David Pearson: Thank you very much for those kind words, I think the reference to enjoying the pleasures of Melbourne et cetera is my little trip up the Yarra Valley to discover the wonderful wines that you make around here. But it is, as I say, my first trip to Melbourne and I have been hugely enjoying discovering the place and discovering Australia. It’s a very great delight to be here, I am honoured and flattered by the invitation to give this lecture and flattered by the size of the audience who has come to hear me and I am deeply grateful to all of you for turning up tonight.
But I should turn to my theme and ask what is the cultural value of libraries? What is it about their use and their purpose which makes them worth investing in as recipients of public money as an ongoing burden on the public purse? These are questions which lie at the heart of my lecture tonight and where I hope to persuade you that some new answers are worth considering, at a time when traditional ones are wearing thin. For the avoidance of doubt, I am talking here primarily about research and reference libraries, big libraries that have been built up over time to be the backdrop or the backbone of information for the state of their discipline. Public lending libraries are facing similar challenges and fundamental questions and are typically reinventing themselves by diversifying their offer – instead of being just book exchanges, those which are thriving are doing so by becoming exchanges for all kinds of other community activity, from health advice to police surgeries to youth clubs. Those which are not thus diversifying are commonly being closed down, certainly in Britain. But the idea of accumulating collections has always been less central to the raison d’etre of those kinds of libraries than is the case with most of the libraries that I’ve worked in in my career which have included, as Sue said, the National Library back home, libraries which are international centres of excellence in art and medical history, and other big humanities libraries founded on many generations of nurturing their stock.
These kinds of libraries – and by way of example this is the famous long room in Trinity College, Dublin – have grown up around a core concept of libraries, our storehouses and quarries of knowledge, ideas held in books and other documentary formats. Human endeavour of many kinds including education, research, invention, business and leisure has always depended to some extent on access to information, or on what other people have known or said. And for many centuries books have been the containers for containing and submitting those things. Books were created to be communication devices for texts, and libraries evolved to store, organise and make them accessible in large quantities. Those who have founded or funded libraries, or donated material to them, have done so in the faith that they’re augmenting reservoirs of knowledge for which there is no substitute. There have been other sources of information but when looking for authoritative, cumulative and trustworthy places to find it, civilisation has turned to libraries. This late-18th-century print shows history resisting time from destroying a column of books containing events from creation to the present day. It’s one of several figurative fancies like this from the early modern period that recognises the crucial role that books play in preserving the wisdom and the record of the past.
The value of libraries has therefore often been measured in terms of the size of their stock. More books means a greater reservoir, more comprehensiveness of coverage. One of the first things that the user sees when going to the British Library’s website, to their home page, is a statement of how big the collections are – 14 million books. And the library’s strapline is about exploring the world’s knowledge because that’s where it resides, in those collections. When the consortium of university research libraries was formed in Britain in the 1980s, to bring together the major players on that landscape, its membership was easy to define. It was the libraries with the biggest collections. We all know that size matters and the C-word is prominent in the ‘About us’ page of the State Library here where your credentials are very much demonstrated in those terms: ‘We are the state’s largest public reference library, our collection includes ...’ et cetera.
But you hardly need me to flag up the way the world is changing and the questions for libraries that that change is bringing in its wake. Developments in digital technology and the use of the internet have transformed not only the ways in which libraries work, but also those underlying philosophies. Increasingly the kind of content which books have provided is available over the web, either in born-digital formats or via digitised versions of printed books. Sales of ebooks are shooting up while print sales are falling. In Britain sales of fiction and children’s books in digital form were up nearly 200% in the first half of 2012, while the total value of printed book sales fell by almost as much. After a few years of experimentation the e-reader that really works is finally with us and Amazon have sold more Kindles that they’ve sold copies of the Harry Potter books – it’s their best-selling product of all time. The British Library in its 2020 vision statement reckons that just seven years from now 75% of new books will be published in digital format only.
