Last Friday saw me take the train to Reading where I gave a paper at an enjoyable colloquium on Libraries: New Research Directions, organised by Rebecca Bullard under the aegis of her University’s Early Modern Research Centre. My contribution was on ‘How Libraries Die, or what the fate of medieval manuscripts in early modern England can teach us’ but I do not intend here to bore you with a reprise of my discussion of the decline and demise of the Library of the University of Oxford and its wider significance. What is surely more interesting was the colloquial element of the day itself, the development of the discussion around varying concepts of libraries.
In particular, the discussion was framed by Matthew Nicholls’ opening distinction between the library as a store-house and the ancient bibliothecae of which he spoke as points of communication. My own talk saw the library more in the role of the former and – developing thoughts inspired by an earlier conference on the Medieval Library – I emphasised how books lived beyond the walls of the rectangular, first-floor room which was the conventional library; indeed, how, in some circumstances, it was only by being beyond those walls that they could survive. The axiom I presented was that a library is where books come to rest, not where they are alive. The final discussion, ably chaired by Warren Boutcher, returned to these issues with one participant mentioning that, in the educational library he is cataloguing, he comes across eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books which remain uncut: what does this tell us about the workings of that library? Are these books dead or sleeping? An impassioned response was that an unread book is a book waiting for its reader – and it is that insight which has set me thinking further.
The unread book in the role of Sleeping Beauty has its allure but I do wonder whether it is a concept reflective of a consciousness born of mechanised mass book-production – a consciousness, then, which became possible in the later generations of print technology. The proposition that I want to put to you is that the assumption that the library is a place where books wait for their readers involves a narrow conception of what the book is.
Let me first have your agreement that we all know of texts that are too ephemeral or too personal for reading – for instance, the diary with ‘Do NOT Read’ on its first page (which, of course, stands as an encouragement to furtive perusal if ever there was one). A diary, of course, is not intended to be housed in a library, though if fame falls on the unfortunate shoulders of the author, it may end up there.
If, though, we allow the possibility that a book can be intended not to be read, we then begin thinking about what might its purpose be: it must surely lie not in what happens after it is completed but in the process of its creation. To put this in historical terms, in manuscript culture, in the midst of the processes of fabricating a book – the preparation of the parchment, the stitching of the leaves and the binding them – there was necessarily an extended session of intellectual engagement when the strokes of ink deposited on the animal skin created a text endowed with sense by its creator. We might sometimes wish that that intellectual engagement was greater – there were too many sloppy scribes but their work can sometimes be the only witness we have to a text. Here is a central point: a work could be produced without a thought to its wider circulation. It may be intended only for the author’s edification; it may be created in one copy for presentation to a potential patron (in which case the canny author would not put too much hope in the thought that the patron would actually peruse the work: only a fool thinks princes read books) or its ideal readership might be God alone. The process of creation was sufficient in itself; if we are looking to associate the book with reading, we can find it integral to every act of production. The movement of the codex and its coming to rest in a library could be seen, in this context, as its afterlife. By its presence in a library, further reading became a possibility, not an expectation – an added bonus, if it were.
I should nuance this in two ways. It is certainly the case that authors in manuscript culture did not necessarily lack a concept of publication – and some authors (I think, from the fifteenth century, of John Capgrave and John Whethamstede) combined the practices of producing what we can call the singular and the plural book (I leave aside the middle possibility where text is intended for a tightly limited local audience). However, publication – that process of multiple production and intentional circulation by author or a promoter – rarely centred on the physical space that European tradition defines as a library. Individual scholars might visit books in one of those rooms, rattle their chains and make a transcript from a copy resident there, but that is a process we would define as closer to research than publication. In some cases for which I have evidence, it would seem that a transcript was made from the library volume and then multiple versions made from that copy (the Virtue and Vice compilation about which I have talked in print is useful evidence for this) – not philological good practice, for sure, but a case where the object in the library can seen as the originator of a tradition, but only at one remove.
The second way in which I should nuance what I have said is by acknowledging that the dynamics of print did not immediately and entirely wipe clean the mentality of bespoke production: many early print-runs were not large-scale nor were they driven by economic speculation but occurred in the relative security of sponsored publication.
