Archives for category: Libraries

There follows the complete text of A. C. Grayling’s essay “Reading” from his book Meditations for the Humanist.


How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!   THOREAU

It seems that some doctors prescribe books instead of medications to patients suffering from depression, stress and anxiety. The patients are referred to a bibliotherapist — yes: bibliotherapist — who gives patients reading lists suited to their conditions. The treatment’s inspiration was the observation by librarians that borrowers are apt to say, on returning a book, that it did them good by making them laugh or by distracting them from their troubles.

There are almost too many things to say about this amazing fact. Cynics will ask, What sort of pass are we in that people need a doctor’s prescription to prompt them to read? When did we forget that reading is, for a thousand reasons, one of the chief resources of life? Will doctors turn to prescribing dinner for the hungry and sleep for the tired as the next step in the medicalisation of human existence, or as a response to the supine inability of people to think and act for themselves?

There is a tincture of justice in these exclamations, but it is not appropriately directed at doctors. It should rather be directed at the failure of our culture to show people what rich deposits of pleasure and usefulness, and what expansion of horizons, are to be found in reading. An education in reading includes guidance — very easy to give, it takes five minutes (much less if you say, ‘Ask a librarian,’ which is excellent advice) — on how to find any required book or kind of book. And just a little experience as a reader grants access to the great country where one flies as an eagle over the history, comedy, tragedy and variety of human experience, at every point garnering much, if the reading is attentive, from the abundance on offer.

The key is ‘attentive’. The best thing any education can bequeath is habits of reflection and questioning. Reading can be a passive affair, and entertainment leaving no impression on the mind beyond a pleasant present distraction. Many books are skillfully written to demand no more, and there is nothing wrong with that. But for anything more, reading has to be an activity, not a passivity. It is hard to define what makes good books good, because good books come in so many different kinds, but one thing common to most of them is that they make readers think and feel, elevating or disturbing them, and making them see the world a little differently as a result. ‘We find little in a book but what we put there,’ Joseph Joubert said. ‘But in great books, the mind finds room to put many things.’

Reading does not automatically make people wiser or better. When it has that effect it is because readers have done the work themselves, quarrying the materials from their response to the printed page. But apart from practical experience of life, which is everyone’s chief tutor, scarcely anything compares with books as the mine where that quarrying can begin. To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience. As a result, reading not only promotes self-understanding, it equips one with insights into needs, interests and desires that one might never share but which motivate others, in this way enabling one to understand, and tolerate, and even to sympathise with, other people’s concerns. As an extension of how this informs one’s behaviour towards others, it is also the basis for civil community and the brotherhood of man.

I keep a photograph on my desk of the Philosophical Library in the Strahof Monastery in Prague. Taken from the upper gallery, it captures the tranquil beauty of that deep room, filled up with light from the clerestory windows in the right-hand wall. The photograph shows one long bar of sunshine lying across a tier of book-shelves, illuminating the richness of the leather bindings ranked there. Below, on the ground floor, three desks are disposed at comfortable intervals, among them an ingenious reading wheel any scholar would envy.

The scene is wonderfully expressive of everything to do with books, and the reading of books, with study and thought, with books as the distillations of time and man’s endeavours — even the world itself, brought into reflective equilibrium and clothed in quietness and retreat. If, off to one side, there were a closet with a bed in it and wherewithal to make tea, one would not mind being locked in there, and the keys thrown away.

A cynic might proclaim this beautiful and evocative library a mere dead mortuary for books, a past curiosity for dull-eyed tourists to glance at, a selling-point for the postcards that now represent its only product. But I think it is a work of art, and represents something opposed to the uneasy, fickle, failing norm of most human life and its compromises.

Philosophical Hall, Strahof Library (clearly not Professor Grayling’s photograph)   © 2011 David Coleman

·   ·   ·   •  •  •   ·   ·   ·

A library is like a hive storing honey, part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience. A commentator on Vergil’s Georgics Book IV, which tells of honey-bees and lost love, remarked that only four things withstand time — gold, sunlight, amber and honey. Some archaeologists digging in Greece once came across an ancient amphora filled to the brim with honey over 2,000 years old. They took a little each day to spread on their bread at breakfast. After a time they noticed that there was something at the bottom of the amphora. When they looked, they found that it was the body of an infant.

