Brain Pickings

An Unquiet History of Libraries and Navigating Knowledge, from Alexandria to the Internet

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“…texts, fabrics to be shredded and woven together in new combinations and patterns…”

Everything in the world exists to end up in a book,” the French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé famously proclaimed.

My mother was formally trained in library science and although she went into computer software instead, her academic bequest always instilled in me a profound respect for these institutions. (From which the New York Public Library benefits with regular donations.) A great library doesn’t just contain knowledge, it kindles knowledge — getting lost in its endless corridors of curiosity, you inevitably find yourself. In Library: An Unquiet History (public library), a fine companion to Books: A Living History, Harvard rare books librarian Matthew Battles traces the survival and destruction of information, from Alexandria to the internet. But besides the fascinating history, Battles paints a loving, layered portrait of the universal library itself, both as a sanctuary of culture and a pragmatic mechanism for knowledge-wielding.

The library … is no mere cabinet of curiosities; it’s a world, complete and completable, and it is filled with secrets. Like a world, it has its changes and its seasons, which belie the permanence that ordered ranks of books imply. Tugged by the gravity of readers’ desires, books flow in and out of the library like the tides. The people who shelve the books in [Harvard's] Widener talk about the library’s breathing — at the start of the term, the stacks exhale books in great swirling clouds; at the end of term, the library inhales, and the books fly back. So the library is a body, too, the pages of books pressed together like organs in the darkness.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, ca. 1566

How alluring a library is, with its promise of a blueprint to the totality of the world:

In the stacks of the library … I have the distinct impression that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience: that they make not a model for but a model of the universe.

But in the very notion of the universal library, with its diverse and seemingly infinite selection of information about the world, lies a dangerous implicit bias:

There’s a reductive danger in this fantasy: for if the world can be compressed into a library, then why not into a single book — why not into a single word?

Columbia’s Stuart Firestein touches on this in his excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science, suggesting that when a hungry-eyed college student is a handed a mammoth science textbook that makes Darwin’s The Origin of Species look like a pamphlet by comparison, it’s easy for the young mind to assume the book contains all the answers. But science, like all meaningful knowledge, is about the questions and the relationships between facts, not about the answers and the accumulation of facts.

Indeed, the very rate at which a library accumulates information — “The Library of Congress, the world’s largest universal library, each day adds some 7,000 books to the more than 100 million items already standing on its 530 miles of shelves” — makes it all the more important to understand its role not as a repository of facts but as an orienteering system for knowledge. As such, it also serves to de-fetishize books:

In the universal library … books are not treated as precious and crystalline essences … Instead, they are texts, fabrics to be shredded and woven together in new combinations and patterns. Like the stars in the sky or the flowers of Linnaeus, they are not to be praised for particular influences or qualities; they must be counted and classified before they may be desired.

In a very urgent sense, the same could of course be said of the internet — which is, in fact, the world’s true “largest universal library” — and the idea that in order for us to access, or desire, what’s technically accessible, we must first know of its existence and its position within our framework of meaningful information. But among the layers of meaning that separate physical books from the web, Battles reminds us, are their embodied histories:

Brought together in multitudes, heaped up and pared down, read and forgotten, library books take on lives and histories of their own, not as texts but as physical objects in the world.

But that physicality is also the source of navigational weakness. Battles cites the prominent American librarian Edmund Lester Pearson’s 1909 lament about library card catalogs, which remains as relevant today:

Almost any day in any large library their fearful influence may be observed. Dozens of harrowed individuals are seen trying to think whether the name of Thomas De Quincy will be found in the drawer marked De or that labelled Qu. Then they make the choice — always wrong — and are seen, with pain only too apparent on their brows, dashing off to the other drawer…

(This reminded me of another fantastic book, Everything Is Miscellaneous (public library), which examines the advantage bits have over atoms in being better able to harness the multiplicity of meaning implicit to all objects and information, and thus to create better infrastructure for organizing the world. In the case of bits, that Thomas De Quincy book would appear in both the search results under “De” and those under “Qu.”)

Still, the library remains a formidable force of culture. Take, for instance, Harvard’s own Widener Library, where Battles works:

Endowed by the grieving mother of Harry Elkins Widener, a Harvard graduate and bibliophile who went down with the Titanic, Widener is the Great Unsinkable Library. Its ten levels contain fifty-seven miles of shelves, enough to hold some 4.6 million bound volumes, give or take a few. The shelves are great armatures of forged iron that carry the weight of the building; the library quite literally is supported by its books. Peopled not only with librarians, patrons, and professors but also with carpenters, couriers, cooks, accountants, student and part-time book shelvers, webmasters, network administrators, and human resource consultants, it is the city-state at the center of a confederacy of Harvard’s ninety-odd school and departmental collections, totaling some 14 million volumes; taken together, they make up the largest academic library the world has ever known.

Library: An Unquiet History goes on to explore how libraries are built and destroyed, celebrated and vilified — from the decay of the Library of Alexandria, the ancient world’s largest and most significant repository of knowledge, to the third-century book burnings of Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi in an effort to erase history, to the 20th-century destruction of libraries in Eastern Europe, but also Julius Cesar’s championing of the library movement in Ancient Rome, the Jewish library in the Vilna ghetto during WWII that served as social glue for a community under attack, the making of the great British Museum library. At its heart, the book is above all a celebration of mankind’s ceaseless quest to quench curiosity and organize knowledge — a quest all the more timely, yet more overwhelming, in an era when our collective “library” has swelled into the world wide web, the largest information system humanity has ever known.

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