A passive Luddite, I was probably the last hack in Europe to learn how to use a word processor or the forbidding Internet. I could touch type, which I picked up as an American Field Service exchange student in Wisconsin as a way of meeting girls – I was the only male on the course – and I was a member of the private London Library in St. James’s Square. With that last, who needs the Internet?
The library was founded in 1842, with Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot and Charles Dickens among its original members, in delayed response to Edward Gibbon’s outrage that any writer who wished to tackle a large historical subject was “reduced to the necessity of purchasing for his private use a numerous and valuable collection of the books which must form the basis of his work”.
One of the library’s main principles was that books should never be thrown away, and certainly not because they were merely “old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable”. So the collection preserves to this day a vast number of works, now over one million strong and growing at the rate of 8,000 new titles per year. It still includes “old children’s stories, cookery, imaginary history and foreign impressions of England”. Apart from exact duplications, the only books it has ever discarded were swept away as ashes, after a bomb hit a corner of the premises during World War II.
[singlepic id=420 w=630 h=480 float=none]
While size does matter, the cornerstone of the enterprise was, and always will be, a library which, “containing books in every department of literature and philosophy, shall allow these books to be taken out and read, where they can be read best, in the study and by the fireside, and which shall offer its advantages to the public on terms rendering it generally accessible.” (Sixth from the top in the original alphabetical catalogue was Abul-ghasi’s History of the Turks, Moguls, and Tartars, 2 vols. 1730.)
The library was indispensable to me when domestic responsibilities and money issues ruled out any more visits to the scattered parts of the world about which I was pontificating at the time. My subsistence depended on piles of books every few weeks on indefinite loan or until other members needed any of them. Eventually, so to speak, I returned to earth and came across Google, in particular a feature called “Advanced Search”.
In no time at all, it was necessary to make space on shelves near the central heating – no fireside, alas, – for downloaded, home-printed, legal and free copies of, inter alia (and in reverse chronological order):
Several volumes of Holinshed, who of course was Shakespeare’s source for most of his histories, the plot of Macbeth, and parts of King Lear and Cymbeline
The life works of Alfred the Great (849-99)
Parts of Ptolemy’s second century AD Geographia, written in Alexandria, but lost until copies turned up in Italy amid the exodus from the fall of Constantinople in 1453
Hanno the Navigator’s fifth century BC account of an encounter in West Africa with three hairy and very aggressive females, whom he had to kill before skinning or stuffing them with straw (depending on Greek translation of the original Punic that you read) in order to silence sceptics at home in Carthage (The girls, it transpired much later, were gorillas.)
[singlepic id=421 w=280 h=600 float=right]
This literary windfall came about through a combination of both profound and banal factors. Leading the former was the decision of national and university libraries that they had to do something about the problem of books too rare and valuable to be allowed into the hands of the public or undergraduates. Part of this problem is that, since the introduction of acidic pulp to make paper in the mid-nineteenth century, books do not last as long as they once did. The U.S. Library of Congress says 80,000 of its books become so brittle each year that their pages can no longer be turned. The text has to be transferred to another medium. At one time, texts were transferred to microfiche. Now, they are digitised.
The numbers generally are staggering. The British Library, for example, has 150 million items in most known languages. New items arrive at the rate of three million per year; the print collections devour eight miles of extra shelving over the same period. “Were you to view five items per day,” says Dame Lynne Brindley, the library’s chief executive, “it would take you 80,000 years to see the whole collection.
“Most libraries are engaged in digitisation programmes of differing sizes to make their historic collections more accessible. Increasingly, if library content is not found on the Web, it effectively does not exist for many potential users.
“We must provide services which meet the needs of this new generation, and ones which add value well beyond the search engine. The alternative is to risk becoming obsolete, or simply ‘museums of the book.’”
The most tenacious reader’s complaint about reading on a screen is missing the feel of a book in one’s hands. Well, the next best thing is printing and ring-binding a book at home. This can be remarkably cheap. For speed alone, a (monochrome) laser printer is essential. My infallible Canon LBP3010 can be bought new on E-Bay for £36, plus delivery, and it prints 15 sheets per minute. Ridiculously, a pukka Canon toner cartridge, good for 1500 sheets, costs £46.00, but legal and reliable bootleg versions are available from the same source for around £15. Tesco’s more than adequate white copier paper costs about £2 per 500 sheets. Add that up and, excluding the initial cost of the printer, a book of 250 pages can be produced for £3.50.
Newspaper research used to mean taking the Northern Line to the British Library reading room in Colindale, followed by an eternity of waiting and prayers that the anticipated pages had not been defaced or torn out by some demented vandal. Now, as a registered E-library user (it’s free to register) at almost, if not all, county libraries, I can sit at home and log on to The Times digitised archive (1785-1985) with a microscopic search engine. Also available on the same site are all versions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, several standard Oxford references including the incomparable Dictionary of National Biography, which only larger libraries and oligarchs could afford, and much else.
With so much in flux in today’s libraries, it seemed only right to find out how the London Library was getting along. I telephoned to ask if Czechoslovakia was still under “T” in the alphabetical shelves, presumably as “Tchechoslovakia”, which I distinctly remembered. I was told very firmly that it is not, but it is still linked with Bohemia. As for the rest, readers can see for themselves: www.londonlibrary.co.uk