There are countless articles listing examples of the ‘most beautiful libraries in the world’. All are utterly spectacular, and show what pride communities have in these repositories of shared wisdom. Even the personal libraries we harbour at home gather value and significance as we add to them over the years: in Erasmus’ words, “Your library is your paradise”.
There’s an inspiring book by Susan Hill, Howard’s End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from home, in which she determines to read only the books on her shelves for a year: the never-read, the forgotten, those she wishes to reread. I certainly could spend decades of years with the volumes on my shelves! Each has its own history of acquisition:
+ The inherited – my father’s old school editions, stacks of history of art books from my mother…
+ The gifts – so thoughtfully chosen. How better to express your care for someone by sharing your favourites or knowing them well enough to pick something they’d like?
+ The filched – mainly from family members, including Penguin Classics, exhibition catalogues, reference books…
+ The memorialising – where I can so clearly remember the context of reading or purchasing. A trip to the Lake District with my partner, for example, splitting the cost of an irresistible edition of John Keats sonnets.
+ The never-read – what the Japanese call tsundoku, ‘piling up books to read later that are never returned to’. Often these are the most beautiful ones, bought on an aesthetic whim. I become guilty like the thousands William Cowper berates, who “kiss the book’s outside, who never looked within”.
I have alphabetised my poetry books; university books are in loose chronological periods; the others grouped vaguely by content or theme. My bookcase as a child wasn’t just a storage for books, but a space in itself to create stories: incongruous juxtapositions and explosions of shape and colour fomenting weird imaginings.
Librarians would recoil from such a haphazard arrangement technique; their institutions depend upon standard classification systems for easy searching and retrieval. I was grimly introduced to the Dewey Decimal System while working at the local library during holidays: ‘821’ stands for ‘English Poetry’, for instance. It all seemed so unromantic and precise.
This tension between the wild contents and how to chain them to the shelves (literally, in medieval times) is just part of the conflicting nature of ‘the library’ itself. The outward-looking: an ambitious quest for knowledge and civic improvement, epitomised by the Ancient Library of Alexandria. The inward-looking: efficient monitoring and maintenance. Providing access to everyone: the remit of our public libraries where all are welcome if not to borrow, then at least to browse. Limited public access: custodians protecting works, safely removed, such as in prestigious private collections. Reflecting the community’s memory: immortalising certain works deemed intrinsic to a shared culture. Shaping that memory: restrictively controlling, where what’s omitted is doomed to oblivion.
It’s a fine balance, and each library must choose priorities – even more so in this extraordinary time of shift with dramatic funding cuts and closures.
The Internet, of course, has brought its own abundance of opportunities and challenges. The explosion of digital information, which defies being collected and recorded, has eerie parallels with Jorge Luis Borges’ construct of ‘The Total Library’, where all possible texts exist through infinite combinations of 29 basic characters (26 letters, full stop, comma and space), creating results both meaningful and meaningless:
The vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wilderness of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.
Universities and institutions have been doing a masterful job at digitising their collections and providing electronic resources. There are options for multimedia, such as recordings and videos, which work particularly well with poetry. You can browse extremely rare and special editions never before accessible: such as William Blake’s diary or William Caxton’s first edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
It’s breathtaking. And yet, of course, these online options are missing something: the ‘digital’ that appeals to our digits. Emily Dickinson captures it splendidly:
A precious, mouldering pleasure ’t is
To meet an antique book,
In just the dress his century wore;
A privilege, I think,
His venerable hand to take,
And warming in our own,
A passage back, or two, to make
To times when he was young.
His presence is enchantment,
You beg him not to go;
Old volumes shake their vellum heads
And tantalize, just so.
The tangible presence of so many “antique book[s]” each offering a “venerable hand” to whisk us away is what makes libraries so powerful and enchanting. All those ‘auras’ housed under one roof! Aimless browsing provides fruitful scope for serendipity: as Geoffrey Hill explained in one of his Oxford Professor of Poetry lectures:
Serendipity works by the rule that the book which is to change your life stands next on the shelf to the book that you had intended to take out from the library, and which as often as not (the book you had wanted I mean) turns out to be a dud.
So how can libraries continue to change and impact our lives? The founding principle to provide “the best reading for the greatest number at the least cost” must alter. Libraries are becoming more creative in providing other services: events and readings, exhibitions, learning and participation, publishing. Certain libraries are becoming more specialised, while private collections steadily grow, ideally with increasing access. The Wormsley Library, owned by the Getty family, is a treasure-trove, with its focus on ‘the art of the book’. Like others, it offers open days, group tours and opportunities for hire. See a small gallery of images here: http://wormsleyestate.com/gallery/library-gallery.html
Thankfully, there remain vibrant centres for poetry, such as the Scottish Poetry Library (about to reopen after a major renovation) and the Saison Poetry Library at London’s Southbank Centre. Both offer an astonishing amount more than just a physical space. The Poetry Archive is an online resource, filled with recordings of poets reading their work: “to help make poetry accessible, relevant and enjoyable to a wide audience”. Not to mention all the smaller-scale initiatives such as The Itinerant Poetry Library, which travels the world with a free public library: “For free, for everyone, and for everywhere, or at least, everywhere we can get to.”
So, gone may be the days when a wealthy steel magnate like Andrew Carnegie might spend over $56 million constructing 2,507 library buildings across the world. The paradise each library offers continues to be threatened. But it is heartening to see the support and ingenuity of campaigns to keep libraries alive. In Neil Gaiman’s impassioned words, “libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication … Libraries really are the gates to the future.”
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
– Book XII, Paradise Lost