Archives for category: Libraries

For the most part the students wait their turn very patiently. To stand and wait while someone examines white disks is soothing. The umbrella will certainly be found. But the fact leads you on all day through Macaulay, Hobbes, Gibbon; through octavos, quartos, folios; sinks deeper and deeper through ivory pages and Morocco bindings into this density of thought, this conglomeration of knowledge.

Jacob’s walking-stick was like all the others; they had muddled the pigeon-holes perhaps.

There is in the British Museum an enormous mind. Consider that Plato is there cheek by jowl with Aristotle; and Shakespeare with Marlowe. This great mind is hoarded beyond the power of any single mind to possess it. Nevertheless (as they take so long finding one’s walking-stick) one can’t help thinking how one might come with a notebook, sit at a desk, and read it all through. A learned man is the most venerable of all — a man like Huxtable of Trinity, who writes all his letters in Greek, they say, and could have kept his end up with Bentley. And then there is science, pictures, architecture, — an enormous mind.

From Virginia Woolf: Jacob’s Room Ch. IX. Non-Brits may need to be reminded that “keeping your end up” is a cricketing metaphor, describing the task of allowing a batter of superior ability to continue to score runs while you stolidly defend your wicket and try to avoid getting out by eschewing any fancy and over-ambitious strokes. In multi-day cricket matches such a batter may be described as the night-watchman.

An almost 180-degree view of “the enormous mind”, from Wikipedia. Apparently the ceiling is made of papier mâché.

Bear in mind that since Jacob’s Room was published, in 1922, the Library has moved out of the British Museum. In 1997 it was shifted into a custom-built space on Euston Road next to St Pancras, about a mile north. The old circular reading room, opened in 1857, was built in the central court of the original Museum. It is currently closed as administrators mull over what it might be now best used for.

A recent Bookseller headline shouts “Booksellers report more customers switching to paperbacks as household budgets tighten” (only accessible to subscribers though).

Used to be a book would be published in hardback, and if it did at all well, a paperback edition would be follow a year later. Have you noticed a recent fashion of just walking past that first bit, and publishing initially in paperback (and ebook)? It’s by no means a majority of traditionally published books which are coming out just as paperbacks, but a growing number of publishers are playing around with this idea.

We may not be about to see the demise of the printed book, but it does seem quite possible that the hardback will drop by the wayside. Let’s face it, the reason we have hardbacks (beyond the grip of tradition) is that publishers can charge much more for them while spending little more to make them. Sure there’s a bit of token rhetoric around strength and survivability, but given that a hardback is nowadays really nothing but a paperback stuck between board covers with a jacket wrapped around it, the strength argument hardly stands much scrutiny. (The earliest paperbacks were presented by the book trade as disposable items, but when it comes down to it a modern trade paperback is almost identical to the hardback in terms of quality of manufacture and durability.)

Once upon a time people might have felt that when they were buying a book as a gift it would look a bit cheesy if they bought a paperback rather than the hardback edition, but this attitude now looks decidedly old-fashioned.

For years we have been encountering paperbacks in libraries.

The world and the business have moved on. There was once a time when it would have been crazy for a librarian to think “If I buy the paperback for $5, rather than spending $20 on the hardback edition; if the paperback falls apart after 50 borrowings, I can always buy another one”. Fifty years ago books, while not quite like milk, did have a sort of sell-by date. When a book came out in 1965, if you really wanted a copy it behooved you to get up off your backside and buy one. Waiting would almost inevitably result in disappointment, because back then it was rather expensive to reprint a book which wasn’t selling in large numbers. As a result most books went through a single printing and then disappeared into the world of OP. Now that we can rely on digital printing, and especially print-on-demand, to make a book available “for ever” buying the cheaper paperback becomes a reasonable library acquisition policy.

Seems unlikely but books are, like elm trees, subject to the effects of climate change. The New York Times brings us an account of the hoops book conservators are having to jump through to counter the effects of flood, fire, and general brimstone.

In 2005 Tulane University Libraries shipped eight feet of water during Hurricane Katrina, resulting in the soaking of  about a million and half books and folders of manuscripts and a similar number of individual pieces of microform such as microfilm reels and microfiche cards. “In the Howard-Tilton building alone about 750,000 of the library’s print volumes and media materials were underwater,” Over 300,000 print volumes, 18,000 reels of microfilm, and 629,711 archival items were eventually salvaged. This sounds good, but represents only 5% of the microform material and 40% of the books.

