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Library Love 2009: An Archivist Reveals the Charm of Libraries

Justyna Zajac, Publicity

In honor of National Library Week 2009, OUP will be posting everyday to demonstrate our immense love of libraries. Libraries don’t just house thousands of fascinating books, they are also stunning works of architecture, havens of creativity for communities and venues for free and engaging programs. So please, make sure to check back in all this week and spread the library love.

Martin Maw is an Archivist at Oxford University Press, UK.  Keep reading to learn about how he was charmed by libraries at an early age.

Though I never analysed it at the time, the power and charm of libraries took me over at a young age. I grew up in a fairly isolated town, long before anyone had even dreamt of the Internet, and the local library was the only way I had to explore my culture. Consequently, teenage Saturday mornings were often spent ferreting round that glass and concrete cube near the town hall, trying to find an alternative to school texts or to the unfathomably dull novels I knew at home.

It didn’t take long. Like many adolescents, I immersed myself in science fiction – though I read probably more of Ray Bradbury than any other writer. These days, I find Bradbury far too overblown and theatrical, but those are exactly the qualities that appeal to an impressionable 13 year-old: he seemed to be writing in wild colour when everything else I read was a tentative black and white. Bradbury was also the first writer I found who expressed the mystery of libraries themselves. His novel Something Wicked This Way Comes hinges on a small-town library and its caretaker, and exactly evokes suspended, after-hours atmosphere of deserted book stacks – places where anything may be revealed at the flick of a page. Equally, in writing Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury showed that books and stories can be dangerous things in themselves – you might have to memorise a text that was too risky to physically possess, and in some sense be taken over by that book. It wasn’t until much later I understood that Bradbury might be saying something else: that some people can get possessed by texts, that they can become walking repositories of other people’s words and thoughts, and that this can be a deprivation, even a threat to their very sense of self. It’s a theme handled with much greater subtlety – and menace – by Shirley Jackson in her story “The Tooth,” and in M. John Harrison’s work, especially The Course of the Heart: a mournful, visionary fantasy about the futility of fantasy itself, and (for my money) one of the best novels published in the past thirty ears. Needless to say, Bradbury’s implied caution is one you need to observe every day when working as a publisher – or as their archivist.

The enchantment of libraries persisted. I went to university in the Midlands, and discovered an open-shelf treasure house that offered everything from V.S. Pritchett’s short stories to obscure works by the Beats, Lorca, and Burton’s rare translation of the Arabian Nights. None of this was on my syllabus – I endured two months of pointless misery, trying to read law, before switching to a history degree – but that didn’t matter. I was after an education; I got one. Or rather, I started on one. The more you read, the more you realise how little you’ve read.

That came home to me when I started working at the Bodleian Library. Not to experience its spell is, I think, impossible: you seem to inhabit a vast, hushed pavilion of ivory stone, which floats at one remove from the crowded lanes around it in Oxford city centre. But for a reader, its stacks are mania made visible. The gorgeous architecture is just a penthouse. Under it lie five floors of subterranean shelves, some 90 miles in total, holding not only every book you’ve ever read, but also all the ones you’ve never read and never will. You see where Jorge Luis Borges, a librarian himself, got his inspiration. Standing in the midst of the Bodleian’s shelving, it’s easy to imagine that the stacks stretch to infinity, as in Borges’s story “The Library of Babel,” and that their volumes capture every conceivable combination of letters – including this article. It’s said that the ancient library at Alexandria had a motto carved on its wall: “The Place of the Cure of the Soul.” Underground in Bodley, you might well think the opposite. This would be an easy place to go mad.

All of which helps to explain the lasting mystery of libraries, even with the “gimmethat” reach of the Internet. Good libraries are zones outside the mundane. They show you what you never imagined. They can put you in touch with the dead voices, take you to imaginary or vanished places: as in séance, you’re suddenly on those extraordinary blue lawns Fitzgerald glimpsed after dark at ‘20s society parties, or at Einstein’s elbow as he writes, very carefully, for the first time, “E=mc²”. Libraries are time travel on the cheap. But more than that, those ordered books on quiet shelves order ourselves in their turn, and help us keep our small intelligence in perspective: for, as an 18th century rabbi once noted, no matter how many books we absorb in our life, we have not yet truly read the first page.

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