My own love affair with libraries began, as it surely does for most booklovers, as a child. I was lucky enough to have had a mother who carted me off once a week to the public library where, after I got over my initial awe, I soon dreamed of being able some day to read all the books in the building. Those early years were all about the romance of the library, and it continued during my undergraduate years when I fell in love with the Dana Porter Library at the University of Waterloo. I spent many summer hours reading books outside on its steps and snowy winter afternoons tucked away on a cozy upper floor. I came to know well its literature shelves, its history shelves—even its government documents and newspapers sections. Then there was the music room, where I first heard Shakespeare on vinyl, before passing on to jazz and swing and classical music. Pursuing subsequent degrees, I enjoyed every other university library I found myself in: Western, McMaster, Toronto, and York. Those buildings and their contents shaped my mind, character, interests, and psyche. Ultimately, my romance with books and libraries in general was so uncompromising that I had only one real option in terms of a career—to become a librarian.
You can understand, then, why Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night was a must-read for library lovers like me. It’s a brilliant book, full of exotic scholarship and evocative writing. Essentially, it’s a romance whose star is Manguel’s private library in his home in France. It’s housed in a restored building that was erected in the fifteenth century and served at one time as a barn for the village priest. Appropriately, the architect who drew up plans for converting it into Manguel’s library insisted that traditional methods be used to reconstruct the space; he hired only masons who were familiar with local stone and centuries old construction methods. Manguel recounts the fascination of watching these masons restore the structure stone by stone—and speculates over their discovery of two windows that had been bricked up in the old wall. One was a “slim embrasure from which archers perhaps defended Tristan l’Hermite’s son when his angry peasants revolted; the other is a low square window protected by medieval iron bars cut roughly into stems with drooping leaves. From these windows, during the day, I can see my neighbour’s chickens hurry from one corner of the compound to another, pecking at this spot and at that, driven frantic by too many offerings, like demented scholars in a library….”
At night, however, all is transformed. For Manguel, his newly completed library, “with the windows lit and the rows of books glittering” becomes a “closed space” and its own universe complete with rules that “replace or translate those of the shapeless universe beyond.”
Of course, The Library at Night is not restricted to the place that holds the books Manguel himself spent a half century collecting. It’s also about other libraries—both those that only exist now through their descriptions in books, and those which Manguel himself has actually visited in his lifetime. He was so enamoured of them that he even considered crossing the divide that separates amateur from professional: “In my foolhardy youth, when my friends were dreaming of heroic deeds in the realms of engineering and law, finance and national politics,” he writes, “I dreamt of becoming a librarian. Sloth and an ill-restrained fondness for travel decided otherwise.”
If Manguel actually had become a librarian, he would certainly have had his views modified; most particularly he’d have had to confront the reality that that there is more to a library than bricks and mortar and the love of books. At one point he writes: “A library is an evergrowing entity, it multiplies seemingly unaided, it reproduces itself by purchase, theft, borrowings, gifts, by suggested gaps through association, by demanding completion of sorts.” This may be true, but there’s another side to the matter. Libraries also are what they are in large part because of the unseen army of people who work there, who make decisions on a daily basis on mundane things such as how to use funds and what to buy with them, or what goes—quite literally—into the garbage and what doesn’t. The very future of reading and scholarship depends upon such decisions.
In my own library, for example, we recently endured a small flood (the result of a burst pipe) which damaged a number of books. Staff spent days identifying the books that were wet and then went about the work of quarantining them to prevent a mold infestation from reaching the rest of the collection. But after that physical task was done, as we pondered shelf after sodden shelf, hard choices had to be made as to which books would (or could) be saved and which books wouldn’t. These were decisions that had to be made with the faculty and the university as a whole in mind—who was doing what kinds of research, how had the faculty’s research strengths changed over the last few decades, which collections should the library focus on, and which should it let go? Which books really ought a Canadian law school library like ours to have, as a matter of course, on its shelves, and what could it do without? Was there, in any case, a possibility of replacing books that were too damaged? Which of them might still be available through used book stores and which might we never find again? Such behind-the-scenes questions and considerations, not only during that day, but all the time, are as much what make a library what it is as the bricks and mortar.
Manguel, of course, is very much aware of the struggles of books to survive. “Like the Dead Sea scrolls,” he notes, “like every book that has come down to us from the hands of distant readers, each of my books holds the history of its survival. From fire, water, the passage of time, neglectful readers and the hand of the censor, each of my books has escaped to tell me its story.” Though, in fact, the survival stories of books are often quite unromantic. They’re not about being smuggled secretly out of some country in chaos, or rescued from the Inquisition or some natural disaster. More often than not, theirs is the more commonplace tale of faulty plumbing overcome, of wise decisions reversing bad decisions, of wise careful stewardship countering years of careless direction.
