We get it, my reader says before I start. Libraries matter, let’s move on to something else. Like when are you going to start that multi-part review of The Sandman Series? And why isn’t there a review of Lolita yet? You keep talking about Christopher Hitchens’s book god is Not Great and yet you haven’t written to B—– to discuss why that book is so flippin important. And why why why haven’t you sat down yet and written your review of The Martian Chronicles, A Contract With God, Middlesex, and the second half of Gay Macho? Huh? Tell me that?
Well before I begin I probably should say it’s unusual to object to my reader before I’ve even started, but kudos for demonstrating initiative. And for the record all of these arguments have great merit. There is a large pile of books to my left which haunts me daily because it’s a reminder that I haven’t been writing many reviews lately. You see the last six months have entailed me realizing that I don’t want to be a teacher (I had one semester and it just about broke me), a long period of nervous break-downs which almost cumulated in a suicide attempt, a deep and profound existential crisis, a return to editing a novel I wrote when I was 19 years old, and the sudden appearance of a job at the library which, if I can be dramatic, has literally saved my life and inspired me to live life and actually enjoy myself.
That’s a long way of saying I apologize to your initial rebuttal, but libraries really do matter. But not simply because working at one kept me from shooting myself.
My wife tells me I need to stop saying things like that. Sorry wife.
I’ve written over the last few months about what social function libraries play in society and culture, and what libraries have meant to me personally. Ever since I was a kid I loved going to the library and disappearing into books and being in a nice quiet place where I could read, and now that I work at one (I’m technically not a librarian because I don’t have an MLS degree, I’m an Information Access Associate) I realize that the library remains a vital hub for the community and for literacy. Because I’ve covered so much ground already of what libraries can mean, it may seem pointless to discuss it any further. However, a book like Library: An Unquiet History comes along and adds a new dimension I hadn’t really considered while I was wandering through my romanticisms.
I bought the book while I was still teaching a college class. A few of my friends worked at the library, and so I began scrolling through books on Amazon about libraries (their history, their theory, their social function) working out some unconscious desire on my end to join them in that happy space. The book had good reviews, and a fair number of the people writing said reviews had nothing but good things to say and so I plucked it up. I wish I had a better intro story about this book, but that’s what it is. My mind was looking to escape into the idea of the library to save itself from my current reality and I guess it worked, eventually.
Matthew Battles, the author, is a fellow at the Berkamn Center of Harvard University where he also worked as a librarian. His initial experience is a beautiful lesson which, I’m sad/happy to say, I’m repeating myself:
When I first went to work in Harvard’s Widener Library, I immediately made my first mistake: I tried to read the books. (3)
The reason for this mistake is the fact that, as he explains later, contemporary human beings armed with processors, blogs, texts, tweets, online messages, and, of course, actual published books produce more written material in a day than has existed in the entire collected history of human beings. The problem then facing a librarian is: what do we keep? This question yields to a far more important question: what exactly is the role of a library, and what is the philosophy that governs it? These aren’t simple questions because a quick analysis yields to problems.
I’ll run a quick hypothetical:
Do you only keep religious writing, and then how do you define religious? Would you include materials written by Atheists or Muslims or Hindus? If the answer is no, and you decide to only service Christian writing how do you define Christianity? Do you include a Joel Olsteen beside the writings of St. Augustine? And if you decide to only keep work published by a particular denomination of Christianity how do you define your library because at that point you’re almost certainly not a public institution, nor are you really an academic one?
These questions are ultimately like a hydra’s head for the moment one is answered new ones spring up and so Battles’s book manages to chronicle how humans have shaped the idea of the library to fit the various models.
He continues in his introduction saying:
Each sort of library is also an argument about the nature of books, distilling their social, cultural, and mystical functions. And what the Word means to society—whether it is the breath of God or the Muses, the domicile beauty and the good, the howling winds of commerce, or some ambiguous amalgam of all these things—that is what the library enshrines. (9).
