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.