading device of their choice. Two years later, where the main branch library once stood, the mayor proudly cuts the ribbon at the opening of the Bryant Park Mall. As for the services once performed by actual librarians, these have now been replaced by a cloud software package, with customer service representatives standing by online in case of technical difficulties (most of them physically located in suburban Manila).
In truth, such a turn of events would hardly rank with the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria in the annals of cultural vandalism. If it came to pass, readers would still enjoy, between the new electronic â€œlending libraryâ€ and the public domain titles accessible through the Digital Public Library of America, a larger and more complete library at their fingertips (literally!) than exists today in any single locality. It would not be the barbaric destruction of knowledge. It would be the democratization of knowledge on a scale unimaginable in the pre-Internet age. The benefits are not to be discounted.
Yet the sacrifices entailedâ€”the loss of physical libraries, and of librariansâ€”would still be massive and culturally tragic.
I don’t personally give a rat’s ass about those “library communities” of his, but I certainly agree that the transition is going to be revolutionary and not without losses and pain.
From my own viewpoint as a researcher and regular user of major libraries, I wonder if the experts and planners managing the Great Revolution transitioning us from printed paper to electronic files sufficiently appreciate the crucial importance of preserving and maintaining access to serial publications.
It is very common for enormously larger quantities and much more detailed information on many subjects to have been preserved in ephemeral articles and letters in newspapers and magazines than ever actually made it onward to be preserved between the covers of actual books.
Serial publications are additionally characteristically cheaply printed on rapidly deteriorating acid-filled paper and weekly publications are typically folio sized. Not only are serials prone to be overlooked as a relatively insignificant afterthought by professional librarians. Their preservation is more costly and more difficult than that of most books.
And John J. Miller, at the Wall Street Journal, agrees with us that the local public library has evolved in a direction which makes it a highly questionable use of public funds.
A software program developed by SirsiDynix, an Alabama-based library-technology company, informs librarians of which books are circulating and which ones aren’t. If titles remain untouched for two years, they may be discarded — permanently. “We’re being very ruthless,” boasts library director Sam Clay.
As it happens, the ruthlessness may not ultimately extend to Hemingway’s classic. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” could win a special reprieve, and, in the future, copies might remain available at certain branches. Yet lots of other volumes may not fare as well. Books by Charlotte BrontÃƒÂ«, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have recently been pulled.
Library officials explain, not unreasonably, that their shelf space is limited and that they want to satisfy the demands of the public. Every unpopular book that’s removed from circulation, after all, creates room for a new page-turner by John Grisham, David Baldacci, or James Patterson — the authors of the three most checked-out books in Fairfax County last month.
But this raises a fundamental question: What are libraries for? Are they cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said? Or are they more like actual stores, responding to whatever fickle taste or Mitch Albom tearjerker is all the rage at this very moment?
If the answer is the latter, then why must we have government-run libraries at all? There’s a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the recreational habits of bookworms.
Of course, it’s not just the replacement of liberally-educated librarians by a new generation trained “professionally” which is responsible for the American town library’s new policy of purging the classics in order to make space for items in active demand, i.e., new best-sellers, career guides and test preparation texts, and videos.
The old-fashioned library was a quiet place, typically with one librarian on hand, and modest traffic. Most of the books were generations old, and had been sitting unread on their shelves for decades. Obviously, there’s no money in that sort of thing.
If an enterprizing and up-to-date librarian gives the old heave-ho to Hazlitt, discards Dickens, and purges Pope, replacing all those unread classics with multiple copies of the latest John Grisham, or Harry Potter, or the freshest video release, this strategy of responding directly to public demand will reliably increase library use, thus justifying increased staffing, facilities expansion, and… raised budgets!
The old-style librarian served the timeless cause of culture disinterestedly. The modern librarian is in business for herself (in direct competition with retailers), and is building and expanding a personal empire, all at the public expense. The cost to the public is actually twofold. Not only is the town library becoming another massive public extravagance and tax burden with ever-increasing staffing and perennial building and expansion. But the American town has also lost a unique cultural repository and educational resource. A few decades ago, a young person could find the documentary record of American reading culture for generations prior to his own carefully preserved and readily available for examination. Today, the same shelves offer twelve copies of the same number one item on this week’s New York Times best seller list, the same item available down the street at the chain book store and in the local supermarket. A few decades ago, the poorest child in America could undertake a very serious program of personal education for free at his local library. Today, he can prep for a licensing exam, or read the latest Clive Cussler.
