Bedding down in The Library
Earlier this week I took part in a debate at the British Library -- 'Is the Physical Library a Redundant Resource for 21st century academics' organised by THE. To put it another way, should we all stay at home/in our studies and call up all the resources we need on our lap tops and let the country save all the money that bricks and mortar and bulky things like books eat up. You can read an account of the debate here and here and here.
Now no-one could accuse The Don of being a Luddite (I have my laptop open in the breakfast table and cant imagine what life was like before JSTOR), but I don't intend to give up the physical library without a jolly good fight.
My paean of praise for the physical library included some of the familiar lines...You dont just go to the library for information, you go there to learn how to think differently, and that is about ordering, classification, serendipity (what book you find on the shelf next to the one you thought you were looking for...on which, see Grafton and Hamburger on the marvellous but threatened Warburg Library). And you go also for the people, the other readers and the librarians. And you go for the sheer pleasure of having space and quiet to THINK... not to mention the pleasures of transgression (and on this topic I had a little nostalgic reflection on all the things we used to do in libraries . . . eat, drink, smoke substances legal and illegal, have sex. I was tempted to ask for a show of hands from those who had ever made love in a library bookstack, a bibliophile's Mile High club, but thought embarrassment might produce a misleadingly low score.
In case any younger readers are puzzled, smoking used to be allowed in libraries a few years ago. Again a bit like on planes, the back two tables of the Cambridge Classics Library used to be the smoking tables, and the husband recalls how the Warburg went on allowing smoking well after other London libraries. Banning it would have caused a riot amongst its elderly Eastern European readers, but did -- he points out -- make the place a bit whiffy for everyone else. (Health and Safety gurus might like to reflect that none of these libraries burnt down!)
In some ways the most interesting area of disagreement between myself and the other panellists was in terms of speed and 'academic output'. There is little doubt that a lot of information can be more quickly retrieved electronically. Most of the other speakers treated this as an unproblematic good, and one went so far as to relate our embracing of new technology to the fact that UK academics produce more outputs per head than those of other nations.
At this point I felt very much in the opposite corner. The fact is that really good thinking is often a very SLOW process .. and it is the kind of process that goes on when you are waiting the thirty minutes that it takes for the book to arrive on you table, or on the 15 minute (for me) bike ride to the library. Indeed speed of information retrieval can actually work against good thinking. (Should we, I wondered, start a SLOW THINKING movement like slow cooking. . .?)
And as for congratulating ourselves on producing more than other nations . . . it's quality we want, not quantity. We probably should slow down a bit.
Anyway, by I nice coincidence I am now in New York for some meetings. And I am staying in The Library Hotel . . . a niche market, boutique hotel near New York Public Library -- and on a library theme. All the rooms are numbered according to the Dewey decimal system and are kitted out with books to match (I'm in Management 600.003 which isn't too much of a temptation, but the husband had philosophy a couple of weeks ago). And the picture at the top of this post is their "Do Not Disturb" notice.
A Library where eating, drinking, sleeping -- but not smoking, of course -- are all encouraged.