The statistics just tumble out of websites wherever you look and while the frontline of new publications marches ever more electronic, similar swathes are being cut through our vast reservoirs of printed and documentary heritage. Google made the headlines nearly 10 years ago now with its announcement that it would be digitising the contents of a number of major research libraries around the world, and since then the progress of Google Books has been like a steamroller gradually coming up behind the world of print; having to break a few rocks along the way around copyright and stuff like that, but Google is a very big steamroller. Google now openly states that their mission is to organise the world’s information and to make it universally accessible, to become the gateway to the world’s knowledge and information and ideas. We can all speculate with interest as to whether they will achieve stable global domination or whether the battles of those tyrannosaurs at the top of the global digital industries, combined with anti-trust law and popular feeling, will see their star wane. But either way, I think that that huge mass of digitised content will both grow and be increasingly relied on as retrospective digitisation projects are burgeoning all over the world, with no shortage of them over here. If you want to read a Shakespeare play, if you want to read a government report, a novel by Patrick White or Jane Austen, or even the Melbourne Argus for 1848, it’s no longer essential to get hold of a physical item or visit a library. You can do it from a hand-held digital device connected to the internet from pretty much anywhere in the world.
So an axe has been laid at the root of that traditional philosophy around research libraries and there is much debate around their future trajectory. Increasingly of course that debate takes place via the medium of the internet where there is no shortage of pages and postings commenting on the decline of physical libraries, sometimes saying this is lamentable and scandalous, sometimes saying bring it on and not a day too soon. The landscape is complicated I think by the hybrid and transitional nature of the world that we’re currently living through, partly because we’re not yet at a point where everything which we used to go to books for is yet available digitally, although I think we can see what such a world would look like and how the technology exists to make it possible. And partly because we have a series of generation gaps. Those who were brought up with books, and that includes me, I think will always instinctively regard print as the primary medium and electronic as secondary, while someone who learns to read on a Kindle or an iPad or something like that, and I think that generation is nearly upon us, will think about it the other way round. My mother, who is 84, refuses to use computers, although she can type and despite her enthusiasm for genealogy and family history, I cannot persuade her that looking in printed directories is no longer the best way to go about this. Public services have to accommodate the needs of all their audiences and the breadth of that spectrum at the moment, as regards wishes and expectations around e-delivery, slows the pace of what some would call progress and others would call the decline of civilisation.
But the conveyer belt I think is moving all the time and day by day, a higher proportion of that audience becomes made up of people who live on their smartphones and are really very happy with that, find it very handy. As Google takes over from library catalogues and as digital resources and e-repositories increasingly provide the wherewithal for the study and housing of information and research outputs, libraries move to concepts around social spaces, training and information literacy, managing e-resources to endeavour to maintain their relevance.
While these changes have been going on around the way that libraries function, other changes have been taking place around the way in which the history books and the history of libraries is studied. If the purpose of libraries has traditionally been defined in terms of the aggregation and the making accessible of texts, so historical bibliography, that umbrella term that was long used to embrace a kind of package of enquiry around the history of printing, publishing, bookselling, libraries, the book trade, has had a similarly text-focused rationale. Philip Gaskell’s 1972 New introduction to bibliography – probably the leading reference work of its generation in its field and still beside the bedside of many librarians as I speak – summarises the thinking of several decades of bibliographical scholarship in stating that ‘the chief purpose of bibliography is to determine a text in its most accurate form’. The great achievements of innumerate bibliography that we saw in the 20th century when the short-title catalogues gave us authoritative maps of the output of the hand-press period was similarly stimulated by that rationale. It’s necessary to know how many editions of a work appeared and in what order so as to be able to establish authorial intention, correct versions of texts in their original state and to track the subsequent variations.
The corrective spur to this approach is often said to date from the late 1950s when the influential French historians Febvre and Martin published L'apparition du livre (The coming of the book) which asked questions about how books and particularly their availability and circulation helped to shape the world. They understood the importance of the book as an instrument for communication and influence and wrote about the book as a force for change. Since then those ideas have blossomed in multiple ways and we’ve moved away from historical bibliography, a term which is less and less commonly encountered, to become book historians and redefine the discipline more as book history, the history of the book. Which, in a nutshell, I always think is about wanting to understand the social impact of books. We’re interested not just in the ideas that books contain and in the fixing of their texts, but also in the ways that they were received, the ways that they were used and taken notice of, or not, by previous generations. The ways in which books were distributed and circulated, their physical forms, the ways they were owned, read, annotated, mutilated – all contribute to a greater understanding of social, intellectual and economic history.