It may, then, only be with the mass production of books which appears to distance writer from written page that the sense of book-making as reading has evaporated. And we should not be too hasty to read this as a gain: mass production can be over-production in which the economics mean it is cheap to supply a surplus of volumes and then cheaper not to store them but to declare them obsolete and pulp them. In this context, the library book becomes the lucky survivor, and the library the safe haven where the book can have a life. There again, as my talk on Friday suggested, we should not be too certain all libraries are truly safe.
I am out of touch with the times. To those who know me that much has been clear for many years but it has only struck home with me in recent months. Over a decade ago, when I was teaching at Mansfield, the Librarian would thank me if I reprimanded a reader who was found in the library showing such numb-skulled disrespect to books that they had brought in something to drink. Now, when I step into the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (which, in my imagination, remains a timeless haven for protecting learning) and see so many desks adorned with plastic bottles and watch readers swigging water from them, I have to restrain myself from breaking the silence with a call to the custodians who, I still assume, would rush to catch these culprits who have so clearly infringed the spirit if not the letter of the Bodleian oath that they should be summarily escorted from the hallowed premises, divested of their University Card and advised to leave Oxford with all their belongings on the first train.
But, of course, they are not culprits, as the Reading Room staff patiently explained to me when I remonstrated with them a few months back: the rules were changed in 2011. The previous ban on all food and drink was, so to speak, watered down to allow water in the reading rooms. And, as the staff went on, it has proved very popular (popular, I wanted to shout, but saving the Library’s patrimony for future generations is not about seeking fleeting popularity). They provided the ‘lesser evil’ defence: there had been readers who wanted to bring in tea or coffee or cola, and so, confining them only to water was some sort of success. I asked the staff why water was so much better than other drinks; they guessed the reason was that it would not stain, which made me wonder whether it would be acceptable to bring in white but not brown spirits, vodka but not brandy, mother’s ruin but not the water of life.
I am not, however, writing this to be a grumpy Ciceronian, declaiming ‘o tempora, o mores’; my palpitations have subsided. The purpose of these paragraphs is not to condemn but to understand, for I sense there is here a cultural change that deserves to be analysed and understood. When I was an undergraduate twenty – sorry, twenty-five – years ago, very few students would have thought that taking water into the Bodleian could be acceptable. A delight of owning a book was that you could do what you wanted with it: you could have it at your desk and have a cup or glass to hand, something you could not contemplate doing in the college library, let alone in the Bodleian with its national status as a copyright collection.
It was not considered either acceptable or, for that matter, necessary: my impressionistic memory is that water was drunk far less often than it is a couple of decades later. Perhaps I am misremembering or post-dating the development. After all, the internal design of the British Library on Euston Road, opened in 1997, included plentiful water fountains, though, again, my impression is that they began as something of a curiosity and have become more of a welcome feature. I will not speculate on reasons for the apparent life-style change, beyond noting that the dietician’s advice to drink H2O regularly seems even to inform the Bodleian’s new reading room rule, which reads: ‘Remember that water is permitted in the reading room…’. It is an injunction that seems not just to condone but to encourage water-drinking in the library.
