Tuesday 16 February 2010

Twelve theses on libraries and librarians

Anna and Evan have posted on libraries; and someone else has posted stunning pictures of the world's most beautiful libraries. All of which prompted me to draw up the following theses:

1. The library is the most solid and enduring item in the whole apparatus of intellectual life. In time our academic fads and fashions, our schools of thought and indeed entire disciplines, will pass soundlessly into the abyss of history. But the library endures – in fact it grows only stronger, driving its roots down ever deeper while the wreckage of history piles up around it. The library’s sheer material presence testifies to its ontological priority in intellectual life: ideas are fickle and intangible, they occupy no fixed location, but the library fills space and time with an imposing materiality. It is the mind’s anchor holding fast beneath the storms and currents of time.

2. When you think of librarians, you may imagine those bespectacled mild-mannered characters with their index cards and carbon paper and obsolete black-and-green computer screens. Librarians often contrive for themselves this Luddite image. But they are in truth the most progressive and visionary figures in the whole university: like bloodhounds, always hot on the trail of the future. Their demure appearance is a cunning disguise which allows them to perpetrate their radicalism all the more effectively. It is a camouflage net thrown over an armoured vehicle.

3. Just look at the Google Books project, engineered by Google but executed by an army of visionary librarians. These people could be running the world if they wanted to – and if they did not have to be home by 7 to feed the cat.

4. At the same time, there is nobody more conservative than a librarian. Their enthusiasm for constant change and reinvention springs from an even deeper commitment to what has been received from the hand of the past. The library is an angel whose wings are spread out in fierce and loving protection of the past, while its face stares deep into the eerie light of the future.

5. In all the world there is nothing more dangerous than a library. Within any library are the seeds for the overthrow of the world. What bloody revolution cannot be traced back finally to a library? Or to some book that lay waiting through silent centuries for the day when it would be unsheathed? The rule of silence – upheld in all libraries since time immemorial – is a ruse. It is the silence of a tiger crouching in the reeds.

6. More than any other institution – certainly more than the state or the judiciary – the library proves that meticulous structure and organisation are not obstacles to revolution but its embodiment, the muscles and sinews by which history stretches its limbs.

7. The library is also the safest and friendliest place on earth. More than that: the library is the institutionalisation of intellectual friendship. Which of us, admiring a shelf laden with the thoughts of dead authors, has never felt that these books love one another, even as they love to dispute and declaim? When I was a boy, I played hide-and-seek with my brothers among the stacks, while my mother slaved over her PhD. If history is a tangle of weeds and briers, the library is that commodious garden in which children play and every flower blooms.

8. Library catalogues have their instrumental necessity, but they should be consulted only as rough signposts. Your real goal is to cultivate the art of getting lost in libraries, just as you might deliberately lose yourself in the backstreets of a foreign city. “Like a true maze, the library [leads] the reader to his goal by leading him astray” (Giorgio Agamben).

9. Nowhere is architecture more important than in libraries. The physical space is to books as oak is to wine: no mere storage facility, but a medium that interacts, by a powerful alchemy, with what it contains.

10. Every head librarian is (or ought to be) vested with virtually unlimited executive powers. The library is one of those institutions in which benevolent dictatorship is not only desirable but essential. The head librarian is the captain of a ship at sea: her word alone is law. The importance of these executive powers lies in the fact that the librarian is answerable only to the collection, just as the pope is answerable only to God and a ship’s captain only to the devil.

11. Since librarians are responsible to the collection, rash culling should at any cost be avoided. There is a cathedral library in Hereford, England, where rare manuscripts remain chained to the shelves. This measure was introduced in the Middle Ages to prevent theft – and it had the added virtue of securing the collection against the rash temptation of culling. Some books may appear to languish neglected in the dust; but they are like the seeds of those date palms that spring suddenly to life after lying dormant in the ground for millennia. On the other hand, when it is absolutely necessary to cull the collection, the librarian should do it swiftly and with a good conscience. “Every branch that bears no fruit my Father prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

12. I know a woman who worked as a librarian back in the 1960s, when the novels of D. H. Lawrence were still banned in Australia. The library’s Lawrence holdings were kept in a locked filing cabinet, and my friend – a young woman then – was responsible for the key. So one by one she secreted them away; during her lunch breaks you could find her smoking cigarettes and reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover beneath the shade of wattles and the hum of bees. The moral of the story: the librarian is a sly animal; and if you're nice to them, you might one day get a glimpse of those treasures that lie hid in every library, away from dust and prying eyes, secured by lock and key.


