Libraries and Book Collections as Essential Cultural Institutions:
A Historical and Forward-Looking Perspective
These are notes from a Saturday afternoon session at ALA Annual Conference.
How do we preserve what we have, and how do we move forward into the digital era?
Sasha Abremsky: The House of 20,000 Books
Truly interesting and informative account about his grandparents — an expert on Jewish and socialist history. A vision of stewardship
Scott German: Patience & Fortitude: Fight to save a public library
Efforts to gut the NYPL Like a nail-biting corporate thriller
Matthew Battles: Library: An Unquiet History
Polipsest: A History of the Written Word
Writing is constantly evolving.
Our brains have changed all the time, anyway.
Preserving and going forward:
Sasha: Approaching it from his grandparents’ library. His granddad amassed one of the best private libraries on modern Jewish history.
The importance of the library as the fabric of civilized life.
His grandfather got fascinated with the web of ideas behind socialism.
He started collecting anything printed, anything illuminated, and on it went.
Contacted more and more collectors. Included handwritten notes by Marx, Lenin, etc
Yiddish texts, books written in the 1500s.
Wasn’t just utilitarian. Was concerned about the texture of the page. Was interested in mistakes in the printing techniques. Fascinated by the minutaie of printing. They told him stories.
Where it was printed told him where there were centers of intellectual life.
The grade of paper told him about the intended audience.
Granddad collected books and grandma collected people. Conversations developed around the great ideas collected in those rooms.
The rooms had different intellectual trajectories with how they were laid out.
You gained an understanding of a world vision.
He took it for granted that his granddad would grab a book to prove a point.
All of that was the physical texture of the library.
A library is a place that nurtures conversations and a world view.
How do you preserve libraries as cultural institutions?
A library is inherently a public thing. In a house, it tells you about who that person is. Provides an opening point for an interesting conversation.
Online, there would have been no way to spark those conversations.
In the house the books were the social lubricant.
Online preserves things that would otherwise die, which is good.
Don’t forget the majesty of paper or vellum or parchment or cuneiform. They provide a public entry point to a conversation. And all those nonverbal clues to history.
Paper is still an important, vital, and wonderful part of knowledge.
Scott German heard that stacks were going to be destroyed at NYPL. Heard they’d be “removed” not “demolished.” He was there when they got $100,000 for renovation. of the 42nd Street building. 88 branch libraries. For centuries NYPL has been cash starved. They planned to sell branches to raise money.
In early 2012, the plan became controversial.
His book outlines the battle. The stacks are still there, but they are empty — books had been removed to make way for demolition.
What is the best way to preserve?
For government officials to regulate it before the trustees destroy it.
Librarians need to learn to manage trustees.
Trustees see librarians as serfs. Librarians weren’t consulted. The plan came from the mind of a real estate developer on the board.
Matthew Battles: Widener Library at Harvard. His job involved spending lots of time in the stacks. Part of the structural support of the building itself.
Layers of social history are written into the shelving of the books. LC system and also the Widener system. It was topical in nature. A proverbs class, Moliere class, war, Descartes, etc… They told the story of the institution and how the people from the past were in dialog with our own time.
Started working the same time the card catalog was being converted.
Forensic traces of history of the use of the collection on the cards.
He was seeing marks of previous disruption to the schemes.
They’d used printed bound catalogs before the card catalog.
Interested in the archaeology of the library.
Libraries have been many things materially, socially, culturally…
The library has never been one thing. Yet it’s also an archetype.
When we wonder about the future of the library, we do well to look to the past.
There were libraries before there were books, if we mean things that look like these.
Remember out history and it’s a road to a rich and diverse future.
Librarians preserve, but we also shape collections. Should we be selling that more?
Remember libraries don’t have the same meaning for everyone.
Ethics of librarians developed and evolve.
Sasha: When you catalog something, to an extent you depersonalize it.
One of the greatest joys of a library is the unpredictability.
The more you digitize, the less it becomes unpredictable.
Matthew: That depends on the way it’s done. Gave a story about a finding aid that was digitized that allowed you to discover more.
Guy asked a question who wrote a forthcoming book about public library. He talked with library users. Look at why people love public libraries.
Public discourse around the library is so vital.
We should cultivate a sense of ownership in the public.
Canada: Asking auditor general to declare libraries and holdings as cultural resources.
Relationships between writer, publisher, libraries, shift with every technological change.