It seems obvious that you’d not want to build your library where it’s vulnerable to flooding, but of course your library is where your library is, and it’s not too easy to pick it up and move it to higher ground — even if higher ground is available which in New Orleans it isn’t so much. Avoiding storing books in the basement sounds obvious, but a librarian’s got to store the stuff where they have the space. Forest fires obviously don’t only take place where Smokey anticipates them. But it’s not just fire and flood; rapid fluctuations in temperature, and increasing humidity also adversely affect books as does smoke in the air. Increased humidity, whose effects we hitherto have witnessed mainly in curling covers, threatens to bring mold with it.

Investment in upgrading libraries to protect against the effects of climate change would have to be immense, and in the nature of things is unlikely to become available until a disaster like Katrina has occurred, and then only piecemeal. “Researchers are studying ways to maintain physical books for longer and sustainably. The Image Permanence Institute, a research center based at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has analyzed more than 1.9 billion environmental data points from institutions around the world to find the best practices for keeping collections safe. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently announced a grant to aid institutions seeking to organize climate plans and reduce their environmental impact.”

The Image Permanence Institute is part of the College of Art and Design at Rochester Institute of Technology, and is “dedicated to supporting the preservation of cultural heritage collections in libraries, archives, and museums around the world.”

Storing stuff in remote locations kind of defeats the purpose: if it’s not available, it effectively doesn’t exist. Digitization is an obvious fall back, but of course that’s not an altogether climate-free option, and also requires investment in infrastructure if it’s to be anything other than an inaccessible archiving solution.

Books are of course in themselves an archival solution. If 2,000 copies of a book exist it doesn’t make too much difference if one or two in Californian libraries are soaked in the extreme rain storms which are going on just now. Lots of books are printed in smaller runs than that nowadays, but the point remains. But is climate change another thing pushing us away from print and towards digital? I think not: digital’s not an automatically long-life archival solution as we saw recently. It’s the one-off things that are irreplaceable: manuscripts, letters, drawings, old maps and so on. Doubtless these are being taken upstairs: fingers crossed that the roof doesn’t get blown off.

Cambridge University Press and Assessment have digitized their thirty-four Christmas books. An account is published in Fine Books Magazine. The Press’ own announcement doesn’t suggest any way in which you might be able to consult these scans. They are part of the CUP archive at the University Library. Apply at the front desk?

If you’re not letting the masses look at them, what’s the point of scanning these books? Is it only a belts-and-braces sort of archivists’s trick. A bit like “You’ll never steal another Darwin’s notebook from us”? CUP have been asked by Publishing Perspectives to let them know when (if ever) the scans do become publicly available. Archivists no doubt regard the existence and survival of these items as sufficient justification in itself. Wishing to keep archival materials “forever” is a human characteristic, whether forever is really forever, or just means “until I’m gone”. Surely anyone who wants to study a printer’s presentation books will want to see the books themselves — after all their physical properties are a huge and basic part of the effect, and the point.

I suppose it’s OK, is it, that we live in a world where the words “hi-res digital copy” inspire automatic respect? My recent Gentileschi post went on about this.

On the media is a pretty sensible radio program, but they took leave of their senses on a recent weekend (11-12 Nov 22) when they did a program on libraries. It began well, with an interview of the next head of the Library Association, but came off the rails when it moved on to The Internet Archive, where they allowed the plausible founder of that institution to pull thick wool over their eyes (and the ears of their listeners). The ongoing law suit against The Internet Archive is not directed at tightening controls on public library lending of ebooks: it’s directed at theft of copyright properties. If there is a free version of a copyrighted ebook available out there on the internet which anyone can access at any time, then we can all figure out that this is going to have a negative impact on authors’ earning power. If the book is Oliver Twist which is already in the public domain this is just fine, and no publisher or author is going to have any problem with it. When it’s the latest Stephen King, Mr King (and yes his publishers) are likely to find the situation less acceptable: after all we live in a nation where copyright law governs this sort of thing and however “noble” The Internet Archive claims its intentions to be in bringing reading to the people, the unfortunate problem is that they are just not allowed to do that by freely using someone else’s property. The radio program claims that “The outcome of Hachette v. Internet Archive could upend digital lending, as we know it, everywhere.”

