the lightning book

Great libraries and my part in their downfall

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I’ve got a story out in the Journal of Unlikely Academia about a library. Writing it reminded me of the solid materiality, the intangible amazingness, and the ultimate fragility of collections of knowledge.
I know that people are more important than books, but the destruction of libraries – and museums, and other cultural archives – gets me in a sensitive spot.

I have never knowingly destroyed a library. But I do have a kind of partial collective guilt for the destruction of many libraries, due to the West’s habits of colonialism and interference. For instance, the Mayan codices destroyed by Bishop de Landa in July 1562:

as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

An amazing degree. Astounding how much they minded their books being burned.

Most recently, the library in Mosul has been gutted by ISIS. I voted for New Labour at least once, and while I protested the Iraq War (most memorably on a march between a women’s choir and some elves) I don’t think that lets me and the UK off the hook for messing in the region.

Leaving aside the complex issue of colonial responsibility, here are some libraries I’ve actually interacted with, and the times they’ve come closest to doom.

Heythrop College

This college had a huge collection of theological works for teaching Jesuits. The college had to move from place to place to avoid persecution, and sometimes en route the collection was slashed. From the Heythrop website:

We know that some boxes of books, and those thought at the time to be the most precious, were sent in 1794 to a house outside Liège for their safety – and then, when the staff and students left, they seem to have been forgotten. Moreover, the barges on which those fleeing the French were to travel … were over-loaded, and more boxes were sold on the quay…

I worked at Heythrop library. However, during that period, no boxes of books were carelessly shipped to houses in Belgium, or flogged at the dockside! I also diligently summoned back and questioned anyone who set off the library security alarms. I’m not culpable for this library’s problems!

(Also, I was keen to see Heythrop’s incredible collection of incunabula – early printed books – as I knew that Lord Peter Wimsey, my favourite fictional detective, collected them. They’re very rare and highly prized. Having seen the collection, I can say: they’re also dull as hell! Visually speaking. Pages of cramped black text and no pics. Illuminated manuscripts still have my heart.)

London public libraries

Many of these have closed in the last six years, due to cuts to local services. I could definitely do more to campaign to keep them open, or support the ones which are now community-run.

Sussex University Library

I was, for a while, the Night Librarian (working from 6-10pm). I had to patrol the library, checking that those who’d fallen asleep in the stacks wouldn’t get locked in.

One night, there’d been a fire alarm. I walked around the library as usual, a lovely big modern airy building. The aisles were dark and quiet, and the air smelt fantastic: crisp, like being in a park at night. Far too crisp, in fact, for an indoor space.

I looked up and realised that during the fire alarm, huge vents in the roof had opened. And were still open. And while I looked up from the reference section straight into the night sky, I felt tiny drops of rain fall on my face.

I found the security guard and we frantically phoned the alarm company, to find out how to shut the bloody roof. I fantasised about huge tarpaulins to save the collection, then (guiltily) of which books I’d be prepared to sacrifice to keep the rain off other books. In the end, nothing was needed, and the library was closed to the elements.

Lewisham micro-library (see below)

I pop in and tidy this tiny bookswap from time to time, and I drop off books after I’ve read them. Is this a library which I’m actually building, not diminishing (or allowing to be diminished)?

Sort of. I’m pulling my weight, but there’s a local reviewer – specialising in science fiction and fantasy, no less – who leaves their ARCs in here. Pristine copies of not-yet-published SciFi. So I’m still getting more out than I’m putting in. I am a selfish lover of libraries, and hereby swear to do better.

Bonus thoughts from my colleagues in the Journal of Unlikely Academia

Eric Schwitzgebel musing on memory and mind transfer

Abra Staffin-Wiebe plays with other definitions of family

Julia August stares down the apocalypse

Sean Robinson supplements his strange beastliness

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