South Park Self


I had a weird and slightly horrible experience yesterday, which was to wander into the university library in order to dig books out of their stacks. The nice library assistant person who checked my record (and to whom I have definitely given curriculum advice in the last year or so) revealed that I last took books out over a year ago. This is not quite as sad as it sounds: it's not that I'm not doing Serious Academic Stuff, it's just that these days I seem to do the Serious Academic Stuff either from online versions of journal articles, or (given the peripheral and non-pc-in-the-SA-context nature of my interests), by simply ordering copies of the books for myself. The academic landscape has been radically transformed both by the contemporary movement into virtual idea-exchange, and by my still rather new and bizarre possession of disposable income.

What it did mean, though, was that I haven't tried to use the library for actual research since they did a huge re-arrange of it at the start of last year (bang, may I add, in the middle of my orientation programme's attempt to put 1300 students through library tours in two weeks. The confusion was indescribable). It's a very swish space now, all comfy chairs and fancy wall-mounted computer monitors, and filled with studious students umbilically attached to laptops. What you don't see when you first wander in, though, is any particularly striking number of books. The main area has become a reference collection, with no shelves above about waist height (and it's not real L-space until they're over your head) and a lot of computers and info desks. I couldn't find the 800s section where I am wont to hang out. They'd moved it into the subterranean lair that used to hold the older journal issues. I cannot help but find this worryingly significant.

And they're breaking up the Special Collections libraries, including the speculative fiction collection we originated back in the Tolkien Society days, and which has grown in the interim, by the efforts of its wonderful librarian, into a significant chunk of genre material, both primary and secondary. You have to study sf/fantasy in genre, not scattered in isolation across vast tracts of the Dewey. It's about writing in community and context, and particularly in the academic sense, if you don't appreciate that, you're lost. But clearly non-pc-non-South-African collections Take Up Space even more than other categories of books, and are therefore expendable.

I am very much a denizen of the internet, and I couldn't survive academically or intellectually without it, but I also can't help feeling that something has been lost. For a start, I shouldn't be alienated by my own library. I grew up in this library, all the way from a titchy undergrad and right through the rigours of a PhD. It should be my home planet, the warm seas or intellectual air through which I breathe or swim. I should be at home in its most involuted and space-warping corners. If I have become disconnected from it by a process of abstraction, my intellectual pursuits all solitary and virtual, then I am no longer at home among its musty stacks. And anyway, they seem to have shrunk. Does the virtual realm even have L-space? Its own twisty byways, certainly, but not created by the sheer weight of words on paper in the way a proper library does. And I shudder to contemplate the virtual version of a .303 bookworm. You don't want to meet a .404 hollowpoint bitcruncher in a dark corner.

It is deeply significant that enormous piles of books are the one thing in the multiverse I don't mentally classify as cluttery, and therefore undesirable, stuff. And libraries damned well shouldn't, either.
  • Current Mood: annoyed defensive, alienated
  • Current Music: Pet Shop Boys
It's not just at your Cherished Institution. My current C.I. has all sorts of amenities and, I think, a cafe. But as my visiting brother said recently, "Where are the books?" I have been in the building precisely twice, never further than the foyer; once when gwtting a campus tour and once giving it.

And during my doctorate I went into the library precisely seven times: five times to sit at the nice desks and work inpeace, once to browse the shelves, and once to return the 1971 book that I had borrowed. Absolutely everything else was online.

And the thing is, I now have a huge, customised library in various locations: on my hard-drive and backed up in four places.

Charles Stross hosted an intwresting discussion about libraries in general, a while back, on his blog.

XXIII (writing on mobile device, not signing in)
Public libraries here are going the same way. The demise of bookshops here (even the big chains) is also related, I guess. Blame Amazon and the internet, with a dash of government cutting of libraries.

I guess libraries of the future will just be a collection of internet terminals, perhaps with some Kindle-type devices that people can borrow to read on. :-)
I was at a meeting the other day where they were discussing libraries with loaner laptops. The libraries of the future are here already, and it's sad to realise that, sf or no sf, I don't like them much.
Big book chains are going under here in the US, too. You can still find a few small, independent ones, and there's my favourite 2nd hand local chain, "Half Price Books." We're lucky enough to have a pretty spectacular public library system with multiple locations stuffed full of books. Those, and Half Price Books are where I go to wander and get my book stacks fix. I adore it, and dread the day where it might not be an option.
Woe, woe, thrice woe. Even as a non-academic (and someone who reads tragically few actual books these days - but dammit I FEEL GUILTY over that) I find the idea of a library not jampacked with actual books inestimably tragic. Especially contemplating the likelihood that Elfling will never know libraries as I knew them. (She is, at least, greatly enjoying our local one - no threat of closure there, yet, though it's only open 4 days a week.) And an extra woe for the Tolkein collection.

Incidentally I do like XXiii's presumed typo "intwresting", as an intriguing discussion that wrests difficult truths to the ground... or something.
I share your enjoyment of the typo! typos are frequently poetry, or at the very least wordplay.

The thing about libraries is not the piles of books. A Kindle has piles of books. The thing about libraries is the library.
- (Anonymous)
Yes, exactly! profoundly irrational, but nonetheless a strong response. And your point re the technological interface and its inaccessability to a large proportion of our population, is indeed important.
It is a shame about the Tolkien soc special collection. And I too am sad about the fading of L-space, with the loss of serendipitous discovery no kindle catalog can replicate.

But I think libraries are enough of a community good that bibliophiles will continue to organise shared bookish spaces long after everything is available electronically. And those 'print-on-demand' machines are pretty neat for getting hard copy of obscure texts.
I've been likewise surprised in recent years on the odd occasion I've wander into a "library" by the lack of books. They don't even call them libraries here...they are LINC centres—library is clearly a dirty "old" world. So I've built my own library and have been on a mission to rescue as many books as humanly possible—I consider it my main charitable endeavour.