Jason Goroncy said...

Wonderful stuff Ben. Reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges' word: 'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library'. And that from Umberto Eco: 'A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. so the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion'.

Those pictures that you link to are amazing. Perhaps we ought to start a meme of library photographs?

Anna Blanch said...

Great post! and always glad to inspire! Those pictures are enough to make you want to travel just to visit libraries aren't they? Beautiful!

Kampen said...

What's the original Agamben quote? And from where?

Anonymous said...

oh sublime! this is one of the best posts i have ever read.

Ben Myers said...

Kampen, the quote (which I've lifted out of context) is from Agamben's discussion of the Warburg Institute Library in Potentialities, p. 284 n. 9. Based on Agamben's account, I was going to include another thesis on classification systems — but I ran out of steam after the 12th thesis!

Robert said...

An absolutely marvelous post! Libraries cannot be eulogized enough.

kim fabricius said...

Pierre Bayard, in How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read (2007), refers to the librarian in Robert Musil's unfinished novel The Man without Qualities: "This librarian has found a way to orient himself among the millions of volumes in his library, if not among all the books in the world. His technique is extraordinary in its simplicity:

'... if you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.... Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian.'"

The librarian reads only the calalogs, but not because he is dispassionate about books; au contraire he loves books - but because he loves all books, he reads no books "for fear that too pronounced an interest in one of them might cause him to neglect the others."

John Squires said...

Hmm. My cat demands to be fed by 5.00pm. Perhaps I ought to have been a librarian. Would have made it less noisy when I arrive home at a time that I consider respectable, even if felix believes I am too late and have neglected him.

Oh, and yes, wonderful soaring poetry on the library, Ben!

Terry Wright said...

Hereford Cathedral's library is definitely a unique sight, as is the Mappa Mundi that's there as well.

Wesley said...

Nail those theses to the Library door Ben, or perhaps just use blu-tak.

Thank you, it makes working in a library all the more worth while, but perhaps it is the library staff rather than the head librarian who will slip you the key!

Loren Rosson said...

Excellent, Ben. You outdid yourself on this one!

Anonymous said...

You should make a note about people not writing in library books...biggest. library pet peeve. ever.

I know some folks in grad school who write in pencil and justify it by saying "whoever comes later can just erase it"...thanks for making them do the work because you're too lazy to buy post it notes

Student said...

Thank you for this luscious tribute to a place of heaven on earth.

I'm currently relocating to Massachusetts, mostly to be near the Harvard library. It's the fifth largest library in the world, a collection of eternal thought and art written. I plan to sit in the theological library first thing, and commune with my fellow seekers, thinkers, writers.

And of course I adore all librarians; they are gods and goddesses adorned with halos of wisdom and breastplates of truth. God bless 'em!

Evan said...

Thanks for the post, Ben. On the issue of technology, this post from Academic Librarian is worth a read. Wayne Bivens-Tatum, who runs the blog, is the philosophy and religion librarian at Princeton University, and it's one of the best blogs out there on academic library work.

Anonymous said...


Absolutely brilliant! Your best blog ever.

Dan Reid

Anonymous said...

One of the things I most love, as a librarian, is when a reader comes up with a book whose pages are still folded over, uncut, never read since 1867--no one has ever read this particular book, but now, now someone needs to read it.

Robert Angison said...

This kind of thing is why I enjoy this blog as often as possible.

Usually with a firm grip on a warm mug amongst friendly, anonymous folks at the local coffee house.

Just splendid!

Mark Bowald said...