The pioneering thinking of that great antipodean Don McKenzie, and I’m not sure whether it’s good form or not in Australia to praise a New Zealander, you can tell me that afterwards – on what he came to call ‘the sociology of text’, how the material form on which texts are transmitted influences their meaning and the way they’re perceived, has focused minds more on looking at the whole book and not just at the words on the page. We’re increasingly aware that the way that a text is perceived may be influenced by the physical form in which it’s encountered. Interest is focused more on the whole book as a physical artefact, a designed object that people have interacted with, not just those words on the page. The blurb on the back of the Cambridge history of the book in Britain, a series that began appearing in the late 1990s and is still continuing, talks about creation, material production, dissemination and reception of texts, what influence they had on the minds and the actions of the people who heard, read or viewed them. If you look at a modern manual on the history of the book like David Finkelstein’s Book history reader, it will define book history in terms of the role of the book as a material object in print culture. Book historians are shifting the emphasis form recovering exact meanings in text to understanding the place of texts within their contemporary societies.
What all of this means in practice is that we develop new ways of approaching books and libraries and new emphases around what it is about them that’s interesting. If we want to understand that social impact of books, we need to look at the evidence they contain, both individually and collectively, that bears testimony to that. It’s one thing to know that a book was printed, it’s another altogether to know that it was read. A book that’s been annotated by an owner or a reader, putting comments or questions in the margins, marking the passages that are particularly interesting, gives a direct window into that interface between the author and the reader, as well as proving that the reader, that the audience was actually there. Here is Inigo Jones, the first significant British architect of the early modern period, 17th-century designer of Covent Garden and the Banqueting House. It tells me on Wikipedia that he was the first significant architect so it must be true. Here he is reading and annotating his copy of the Trattato dell'arte of Giovanni Lomazzo. Lomazzo was a late 16th-century Italian mannerist painter who went blind and took to writing about art because he could no longer practise it. And this book is now recognised as a milestone in the development of aesthetics and artistic theory and here we see proof of Jones’ reading and absorption of that book, translating passages from Italian to English, underlining what seems to him to be the key points.
According to the latest Oxford University Press edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, ‘This is the foremost example of the mid-19th-century poem of contemporary life and a richly detailed representation of the early Victorian age.’ That clearly wasn’t the view of Thomas Carlyle, great Victorian man of letters, founder of the London Library, as he liberally annotated his copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with candid and rather less complimentary thoughts: ‘How much better if all this had been written straightforward in clear prose, a very beautiful tempest in a teapot. What a gift of utterance this high child has and how very weak and childlike all that it has to say.’ Examples like this of annotations in books giving us insights into contemporary perceptions can of course be extended vastly because there are countless examples of them in libraries and collections and all over the place. The fact that it’s the annotations that marks out the interest in this copy on Verses on the death of Dr Swift was recognised when it was included in an exhibition at Monash here a few years ago. Similarly if you go up to the fourth floor here, in the exhibition on books it is recognised that what’s interesting about this 16th-century Bible is not so much that it’s the text of the Bible but the fact that it’s been annotated by various hands over the centuries, including annotations which are thought to be by the 16th-century reformer John Knox.
People annotate their books in various ways. They may write notes on the flyleaves, in the margins, if they’re really serious they’ll have them interleaved with blank pages so they can really let rip to their thoughts. They may write things that relate to the text, they may write things that seem to have nothing to do with it but reflect whatever their preoccupations at the time may be – their boredom, the availability of a piece of blank paper and a pen in their hand. One regularly encountered type of annotation, which I’m sure many of you may have seen, is the kind of annotation in family Bibles where people often used blank pages there to record the births, the marriages, the deaths in their family. For many poorer families a Bible would probably be one of the few books that they would own but also an appropriate and a sacred place in which to record these very special events in family life in the documented word of the Lord. People sometimes draw or paint in their books. Here we have a copy of Montaigne’s Essays from the 17th century embellished by a Dutch lawyer of the time with lots of paintings and pictures and things in the margins; and the other one is an English book on heraldry which a late-18th-century owner very extensively annotated, including suddenly at one point, on the end leaves, an unexpected watercolour on the memorialising of the departed. You find all kinds of things in books when you start looking.