It is an extraordinarily touching thought that the mourning parents of this child, so long ago, buried it in honey to preserve it forever. The action speaks of great wealth, and great love.

The honey story is of course a good one, but its connection with reading is a bit tenuous. The library as a sticky series of honey pots? Maybe we can think of the ideas in books sticking to their readers — in order to remember you have to read actively, as Professor Grayling says. But the activity doesn’t end when you close the book; you also have to reflect on what you’ve read after the event — licking your sticky fingers? Memories are formed by periodic reexamination of an event, an exercise which reinforces the synaptic pathways in the brain, thus foregrounding that particular item.

One might nigglingly object that “exudate” is an overly fancy word to describe either honey or books. It’s also an inaccurate term in both contexts. Nevertheless Professor Grayling writes well and clearly. His latest book, The History of Philosophy (Penguin Press, November 2019) is an inspiring eagle-flight over the world’s philosophies. My philosophy-student granddaughter reports that it is a rich quarry.

For a rational, liberal, secular-humanist like me Professor Grayling’s heart is in the right place — right (or really left) on his sleeve. “Faith”, one of his brief chapters, includes this rousing sentence “Religious belief, meanwhile, whatever it might do in comforting the fearful in the dark, has always and everywhere brought war, intolerance and persecution with it, and has distorted human nature into false and artificial shapes.” I find myself growing more and more intolerant of intolerance.

“Reading” is reprinted without any permission at all: let’s just say that it’s for criticism and review!

I did a piece on bibliotherapy a few years ago.

As Chris Meadows points out in his TeleRead post Is Macmillan justified in windowing new-release library ebooks?, lots of products are windowed. You can’t buy your own copy of a movie until it has been shown in movie theaters for months, and closer to home, the cheaper paperback edition of a book is not usually published until about a year after the hardback has come out.

So why is everyone so bent out of shape about Macmillan’s policy of restricting libraries to a single copy of their ebooks (and audiobooks, which nobody seems to bother bitching about) for the first eight weeks of their existence? Well, obviously, if you believe that people have a right to read books free of charge by borrowing them from the library, this might lead you to distress at a restriction of supply. But as far as I know there is no right to get a book from a library. Beyond the deposit requirements in copyright law, I don’t think there’s any legislation covering this. Indeed, objectors should bear in mind that far from having any obligation to provide books to libraries, publishers actually have to sit around waiting till the library places an order for their book and buys the thing. With print books the issue is utterly uncontentious. If the library has huge demand for any book, they buy another copy. With ebooks the problem is that if people could “buy” an unrestricted copy there would then be a strong potential that the publisher (thus the author) never sold another copy. The reason for this windowing of library ebooks is that the publisher hopes that some people will want to buy their own copy as soon as the initial publicity bang bursts rather than sitting on the library’s waiting list till the free copy becomes available. Surely this is not an unreasonable wish. The reaction is enough to make you think that Macmillan was poisoning pets, or bashing babies.

As Mr Meadows says “And as nice as it is to read a new-release ebook for free, nobody’s entitled to it.” All members of the commentariat of digital boosters overlook the simple fact that just because they want something this is not a sufficient reason why that something has to be provided to them. It’s almost as if they are drunk with their enthusiasm for the undoubtedly handy and convenient medium of the ebook, and look on it as so self-evidently great that they want to force everyone to feel the same way. Publishers who resist their drive towards free instantly-available ebooks are consequently criticized as greedy Luddite profit maximizers whose only motivation is to thwart the utterly reasonable wishes of all the sensible people in the world who want it now and want it free.

Mr Meadows speculates on whether concerns about piracy might lie behind Macmillan’s windowing policy. But if the first library reader of an ebook decides to post a pirated edition online, their impulse isn’t going to be affected by whether there are more library customers reading the same file. Piracy is an obvious problem with ebooks — and especially in a world where significant numbers of readers believe that they should be available free anyway. Of course it’s also a problem with print books, especially now that scanning a book can be done so cheaply. Just what publishing is going to do about this is perhaps one of the issues for this decade.

