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.

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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.

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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.

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Anyone else seeing Daleks there?

Shakespeare’s dirty books

Here’s an eye-catching headline.

Is Shakespeare’s DNA hiding in the Folger Library’s vault? “Project Dustbunny” aims to find out
The Folger Shakespeare Library’s underground storage facility stretches a full block beneath the building, protected by a nine-inch-thick steel bank-vault door. It houses about 260,000 historically significant books, along with manuscripts, documents, and even costumes saved from 19th-century productions. But could the Capitol Hill research library—the largest collection devoted to the Bard in the world—also contain, quite literally, Shakespeare himself?

That possibility is the longest of long shots, but it’s one potential outcome of an ongoing effort at the Folger dubbed Project Dustbunny—so named because it involves analyzing human DNA and proteins harvested from dirt inside the Folger’s old books.

Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts, is keen to distance herself from such nonsense, however.

Wolfe is especially skeptical of this idea; when I met up with her in the conservation lab, before I could even ask about it, she volunteered her lack of enthusiasm for such efforts. “The first thing to say,” she told me, “is our goal isn’t necessarily to identify a famous person who has touched an item. But that’s the thing people are most interested in: Did Shakespeare hold this book?”

Might this be how a future ‘Jurassic Bard’ movie starts?

But why stop there?

Charlotte Brontë’s hair found in ring on Antiques Roadshow, say experts
“I’ve got goosebumps now thinking about it. It’s got a hinge on it, and inside there’s plaited hair, I think it may be the hair of Charlotte Brontë,” the woman told the show’s jewellery expert Geoffrey Munn.

Munn said there was “very little reason to doubt” this.

And here’s another.

Italians try to crack Leonardo da Vinci DNA code with lock of hair
“We found, across the Atlantic, a lock of hair historically tagged ‘Les Cheveux de Leonardo da Vinci’ and this extraordinary relic will allow us to proceed in the quest to carry out research on Da Vinci’s DNA,” said Alessandro Vezzosi, the director of the museum and Agnese Sabato, president of the Leonardo da Vinci Heritage Foundation in a statement.

Every book imaginable, just not your book

Everyone has a book in them, they say. Well, perhaps not.

No, you probably don’t have a book in you
I am a literary agent. It is my full-time job to find new books and help them get published. When people talk about “having a book in them,” or when people tell others they should write a book (which is basically my nightmare), what they really mean is I bet someone, but probably not me because I already heard it, would pay money to hear this story. When people say “you should write a book,” they aren’t thinking of a physical thing, with a cover, that a human person edited, copyedited, designed, marketed, sold, shipped, and stocked on a shelf. Those well-meaning and supportive people rarely know how a story becomes printed words on a page. Here’s what they don’t know, and what most beginner writers might not realize, either.

Perhaps your book has already been written and is somewhere in the library?

Library of Babel
Borges’s short story The Library of Babel is a thought experiment: imagine every possible combination of letters printed out in 410 page books. The library would contain all knowledge and falsehoods, all of the great works of fiction and a true prophecy for everyone in the world. It would also contain all of these things, but with all the A’s and E’s switched, or with X’s between words instead of spaces. Jonathan Basile, a Ph.D. student at Emory University turned Borges’s idea into a (virtual) reality. Every possible book that could be found in the Library can be read online, but to stumble on something meaningful is near impossible, which makes it all the more exciting to try. (Via)

Beautiful libraries, inside and out

Libraries are remarkable buildings.

Experience the beauty of libraries around the world through this instagram series
Over the past two years, Savoie has traveled from his home city of Montréal, to Berlin, Amsterdam, Budapest, Rome, Riga, Paris, Moscow, and several other cities photographing the stunning architecture of libraries. Encountering language barriers and even intense security, Savoie’s dedication to taking the perfect photo has resulted in a stunning collection of images.

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The world’s most beautiful libraries
In a new Taschen book, the Italian photographer Massimo Listri travels around the world to some of the oldest libraries, revealing a treasure trove of unique and imaginative architecture.

But, of course, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Every library has a story to tell
But whatever form a library takes, someone had to have chosen the books in it, which reveal the secrets of heart and mind—their cares, their greeds, their enthusiasms, their obsessions.

‘Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany
It is not clear how many scrolls the library would have held, but it would have been “quite huge – maybe 20,000”, said Schmitz. The building would have been slightly smaller than the famed library at Ephesus, which was built in 117 AD. He described the discovery as “really incredible – a spectacular find”.

The secret libraries of history
“The new technique is amazing in that it shows us fragments – medieval text – that we could otherwise never see because they are hidden behind a layer of parchment or paper,” wrote Kwakkel in a blog post about his Hidden Library project. While the technology needs to be improved, it hints at a process that could reveal a secret library within a library. “We might be able to access a hidden medieval ‘library’ if we were able to gain access to the thousands of manuscript fragments hidden in bindings.”

