bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

What is the point of a library?

Posted in Libraries by bonaelitterae on 10 November, 2010

Saturday saw me in the stunning setting of Durham’s Castle, for a conference on the Medieval Library. It was organised under the aegis of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, the publishers of Medium Ævum. The papers took us from the classical precedents (an excellent paper by Matthew Nicholls) to the arrival of print (James Willoughby on characteristically learned form), but through them I sensed some persistent questions.

Later modern societies might conceptualise ‘the library’ as an independent building, a specific pin-point on the map. But for centuries up to, perhaps, the eighteenth, the library was defined rather by its physical or conceptual proximity to other rooms. As Matthew Nicholls mentioned, a classical library might stand next to a mousieon where learned conversations could occur. In the medieval monastery, a library would take upper floor space; below might be the refectory in which the books themselves came alive by being read (as they did in Medingen, as described by Henrike Lähnemann). Similarly, academic libraries – like those in Cambridge about which Peter Clarke talked lucidly – would hold collections which may be useful for study, the focus of which was the lecture hall. For princes (a subject in which the conference’s speaker, Hanno Wijsman, is such an expert), there may be a place in their palace where their books were kept, as in the tower of the Louvre for the codices of the French kings, but the manuscripts would also be seen in the great hall or chamber, where acts of presentation are usually depicted as happening. In other words, we associate books pre-eminently with libraries but their lives were not confined to that specific space. To take this further, it could be said that the library was the place where the book went to rest, the busy-ness of its life occurring elsewhere in the building.

So, the papers at the conference made me think about the limits of libraries, their particular purpose and place in the odyssey of a book. The pre-eminent intention of a library was – as was clear from the discussions like Richard Gameson’s bravura review of images of libraries and their furniture – the safeguarding of knowledge through the protection of books. Yet, as Matthew Nicholls pointed out, this could be self-defeating: a library could itself succumb to fire, flood or other disaster, leaving us with only the titles of its books, not their contents. As Matthew put it ‘libraries can be bottlenecks rather than thoroughfares in the circulation of knowledge’. Presenting your work to a library-owner might gain you prestige and patronage, but not posterity. Thomas Bodley, famously, boasts in the motto of his Library quarta perennis – the fourth will last forever – and libraries now have an institutional certainty that is alien to their predecessors. Yet, that of the earlier Libraries of Oxford University, two died and one (that of Alfred) never existed, might give us pause for thought and remember that even libraries should have a memento mori perennially before them.

But if libraries are designed, however much they fail to do so, to safeguard knowledge – what knowledge? There seems to have been a long association of three concepts: the bibliotheca, religio and sapientia. The libraries are repositories for particular sorts of wisdom and what is interesting is what is excluded from the definition. Ovid complained that his books were banned from Rome’s libraries (which was to their advantage, as they now survive). The collecting of medieval libraries was – as the Cambridge examples discussed by Peter demonstrated – necessarily haphazard: even if there was an original rationale, that could be undermined by the addition of new gifts, and if a donation itself had a special focus, it would often join a collection that worked by different rules. There were also practical limits to a library – a physical space can only take so many books. In my experience, a large library in the later medieval England would include 500 volumes, a very large collection perhaps 800 – 900. The great challenge – as James Willoughby showed – came with print and the exponential increase in the number of books available at a cheap price. That, of course, made the limits of the library an all the more insistent issue. And so began the quixotic early-modern project to reverse Babel and gather together universal knowledge in one place. But, even then, the basic truth remained: whatever the quasi-religious status of learning with the library its temple, the bibliotheca was never the repository of knowledge, but of some knowledge. In that sense, at least, the medieval library may have the advantage over its latter-day successors: it was conscious of its own limits.


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  1. Ruth Wilkinson (@RuthWilk) said, on 8 June, 2012 at 11:48 am

    It is tempting to muse whether the Library of Alexandria would have burned down if water had been available for its readers but I won’t go there!

    The Bodleian is a legal deposit library, and because of this the safeguarding of stock from damage or theft is very important. One would assume that the irreplaceable stock is being digitised to minimise these risks. As time goes on, fewer researchers will need to make personal visits to libraries in order to access rare primary source material, and those who do are likely to be those who will take great care when accessing collections. In resource terms, it is easier and cheaper to enforce regulations when there are fewer patrons to monitor!

    As an experienced senior member of library staff Up The Hill, I find it difficult to identify with some of the views expressed here because the legal deposit library environment is somewhat alien to me, and indeed you mention the impact of other library experiences. The vast majority of stock in my workplace is replaceable. Nearly all books are loanable, so can be used at home by our customers – what substances/liquids may be to hand while they are studying these texts, I know not. Our research students may apply to use the Bodleian, and they will indeed be used to bringing bottled water into a study environment. We currently make a distinction between plastic cups of water (not allowed) and bottled water (allowed). This has always seemed strange to me, and a hard one to enforce – one is reminded of Seneca, “Si sitis, nihil interest utrum aqua sit an vinum: nec refert utrum sit aureum poculum an vitreum.”

    Water damage is negligible in my campus library, fewer books are now dropped in the bath than in the past as people increasingly prefer to take showers; those I interview for infringement of library rules have most often used highlighter pen in books, or (increasingly) turned down page corners to mark text they wish to return to. The latter practice appears to be commonplace for students from one particular area of the world, and students assert that they are encouraged to do this in school. If creased for some time and replaced on shelf, these folded down corners fall off. One of the jobs of our library assistants is to rub out pencil marks in returned books.

    Libraries and “book shops with coffee shops” are becoming harder to distinguish. Many of our customers associate books, newspapers and coffee drinking together. Another cultural change has been the number of messages about drinking more water for healthier living, or for enhancement of skin tone and the like.

    Common sense must surely prevail when setting library regulations about drinking in the library. What alternative provision is there for this close by? Is there toilet provision? Is the stock replaceable? Is there sufficient staffing to enforce the regulations? And of course the overall function of the library.

    It is more and more the case that new builds in HEI campuses produce Student Centres which provide “one stop” student space including, for example, financial aid, careers advice, fees payments, counselling, shops, cafes and library. Resultant library space has multiple access points from different floors and provides self-service transactions – it would be almost impossible to prevent library users from bringing in food and drink from other areas of the building. Whose responsibility would it be to enforce a no coffee rule? Will there be a need for continuous patrols by library staff to either enforce regulations (negative vibes!) or collect food and drink-related rubbish in black sacks? The skill set for these tasks is not necessarily held by library assistants.

    These student centres are unlikely to appeal to the bibliobibuli of the Bod!

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