This is the end of the Romantic history and Philosophy for my review because I’ve covered this idea in previous essays and reviews. Battles’s book is first a history of libraries around the world, and through his narration he manages to demonstrate how libraries lie at the philosophic and historical heart of societies, and for this reason they have tended to suffer for it. In fact, let’s be clear, sometimes the library been outright abused for its very existence.
Battles begins with the famous tale about the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The tale goes that a Muslim conqueror by the name of Amr, heading the will of a Caliph Omar, burned the library of Alexandria and the thousands of scrolls contained there because these writings did not reveal the nature of god and were nothing but pagan trash. As such the library was destroyed. This is a story I had heard before, on numerous occasions, even once in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and so I was rather surprised when Battles points out that this story is rooted mostly in folklore. He writes:
When Julius Caesar came to the aid of Cleopatra in her war against young Ptolemy III in 48 B.C. (by which time the libraries were already nearly three hundred years old), he burned the ships in Alexandria’s harbor to prevent his enemy from taking the city by sea. According to Seneca, some forty thousand books were lost in the ensuing conflagration, though other authorities hold that only a few books, stored in the warehouses awaiting shelving, were burned. (23-4).
I’m tempted here to raise my first and shout, “Damn Damn Damn Damn, Damn You Rex Harrison!” But I doubt many people would get that I’m making a My Fair Lady reference and a Cleopatra reference at the same time, so instead I’ll just note that in typical fashion that Julius Caesar remains a dope.
Battles does an excellent job in his book of correcting numerous stories like this, explaining the early history of libraries, how the concept of private and public libraries developed to prominence during the Renaissance and later Neo-Classical period, how Dewey established the Dewey decimal system and created the “ideal” of the library that currently exists, and finally ends with the rise of industrialization and how the mass production of books created new implications for libraries in general. And all of this, it should be noted, is written in readable language. Rather than taking a theoretical or “academic” approach Battles’s aim is always to simply educate the reader and tell the story of how libraries have changed and altered over the course of their existence, while also highlighting how the society that entertains them and establishes them comes to think of them. It may seem strange to observe that, but the way a society views libraries matters a great deal to how they operate.
My title alone suggests this. Despite the flag-waving, and calls for liberty that takes place within the United States, one of the most consistent public battles is literacy, specifically what should the populace be literate about. Topics like global climate change, the history of slavery and abuse of native Americans, queer identity, and evolution are consistently viewed as suspect and certain powers object to books relating to this topic existing at all in the library. And of course there’s Nazis, but more importantly, Jim Crow laws.
Battles at one point discusses the history of Nazi Germany and the book burnings that take place there, but honestly one of the most horrific stories told in Battles’s book is not the atrocities of Nazi’s, but in fact libraries in the United States.
Destroying a library, however, is merely the crudest form of editorializing. Libraries left intact can become tools of oppression and genocide, too, since they offer canons that reflect the conceits of mystical nationalism and the will to purity. As Richard Wright relates in what is perhaps the climactic scene in Black Boy, his wrenching autobiography, libraries in the Jim Crow South not only deemed some books off-limits; they supported the notion that some people were unsuited to be readers. If the new library offered great progressive hope, so could it deliver unbearable pain in withholding that hope. (180).
This is a side of libraries that most people, particularly in this country, probably would like to ignore, or else pretend didn’t exist. And because of this impulse I find it’s far more important to discuss it than what took place in Nazi Germany. Growing up I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and being told stories of World War II, and learning of the Holocaust and the travesties of book burnings, but growing up I never really learned much about the real travesties facing African Americans. I learned about slavery, I read some books about Jim Crow, but no one had ever taught me about the fact that even libraries could deny people access to books. It seems ridiculous now that such a practice would be allowed to exists, especially in a country that prizes freedom of the individual above everything else, but this idea of open literacy is one that has been noted before.
