Libraries of the past and the future

I’ve always thought of libraries as places that have existed forever, like cemeteries, or shoe shops — they’re just a necessary part of a normal society, right? (It’s thought the Library of Alexandria was founded as long ago as 285 BC, though its current incarnation is only 16 years old and closes at 4 pm today.)

But libraries haven’t always been around for everybody.

A history of the American public library
CityLab’s visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger shares the story of how America’s public libraries came to be, and their uneven history of serving all who need them.

libraries-of-the-past

That’s all a world away from the history of libraries over here, in our grand stately piles.

What was the real purpose of the English country house library?
In Mark Purcell’s all-encompassing study, The Country House Library, every aspect of this topic is researched and addressed on an epic, Girouardian scale. Whereas architectural and art historians are often uninterested in the actual books found in historic architect-designed libraries, Purcell argues it is impossible to separate them from a consideration of situation, appearance and design. Demolishing the commonplace belief that volumes were “bought by the yard”, he offers an opportunity for historians to think afresh about the way collections were read and valued within the elusive confines of the country house library.

libraries-of-the-past-1

A gripping chapter covers the early 19th-century bibliomania that culminated in the great sale of the Third Duke of Roxburghe’s library in June 1812, described as a chivalric tournament between Earl Spencer, the Marquess of Blandford and the Sixth Duke of Devonshire. Purcell gives an excellent account of the arc of sales reflecting the decline in the fortunes of the landowning classes after the late 1880s. In 1966, Shane Leslie wrote in his memoirs, Long Shadows: “The empty shelves at Blenheim, Sledmere and Althorp gave me the ghastly gasp as coffins and vaults ravaged by body-snatchers.”

Here’s an idea of how to make more use of our present-day libraries.

How to be a library archive tourist
When I’m traveling and am at a loss for how to spend my time, I look up as many libraries I can in the area I’ll be traveling to, and I check to see if they have special collections. Then I make an appointment with the library to visit those special collections, and usually it means I get to spend a day in a quiet, climate-controlled room with cool old documents. It’s like a museum but with no people, and where you have to do all the work, which is honestly my idea of a perfect vacation.

But what of the future? As this high-tech university library shows (designed, coincidentally, by Snøhetta, the Norwegian architecture firm behind the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt), those old values of accessibility are still key.

A robot-filled, architectural marvel in North Carolina is the library of the future
Public libraries remain a critical public resource, but as budgets have been slashed and information digitized over the last several decades, many have been forced to adapt from book-storage rooms to high-tech public spaces. Indeed, libraries in urban areas remain an important space for those residents with limited incomes, education, and access to resources. By reimagining the relationship between information and technology and how humans interact with both, Hunt’s designers created a unique space in which the community can learn, create, or simply gather.

[…]

“Whether or not you’re talking about a library focused on digital technology or on books or papyri, as the ancient libraries were, the most important thing is to make a library open and accessible,” he adds, noting that books weren’t invented until centuries after the first libraries came about. “[Libraries] had museums, they had lounges, they were interactive and in a very vibrant way,” he says, “more like libraries of the future.”

And yes, I know this is a bookshop and not a library, but you must check it out.

Mirrored Chinese bookstore offers readers a maze of discovery
The newest of China’s surreal mirrored bookstores is now open in Chongqing, offering a disorienting, Escher-like experience to all who enter. Designed by X+Living, the Chongqing Zhongshuge Bookstore leads visitors through an unassuming glass facade on the third floor of Zodi Plaza and into a reflective maze full of reading materials waiting to be discovered.

libraries-of-the-past-3

libraries-of-the-past-4

Anyone else seeing Daleks there?

Instagrammable and Amazonable

Remember those cricked necks we used to get, wandering up and down the books shelves in Waterstones, Borders and the rest, head at an awkward angle to read all the spines? Book buying looks different now, with our stiff necks due to staring down at our screens.

Welcome to the bold and blocky Instagram era of book covers
None of these titles is available yet, but anywhere you find them online will likely direct you to preorder on Amazon. In fact, their covers are designed to ensure that you will. At a time when half of all book purchases in the U.S. are made on Amazon — and many of those on mobile — the first job of a book cover, after gesturing at the content inside, is to look great in miniature. That means that where fine details once thrived, splashy prints have taken over, grounding text that’s sturdy enough to be deciphered on screens ranging from medium to miniscule.