Since completing my PhD I have habitually visited libraries. I have never once reflected on why this is so until this post. Thank you for that. Preferring to visit alone, I find a deep comfort in finding the same tomes all over the world, maybe a literary version of the deep beauty and mystery mathematicians see in the hidden simple symmetry of the universe. There is a liturgical character to libraries: the quiet reflection, the order, the rituals both universally recognizable yet infinitely varied. It would not be entirely out of character for a librarian, upon my arrival to the bench with a selection of books, to greet me with "The Lord be with you!" Surely a thesis on the liturgy of libraries would be in order.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post. It reminds me of Terry Pratchett's description of the library of the magical Unseen University where there is a rustling sound of the books whispering to each other in conversation. I think of that every time I go into an academic library.

Student said...

"One of the things I most love, as a librarian, is when a reader comes up with a book whose pages are still folded over, uncut, never read since 1867--no one has ever read this particular book, but now, now someone needs to read it."

That would be me! And sometimes I even break out into song and dance, and make a speech about this wonderful book (all in my mind, of course.)

James V. Carmichael, Jr. said...

One of my former students sent your blog to me (she and her husband are now close friends). It is stunning, and I shall save it for the next session of The History of Libraries that I usually teach in summer. Thank you so much.

James V. Carmichael, Jr.
Department of Library and Indformation Studies
The University of North Caroilina at Greensboro

Brett Gray said...

In my current institution, King's College London, they are now permitting talking in the libraries. Only, the libraries are now 'Information Services Centres'. Insidious...

Unknown said...

Brilliant. I have just started teaching Library Practice at TAFE (NSW) after 18 years working in one. This is why we do what we do.

roger flyer said...

Ben is a closet librarian.

Fat said...

I think Ben's bibliotheca may be larger than a closet could contain.

Anonymous said...

Splendicious! I love libraries!

Anonymous said...

As a librarian/archivist who is reading this post secretly on his lunch break, I want to thank you. You have eloquently described my field.

Lunch is over now. Time to go back to being dangerous.

roger flyer said...

Can't wait for 'Librarian: The Movie'

Fat said...

'Librarian: the Movie'

I like it Roger - it has potential for some memorable lines.

"The stuff that dreams are made of."

"Where do I find "Gone with the wind?""
"Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

"I'll get you, my pretty, and your little book too!"

"Open the reference bay doors, HAL."

"I know what you're thinking punk. You're thinking did he read all six pages or only five. And to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a manual for a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handbook in the world and will blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky? Well do you, punk?"

"Of all the libraries in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

"Mama always said life was like an anthology of short stories. You never know what you're gonna get."

"Library cards? We ain't got no library cards! We don't need no library cards! I don't have to show you any stinking library cards!"

"I'll have what she's having. Put me on the waiting list"

"Read it, Sam. Read 'As Time Goes By.'"

"I love the smell of mustiness in the morning!"

"You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a book lender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am."

"If I told you where the self-help section was it would defeat the purpose"

roger flyer said...

Fat, you're a riot!

Anonymous said...

Fat, you can visit my library any time, the kids would love it!

Rob L said...

For an alternative take, read Paul Auster's description of shelf-stacking in Columbia's Butler library in his most recent novel. It had a certain appeal to me, for I had recourse to those stacks often last year.

Ben, I hope you will share in my lament for the complete lack of aesthetic sensitivity shown by those "architects" who laid the plans for Australia's beige blocks of utility. Where, oh where can I find a decent library? I almost seem incapable of higher thought without a panel of oak in sight.

Rob L said...

(Just to be clear, I used the stacks for the books, not for what Auster's protagonist did)

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for all the entertaining comments — I'm glad you enjoyed the post. And I'm especially glad to see that it has been picked up by various libraries — even the Bodleian Library is using it in their next staff newsletter!

Anonymous said...

This blog is totally out of bibliographic control!

Anonymous said...

RE: google/library Mr Rosensweig wrote:
"The “deal” that research libraries have struck, behind closed doors (in good corporate style) with Google threatens to erase the lines between commerce and the remaining public sphere of human thought and creativity as embodied in the collected and organized products of print culture and this arrangement makes their immense collections both a global prop for the colonization of some of the last nooks and crannys of human endeavor by the quest for profit and a monument to the inescapability of and seamless domination by the profit motive."

More here:

Jason said...