Although of course many people don’t annotate their books at all. The idea of writing in a book has always been anathema to some. Charles Lamb, another great Victorian man of letters of Carlyle’s generation, thought that a genuine lover of reading liked to see the solid leaves and worn-out appearance of a well-used book, whereas Virginia Woolf thought that writing in a book was akin to a sexual violation. Collectors used to think that annotations in books, including ownership inscriptions, were defacements and detracted from their value which is why there was a vogue very much in the 19th and early 20th centuries for taking books apart and washing out any offending ink markings, a practice today we now regard with regret, if not with downright horror.
Today people typically regard an annotated book as more interesting than one that is completely untouched with spotless pages. Although this does of course present a bit of a paradox for librarians who may see a 300-year-old book that’s been annotated by a student and think it’s very historically interesting, whereas they will open a contemporary book that a student has taken a highlighter or a biro to and regard it with dismay and seek down the offending student. I think this dilemma was nicely illustrated in this cartoon in the Times higher education supplement a few years ago and I can only say well, you know, librarians need to think about this one and puzzle it out but we probably do need to draw some lines between what you do in books that you own yourself and ones that are for communal use. However I will bet you that the undergraduate text books which say Barack Obama or Tim Berners-Lee covered with highlighter or their annotations or whatever, if such things exist, will command a premium among researchers and collectors in years to come.
But it’s important to add that annotators don’t have to be famous or recognisable people in order to have something worth looking at, something worth noting. Interest in the provenance of books has in the past tended to focus around a kind of bibliographical celebrity culture, association copies owned by kings or rock stars or similar, and it’s a key part of my message here that we should move away from that and appreciate that all previous ownership is part of the historical fabric and is worth investigating. I think there is plenty of vernacular social history in this 18th-century book of devotional verses in which a contemporary and completely ordinary owner called Elizabeth Overton has used the leaves at the end to record her feelings on marriage headed ‘The virgin’s prayer’: ‘If I am doomed the marriage chains to wear/Kind heavens capricious hear my virgin’s prayer/May the loved man I’m destined to obey still kindly governed by a gentle sway/May his good sense improve my best of thoughts and his good nature smile at all my faults,’ and so on for many lines.
We can observe first hand evidence of the development of the English Reformation, not only from King Henry VIII’s annotated books about theological texts relating to divorce, which you can see today in the British Library or Lambeth Palace, but also from the small English religious tract of the 1540s on whose flyleaf is written: ‘I bought this book when the testament was aggregated, the shepherds might not read it. I pray God amends such blindness. Writ by Robert Williams, keeping sheep upon Saintbury Hill.’
The mere ownership of a book, whether annotated or not, is also potentially valuable evidence of previous interest in it, and the collections that people and libraries form in toto help us see changing patterns of values and what is or is not worth having. Reconstructing the content of private and institutional libraries allows us to compare them with other collections of their time, build up wider pictures of book ownership over the generations, looking at average sizes, changing trends in language or subject, place of origin. We can see which books were popular and which were not. Books have survived in very uneven way and ones which are rare today may once have been much more commonly owned.
It’s easy to forget that values change and books that we think of today as the milestones of their age may have been differently perceived in the past. Take Shakespeare and literature more generally – today most people would take it for granted that literature is more interesting than theology and if you look at the prices that a 1623 Shakespeare first folio commands in the marketplace today with what you’d pay for a contemporary theological work, well you can get a lot of theology for one Shakespeare. But 17th-century libraries were typically composed of about fifty per cent theology, and literature as now defined got much less of a look in. I did some work a few years ago on late-17th-century private library collections, comparing in detail which books regularly appeared on people’s shelves and which didn’t, and the results were that the books which everyone typically owned were primarily theology and the Greek and Roman classics. Books which nobody wanted to be without were the works of St Augustine or Richard Hooker’s treatise on ecclesiastical politi. None of the libraries that I looked at had any Shakespeare at all. Literature, as we would now define it, was most popularly represented by John Barclay’s Argenis, a book-length romance which is also an allegory of 17th-century European politics which was very much read in the 17th century, but very little read today and I think most people would find it extremely hard-going. Literary figures we would recognise, who did get a look in in those 17th-century collections, were Milton and Donne, but the former was owned at least as much for his political writings and Donne was owned at least as much for his sermons as for his poems.