Social media has a part to play now, too, in our book-buying habits.

“Instagram is a major tool now in ginning up excitement that we used to see in print magazines,” says Emma Straub, Riverhead-published author and owner of the Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic.

She’s referring, of course, to the latte-laden still lifes that influencers post to brag about receiving an advance copy of a book, or the artful arrangements they use to signify literate lifestyles arranged in bold colors.

For the love of books — and book shops

Some worrying news recently, about the fate of the book shop.

Brazilian booksellers face wave of closures that leave sector in crisis
In a widely shared “love letter to books”, Companhia das Letras co-founder Luiz Schwarcz has laid out the stark reality of Brazil’s current book market, urging readers to buy books this Christmas to help the sector survive.

“It remains impossible to predict the full extent of the knock-on effects of this crisis, but they are nonetheless already terrifying … Here, many towns are about to be left without a single bookstore, and publishers are now faced with the challenge of getting their books out to readers and have to deal with significant accumulated loss,” wrote Schwarcz, who won a lifetime achievement award at the 2017 London book fair.

If you’ll forgive the ropey Google translation, here’s more from that open letter.

Cartas de amor aos livros – Love letters to books
To those who, like me, have in their affection for books their reason for living, I ask them to spread messages; that spread the desire to buy books at the end of the year, books of their favorite authors, new writers who want to discover books bought in bookstores that survive heroically to the crisis, fulfilling their commitments, and also in bookstores that are in difficulties, but who need our help to rebuild.

That was a nicely timed article from the Guardian, as I was just re-reading my posts about James Bridle and his book, New Dark Age. I was just about to order it on my Kindle when I came across this introduction to another one of his extracts from it.

Conspiracies, Climate, and the New Dark Age
Hello, I’ve written a book. New Dark Age is a book about technology, knowledge, and the end of the future. It’s published by Verso, and you can buy it direct from the publisher as hardback and ebook (which is better for me, them, and publishing in general) — or wherever you usually acquire your reading.

It’s never occurred to me before, to buy an e-book direct from the publisher — Amazon is just too convenient. One of my New Years Resolutions should be to think a little more about these decisions, and put my money where my mouth is.

And a couple more from the Guardian on what bookshops are facing.

‘I’d love to scream at them’: how showroomers became the No 1 threat to bookshops
Last weekend, Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, tweeted a rebuke of the “people taking pictures of books and buying them from #Amazon in the store and even bragging about it”: “This is not OK, people. Find it here. Buy it here. Keep us here. That is all.” The tweet, by the shop’s owner, Kelly Justice, has been liked 40,000 times and was met with support from booksellers around the world. But among customers, the conversation was divided between those who recognised the rudeness of the act and those who felt it was legitimate. […]

“I’d love just to be able to scream at customers who do this about tax and the treatment of authors and small publishers, but our philosophy is always to wow them with charm and knowledge, even when they are blatantly doing it,” says Dave Kelly of Blackwell’s in Oxford. “Sooner or later, the general public will wake up to the damage companies such as Amazon are doing to small businesses and the creative industry and, with a bit of luck, bookshops will still be here to supply the books that they love.”

Amazon faces boycott ahead of holidays as public discontent grows
No one denies the convenience of shopping on Amazon but for some there are a host of reasons – from the working conditions at Amazon warehouses, the company’s aggressive anti-tax lobbying, its impact on local business or its selling of white nationalist merchandise – that make that convenience too high a price to pay. […]

The potential loss of business was enough to make Bank of America reverse course but perhaps Amazon is just too big to boycott. For years, some spurned Amazon in favor of local bookshops. Then more recently, people sat out Prime Day in solidarity with workers protesting against the company in Europe. Yet Amazon barely shrugged and continued growing. Earlier this year, the company disclosed that the number of Prime members surpassed 100 million. More new members signed up for Prime in 2017 than in any other year.

And here’s an interview with journalist Franklin Foer, on similar themes.

Why Amazon is a ‘bully’ and Facebook and Google are ‘the enemies of independent thought’
“That was my frustration when I went and talked to the Justice Department about Amazon,” Foer said. “It’s like, ‘Well, they’re actually hurting consumers over the long run by hurting producers. And they’re behaving in a bullying sort of way. Maybe not to consumers, but to producers. Why in God’s name can’t you see the harm?’ And they just couldn’t see it because it was so outside of the current paradigm under which they’re operating.”

