The Meaning of the Library

meaningA few interesting tidbits from The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History (ed. Alice Crawford)…

In “The Renaissance Library and the Challenge of Print” by Andrew Pettegree, we learn the library was not always a hushed, solemn place:

The Renaissance library was a noisy place—a place for conversation and display, rather than for study and contemplation. It was only in the seventeenth century, with these new institutional collections, that the library began its long descent into silence, emerging as that new phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the library as mausoleum, a silent repository of countless unread books, its principal purpose the protection of books from the ravages of human contact.

More from Pettegree on the book as object:

The book survives because it is an object of technological genius, refined through two millennia since the Romans decided that there must be a better way of storing information than on scrolls of papyrus. The invention of printing was a critical moment of evolution, but the shape of the physical artifact was already determined, and remarkably similar to the books we own today.

In “The Library in Fiction”, Marina Warner surveys the landscape of the library in imagination, using the Epic of Gilgamesh as a case study of a cultural vessel that is at once telling a story and a story in itself:

[Gilgamesh] calls attention to itself as a written artifact, set down in stone, as described in [its] first paragraph. This self-reflectiveness reveals a crucial quality in the character of the fictive: it has always aspired, since these beginnings of literature, to monumentality. It has designs on eternity and, in order to achieve them, must turn itself from the verbal into the graphic, from the narrated story told once upon a time by someone who has since died into an object deposited for those who come after to find and read.

The library, then, emerges as a safe harbor,

an archive, enshrining those fugitive, mobile, airy webs of words that make up stories, and its existence—its survival—provides the necessary warranty for the work’s value and its imperishability. Without the library to preserve its creations, the imagination is mortal, like its protagonists.

To this point: Wendell Berry writes about the dichotomy of boomer vs. sticker, terms he borrowed from Wallace Stegner, who wrote that boomers are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street”—whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” Unlike boomers, who are often motivated by greed, stickers, Berry writes, “are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”

Your local public library’s great asset is that it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a sticker. It’s not—or at least shouldn’t be—out to make a buck before getting out of Dodge. (I can’t imagine how that would even be possible given how dependent public libraries are on property taxes and patron usage.) It’s on that corner, that street, always. You just have to use it.


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