Libraries, both institutional and private, reflect the values of their time and the interests of their creators. Here in Australia, the landscape of private collecting during the last couple of centuries has begun to be mapped out, through the admirable directory compiled by Charles Stitz and published a few years ago. The next step, I suspect, is to look at those collections from a more comparative standpoint and see what they can tell us about what was and was not thought worthy of collecting here over the various generations and how those ideas changed over time. Thinking about ways on which institutional library collections have social impact, I was struck by the account of David Jones and Martyn Lyons in The history of the book in Australia volume that covers the early 20thcentury, writing about the ways in which early public libraries here exercised moral manipulation. Jones describes the school books box scheme, introduced in the Public Library of New South Wales in the 1920s, circulating carefully vetted books to children and their parents across large rural areas. They were books of adventure, history and geography, popular mechanics for boys and suitable occupations for girls including flower gardening, sewing and cooking. On the instructions of the chief librarian, ‘on no account should children be introduced to stories dealing with sex problems, passionate love stories, tales of dishonesty and dishonour and books calculated to provoke dissent.’
Martyn Lyons, looking at the development of railway institute libraries around the same time, and this shows the Ballarat Mechanics Institute Library in about 1909, comments on the active policy of the New South Wales Railway Institute to stock European authors and discourage Australia, although the Victorian Railway Institute Library had a more nationalist outlook, thus helping to create a truly Australian culture. Here I think we have clear and recent evidence of libraries as active historical agents shaping social values, influencing thinking and helping, or not, to break away from a colonial mind set and create more of a national identity.
But libraries and the books within them can testify in more direct and physical ways to the understanding of the use of books in the past. These are two books from the Plume library, the town library that was set up in the Essex market town of Maldon in the early 18th century by the vicar there, Thomas Plume. He died in 1705. On the left is a copy of the 1621 edition of The history of the Turks by Richard Knolles, the first English language history of the Ottoman Empire, first published in 1603 by a Kent headmaster who’d never actually been to Turkey but who put in all the information together by reading other books. On the right is another early-17th-century book by – this is the works of St Isidore of Pelusium, a fifth-century Egyptian ascetic monk who counts as one of the lesser church fathers, printed in 1605 with a parallel Greek and Latin text. The Knolles book is in a 19th-century binding, later repaired and re-backed, and internally its pages are quite scruffy, particularly at either end where they’re torn, they’re defective. St isidore has an early-17th-century binding: plain, unexceptional for its time except that it is in extremely good condition and its pages are clean and crisp.
The physical state of these books shows that the former has clearly been well read and appreciated and used over the centuries and the citizens of Maldon seemed to have had an appetite for Turkish history, whereas St Isidore I think is still waiting for his reader in Maldon and I suspect he may have a little time left to wait. Just looking at the condition of books in libraries, how much they have been thumbed or repaired can give us answers to that ‘Has this book been read?’ question. One of the best examples of this kind of approach known to me is the Worth library in Dublin. A collection of about 3000 books bequeathed to a hospital in Dublin in 1733 by Edward Worth – a wealthy physician whose libraries contain a lot of medical literature alongside a range of classics, history, theology – the kind typical of a collection of its time. Worth was quite a bibliophile who spent money on having his books nicely bound by high end Dublin binders of his time. Now it’s been said that the presence of this library in early-18th-century Dublin shows that medical practitioners there would have been up to the mark as regards contemporary medical thinking. However wrongheaded we may now think pre-19th-century medical practice to have been, the doctors of Dublin would be basing their work on their patients on recorded expertise rather than just on folklore or quackery because they had this wonderful library there. And it’s the physical state of this library that turns that theory on its head and shows that it is complete fantasy. What is really remarkable about the Worth library in Dublin is the physical condition of the books. They’re pristine and it’s one of those rarely encountered collections where you really get a sense of what books like this were like when they were new. We’re so used to experiencing historical books and thinking about them as things that are quite fragile, quite delicate, we have to use them on foam supports in special reading rooms, you know, they’re a bit different from ordinary books, and it’s very easy to forget that when they were bought new, they were as robust as a new hardback which we would buy today. And the Worth library in Dublin is one of those few collections where you can get a sense of what books like this were like when they were new. They’ve scarcely been opened since Worth left them there in 1733 and they certainly were not being actively used by the Dublin medical fraternity in the 18th century, or indeed at any other time.