Down the Amazon storefront rabbit hole

The list of Things I Just Don’t Understand Anymore continues to grow. I’m familiar with shopping. I’m familiar with online shopping. But then again —

A business with no end
Recently, one of my students at Stanford told me a strange story. His parents, who live in Palo Alto, Calif., had been receiving mysterious packages at their house. The packages were all different shapes and sizes but each was addressed to “Returns Department, Valley Fountain LLC.”

I looked into it and found that a company called Valley Fountain LLC was indeed listed at his parents’ address. But it also appeared to be listed at 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 350, in downtown San Francisco.

So were 140 other LLCs, most of which were registered in 2015.

And so begins another incredible journey down the e-commerce internet rabbit hole with Jenny Odell, as she tries to untangle the mess of connections between an evangelical church university, many spurious, scammy Amazon storefronts, and an American weekly news magazine.

Indeed, at some point I began to feel like I was in a dream. Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.

I’ve highlighted Jenny Odell’s journalism here before, and this piece is just as fascinating. It’s being discussed on the Amazon Seller forums, with legitimate sellers worrying how they can possibly compete with fraudulent dropshipping at such a big scale.

A Business with No End — Much explained about shady Amazon sellers
The vast international illegal operation employs hundreds of fake companies, fake churches, fake bookstores, fake department stores that may or may not exist, fake brands, fake HB1 visas, fake reviews, a fake university in California full of “students” on student visas who write click-bait and fake reviews, and even a fake psychiatric hospital. Oh, and apparently a lot of shady fake Amazon sellers. Not confined to Amazon, the empire also involves multiple click-bait farms and fake review farms, and even Newsweek magazine. All part of a vast hidden empire run by a man named Park.

A bookshop, but not as we know it?

The novelist Chuck Wendig visited an Amazon Bookstore for the first time recently. It was an unsettling experience.

My trip to an Amazon Bookstore: a review
Now, stepping foot into a physical Amazon bookstore is immediately surreal, in part because Amazon has for so long been a purely digital entity — so, when you enter this space, you become momentarily concerned that you have just shoved your Meatspace Body into a Cyberspace Realm, like you’ve broken some critical rule of reality. “WAIT IS THIS THE MATRIX. IS THIS THE OASIS. IS THIS REAL. ARE MY FINGER-TOUCHES ANALOGOUS TO MOUSE-CLICKS. IF I TOUCH A BOOK DO I BUY IT. AM I JUST TALKING IN BINARY CODE NOW.” (“Sir, you’re being weird,” one of the booksellers helpfully whispers into my ear.)

The other aspect of surreality comes from the fact that all the books are face out.

The trip left him a little cold, and not just because of that strange shelving choice.

Thoughtfully curated words

It’s so satisfying when you come across a piece of writing that expresses so eloquently something that you’ve been struggling to set down in words and rationally consider for a long time. This is just a part of it.

Curate
Sprinkle the fairy dust of high-sounding words over the ungainly contours of something quite ordinary, and you may be able to transform it into something special, in the way that a gentle snowfall can turn an ugly tool shed into a dreamy cottage, inhabited by elves. Even if you are running a thrift shop—and yes, it is not hard to find proprietors of thrift shops who identify themselves as “curators” of their establishments—you too can boast that your shop’s contents are “thoughtfully curated.” That sounds a whole lot better than saying “We don’t take used underwear or stuff that has holes in it.” But there is a lot to be said for respecting and loving ordinary things on their own terms, seeing that they are beautiful even without makeup, rather than always trying to tart them up into something grand and gilded.

But to be fair, there is another element folded into the meaning of “curate,” one running deep but not readily visible, that may also explain some of its appeal. The word derives from the Latin curare, to take care, and has in its historical ancestry the notion of a “curate” as one who is charged with the care of souls. This more spiritual meaning survives here and there, as for example in the “curate” of an Anglican parish church; and the faint aura of it surely still remains a part of the word we use to describe the museum professional. The religion of art persists, after all, as witness the flocks of culture-vultures that stream into our galleries on Sundays, standing in long lines to perform their spiritual duties. Perhaps in some instances, such as that of the independent bookstore, it can even be said that the “thoughtful curation” of the inventory reflects an attentiveness to the needs of the soul. One earnestly wants it to be so.

That last point chimes with one of Alain de Botton’s chapters in his handbook on how a future society that has fully dropped a belief in the supernatural might still care for itself. It’s worth looking up.

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.