For the hundredth time: publishing is a business; businesses exist to make profits; if they are prevented from making profits businesses will cease to produce the product in question. Grow up guys: free isn’t an option. It’s never going to happen. If the odd highly benevolent self-publisher wants to make books available for nothing, fair enough — enjoy it while you can. But just accept that traditional publishers will never do this — apart from anything else, if they did they’d be sued by the authors whose property they were giving away.

In the meantime the stumbling towards an ideal system of library supply, just like terms of supply in any other distribution channel, will continue.


The TLS (as they now officially call themselves after 117 years as the Times Literary Supplement) has a piece on 1 November about the PLR (Public Lending Right).

Public Lending Right is the scheme for the remuneration of authors for the use of their books in libraries. The notion behind it is that while the author gets a royalty (we hope and assume) when a copy of their book is sold to a library, it’s a bit unfair that that should just be that. An author whose book is borrowed every week will end up being paid exactly the same rate as the author whose book sits unborrowed on the shelf for ever. Hard to engineer a tiny payment every time the book is consulted, so a compromise is reached. As The PLR site at The British Library tells us, “Under the PLR system in the UK, payment is made from government funds to authors, illustrators and other contributors whose books are borrowed from public libraries. Payments are made annually on the basis of loans data collected from a sample of public libraries in the UK. The Irish Public Lending Remuneration (PLR) system covers all libraries in the Republic of Ireland and operates in a similar way.” Authors have to register to take part in the scheme. The current rate of remuneration is 7.67 pence per loan, up to a maximum of £6,600 — so nobody’s getting rich over this, but nobody’s being totally deprived.

Tom Holland’s TLS piece tells us that the earliest stirrings of the idea that it was right and proper that authors should get some reward for the library borrowings of their books occurred in Scandinavia. In 1919 The Congress of Nordic Authors took up a suggestion from Thit Jensen, a Danish writer, that library loans might be taxed for the benefit of the creators of the books. In 1920 The Danish Authors Association submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Education but it took till 1941 for the Danish government to announce its support for a reasonable fee to be paid to authors for library loans. Obviously the turmoil of World War II got in the way, and it wasn’t till 1946 that they set up the world’s first PLR system. Norway followed suit the next year. It took until 1979 for Britain pass similar legislation, and their first PLR payments were made to authors in 1984. Since 2017 PLR in Britain has been extended to cover ebooks and audiobooks. Mr Holland tells us that in 2017 fully half of the top ten authors in PLR pay-outs were children’s book authors — an encouraging indication of continuing youthful book engagement.

Currently a PLR scheme is in operation in only 33 countries, 29 of them in Europe. A list is available at PLRInternational.

See also Ebooks and libraries.

Everyone’s bent out of shape about Macmillan’s change of terms for the supply of ebooks to libraries. Just for the record, this is more or less what we are talking about, as reported by Publishers Weekly: “Under the publisher’s new digital terms of sale for libraries, ‘library systems’ will be now be allowed to purchase a single — that is, one — perpetual access e-book during the first eight weeks of publication for each new Macmillan release, at half price ($30). Additional copies will then be available at full price (generally $60 for new releases) after the eight-week window has passed. All other terms remain the same: e-book licenses will continue to be metered for two years or 52 lends, whichever comes first, on a one copy/one user model.”

The commentariat is out in force on this, expressing their disgust at Macmillan’s daring to restrict access to their books. Scrivener’s Error maintains that John Sargent of Macmillan is simply lying. The Digital Reader accuses him of failure to adapt to the market.

But bear in mind that libraries (and ebook readers) do not buy ebooks from publishers, they merely license access to them. This piece from Ingram Content Group a few years back explains the situation from the librarian’s point of view. The basic problem is that if you sell an ebook to a library (or theoretically to anyone) that’s likely to be the only copy you’ll ever sell. If any number of library patrons can look at the file, nobody else needs to make the investment in purchasing their own copy. This needless to say is not a good business model.

