Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The book and the text

Over the weekend (Saturday June 18), the Guardian's Duncan Campbell wrote a story about Queen Mary - formerly Queen Mary and Westfield - dumping books in a skip.

Well, apart from being reminded of a favourite line from the slightly (hee) cheesy film If Only -- "...and books?! How can people throw away books?!" -- it did make me rather cranky. Especially when I read Polly Mortimer's follow-up letter in the Guardian yesterday (scroll):
The internet has a wealth of information that has made a lot of reference books outdated as soon as they are published. I applaud the bravery of the librarians of Queen Mary - there are too many who want to keep at all cost. And [Gibbons'] Decline and Fall is available as a Penguin Classic - no need to panic.
This is a classic case of confusing books (container) with the text (the content). I know that the text of many things can be made available via the internet; and a good thing too. I don't have a problem with that. I want democratically available texts available via as many media as possible. And I don't want to force libraries to focus on preserving books above the knowledge contained therein. But as a born archivist it saddens me to think that we are losing interest in understanding the particular histories offered by the book as a medium for preserving knowledge.

Yes, Decline and Fall is available as a Penguin Classic. But an edition of a book can also tell us many other things as well: it can tell us its publishing history (what edition is this? who published it? why? what audience was it intended for? was it edited / abridged, and what can that tell us?); it can also tell us its reading history (who brought it? who donated it to the library? when was it donated?). And this is before we get into observing the physical artifact itself (how degraded is it? what does this tell us about its owners/users? how was it printed? what paper was used? what binding?). So many questions that can only be answered by thinking about the book in relation to its text.

Don't get me wrong: I understand the difficult choices librarians are forced to make as budgets are cut back. And in terms of time and money spent it may be impractical to ask anyone and everyone who may be interested to take their pick first from the books to be thrown out. But there is something disturbing about throwing out books. Perhaps a shelf unit with a plastic sheet over the front, maybe even with an honesty box (a la Hay on Wye) would have been better than a skip...?

Anyone else interested in the issue of books and libraries should read Nicholson Baker's Double Fold. I know it's a polemic, but I often go back to it to provide me with a salutary tale of how we manage our repositories of knowledge and publishing history.

1 comment:

John said...

It's disgrace to throw books out. Like they can't be donated to someone. Sounds to me like they just couldn't be arsed.