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2009-06, 361, 362, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Review: The Library at Night

The Library at Night.

By Alberto Manguel. (Yale University Press). 373pp. £18.99



Argentinian bibliophile Alberto Manguel, who now resides in France, is best known for his authoritative and stimulating book The History of Reading,which was an intemational bestseller and winner of France’s Prix Medicis.

The Library at Night is his tribute to the physical library. Manguel undoubtedly prefers the comforting wrap-around cultural warmth of real books and libraries, such as the library he has installed in a l5th-century barn in the Loire, to the virtual ones of cyberspace. Manguel includes some marvellous physical libraries, such as the Laurentian Library in Florence and the Herzog-August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel.

Manguel ranges widely in his definition of libraries, including “biblioburros”, libraries on donkeys, supplying books to remote Colombian rural areas. His fifteen chapters analyse the historical and cultural value of libraries from a variety of conceptual perspectives, such as the library as myth, as order, as power and as space (but not MySpace!).

Manguel bemoans the fact that “The library that contained everything, has become the library that contains anything”. Manguel’s comments on the virtual library in general, and Google in particular, were, however, written in 2005. The Net world has moved on significantly since then. Nonetheless the issues of digital preservation are very relevant.

Manguel reflects that physical libraries are also often under threat. They can be destroyed, either by natural disasters or by human agency, as occurred in Nazi Germany and the looting of museums and libraries in Baghdad. The quarantining of knowledge through censorship can take a variety of forms, such as the control of the internet in China and the news media in Zimbabwe. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, according to Manguel, even banned Don Quixote as he believed it promoted civil disobedience!

Research libraries serve both to access and preserve knowledge, but what is a public library’s role in the digital era? In the US, a large percentage of the circulation in a public library comes from popular fiction and DVDs. In the UK there has been a vigorous debate as to the dumbing down of public libraries and even the British Library has been criticised. Claire Tomalin, quoted this year in the Times described the British Library reading room crowds as intolerable: “It’s full of what seem to be schoolgirls giggling. I heard one saying, ‘I’ve got to write about Islam. Can I have your notes?’ It’s what you expect to hear in a school.”

Manguel cites the case of the Roman emperor Gordian the Younger, who maintained 22 concubines and a library of 62,000 volumes. Gibbon is quoted that “from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that both the one and the other were designed for use rather than for ostentation.” Public libraries are certainly for use, and if there is a gap in Manguel’s survey, it is the general public library. Maybe he could see the future!

Professor Robert Darnton of Harvard University made some cogent comments in his article “The Library in the New Age” in a June issue of The New York Review of Books:

Information is exploding so furiously around us and information technology is changing at such bewildering speed that we face a fundamental problem: How to orient ourselves in the new landscape? What, for example, will become of research libraries in the face of technological marvels such as Google? … Why spend large sums to purchase first editions? Aren’t rare book collections doomed to obsolescence now that everything will be available on the lntemet? Unbelievers used to dismiss Henry Clay Folger’s determination to accumulate copies of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare as the mania of a crank. The First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, contained the earliest collection of his plays, but most collectors assumed that one copy would be enough for any research library. When Folger’s collection grew beyond three dozen copies, his friends scoffed at him as ‘Forty Folio Folger’. Since then, however, bibliographers have mined that collection for crucial information, not only for editing the plays but also for performing them.

No computer screen gives satisfaction like the printed page. But the lnternet delivers data that can be transformed into a classical codex. It already has made print-on-demand a thriving industry, and it promises to make books available from computers that will operate like ATM machines: log in, order electronically, and out comes a printed and bound volume. Perhaps someday a text on a hand-held screen will please the eye as thoroughly as a page of a codex produced two thousand years ago.

Meanwhile, I say: shore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. Reinforce its reading rooms. But don’t think of it as a warehouse or a museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, maintain digital repositories, provide access to e-journals, and orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don’t count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the lnternet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.

Colin Steele.



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