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‘The Meaning of the Library’ Goes Beyond Mere Bricks and Mortar

Despite their apparent tidiness, libraries are also formidably entropic spaces, messy jungles, with their own undergrounds.

The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History is a collection of academic essays (initially conceived of as lectures) about one place. But despite its unifying title, the book is not about one ideal, unique or abstract library, let alone ‘the library’. Rather like the place it documents, it contains many real and imaginary rooms, many entwined layers of time and space.

The essays are organised chronologically, beginning with Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries and ending with the vague library of the future, buzzing with its cortege of ‘librarian-curators’ and electronic librarians. Yet, for all its appearances of order, the book has no beginning and no end: it should be read at random. The best way of entering it is, indeed, to pick a chapter at random, to explore it slowly and thoroughly, allow yourself to get dizzy on detailed impressions, which are like the intricate fabric of knowledge – precious, important material laced with wonderfully futile flourishes. After all, in their original forms of lectures, these essays did not follow any explicit organisation (as the original schedule of the King James Library Lectures testifies).

The Meaning of the Library was composed by British and North-American scholars: librarians, literary theorists, cultural historians. It’s a series of encounters with spaces, of various intensities, where the library does not claim to be anything but ‘a kaleidoscope image, forever nudged into new versions with each turn of the cylinder; a concept endlessly and energetically reinventing itself’ (as Alice Crawford, the editor, writes in her introduction). The anthology effectively captures the fractured images of one thousand libraries, appropriated, redeemed from the rubble of centuries, lived in or dreamt of, in bliss or in ordinary boredom.

Some accounts display a grey, matter-of-fact, informative and impersonal expertise (John P. Wilkin). Others work like fiction in themselves, as intimate and evocative vignettes (Marina Warner, Robert Crawford). One of the most arresting case-studies is perhaps’ Stephen Enniss’ article on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s manuscripts, which retraces the responsibility of libraries as collectors and curators of modern literature.

I imagine that only casual and (as it were) disinterested lovers of libraries – writers, poets, children and flâneurs – can truly dream of them. Actual librarians are perhaps more subdued and less spectacular as they write; they have an intimate, working knowledge of the library as a real world. Libraries yield their own tedium and ennui for librarians. They are administrative bastions, heavily regulated and monitored. But despite their apparent tidiness, libraries are also formidably entropic spaces, messy jungles, with their own undergrounds; books are curated and ‘weeded’, semi-secretly discarded or sold, sometimes even destroyed.

Of course the ‘library’ is too immense a place to fit comfortably into a single book: how could the place of all books be contrived in one book alone? Those interested in libraries will certainly peruse the abundant bibliography provided at the end of the book, to which I would add two obsolete yet powerful findings: Frederick Harrison’s wonderful A Book About Books (1943), and its lovingly-written depictions of monastic libraries and medieval book-collecting expeditions, and Ernest Savage’s A Librarian’s Memories (1952).

As the authors underline in their chapters, the idea of an organised record of knowledge has preoccupied humanity for centuries. It certainly lies at the core of Judeo-Christian cultures. There are other ways of conceiving of knowledge, other forms of cultural transmission (this famous, and famously resonant, African proverb came back to me: When an old man dies, a library burns). There are, also, other kinds of libraries than the ones consistently and expertly depicted in the book.

For example, Richard Brautigan’s fictional Library for Unpublished Works, described in The Abortion: An Historical Romance (1966), would have deserved a mention. This imaginary library, gathering amateur work, self-published material, handwritten novels and beginners’ outpourings, actually materialised in the Brautigan Library, currently hosted by the Clark County Historical Museum (Vancouver, Washington).

I think that dreams of libraries – utopias — matter as much as established libraries of brick and mortar. For they tell us something about different forms of knowledge and alternative heritages (such as Glasgow Women’s Libry or the Salford Zine Library in the UK). Now is the time to realise and celebrate the importance of those smaller and unique archives, those repositories of radical or marginalised yet crucial voices.

RATING 7 / 10