In his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass relates how the mistress of the plantation that he worked taught him to read and write. The scene has become iconic in its own right, and the passage remains one of the most powerful portions in the book, for amidst the physical pains slaves were expected to suffer through, Douglass notes how powerful was the punishment of illiteracy. His master discovered these lessons and noted:
“Now,” said he, “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. (338).
Reading this passage, I was reminded of the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa explains to Homer why intelligence is making him sad. She simply says, “As intelligent increases, happiness tends to decrease.” This same idea was expressed in an episode of SpongeBob where Patrick’s head is accidently replaced with brain coral and he becomes hyper-intelligent. While these are both cartoon examples they still feel terribly relevant as I look over Battles’s book, and this small passage from Douglass’s memoir. Moving past the cartoon reality towards our own the lesson does remain valid. Reading regularly makes one aware of the world and how it operates. It’s unfortunate but true that when one educates oneself, one begins to learn that people in society can cruel, apathetic, and lazy in general. That knowledge can sometimes make one feel isolated, and isolation is one of the roads to depression.
Battles’s doesn’t exactly help as he points out further:
Black colleges often had made their library resources available to the community, and they sometimes trained librarians for public library service. But even in those states most amply furnished with libraries, public accommodations of blacks was nearly nonexistent. George for instance, had fifty-three libraries in 1936, only five of which served blacks; out of forty-four public libraries in Florida, blacks could use four. (183).
My reader may at this point wonder why they should bother with the book. If it’s nothing but a long history of the terrible things that have happened through libraries, along with the history of how libraries have grown and changed over time, why they should they care? This is an age of e-books, blogs, facebook, twitter, and reality television. What relevance does a library have?
This is a fair point, especially given the fact that I’m writing for a blog. My writings here will almost certainly never appear in print, so how or why should somebody care about a library?
To this question I answer, from my own experience working in a library, that even if society is moving to a paperless milieu, that society will still require some means of organizing, compiling, and arranging those materials in such a way so that the common public can access them. And Battles himself argues such:
The bibliographer of the digital age returns to the revelatory practice of her medieval forebears. Librarains, like those scribes of the Middle Ages, do not merely keep and classify texts; they create them, too, in the form of online finding aids, CD-ROM concordances, and other electronic texts, not to mention paper study guides and published bibliographies. Digital texts have followed the same deeply grooved arc of other forms of writing. […] Already we call our databases and online catalogs “digital objects”—a reflection, perhaps, of our nostalgia for the dusty physicality of our books[…]. (211)
Rather than leave the reader with some sentiment about the idea that books will last forever, or that there will always be some kind of physical record, my lasting impression of Battles’s book was the idea that libraries exist to ensure there is a space where human beings find information. The library is not just a dusty building full of books, but as Battles’s books demonstrates it’s a highly political space where the negative actions of human society, whether it be war, genocide, racism, sexism, classicism, etc. can all, and very quickly, usurp the space polluting the original idea of what that space was supposed to be.
And, if I can play with the abstract a little bit here, Battles’s book is a highly readable history about the idea of what libraries actually were. What were their focus, how did technology change their approach to collecting and gathering information, how did power and economics influence these decisions, how have they survived and protected information in the face of political and physical violence towards their space, and finally how do the people who subscribe to the idea of the library try to defend and shape that space to their own ideals?
Library: An Unquiet History may sound at first like an abstract, academic book but that’s only because I’m a shit writer who gets wrapped up in his own head when he writes. This book was good, damn good reading, because even people who couldn’t give three diddly fucks about the history of libraries could come away from the reading with a bounty of information and something to give a passing shit about. In an age when we have to defend the very existence of the libraries themselves it speaks to the power of a book, and its writer, that it could pull off such a miracle.
All quotes from Library: An Unquiet History comes from the paperback W.W. Norton Edition. All quotes from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass comes from the Signet paperback copy of The Classic Slaves Narratives edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.