But how does this arrangement accord with the Bodleian oath that I remember reading aloud as a Fresher in 1987? What is usually remembered is the phrase about not kindling flame, but that is a specific injunction within a more general prohibition about not defacing or damaging books in any way. And, as William Blades wrote in the nineteenth century, ‘next to fire, we must rank water … as the greatest destroyer of books’. It could be fairly retorted that he had in mind primarily loss of volumes at sea, to which should be added the destructive power of floods: not for nothing is the traditional library built on the first floor, not at ground level. In comparison to the quantity of liquid that causes the calamities of drowning or flooding, it might be said, the water students bring into the Bodleian is a mere puddle. It might be added that with the teats through which most imbibe soft drinks now, the danger of spillage is minimised (you will note that the reading room rule talks only of water without specifying how it is carried, allowing the possibility of it being in a paper cup or a glass or – like the farmer presenting his meagre gift to Artaxerxes – in cupped hands, but other information shows that the Library’s expectation is that the water will be bottled. Whether it could be San Pellegrino held in green glass is not made transparent, if you pardon the pun). The danger of spillage may be minimised, but it is still there; even if a litre and a half would not turn pages to papier-mâché, it could cause the sort of damage Bodley’s oath is intended to guard against happening. Perhaps, though, we have become purblind to this; perhaps we are culturally conditioned to downplay the possibility of water as one of what Blades called the enemies of books. What I have in mind is less the benign nature of water at a time when we perceive it to be increasingly scarce but, rather, the association that our western modern living has created between the destruction of books and burning, something about which I have talked elsewhere. Beside the power, etched in our cultural memories, of fire pales all other destructive forces.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that it is not all the Bodleian’s rooms which are as insouciant about the presence of drink. Go down the few steps from the Upper Reading Room into the Arts End of the old library and the notice at the entrance into Duke Humfrey’s, complete with graceless cartoon graphics, states boldly that ‘no food or drink (including water bottles) are allowed [sic] in this reading room’. Duke Humfrey’s has been lamentably denuded of its status as the prime location for manuscript consultation but it still has a certain aura of the inner sanctum – indeed, the distinction between reading rooms as watering holes, on the one hand, and spaces of scholarship where full abstinence is required, on the other, is surely increasing that divide. It also, of course, assumes a gradation in the books themselves – those that can be consulted in one of the general spaces being considered less valuable or, perhaps, more dispensable than those that are confined to places like Duke Humfrey’s. Whether a legal deposit library should promote such a distinction when all its collection needs protecting for posterity is, of course, a wider debate.
That a process of gradation exists could be seen as an admission of failure: an inability to protect all so the inner bastions become the line of defence. Even there barbarians might lurk: we should not be too dewy-eyed about Duke Humfrey’s as a special haven when Judith Loades can remind us of the time in the 1970s that Margaret Crum happened upon a reader in the room with a Thermos flask of tomato soup. If policing a collection has been a perennial concern, it may shed a different light on the decision to soften the rules about no food and drink in the library. I mentioned that the staff used the ‘lesser evil’ defence. One can imagine that argument being made in starker form: if readers do not feel comfortable in the library, they may either not use it (which would be their loss, not the Bodleian’s) or, worse, abuse it by stealing books from it. The possibility of water-damage to some volumes might then be calculated to be a risk worth taking if it reduced the rate of theft. If, though, that was in the authorities’ thinking, it suggests a deeper malaise: what standards of comfort are these? A reader needs to be able sit painlessly and to read without straining their eyes – but why has the requirement for acceptable seating and adequate lighting been supplemented by an insistence on being able to hydrate oneself?
The answer surely lies in expectations imported from other libraries and from new technology. Students’ experience of other libraries can make the absence of water seem a deprivation: after all, most if not all Oxford college libraries now allow bottles in, often on the basis that as they are open 24 hours they cannot stop it happening. What is more, one can e-mail, one can check Facebook, one can text in a reading room, so why should not one be able to fulfil a bodily need for liquid there? I sometimes regret the ability to be on the internet in the library – I am nostalgic for the times when it was a place where you were beyond communication, a hiding-place from the demands of every-day life – but, of course, I could not work without the resources it provides. My point is that the new connectivity has broken down walls in ways which sets new challenges for libraries like the Bodleian. It is not just barriers to learning that have been removed; the separation of ‘library’ from other, mundane space has been reduced as the outside world seeps into the reading room through the computer screen. Perhaps, indeed, the increasing need to make distinctions between reading rooms is a result of this logic, a need to internalise differences within the library where it previously existed between library and beyond.
Water in the library dilutes the space: it is a symptom of how the stone walls have become porous. I am not suggesting that the fabric of Schools Quad will suffer the fate of Jericho before the trumpets of Joshua. Thomas Bodley chose for his library the motto ‘quarta perennis’ – the fourth will last forever, where the previous three libraries of the University of Oxford, the mythical one of Alfred’s and the more real ones of Bishop Cobham and Humfrey, duke of Gloucester had all perished. Libraries do die, but we need not predict the Bodleian’s demise. Cultural shifts are making the old rules indefensible, but with the loss of those rules something less tangible but more essential also dissipates – the aura or charisma of the space. The challenge is this: how, in the emerging world order, can the library be re-endowed with fresh charisma?