I’ve described here a range of ways in which libraries and their contents can be quarried in less simply traditional ways and textural ways to yield understanding and fit those new lines of enquiry that are developing in book history. And if you're dubious, well there’s a lot of evidence out there to support what I’ve been talking about. Studies on the reading and the use of books, on marginalia and annotations, on book ownership, private libraries, have been flourishing in recent years and new books on these topics are appearing all the time. Within the last couple of years we’ve seen the launch of a number of web-based pan-national databases like ProBok which is charting copy-specific evidence in books in Scandinavian libraries, material evidence in incunabula , people putting together information about copy-specific evidence, providence evidence from incunabules around the place and recently something was launched called Annotated Books Online trying to capture books that have been annotated and it’s the annotations that makes them interesting.
Academic centres are springing up in universities with names like The Centre for the Study of Material Texts, seeking to embrace that concept of, that the study of books should be looking at them as objects in their totality and their material evidence. The copy census as a methodology is gaining ground, looking at evidence in multiple copies of the same book, not to ascertain printing variants but to see what the ownership, the bindings, the annotations tell us about the book’s impact, individually and collectively. The best known of these is probably the work that Owen Gingerich did on Copernicus – he went round the world looking at about 600 copies of the first two editions of De revilucionibus, the book in which Copernicus put forward his theory that the earth goes round the sun and not the other way round. And Gingerich’s findings revealed not only the communications network which clearly existed across European scientists of the 16th century, but also demonstrated that what seemed to interest those people was not actually the heliocentric theory nearly as much as Copernicus’ maths. But there’ve been several other censuses like this published during recent years, looking at literary and classical authors and as a way of approaching book historical questions, I think it’s a methodology that has much merit.
So what does all this mean for libraries and for their users? I think it means a change of emphasis gradually manifested across a range of practices and values. In presenting to the world what’s interesting or special about their holdings, I think we’ll see more exhibitions that focus not so much on authors or subjects or famous texts, but more on the ways that the books have been used and what this can tell us and these are a few examples of exhibitions on those kinds of themes from recent years – one from Scotland, one from America, one from Canada. It means new emphases in collecting policy, discarding traditional interest in completeness of textual holdings, or in building up multiple editions and printing variants. If the totality of the printed heritage textually is available digitally on sustainable platforms in which users can have confidence, what’s the rationale for ongoing collection building of the traditional kind? Better to focus on those copy-specific aspects of books where they can offer unique research value. Some years ago Yale University library for example bought a collection of books, not for their texts or their authors, but whose unifying theme was that the books were all heavily annotated, often by anonymous people, and I suspect that we will see more collecting of that kind.
Digitisation is a great leveller. Thirty years ago a research library with big holdings of early printed books built up over the centuries was unquestionably a better research library for such material, than a smaller university library with modest collections acquired only over only a few decades. Researchers would flock to the former library from around the world because it was the only way to get to see the books. But if early English books online and 18th-century collections online provide high quality facsimiles of most of the output of the English printing press down to 1800, those dynamics change. Any library subscribing to those things suddenly has access to the same range of texts as the centuries-old copyright library and you can see that in practice in the catalogues of both Monash and Melbourne universities here where the electronic surrogates for the early printed books through those databases are presented to the user simultaneously interfiled with the copies that they hold. Now okay, it’s not completely that simple, the online resource is not one hundred per cent complete and the experts will point out that there is a range of shortcomings from a bibliographically perfectionist point of view, but realistically I do think there is an 80/20 rule here which means that for the great majority of users it’s great. It gives them what they want and any custodian of a rare book collection in the UK will tell you that physical consultations of early books are typically going down for purely textual consultation purposes because people are getting this stuff online. The Early English Books Online database marketed itself for a while with ‘It’s like waking up in the stacks of the British Library’, and researchers have responded to that and many researchers would agree with that. It really does give them wonderful levels of access.
So going back to that question of acquisitions, if you have a choice to make between buying a clean copy of a 19th-century book on Tasmania, which is not held here at the State Library but it’s available in full text digital facsimile through Trove because somebody else has got it, or you can buy a contemporary Australian school book where the text is already held here but it belonged to an Australian school teacher in Bendigo who annotated it with notes about her pupils and her lessons, which one would you choose to buy? I would say that the latter has more to offer by way of unique research resources but the collecting policies of many libraries today are still very much geared to defining desirability in terms of contextual completeness of editions in stock and of not taking in things which are considered to be duplicates. Now that’s a simple example and I have no doubt that the generous funding of the State Library would allow you to buy both books here, but you know, you can see the point that I am making I’m sure. Acquisitions are about choices and priorities and I think that policies need to be considered in the light of the kinds of ideas that I’m talking about today.
