"as you touch the Holy Gospels of Christ."

From time to time I’m going to incorporate material into this blog that (gasp!) doesn’t have to do with training for an Ironman.  This is partly to reassure myself (something that will become increasingly necessary as time goes on, I suspect) that there is more to life than the next workout.

I’m in the middle of teaching a freshman writing course that is designed to look at the impact that various new media and information technologies are having on libraries and the research process.  Recently we read “The Once and Future Library,” a chapter from Nicholas Basbanes’ engaging Patience and Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy.

The chapter describes the debacle surrounding the building of the new San Francisco City Library in the late-1990s.  Designed to be a technology-laden gateway to the shiny information future, the library was beset with problems.  A visually stunning architectural design did not make up for the fact that there proved to insufficient shelf space for the library’s collection, resulting in a wholesale and largely unsystematic dumping of books (many of which were carted off to a local landfill before angry residents intervened).  Add in labor problems, rebellious staff members, the discovery of a chunk of the library’s collection residing in a leaky parking basement, bad national publicity and local criticism, and it wasn’t a surprise that a special panel was commissioned to try and sort the mess out.

The chapter was useful for a couple of reasons.  As we began working on the research project it was a way for me to show that yes, there are controversies associated with libraries (after all, you think “library” and you don’t typically think about pistols at ten paces).  The chapter was also a great teaching tool because Basbanes makes an argument in that chapter but never actually does the standard move of stating the argument up front.  Yet you are in no doubt by the end where he stands and what he is advocating.  So it was a way of being able to talk about how an argument can be made by selection, editing of quotations, juxtaposition, and so on.

Anyway, the scan I’d done of the chapter also included the first page of the next chapter.  The epigraph to that chapter was the 1610 version (slightly modified) of the patron declaration for the Bodleian library at the University of Oxford.  For generations, patron would have to affirm the following orally upon their first visit to the library:

You promise, and solemnly engage before God, Best and Greatest, that whenever you shall enter the public library of the University, you will frame your mind to study in modesty and silence, and will use the books and furniture in such manner that they may last as long as possible.  Also that you will neither in your own person steal, change, make erasures, deform, tear, cut, write notes in, underline, wilfully spoil, obliterate, defile, or in any other way retrench, ill-use, wear away or deteriorate any book or books, nor authorise any other person to commit the like; but so far as in you lies, will stop any other delinquent or delinquents, and will make known their ill-conduct to the Vice-Chancellor or his deputy within three days after you were made aware of it yourself: so help you God, as you touch the Holy Gospels of Christ.

A shortened version of the declaration is still required, although today patrons usually sign a written version.

I was really struck by the language in this piece, but also the way in which it places a weighty responsibility on the shoulders of every patron.  It’s a vision of the role of the library, books, and scholarship that seems almost completely alien now.  I was taken with the idea that the library was envisioned as a place for which you need to prepare yourself in advance (“frame your mind”) and that scholarly study was characterized by “modesty:” something all to rare in the chest-thumping competition we’re all subtly (or not so-subtly) forced into by the publish or perish (or, these days, not infrequently publish and perish) model.  Also striking here is the fact that the reader/scholar’s task is very simple: to preserve both the library and the books.  Even here the declaration acknowledges the power of time.  It doesn’t say that we’re obliged to preserve everything until Kingdom Come, or in perpetuity, or anything theological or legalistic like that, but simply for “as long as possible.”  This pragmatism sits rather oddly with the laundry list of possible ways that a book could be despoiled.  But this is all a reminder that one of the things that made the Bodleian famous in its early years was that it very aggressively refused to lend its books to anyone, a policy maintained even when it offended nobles and high profile clergy who asked to borrow books.

The declaration is also a fragment from a time when books were one step removed from Holy objects, and looking after them was still regarded as a sacred trust.  I’ve never been particularly invested in that view of books myself and I abuse my own books dreadfully, committing most of the crimes listed in the declaration plus several others of my own casual devising.  I’m also not especially romantic about books even though they have been one of the gravitational centers of my life for as long as I can remember.  I can’t wait to get my hands on an E-reader, for example.  I’ve always felt that predictions of the disappearance of the book were massively overblown to precisely the same degree as bold predictions about the transformative potential of new information technology.

Books will be with us for many years. . .in some form.  But it’s becoming pretty clear that the print book is now teetering on the brink of obsolescence in a way that it hasn’t before.  The print book offers many advantages when compared with its electronic competitors: it is permanent, relatively hardy given everyday usage, and it is a non-proprietary format.  There’s a tendency to look at it as an out-dated technology.  But if we look at it purely as a form of technology it is in many respects a superior technology compared with what is out there at the moment.

However, recent history is littered with vastly superior technologies that have been cast by the wayside by a seemingly insatiable appetite for and an unstoppable drive toward efficiency and convenience.  Betamax was technologically superior in terms of picture quality to VHS.  Laserdiscs were vastly superior in terms of picture and sound quality to DVDs.  Only a tiny percentage of geeks or aesthetes care about such things.  Most people just don’t care about quality (look at the cars we drive and the new houses we buy).  In fact, if you hear people talking about quality, that isn’t usually what they are talking about at all (more commonly, its something like a list of “features”).

So that patron declaration spoke to me in unexpected ways.  It spoke to me of slowness.  Of a world of study that embraces inefficiency.  Of a world where knowledge is measured in the weight and heft of its components.  A world which would hardly comprehend the way we tend to read now: on a relentless quest for “information”–data-scraping our media until they are raw and bleeding–or driven by a feverish consumption, sucking up our books like milk through a straw.  It’s a world dedicated to solidity and tangibility where knowledge was peculiarly vulnerable (think of that laundry list of way books can be “ill-used”).  Now, we’re engaged in this headlong rush to make all our knowledge as light, transient, and yet oddly permanent as these pixels when you navigate away from this page.  Books may become truly immortal and invulnerable in ways they have never been before, yet that may come at the price of becoming increasingly insubstantial, taken for granted, disregarded, discarded.

For the first time, I’m starting to wonder seriously what we’ll lose with the disappearance of print, which may be arriving a lot sooner than I had thought.

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