Publishers are in business to sell books. According to The Digital Reader Macmillan’s John Sargent “can’t figure out how to adapt to the market and sell what customers want, so he has decided to arbitrarily impose restrictions to force his customers to buy what he wants to sell.” Quite apart from the fact that what we are actually talking about here is licensing books not selling them, one should point out that controlling the market in this sort of way is not altogether stupid. Publishers have been doing it for generations: in a pre-digital world, if we didn’t choose to reprint a book, you couldn’t actually buy it. If we opt not to publish this or that book, or put a high price on it, then access to that work is indeed restricted. We are talking about a business, not a constitutional right to easy access to everything ever written. Nobody, surely, can disagree that the primary moment for selling a book is in the early days, when people are (we hope) excited to get at it. If an ebook is widely available free of charge all across the country one might expect the possibility of selling more copies would be reduced.* That may well be the way lots of customers want it to be (they probably also want their books to be free), but “wanting” isn’t enough. I may want not to have to wear my puffer jacket in January but the government cannot change the seasons — though many politicians seem hell-bent on ignoring climate change. Now of course publishers’ terms are not as resistant to change as the climate, but what is, is the requirement that any business has to make money in order to stay in business. You may not think Macmillan’s tactic is likely to lead to maximizing sales, but you cannot deny their right to try.

It shouldn’t need saying, but obviously does, that publishers instinctively favor easy access to books. If publishers didn’t want to make books available to people they wouldn’t be publishers. Critics of Sargent like to make their complaint on that basis: and that basis is nonsense. The real problem, which they choose to ignore, is that if a publisher gives away all their books they won’t be publishing for very long. Now it’s possible to disagree with the detail of Macmillan’s terms: but it’s just burying your head in the sand to pretend that the big issue is freedom of access to books. The issue is under what terms that access should be granted, and any deal has to allow for a bit of profit to the publisher, so that they can continue publishing. Readers understandably tend to focus on the book they want to read right now. But that, unfortunately for the frustrated ebook borrower, is not the most important issue. The main issue is all those future books which require that the publisher stay in business and see some incentive to keep going. (Yes, yes, I know true objectors will say that self publishing is the royal road to the future. Don’t agree. Both will coexist.)


* Shouldering my invisible sentimental air-violin, let me say that this means authors make nothing too.

Shocked disapproval seems to be the reaction of many when they hear that a library system in rural Florida isn’t going to pay for an on-line subscription to The New York Times. Knees are jerking all over.

Well, wouldn’t we all agree that a library system can decide to fork out for whatever subscriptions it wants to? After all the taxes of local people are what funds the library, and in theory at least the library’s management is responsive to the people’s wishes. If residents of Citrus County in Florida don’t want to subscribe to The New York Times on-line, then surely that’s just fine. The implication that they therefore regard our current president as more “truthful” than The New York Times says, I fear, more about their gullibility than it does about their powers of judgement, but nobody can force them to spend the $2,700 to have the paper digitally accessible in their library. (They do have a print subscription though for the few intrepid liberals in the area.) The Guardian, which I’m sure doesn’t have a whole lot of readers in Citrus County either, brings us the story (linked to via BookRiot).

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County

For those, like me, unfamiliar with Citrus County, its largest community is Homosassa Springs and its county seat, Inverness is about 70 miles north of Tampa. Citrus County had a population of 141,236 at the 2010 census, and has voted around ⅔ Republican in national elections since 2000.

A year ago New York Public Library launched its Insta novels series. Sounds like it’s been a success. Fast Company has a report (linked to by BookRiot) telling us about it all. The NYPL video below says that 300,000 readings have taken place. Insta Novels has 140,000 followers on Instagram.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

To access a book go to NYPL’s Instagram account, @nypl, and tap the title in the highlights section under the intro text. Once it opens keep your thumb on lower right part of the screen to hold the page. When you’re ready to turn the page, take your thumb off the marker.