Benjamin, thanks for this. I've completed a third of a MLIS degree, but then put it on hold because of other more pressing issues, but after reading this maybe I'll rethink my priorities and try and get this done in the next few years. Thanks for your efforts, overall. Blessings.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU! OVER AND OVER! As a librarian, I feel exalted, beatified even. And that you gave librarians some pizzazz (or, rather, you recognized the pizzazz that good librarians have!) was particularly satisfying. You are one savvy guy!

Jennifer said...

Beam me up, Librarian !

Just marvellous, Ben. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ben, thank you for voicing the very foundations of libarianship and information stewardship so eloquently thoughtfully and succinctly.

I am sure there will be others like me who will use your post to put our point.

Jan at Delany

Liz said...


Thanks for letting me use your post in the Oxford libraries newsletter. It's also spreading to Portland,Oregon libraries - I got emails from a handful of librarians who read the post through my blog. Well done, and well said!


Penny Jones said...

Hi Ben, I saw this post as a member of the OzTL list (I am from far-away South Africa), and it inspired and encouraged me! School libraries are a dying phenomenon in SA, and it is easy to become discouraged - your post rang the bells again - thank you!!!

jwalter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Senga White said...

Hello Ben

Thank you for your inspiring and thought-provoking words. Reading through the comments I see several people have asked permission to reproduce this in some publications. I would very much like to be able to share this with the school library community in New Zealand. I'd appreciate your permission to do this via a School Library Association of NZ Aotearoa Newsletter.
Feel free to email me if you need more information on library@jameshargest.school.nz
Senga White
SLANZA President

Graham Hunter said...

Dear Ben,

I enjoyed this post enormously. I anticipate with great joy the email that announces each new 'Faith and Theology' post - but you may be right in your suspicion that this was your best ever post!

It reminded me immediately of a paragraph in the novel 'The Island Of Lost Maps' by Miles Harvey. It's taken me a couple of weeks to find both the section in the book, and the time to copy it out, but I hope you think it has been worth the wait! The quote is as follows:

'What a vapid job title our culture gives to those honorable laborers the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians variously called Learned Men of the Magic Library, Scribes of the Double House of Life, Mistresses of the House of Books, or Ordainers of the Universe. Librarian - that mouth-contorting, graceless grind of a word, that dry gulch in the dictionary between libido and licentious - it practically begs you to envision a stoop-shouldered loser, socks mismatched, eyes locked in a permanent squint from reading too much microfiche. If it were up to me, I would abolish the word entirely and turn back to the lexicological wisdom of the ancients, who saw librarians not as feeble sorters and shelvers but as heroic guardians. In Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures alike, those who toiled at the shelves were often bestowed with a proud, even soldierly, title: Keeper of the Books.
I think most librarians, especially rare book librarians, still secretly view themselves in this way. I met dozens of them as I retraced Bland's footsteps, and in the end I came to the conclusion that most view their work as what the scholar and novelist Umberto Eco, writing about librarians of an earlier age, called a "war with the forces of oblivion." I think they wage this war because, like the historian Barbara Tuchman, they believe that "books are humanity in print" and that, as the Keepers of the Books, they are safeguarding not just pieces of paper but mortal flesh. The stakes are high: if they fail, the past dies.'
(The Island Of Lost Maps, Miles Harvey, p113-4)

I certainly esteem librarians highly - and think of them as the 'Keepers of the Books'. Hope you liked the extract...

Best wishes,


Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Graham — a splendid passage!

Ross said...

Very clever.

besideourselves said...

Heady stuff Ben.

Dim memories of my first approaches to the Altar of Issues have become visions of trepidatious hope; angels with flaming swords guarding the gates of paradise.

Between you and Graham I am reminded of my earliest ambition to attain that sacred order.


Donald said...

Great stuff, and I wouldn't want to deprive your Australian librarian of her transgressive memories under the wattle trees, but the Austlit list of banned books in Australia includes no D. H. Lawrence books apart from Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Anonymous said...

I like this list. I would qualify thesis point 10, though, to be limited to head librarians who are actually trained to be librarians. I shudder to think what would happen at our library if the head, who is a nice person but clueless about librarianship, were to exercise anything close to dictatorial powers.

AD said...

Bravo! If not as yet titularly--and in these circles we respect the power of time--in time this will become a classic. Please ensure that it is preserved in hard copy in some library. That will surely ensure its future.

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