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Watch Umberto Eco walk through his immense private library: it goes on, and on, and on!
We can only imagine how many such citadels of knowledge Eco visited in his travels all over the world, but we don’t have to imagine the one he built himself, since we can see it in the video above. Though not infinite like the library of all possible books imagined by Borges, Eco’s private home library looks, from certain angles, nearly as big. The camera follows Eco as he passes shelf after packed shelf, some lining the walls and others standing free, eventually finding his way to one volume in particular — despite the fact that he apparently shelved very few of his books with their spines facing outward.

That last line about his books not facing outwards? Reminded me of this post from a couple of months back.

Great books gone but not forgotten

I’ve posted before about unread books and those that were never finished, but what of those that were written but subsequently lost or destroyed.

Here’s a fascinating but wistful review of In Search of Lost Books, by Giorgio van Straten. There are some great stories here: as well as the vast numbers of lost plays and books from the ancient Library of Alexandria, there are books from Byron, diaries from Plath and short stories from Hemingway, amongst others, to lament.

The fleeting tale of great lost books, now gone forever
… And fire too (perhaps) destroyed the papers Walter Benjamin is said to have carried with him in a black suitcase on his failed flight from France to Spain, escaping Nazi persecution. The novelist Bruno Arpaia, thinking wishfully in The Angel of History, imagines that Benjamin gave the suitcase to a Spanish partisan to carry across the border. Van Straten suggests, rather, that Benjamin might have used his papers to light a bonfire to keep him and his fellow exiles warm in the cold night of the Pyrenees. Or, he asks, almost as an afterthought, “is it too much to hope that sooner or later – by chance, scholarship or passion – someone will discover those pages and enable us to read them at last?”

Hong Kong librarian has had enough of your tardiness

Librarian Gone Rogue: Impatient bibliophile accused of accessing library members’ accounts to quicken book returns
Patrons were checking out books that she wanted to read, and the woman was just not having it, according to Apple Daily.

The librarian, a 25-year-old contract employee at the Tseung Kwan O Public Library between 2015 and 2018, reported their cards as lost and changed their account passwords so they had to return their books immediately, according to the report.

Well, that’s one way of dealing with overdue library books.

The Emperor’s new Kindle

Napoleon, according to this article from Open Culture, owned so many books he needed his own personal librarian. He was also very keen on having a significant collection of his books with him whenever he went travelling. This worked well for a while…

Napoleon’s Kindle: see the miniaturized traveling library he took on military campaigns
… but eventually “Napoleon found that many books which he wanted to consult were not included in the collection,” for obvious reasons of space. And so, on July 8, 1803, he sent his librarian these orders:

The Emperor wishes you to form a traveling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo and printed in handsome type. It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use, and in order to economize space there is to be no margin to them. They should contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs. There should be forty works on religion, forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic and sixty of other poetry, one hundred novels and sixty volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.

In sum: not only did Napoleon possess a traveling library, but when that traveling library proved too cumbersome for his many and varied literary demands, he had a whole new set of not just portable book cases but even more portable books made for him. … This prefigured in a highly analog manner the digital-age concept of recreating books in another format specifically for compactness and convenience — the kind of compactness and convenience now increasingly available to all of us today, and to a degree Napoleon never could have imagined, let alone demanded.

Protecting library privacy

You are not what you read: librarians purge user data to protect privacy
“I was approached years ago at a different library about users who’d checked out certain astrological books,” said Thistlethwaite. The NYPD officer told her he was looking for the Zodiac killer. “Most police investigations are a little smarter than that, but sometimes they’re just not.”

Seems pretty clear to me: ​one of the principles in the Data Protection Act is that data should not be kept longer than is necessary. Admittedly this is a news article from the US, where there’s no direct equivalent of the DPA, but still.

So what is a library?

From Alexandria to Babel
the actual concept of the library as an institution where the whole resource constitutes something infinitely greater than the sum of the parts. The parts are the individual records left by individual writers; the whole is something far more ambitious: an instrument designed to preserve intact the memory of humankind.

Not just storerooms for books then. A great piece about the history of these cultural memory banks, though I was a little concerned towards the end that I hadn’t come across any references to Borges. But then there was one, so all’s well.

Texting librarians

Librarians answer reference questions with text messages
For a student who doesn’t want to swing by the reference desk, there are plenty of other ways to ask a librarian a question—instant messaging, e-mail, a phone call. And now, on a growing number of campuses, students can ask questions with text messages. Oregon State University is among the institutions that have recently added “text a librarian” services. Though the university just implemented its service this month and has not advertised it much yet, librarians there say that they can already tell it will be well used.