It seems obvious that the public library is doomed to become an objectionable travesty of its former self (and socialist boondoggle). The hope of future autodidacts will not be free public libraries, but the Internet combined with ever cheaper and more numerous reprint editions.
Local libraries today are commonly staffed by low-grade morons with professional degrees in “library science.” How the Dewey Decimal System can possibly be elevated into a field of academic study and a degree-program remains a mystery to some of us. Visions of courses titled “Advanced Book Stamping II” and “Alternatives to Alphabetical Shelving” dance through one’s head.
But, consequently, for more than a decade now, a retail-inventory model of tailoring libraries’ holding to books frequently checked out has been supplanting the idea of the town library as cultural repository of the classics. Librarians have (for years) been busily purging infrequently-borrowed canonical classics in order to maximize shelf space for high demand choices, i.e., current best-sellers and career references.
You can’t find “Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings” at the Pohick Regional Library anymore. Or “The Education of Henry Adams” at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson’s “Final Harvest”? Don’t look to the Kingstowne branch.
It’s not that the books are checked out. They’re just gone. No one was reading them, so librarians took them off the shelves and dumped them.
Along with those classics, thousands of novels and nonfiction works have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.
Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region’s largest library system is taking turnover to a new level.
Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system’s return on its investment by each foot of space on the library shelves — and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone — even if they are classics.
“We’re being very ruthless,” said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system since 1982. “A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that’s a cost.”
That is the new reality for the Fairfax system and the future for other libraries. As books on tape, DVDs, computers and other electronic equipment crowd into branches, there is less room for plain old books.
So librarians are making hard decisions and struggling with a new issue: whether the data-driven library of the future should cater to popular tastes or set a cultural standard, even as the demand for the classics wanes.
Library officials say they will always stock Shakespeare’s plays, “The Great Gatsby” and other venerable titles. And many of the books pulled from one Fairfax library can be found at another branch and delivered to a patron within a week.
But in the effort to stay relevant in an age in which reference materials and novels can be found on the Internet and Oprah’s Book Club helps set standards of popularity, libraries are not the cultural repositories they once were.
When American society allowed “professional” forms of credentialization to replace liberal education as the means of entry to a career as librarian (just as was the case with primary and secondary level teaching), educated people vanished from the profession, being replaced by the dimmest species of fonctionnaires and bureaucrats.
So, instead of serving as the place the poor kid can access the important books and educate himself for free (as so many American writers and intellectuals in the past have done), the modern local library has become a tax-funded way for cheapskates to get their hands on the latest Grisham or Stephen King, without actually paying for it. My former town library in Newtown, Connecticut, back in the 1990s, had already purged the English poets in order to make space available to offer popular movies on videotape, in active competition with Blockbuster.
A Boston Globe article exploits a fairly well-known bibliographic curiosity to provoke some public shock:
Brown University’s library boasts an unusual anatomy book. Tanned and polished to a smooth golden brown, its cover looks and feels no different from any other fine leather.
But here’s its secret: the book is bound in human skin.
A number of prestigious libraries — including Harvard University’s — have such books in their collections. While the idea of making leather from human skin seems bizarre and cruel today, it was not uncommon in centuries past, said Laura Hartman, a rare book cataloger at the National Library of Medicine in Maryland and author of a paper on the subject…
The library has three books bound in human skin — the anatomy text and two 19th century editions of “The Dance of Death,” a medieval morality tale.
Bibliophile publications, and the literature of the supernatural, sometimes feature colorful stories of rare older books, particularly grimoires (i.e., instruction manuals for practicing black magic), purportedly bound in human skin (usually that of a virgin slave), but real examples seem to be mostly unique Victorian and Edwardian exhibition bindings of anatomical texts or avant garde literature.
The above story probably came about via a reading of this one from the Harvard Law School Record.