This is rubbish. Public libraries do beef about the terms on which publishers license the lending of ebooks, but these terms are not anything like those enjoyed by The Internet Archive — which amount basically to saying “My motivation is good, therefore I can do whatever I want for free whether you, the owner, agree or not”. Sort of like someone saying “All these poor people need a place to live. You have a big house, so we’re moving this family into your second floor, and you’ve got no say in the matter.”

A slab of concrete over one foot tall, ten inches wide, and two inches thick, weighing about 20 pounds, is cataloged in the University of Chicago’s library system as a book. Betonbuch (Concrete Book), was published by experimental artist Wolf Vostell in Zurich in 1971 in an edition of 100. Allegedly each of the 100 block books contains a copy of Mr Vostell’s booklet, Betonizierungen (concrete-ifications) This is “a sketchbook of realized and unrealized concrete projects,” the head of special collections at the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center tells us. “Some are just really fantastical. He wanted to concretify the city of West Berlin. He wanted to concretify clouds.”

This photograph, from the Atlas Obscura article on this topic, shows a copy of the 26-page booklet lying on top of the UC Library’s copy of the concrete art book. The Library has recently been toting the lump around various departmental labs in an attempt to establish whether their block really does contain a booklet — though why you’d really care escapes me. Thus far tests are inconclusive — i.e. nobody’s located paper pages in there, but the search continues. One scientist involved in the quest reacts nonchalantly to the suggestion that they may never find the answer: “Art helps stimulate discussion and ideas,” he says. “‘What do you think?’ and “What does it mean?’ are more interesting questions than ‘Is there something in there or not?’” Well, I know what I think, and it’s not that interesting.

As readers, and publishers, we should perhaps spend a few seconds reflecting on what a back-handed compliment it is that such a large segment of American society is intent on banning books. If you thought books were powerless to influence minds, you wouldn’t be wasting your breath calling for their suppression, would you? These book-banners almost seem more in awe of the power of a book than we in the business are ourselves. Could it be that the fewer you read the more powerful you think they must be?

To me, being told I wasn’t allowed to read something because it was too wicked for me to stomach would be one surefire way of making me want to rush out and get hold of it. And libraries across the country are making banned books available free to all — here’s a story from NPR about the New York Public Library’s initiative. Of course, I dare say most students in high school aren’t spending a lot of time paying attention to library do’s and don’ts — they’ve got more important business on their teenage minds — but telling kids they can’t read this or that can surely never work. If they’re readers, they’ll read it in spite of you; if they are not, they don’t need telling.

National Geographic has a piece on the history of book banning in America, which started very early. (Link via LitHub.) Back then it tended to take the form of book burning, and of course Uncle Tom’s Cabin suffered that fate. Burning seems mild compared to the fact that in 1857 “In Maryland, free Black minister Sam Green was sentenced to 10 years in the state penitentiary for owning a copy of the book.” No doubt Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been harassed on social media if only that boon and marker of high civilization had been available then.

The pace only quickens these days: according to PEN America in the nine months between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, there were 1,586 book bans in 86 school districts. Bans took place in 26 states but 713 of the 1586 were in Texas alone. Doesn’t democracy demand that we respect voters’ rights to try to turn their state into a Republic of Gilead? Read; Discuss; Vote!

I held forth on book banning earlier this year.

Well, should I tempt providence by claiming never to have detected the action of bookworms in any of the many, many books I have been surrounded with all my life? Indeed I had wondered if it wasn’t all really an old-wife’s tale based on a metaphor. But Wikipedia gives us a distressingly long list of contenders for the “bookworm” title, and they have the pictures to back it up. There’s even one called the booklouse. And who’d have imagined there was a creature called the museum beetle, or worse the drugstore beetle or even the cigarette beetle? Silverfish and cockroaches can also become avid devourers of books.

Book worm, book worm,
Measuring the paperbacks,
Could it be, you stop and see
How beautiful they are.

— always loved Danny Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen.

Maybe I really didn’t have the misfortune to host a bookworm, but I did once own a book dog, a Rottweiler who as a puppy developed a selective taste for bookbindings.

Rottweilers are intelligent, placid dogs, and are easy to train — and it’s important to train a dog that big who will control you on the street if not trained to answer your command — so when she was told not to eat books, she changed her diet forthwith.