We need to adjust our cataloguing policies in libraries. To take cognisance of these changes of emphasis and pay more attention to what Thomas Tansell has called ‘the post production features of books’. The cataloguing and arrangement of books in libraries has traditionally assumed that users would be interested only in authors, titles and subjects, and scant attention has been paid to owners and bindings and annotations and other copy-specific features. That is changing, and many cataloguers today do include searchable information about such things in their records, but there is an awful lot of catching up to be done.
High-end specialist projects, like the one in train at the moment in Cambridge University library to catalogue all their 15th-century books, produce records that typically have as much information in them about provenance and binding as they do about text and typography. But the larger the library, the greater the backlog is, and the quantity of material that isn’t yet accessible from that type of angle. This book that was published a few years ago about the British Library is all about trying to recognise and document some of the great collections that were its building blocks, unscrambling the efforts of generations of custodians there who have regarded that as an essentially unimportant emphasis.
I find it encouraging that in recent years back home, where are our Arts and Humanities Research Council has given money to library-based projects, these kinds of themes have been to the fore. They gave money to the library in North Wales that houses the collection of William Gladstone, the great 19th-century statesman, so that his books could be catalogued and identified with all his annotations because he was quite a liberal writer in his books. We’re fortunate in the UK I think in having a network of collections looked after by the National Trust. Great houses like Nostell Priory in Yorkshire in the 18h century; simpler ones like Town End on the edge of the Lake District, which still preserves a family library that was built up by successive generations of yeoman farmers from the 17th century. And I was at a seminar for another arts and humanities funded research project just a few months ago where they have supported a project to look at National Trust libraries and try to explore these collections as collections and draw out the kinds of things that we can learn by looking at the books that have been owned and the ways that they’ve been put together.
More philosophically, and also I think more controversially, this train of thought points to a different set of values about libraries and what they are, or about where the key importance of their collections may lie. It suggests a closer alignment between libraries and museums, where hitherto there has been a fundamental difference. Libraries like museums both contain manufactured items from the past which help us to discover and understand that past. But in libraries the assumption has always been that the primary purpose of the objects is to carry on using them in the ways that their makers intended. You go into a library to read a book, but you don’t go into a museum to use a 19th-century silver spoon to stir your coffee or to sit on a Chippendale chair.
In the future I suspect there may be more elision between these missions and the ways in which the objects in both environments are studied and appreciated. I say ‘controversial’ because in my experience librarians tend to bristle at the idea of becoming more like museums, it’s a dirty word to many; it suggests dust and anachronism. But let us not forget that many museums have had a renaissance in recent times by reinventing themselves through outreach and dynamic public engagement programs. Academic theory around the nature of documentation produced a few seminal articles in the 1990s by Michael Buckland, who defines a document in terms of anything which may be preserved or represented in order to serve as evidence for some purpose and in those terms a coffee spoon in a museum is just as much a document as a book in a library.
At the end of the day I think the issues and the ideas that I’ve been talking about tonight are important and need to be widely promulgated and discussed, because otherwise I think we are in danger of losing things that matter. Earlier on I showed a late-18th-century image that was symbolising the importance of saving books from the corrosion of time, and here’s another slightly earlier one from the beginning of the 18th century, where literature is holding back marauding time while her cherubs are gathering up the scrolls, the precious scrolls of knowledge to preserve them in a carefully ordered sequence.
It’s not only time and decay that can do it for books, it’s the deliberate library management that weeds out and discards material that is believed to be obsolete or duplicate. Libraries are expensive things to run. Miles of shelf space costs money. Discarding books can generate controversy but librarians have been doing it for centuries, in the in interests of keeping shelves up to date and managing budgets. The march of digitisation has presented opportunities to do a lot of shelf clearing and repurposing of space, and back home in Britain a few years ago our higher education funding council put ten million pounds on the table in order to persuade university libraries to send runs of printed journals to the pulping mill where they were electronically available so that they could make better use of the space. This was not without some negative publicity and this piece from the Sydney Morning Herald shows that the issues around these policies clearly surface over here too. Now I am not advocating that libraries shouldn’t throw books away, nor do I think it’s terrible that shelf stacks are being turned into group learning spaces with comfy chairs, because digital surrogacy and born-digital media are here to stay. I think a lot of baloney is talked about dumbing down, about turning libraries into Starbucks, about the impossibility of serendipitous browsing in an online environment, as though nobody had discovered the power of Google.