Gwyneth Paltrow has hired a personal book curator to set up a home library for her. All she needs now is someone to read the volumes for her, or maybe, more charitably, to her. Celebrity bibliophile Thatcher Wine (who knew there was such a job title) sort of covers the event in an interview at Town & Country. The photos make you shudder: you’d never dare take a book off some of these shelves! (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers of 27 August.) Mr Wine with Elizabeth Lane has written a book about designing and creating a home library; and we always thought you just had to go to a bookshop and buy some books you might like to read. Both authors work at Juniper Books, which appears to be — well — a personal book curation service.

Here’s their picture of the Paltrow library. The adjective which insinuates itself into my mind is almost contained in the actress’ surname.

This urge to get your books in order puts me in mind of Abdul Kassem Ismael (938-995). His personal library, allegedly 117,000 books, was said to have been carried around with him on 400 camels, making up a caravan a mile long. For ease of reference the camels carried the volumes in alphabetical sequence, thus comprising a living index. Not sure if my stash of the readies will stretch to hiring 26 likely lads to carry my library about for me. Just have to stay at home I guess. The story was recently sent to me in a link from LightSource, a Christian ministry site. (How does Jeremy find this sort of thing?) The tale was retailed by Alberto Manguel in his (to me anyway, rather disappointing) A History of Reading. (I’m amazed to discover from my BoB that it was exactly twenty years ago that I read it.) Somewhat surprisingly it is The National Security Agency which provides a reality check on this legend. According to them, and who’d dare doubt them, “However charming this tale may be, the actual event upon which it is based is subtly different. According to the original manuscript, now in the British Museum, the great scholar and literary patron Sahib Isma’il b. ‘Abbad [which apparently is another fancier way of saying Abdul Kassem Ismael] so loved his books that he excused himself from an invitation by King Nuh II to become his prime minister at least in part on the grounds that four hundred camels would be required for the transport of his library alone.” The piece may be found at Wikisource.

Pause for a moment to reflect on how it is that perfectly unassuming facts can take on a vivid fantasy life of their own. Is this natural selection at work? “Striking” dominant; “boring” recessive? The Selfish Meme?

Juniper Books is the brain-child of Mr Wine. As their website tells us “Juniper books was founded in 2001 by Thatcher Wine. Thatcher had always loved reading and collecting books, he began his journey sourcing one-of-a-kind and rare book collections for clients around the world. A few years later, Thatcher invented custom book jackets and Juniper Books’ customers fully embraced this new concept. The creativity and our line of “Off-The-Shelf” book sets have proliferated since then. Today we work with thousands of customers in 50+ countries, helping them rediscover the power of print.” So there you go. Sign up for the Books Everyone Should Own (BESO) subscription, at $550 p.a., and you’ll get a pretty novel each month to keep you in touch with the power of print. Those who want to sound like the head of Amazon could sign up for two subscriptions.

A few years ago I did a piece on curation. But this was about content curation. Juniper Books’ service might be said to be trying to duplicate the experience of going to a good independent bookstore, which could itself be described as a sort of diffuse curated collection of books. If you don’t have access to a good bookshop, maybe this service is enough to be going on with? Of course it’s true that many bookshops willl accommodate you with various subscription services. Heywood Hill in Mayfair have particularly elegant offerings. I wrote previously about the subscription model for books.

The antidote for the Juniper service might be Marie Kondo. It’s almost perfect: pay Mr Wine to put in your library: pay Ms Kondo to weed it out: pay Mr Wine to build you another library: call Kondo: Wine: Kondo and so on ad infinitum. For people with too much money (a group whose problems continue to be shamefully under-appreciated by the rest of us) this represents a small step on the way to alleviating the worry of what to do with all that cash flowing in the front door.


Libraries tend to be happy about the digital book because it potentially gets them away from their problem of finding space for all the new printed books which we keep throwing at them.* But of course the digital revolution has dragged along with it an overwhelmingly large selection of new books.