I read recently that Eric Carle apparently originally wanted his Hungry Caterpillar to be a hungry bookworm. Sounds like a unlikely scenario though: a mite metamorphosing into a lesser grain borer is, when compared to caterpillar/butterfly, a bit, well, boring.

I think bookworm may be unusual in being a word more frequently met with in its metaphorical usage than in its base meaning. We live in a world where any child who reads more than two or three books runs the risk of being categorized as a bookworm. Such bookworms are of course served by lots of bookstores rejoicing in the same name. I find that Merriam-Webster has one definition of the term: “a person unusually devoted to reading and study”. The Oxford English Dictionary prioritizes the same definition, but gets to insects in its second definition, commenting thereon “A number of insects damage books in various ways, but the only ones that actually bore through the paper are the larvae of wood-boring beetles. Compare booklouse n.,  book mite n.

This legal interlude, fantasizing about library terms of supply, all provided a nice little flurry of fun. And now it’s over.

Publishers Weekly reports on the end of Association of American Publishers’ lawsuit against the State of Maryland about their law attempting to force publishers to sell ebooks to libraries at discounted prices. The judge decided not to bother to issue an injunction forbidding Maryland from doing this: that the “State never enforced the law and represents it will not enforce it in the future is an important factor bearing on whether the Court should take the additional step to enjoin the State from enforcing the Act. The Court has declared the Maryland Act unconstitutional and may reasonably assume the State will abide by the declaration.” I suppose if the State changes its mind and really tries to make publishers sell ebooks cheaply to libraries, an injunction can easily be obtained.

Now the court has ruled in favor of the AAP, indicating that Maryland, or any state, cannot just decide to override laws passed by Congress — in this case the copyright law — one can perhaps imagine that this would be the end of such legislation. But as Publishers Weekly told us in February “Library e-book bills are now pending in five state legislatures, MassachusettsRhode Island, IllinoisTennessee, and Missouri, and such bills have already passed unanimously in Maryland and New York.” Subsequently Connecticut joined the queue. The Governor of New York already vetoed that bill, and I don’t know where the other states stand, as well as any others who may have found the ebook bandwagon irresistible, but basic equity seems pretty clear. Prices are determined by the seller: if you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

Now of course you can see why legislators would favor bills like this, whatever their chances of success. Makes them look like they are sticking up for the rights of their constituents without much chance of their having to do anything about it. But to me, any law or lawsuit based upon the words “reasonable prices” must be doomed: one man’s reasonable is another man’s exorbitant, is another man’s way too cheap. Pricing of ebooks for libraries still remains in flux: it hasn’t been all that many years after all. A solution needs to be negotiated not litigated or legislated or enforced. If librarians want their customers to be able to borrow ebooks, then the price they pay for them has (obviously) got to be a price publishers and authors are willing to receive. You can’t in any price negotiation say “This is ridiculous, I refuse to pay more than this much”. Well of course you can, but you have to expect your negotiating partner to walk away from the table, which just leaves you high and dry.

Let us take for an instant the extreme position — how damaging to the world would it actually be if ebooks could not be borrowed from libraries at all? To publishers? Not a bit: or if at all, very little. After all, the publisher would in theory rather that every reader should buy their own copy (even of a printed book — though of course everyone has bought in on the social desirability of a library system where barriers to reading are at least not financial). To authors? Maybe a little: it’s always nice to have another reader, even one who’s a non-buyer. To libraries? Maybe a bit annoying, especially if many people protest and start bending the librarian’s ear. To readers and library users? It’s just a matter of money. If I have to pay, will I nevertheless still read? Well of course that depends — and there always remains the free physical library book as an option. But in no way does the world as we know it cease to function if I can’t get a free ebook from the library. I am not advocating such a position. Nor is the publishing industry even thinking of such a thing, although it might reduce tensions between publishers and an important market segment.

Bite your tongue ye commentators, and be patient: a pricing solution will be reached. Surely it’s obvious that futile lawsuits are not a great way to win friends and influence your suppliers. I’m no lawyer, and have to assume that lawyers must have advised all these states that there’s some ground for proceeding, mustn’t they? — but just what ground that is I’ve no idea. Just because I wrote a book and people would like to read it for free, why must I be made to supply it at a cheap price to my local library? This doesn’t seem to me any more reasonable than that because eating is important to the public, farmers should be required to sell meat and milk at discounted prices. Now of course we have to recognize, yet again, that this “movement” is all based upon the erroneous “common knowledge” that ebooks cost nothing to produce! THEY DON’T.