What does concern me is the rationale that underpins the discarding because it does tend to be based only on textual surrogacy. If you follow my arguments around changing values, about what are going to be the unique values of libraries and their collections, I hope you’ll see that a more museum-like approach or whatever you want to call it, calls for an adjusted set of criteria applied to the way that these collections are managed. You may say that I protest too much because obviously nobody is going to discard historical material of value although I do notice that this article from the Sydney Morning Herald talked with some concern about the discarding of 19th-century Australian newspapers.
You may also say that the kinds of things that I’ve been talking about – evidence of use, annotation in books that makes them interesting – will apply only to older material and special collections, it’s all kind of protected anyway. To answer that by way of illustration and example, I was giving a talk a few years ago to a group of librarians back home, talking about provenance and the importance of historical evidence and at the end one of the librarians came up to me and he said, ‘I work in the library of the Royal Society of Medicine, and I recently accessioned a contemporary book which had belonged to a distinguished contemporary haematologist and he’d written some notes on the flyleaf in pencil about a drug which had recently been developed and introduced and how he thought this was not a good thing and it was dangerous and it shouldn’t be used,’ etcetera etcetera. And he said, ‘Well of course I had to rub those notes out before I put the book on the shelf.’ And I said to him, ‘You did what?’
The notes that that man wrote on the flyleaf of the book are probably the only feature of that book I would say which has long term unique research value. The text of the book, if it doesn’t already exist online and is available electronically, undoubtedly will be someday soon and anybody who wants to access it textually I suspect will do that. But the thing that was unique were the opinions of that distinguished haematologist which sadly are now no longer on the flyleaf for posterity to speculate on. You know, we understand why he did it but I think it’s a classic case of applying a set of values to the management of library collections which is actually quite wrongheaded, and it reminds us of the mid-20th-century librarian in Dr William’s library in London, who found pencil annotations in some of their books and you know got the rubber out, and got rid of those because of course nobody wants that kind of thing. And some of the books in Dr William’s library came from the novelist George Eliot through her husband which went to Dr William’s library, so sadly we no longer have the pencilled-in margin of George Eliot any more than those of the distinguished haematologist.
Why does it matter? Because history matters. There are acres of academic discussions and books written on the value and the use of history, but beyond all that I think there’s a more fundamental and visceral point that history gives people roots, it helps them to understand where they’ve come from, which is why it is so popular. People want history as is testified by the global success of genealogical websites and historical programs in the media, and libraries are reservoirs of historical evidence which should be appreciated and exploited as such.
What we also need to do though, is recognise that the areas where their key value lies is changing, and we should give much more attention to books as material objects rather than as words on pages. If we don’t, I think there is a threat that a different kind of approach to books as objects will take hold. Last year I picked up in the British Library a book called The repurposed library: 33 craft projects that give old books new life. And it’s all about taking orphaned and outdated books and turning them into sculptures and decorations, useful household objects, a lampshade or a hanging mirror, narrative vases. And it’s an idea that is clearly taking off. I mean in the University of Melbourne only this morning I was seeing a piece of book art which was based around repurposing books like this, and in our professional association magazine back home a couple of months ago, there was piece about a successful competition to turn books into artworks. Dozens of people took up the challenge with a workshop on book folding organised, as it happens, by an Australian artist.
There is going to be a lot more discarding of books going on in the wake of digitisation and a growing questioning of the necessity for ongoing investment in big, physical libraries. And I fear that if we don’t generate a broad recognition of these different kinds of cultural values and unique qualities that can be found amongst our books and collections, then the wrong books will get turned into lampshades. I did write more about these ideas and the kinds of things that I have been talking about tonight in Books as history, which Sue kindly mentioned at the beginning, which I deliberately pitched to try to be a colourful and a hopefully accessible setting out of these issues, not a scholarly monograph because I think it’s the public and the politicians who they vote into office and who ultimately fund libraries and put the public funding into resources like this, who need to be converted at least as much as the academy. And if you’d like to explore further, well, as they say, available from all good bookshops, and on that shameful plug I will rest my case.
Thank you very much.