Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at modern libraries.
I spend a good deal of time wandering around in libraries. Some of this time is distinctly productive – I’m looking for something specific. But much of my time is spent simply browsing; engaged in the occasionally vain hopes that I’ll find something of interest, and content in the knowledge that I’ll enjoy myself whether I do or do not.
The inexorable progress of library science, however, seems to not take browsing into consideration much when planning how to improve libraries, and there is an increasing rush to move holdings into ‘offsite storage’, a term that I feel has a decidedly euphemistic ring to it. I’m not particularly interested in having a debate with a horde of tetchy librarians about what is the best way for them to perform an admittedly difficult job, but I had an experience last week that made me think of offsite storage in a new(ish) light.
I pay for a visiting library membership at an Ivy League institution near where I live, and while it is not terribly cheap I certainly consider it money very well spent. Their libraries are beautiful and august things, impeccably maintained, filled with gorgeous books and a staff that is well-informed and helpful. But although they have enormous holdings, they are increasingly moving them to a warehouse in New Jersey. It is not an onerous process to look at something that has been moved offsite – you just fill out a form, and the requested item arrives in a day or two. This is an efficient system for many things, but not for browsing. Browsing does not work in two day intervals. It feels like playing chess by mail, a game that has never appealed to me.
Until recently I’ve not been so upset about this system. But then I found that they didn’t have a periodical I was looking for, and so went up to the library one of the local public colleges to find it, and found that my feelings on offsite storage took a distinct turn towards umbrage.
This library was housed in a huge and unlovely building. My immediate impression upon entering was not good – should an academic institution absolutely have to play music loudly over loudspeakers just outside the library, Iron Man, by Ozzy Osborne and Black Sabbath is an odd choice. My following impressions were in a similar vein – it was filled with students talking loudly on cell phones, there was a blinking fluorescent light in one corridor and a broken fan duct in the next that whined persistently. And there were other delightfully antagonistic touches sprinkled about, such as the two metal triangular shapes protruding from a wall near a water fountain, just high enough to function as seats, which had metal spikes welded onto them, in case anyone had the idea of sitting there.
But all of this was immediately forgotten as soon as I walked down to the basement, where the things I was looking for were kept. The basement stretched on and on, a giant room full of journals, magazines, and periodicals, most of which appeared to have not been looked at for decades. Hundreds of bookshelves covered in dust and groaning under the weight of ignored knowledge. I was suddenly in heaven, albeit a heaven with bad lighting and largely populated with college students talking loudly.
The chances are very great that I will never really need to look through all the issues of The Journal of Calendar Reform or The Transactions of the American Foundrymen’s Association, but I find an indefinable pleasure in coming across them. The run of Crelle’s Journal from the 1820’s to the present is doubly incomprehensible to me, as it is about math and written in German, but it is nonetheless beautiful to look at, with its variegated and marbled covers, and I’m sure that sooner or later someone for whom it is not incomprehensible will come across it there, and be surprised and pleased to find it.
I found the periodical I’d come for, and made copies of it. And I came back to that library the next day and wandered for hours. The volumes are all arranged alphabetically, and I started at A and walked slowly through, looking at every title without taking anything down from the shelves. After an hour of this I had just reached B, so I allowed myself to aimlessly stroll through the stacks, pulling down things whenever they sparked interest. I found lovely illustrations in Aero Magazine from 1937, strange and horrific ways of making recipes with war-time rations in the Journal of Home Economics from 1943, and dozens of other things I’d never thought to look for. I left four hours later, inexplicably happy, covered in dust and bits of knowledge I’ll never understand.
I cannot help but to find it strange that making a physical object inaccessible is now seen as a sign of progress.