Indeed, it’s true that the care and attention put into a collection by one generation after another of librarians over hundreds of years can be wiped out by a group who either has no regard for books, or who might have no understanding of what, ideally, should be the nature of the collection. Against such delinquent behaviour, Manguel cites the French scholar, Gabriel Naudé who in 1627 in his Advice for Setting Up a Library wrote, “there exists no book, however bad or badly reviewed, that may not be sought after in some future time by a certain reader.” It is a counsel that is not always heeded, and there is no librarian who has not regretted, at one time in his or her career, having thrown something out that is later needed by a patron and is no longer replaceable.
This raises an important matter in libraries today. Consider the movement to throw out print copies of journals or newspapers and subscribe to them electronically, so that they are no longer the property of the library. I don’t want to get into a litany of worries here, but librarians are understandably nervous about the idea that rather than building the type of academic collections we’ve had in the past, we are now becoming renters rather than owners of information. Also, anyone who has ever used one of these databases knows that they are often incomplete—charts or other graphics necessary to the understanding of a piece, for example, are frequently absent. Electronic content does not always mirror the print.
Yet in Canada, academic libraries are now buying “packages” of electronic journals together as a group (“consortial purchasing”) from publishers in order to save money on subscription costs. This is double-edged sword. While libraries do save money and have access to more journals than they did in the past, more and more academic libraries are beginning to look alike: the equivalent of an academic McDonald’s with the same menu from town to town. Oliver Wendell Holmes, says Manguel, suggested that, “Every library should try to be complete on something, if it were only the history of pinheads.” Librarians today see just the reverse happening; the features that once made individual libraries unique and worth visiting are being filed down and replaced with one flat line across the country.
Manguel is right to conclude the computer will never replace the library, and the internet will not replace its contents. “The web,” he notes, “will not be the container of our cosmopolitan past, like a book, because it is not a book, and will never be a book, in spite of the endless gadgets and guises invented to force it into that role.” The web is different from a library because it stresses “velocity over reflection and brevity over complexity, preferring snippets of news and bytes of fact over lengthy discussions and elaborate dossiers, and by diluting informed opinion with reams of inane babble, ineffectual advice, inaccurate facts and trivial information…” Someone once remarked that the internet is like a library with all the books dumped on the floor. But even that is much too flattering. In a real library, such as mine, the vast majority of books have at least been written by experts; they have gone through fact-checking and editing and proofreading at a multitude of publishing houses; they are authoritative. So little of what is on the internet can claim any such pedigree.
I mentioned above that it takes an army of people to make a great or even a good library. When books are properly shelved, when new and relevant books appear on them in a timely way, when classification systems make sense, when weeding is judiciously carried out, people in that library are doing their job. Today, that job has become harder and harder to accomplish. The financial screws in libraries are being tightened. “The love of libraries,” says Manguel, “like most loves, must be learned. No one stepping for the first time into a room made of books can know instinctively how to behave, what is expected, what is promised, what is allowed. One may be overcome by horror—at the vastness, the stillness, the mocking reminder of everything one doesn’t know, the surveillance—and some overwhelming feeling may cling on, even after the rituals and conventions are learned, the geography mapped, the natives found friendly.”
Most academics, as well as bibliophiles like Manguel, have come to know and love libraries. But I suspect most of the former don’t quite understand the threats facing these institutions today. The cuts that are being made to budgets and staffing will mean changes, and not for the better, in how these repositories of all so much that is invaluable in a university will function in the not-too-distant future.
Not that the effects will be felt equally in all libraries. The law library I work in has nine employees (including me). At the other end of the scale, Harvard’s law library has close to one hundred. Of the nine in my library, only one and a half are librarians at the moment. Harvard has more than 30. If a law librarian at Harvard is off on vacation or at home with an illness for any length of time, I can’t imagine anyone would notice. At my library, any absence, either of librarians or staff, has a noticeable effect on service. I marvel at how close to the bone we are and how we can still soldier on. I also know we can’t go on like this forever
Manguel’s book is a love story, a wonderful Harlequin romance for library lovers and highly recommended.
But like most romances, it has no “what happens when the honeymoon is over” stuff to spoil the mood. For professionals who work in academic libraries in Canada today, the honeymoon has been over for some time. I already have a strong foreboding that the series of cuts already underway in most libraries, is the beginning of that final “whittling away”—of staff, of resources, of dedication to the very institution itself until we become not that much different from a drivethrough restaurant where the meals are pre-cooked and all that’s required is a lone staff member and a computer at the kiosk. I doubt too many of those who love libraries will want to stay in the profession if things turn out that way.
Nancy McCormack is head of the law library and assistant professor of law at the Lederman Law Library, Queen’s University