In Libraries and ebooks I previously beat the drum of getting ebooks out of the library and having publishers “rent” them to readers.

See also Mandatory ebook licenses for libraries?.

Ever cringed at the sight of someone licking their thumb in order to flick over the pages of a library book? Or their own book, for that matter? Or maybe even just the thought of unwashed sweaty fingers is enough to keep you away from the public library. We keep getting told how there’s a whole mass of sloughed-off skin cells lurking in our bedding: I even got an email the other day proposing to sell me a product which would help me to get rid of them! Well, even without thumb-licking we cannot avoid leaving our personal traces all over any book we read. (You’ve never found a hair in a gutter?) I try to comfort myself that the effects of such traces wear off after a few days and will be gone by the time I borrow the book, but of course that’s nonsense. Don’t get too upset though — this is true of anything we handle, so don’t stop reading. Maybe wash your hands more often as instructed by the CDC while singing Happy Birthday twice through.

Proteomics is the study of proteins — and as proteins tend to survive better than much genetic material they are an important source of knowledge about ancient DNA. Paleoproteomics is the result. It’s not about Jurassic-Park-like dinosaur cloning — proteomics can potentially reveal information about ancient peoples and artifacts.

Of course it’s hard to get hold a bit of any ancient relic in order to grind it up and subject it to testing. Matthew Collins, Professor of Palaeoproteomics in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge (happy to see the Cambridge archaeology department is still out front on the science of archaeology), emphasizes how difficult it is for conservators to yield up for testing any tiny bit of their unique charges, and this obviously slows down the analysis of ancient materials. In order to obtain samples for analysis Professor Collins makes use of the rubbings that conservators routinely make with erasers when they are cleaning their charges. “Since 2011, Collins has used the rubbings to gather biological information about medieval European cattle, sheep, and goats.”

Professor Collins is quoted in a New Yorker piece (referenced by Emma Smith: Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers, Allen Lane, 2022) describing the work of Pier Giorgio Righetti and Gleb Zilberstein on testing old manuscripts for what biological evidence they might retain. But of course it doesn’t just have to be manuscript you test: “In 2015, researchers at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., swabbed the gutter of a Bible from 1637 and found DNA belonging to at least one Northern European, who had acne.” Kissing the bible was not uncommon behavior (probably still is) among the committed: traces of proteins from drips from medieval lips and noses have been detected on the tenth century York Gospels. Learning that, if you’re upset about skin cells in your bedding (or worse bedbugs in library books), you’re probably never going to open any second-hand book again. But it’s obvious that such research can potentially yield fascinating information about who’s handled a particular book. Presumably, for instance, we might be able to prove just how much attention Samuel Richardson actually paid to Lady Bradshaigh’s annotations of Clarissa by finding his dabs all over it. Or finding traces of the sweat of Ezra Pound’s brow all over the manuscript of “The Wasteland” could be interesting — more interesting if it was some other poem I suppose.

Confronting the testing = destruction problem, Zilberstein has adapted a food packaging ethylene-vinyl-acetate film to pick up a range of chemicals from old and valuable objects without damaging them. Finding morphine all over Michael Bulgakov’s manuscripts may not be too earth-shattering, since we kind of knew he was addicted, but a second test “picked up twenty-nine human proteins, mostly from sweat and saliva, including three biomarkers of the renal disease that killed Bulgakov, in March, 1940.”

The Folger research referenced above comes from their Project Dustbunny, described here in Washingtonian. That test took place in 2015 and inaugurated the project.

Dustbunny involves going through the books swabbing the gutter margin: presumably not every gutter of every book. The dust thus recovered is stored in a bio-archive, where it will sit until it can be scientifically analyzed. Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts says “It’s not just a collection of texts but this biological archive that we need to preserve for future research we can’t even conceive of.” Professor Collins has been advising the Library on how they might best proceed with testing.


* Always a bit risky to embark on the explication of a pun: but my title is a bit of a pun. The word “reading”, as well as its obvious sense, is also the British term more or less equivalent to what in America we mean by “majoring in”.