Self publishers have found it difficult to get their books made available in libraries. A friend did manage this by getting the ear of a friendly local librarian, so an ebook of his young-adult novel is now available for loan at his library. The key problem with self-published ebooks and libraries remains the discovery issue. Libraries have systems for acquisition, contract suppliers, standing orders, approval plans etc. — and however good your ebook may be, if they can’t purchase it in the way they normally purchase books then libraries are unlikely to be able to obtain it. They just can’t make one-off arrangements for every self-published book: there are just not enough hours in the day. Some additional justification for librarians’ choice to pay less attention to self-published ebooks may also provided the fact that they tend to be fairly inexpensive, so disappointed punters may be assumed to be willing and able to go out and buy a copy.

Lending of ebooks at American public libraries is reported to be increasing at about 30% a year according to Jessamyn West at Controversy within the business is continually being stirred up by one big traditional publisher after another tweaking their terms of supply. Obviously the basic problem is that unless some limits are placed on frequency of issue, an ebook sold to a library could potentially mean that, what with inter-library loan and unrestricted lending, no more copies would ever be sold to any libraries. No doubt everyone can accept that that’s not “fair” to the author and the publisher, but what is fair is far from obvious, and depends on which axe you are currently grinding. I believe that the twisting and dodging going on reflects not some dastardly plot by publishers, but rather the fact that this is still a relatively new market, and what the “correct” terms of trade should be is still evolving. Publishers do not see any benefit in preventing any sale of any of their books. They do, though, have an interest in avoiding sales which lose them money, either in the short term or over the long haul. If this was an easy balance, discussion would long be over.

Library lending of ebooks got off to a slow start. Publishers Weekly reported in its 30 November 2015 issue on a Book Industry Study Group investigation of Digital Content in Public Libraries. At that time only 25% of library patrons had borrowed an ebook in the previous year, and only 9% had checked out a digital audiobook. It’s not that library patrons were anti-ebook: 44% of them reported reading an ebook in the year before. Until you’ve done it, borrowing an ebook from the library might seem hard. But of course like almost everything once you’ve done it once it becomes simple. Lack of availability was reported as the main impediment but now, as CNN reports, there are more than 391,000,000 ebooks available in US public libraries — not sure just how this relates to the Google estimate that the total number of books ever published is just 130 million! I guess we have to assume lots of multiple copies, though more realistically perhaps we should conclude that when it comes to superlatives like this there’s no way to discover the real facts.

Here’s one guy who’s gotten over the library lending hurdle. An ode to library ebook lending apps comes from a dedicated e-reader.  (Link via The Digital Reader.) I have myself borrowed several ebooks from New York Public Library: it is easier than placing a reserve and then walking over to the local library once the p-book arrives. Maybe less health-giving though, and I do still prefer to read a p-book.


* See also Crewing mustie books and More mustie crewing

Here’s a nice talking point in the run-up to Banned Books Week. BookRiot brings news of the removal of all seven Harry Potter books from the school library of St Edward Catholic School in Nashville, TN.

The evidence is as plain as a pikestaff: surely we’d all acknowledge that any book which a child actually wants to read must self-evidently be bad for them. Do little Tennesseans not deserve protection too? The Rev. Dan Reehil, a pastor at the Roman Catholic parish school, is courageous enough to stand up for the innocents. He writes in an email about the ban: “These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.” Ooooh! Ooooh! According to The Tennessean, Reehil goes on to say that he consulted several exorcists in the U.S. and Rome who recommended removing the books — so that makes it OK. If Roman exorcists say these books are wicked, surely we can all see that they really must be wicked. Faith is a wonderful thing: it moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. Given his belief in the reality of curses, I hope Rev. Reehil has taken measures to protect himself against Ms Rowling’s revenge. Maybe those exorcists forearmed him.

I would enjoin you all to avoid reading the Harry Potter books — especially reading them out loud — do you really want to conjure evil spirits? Of course not! Just to be safe, why not avoid reading books altogether?

Maybe instead just go to the movies? After all, as The Exorcist trailer says “Somewhere between science and superstition there is another world. The world of darkness.” A cinema, clearly.

This video gives you a brief look at many amazing books in the Founder’s Library at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, including an Audubon’s birds (amazingly large, at double elephant folio) and a Kelmscott Chaucer.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Unfortunately the December they refer to as the month when the library would be open to the public was December 2016. Sorry not to have noted this three years earlier.