Saturday, 13 February 2016

Love of books – a Valentine story?

This weekend it is the Valentine’s Day – the Friend’s Day in Finland. People are hugging and hearting the Old Oswestry hillfort in an attempt to save it. A similarly worthy cause would require us to heart a slightly more than we do but it does not get similar recognition, only a few sad shrugs from academics. A story a colleague shared about my old alma mater reminded me of that.

No matter even if I am myself working a lot online and actually editing an online monograph series, this has only made me more aware of the pitfalls we can take, if we lull ourselves to a belief that digital is the all and the end. It definitely makes our life easier and it is so much quicker to search, browse and – ohem – copy and paste. However, it is also fickle and elusive when it comes to keeping a library stocked. This is not ever clearer than when you try to catch that book, present in the library catalogue of your university, that was discontinued from the online bundle they subscribe from this publisher or another but still spookily comes up in a ghost-like manner in your searches.

Back to my colleague’s story. He was looking for a certain volume in a periodical that was duly listed in the online catalogue, but did not have any location mark, only a faculty library name. He definitely remembered having had one volume relatively recently on loan in his study at the University, so he made his way to the library in question. On arrival he got to hear that the periodical series was part of Generalia that had been decided to be chopped off from the library’s collections. When the colleague pointed out that he had managed successfully to loan a volume recently, the library assistant was wondering aloud if this series was the one that had been lingering in the garage, packed in cardboard boxes. Going, going from the university library any way. My colleague counted his blessings and booked a distance loan from the University of Helsinki – a university where the library is cutting their subscriptions as well.

This caught my eye when in London earlier this week and adding a new specialist library card to my collection, joinging the Cambridge University Library card, the Kungliga biblioteket, Vitterhetsakademien etc. etc. All those lovely old books, whenever you need them stacked in endless corridors. I simply adore it when I walk in the maze that is the Stacks at Cambridge – or sit in the reading room of the American Academy in Rome, surrounded by the folio prints of the books from the late 19th century, seeing the gardens from the open windows. Or tapping away in the high reading room in the Swedish Institute in Rome when the floor boards creek slightly under your colleagues' feet. Or you calmly flip through a periodical in the upper library in Villa Lante in Rome and forget that at noon the canon will go off on Gianicolo and - BANG! - the windows and the whole building just shake around you.

Nowhere seems to be safe. The collections are moved around, repacked, rearranged, reshelved and put in a storage magazine. Old readers’ tables are covered by the volumes that burst the library shelves. The overlapping subscriptions in different libraries are cut – or the management tries to cut them – but sometimes the users can keep their volumes, if they moan loudly enough – and actually have money. The libraries try to find a virtue in digital subscriptions, but they forget that the most certain way of keeping ownership of something is actually to have a hard copy. The electronic subscription can vanish in a split second.

In the times of Costafication of the university libraries, their keepers should remember that well-stocked library is an essential research resource for most humanists, social scientists, lawyers, medical doctors and many scientists as well. You lose that resource and you lose your historians and human geographers – if not anywhere else but to those few libraries and places that actually still have books away from your institution during the term time. As the cartoon artists commented sometime ago, in the times of the modern fashionable plasticky 3D printing, the books are actually already in 3D.

I know many who hope they had fewer books and would not need so many bookshelves. However, there is something extremely pleasing in old books, even romantic - and our house is filled with them. You never know when you need one. That is why I got a car boot full when the Institute of Continuing Education disposed their students' library.

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