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Enemies of Books!
June 7, 2007 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Librarians as Enemies of Books
via the delightfully uptight Steve Mauer at BookMine.
posted by carsonb (66 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Library Quarterly 7 (1937): 317-331.
Gentle jabs, librarian friends, from this humble bookseller. =o)
posted by carsonb at 1:30 PM on June 7, 2007


Librarians as Enemies of Books

This reminds me of when I was in high school and learned the distinction between a "bibliophile" and someone who loves reading. Two completely different things.
posted by deanc at 1:43 PM on June 7, 2007


biblioclasm

I just had a bibliogasm.
posted by cortex at 1:44 PM on June 7, 2007


Books are for use, bitches.
posted by stet at 1:47 PM on June 7, 2007


stet: is that you, S.R. Ranganathan?
posted by crepeMyrtle at 1:49 PM on June 7, 2007


Enemies of books? You just wait till jessamyn gets here, young man!

Great find—this post probably won't get many comments, but I'm glad you made it.

*waits for first snark about posting 70-year-old material*
posted by languagehat at 1:51 PM on June 7, 2007


This is so old it's a high-risk candidate for colorectal cancer.
posted by cortex at 1:53 PM on June 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


Old.

I totally saw this featured on the cover of the mimeographed 1942 edition of Boing Boing, which was then entitled Messrs. Boing & Boing Present: Most Outstanding Articles of Interest to Those Wishing to Benefit from Wonderment and De-lite.

It was mostly remixed horse and buggy maps.
posted by ND¢ at 1:58 PM on June 7, 2007 [20 favorites]


The establishment of a federal library agency may help bring more readers to libraries, but it can hardly be expected to provide books of the type most worth preserving.

But how would a patriot act?
posted by peacay at 2:03 PM on June 7, 2007


From what my wife says about her job, librarians are the enemies of library patrons.
posted by Foosnark at 2:03 PM on June 7, 2007


Coming soon, the sequel: Readers as Enemies of Books.
posted by fuzz at 2:04 PM on June 7, 2007


ND¢ - Boing Boing doesn't even kepe track of it's own stuff - they're doubling Laugh Out Loud Cats from that same issue right now.
posted by Artw at 2:11 PM on June 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


That first chapter should have been devoted to librarians who mutilate books with embossing stamps or rubber stamps, write upon and muss the title pages, cut open leaves with scarred and ragged edges, write class-marks with white ink on the backs of the bindings, and do with them as one librarian said, "We fix our books so they will not be of use to anyone else."

Oh, the horror of it all.

If anything, librarians are not the enemies of books as much as books are the enemies of librarians (to the extent that some librarians cannot imagine any future library that contains fewer books than it now contains).
posted by blucevalo at 2:13 PM on June 7, 2007


It's true. Working in a library quickly teaches you to be a lot less precious about books, as such. After a book sale, unsold donation discards usually end up by the side of the road for the garbage truck. Why someone would choose to donate, say, a 1970 travel guide to Israel, or a 1950s-era TV repair manual is a whole other topic of course.
posted by stinkycheese at 2:19 PM on June 7, 2007


Librarias give u book for free and then give back to others, so they are the sworn enemy of book salespeople.

That's...nice !

That said : I'll sit and wait for Jessa's reactiunz to the post !
posted by elpapacito at 2:21 PM on June 7, 2007


Thjee are libraries and then there are other libraries. Some are public. Some are state or governmentl; and of course still others are university libraries. The questioning and silly statements in this post about "special collections,is, I think, no longer much of an issue. A special collection is that which is not open to anyone who wants to cruise about but insted requires a pass or permission. Often the boks in such collection are rare. In some cases,sexual etc and so for whatever reason, they are not for casual browsing without specific permission.

But f course today in public libraries we now have much mre than "just books," and we find DVDs, CDs, Taped readings of books etc., and of course computers. Books are for the old people who still car about such things.
posted by Postroad at 2:25 PM on June 7, 2007


[There] are libraries and then there are other libraries

I was thinking about this today. I would love to have a library in my home, a place full of the kinds of books my children will want to read over time as they grow up -- but who could effectively curate such a thing? I have two sisters with degrees in library science, both of whom now work in other industries and whom I would *not* trust to curate my personal library. Also, being perfectly honest, I don't trust myself for this task either; the kinds of books I read are great for adults, but for children they're the most boring books in the universe.
posted by davejay at 2:38 PM on June 7, 2007



This is so old it's a high-risk candidate for colorectal cancer.


But still as true as ever, cortex. I wonder what this guy would have had to say about the Great Age of Microfilming, where periodical collections were scanned and the originals (often) thrown away. Meaning that now, if you want to look at an old newspaper or magazine, you have to use a clunky, outdated piece of machinery that gives you no real sense of what the original was like. And we're not even going to talk about the 'quality' of much of that microfilm imaging ...

Or what about recent 'developments' in public libraries, where library managers view cafes and internet PCs as far more deserving of floorspace than, you know, books? Or when the same librarians weed their collections using the sole criterion of aesthetic appeal? 'Oooh, this book has a torn dustjacket; it's old; it looks like it might be demanding or hard to read! Let's throw it away!'

Or what about the new acquisitions policy at the British Library, which now refuses to buy books unless they've already reached a certain level of commercial sales? Meaning that it's refusing to even look at exactly the kind of material they should be preserving—low-volume books that aren't going to be stocked elsewhere, and will probably end up being lost. But I'm sure that book historians of the future will be thrilled that the British Library saw fit to retain the 1124234th paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Whatever the Fuck.

The author of that piece, in retrospect, was entirely correct, I think, in locating the source of the incipient professional rot in library schools. The library-school curriculum, it seems to me, is based on the premise of turning librarians into library managers—people far more interested in growth, throughput, and popularity than actual books. Hence the condition of so many public libraries—overrun by kidz, Counterstrike, and paninis, with a few shelves of common-as-fuck—but attractive—Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling scattered about, as if for show. And all the books you wouldn't be able to find in Random Chain Megastore across the road safely hidden-away in off-site storage or thrown out, as we all march, happily and without regret, into the readerless future!
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:39 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I hear you man. Damn public libraries trying to make themselves into places the public might enjoy.
posted by ND¢ at 2:50 PM on June 7, 2007


Books? Is that something you'd have to be able to read to know about?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:01 PM on June 7, 2007


But readers are not the only danger which besets the career of the book.

The last time I went to a library, the books themselves could be heard to tremble. That's right: I'm dangerous. I read.

This is interesting, and it seems like argument by worst case scenario. But that's useful when your audience is not really aware of a problem beforehand. Did writings like this serve their purpose and change practices? I'm pretty sure one of the academic research librarians I used to work for falls solidly in the "librarian + collector" category. We'd discard stuff, but he was careful about it.
posted by Tehanu at 3:02 PM on June 7, 2007


Or what about the new acquisitions policy at the British Library, which now refuses to buy books unless they've already reached a certain level of commercial sales?

Are you serious? Man, I thought I knew the worst after reading Nicholson Baker, but I see things are even more hopeless than I imagined.

*goes off to drown self in accumulated dust from own library*
posted by languagehat at 3:17 PM on June 7, 2007


What do they expect librarians to do? Books are dangerous. Sometimes you have to rough one of them up to let the others know that you are serious. If not, you will be walking down the aisle and BAM! a crazy ass thesauri comes along and takes your ass out.

I don't blame librarians for being too hard on books; they do what they do to keep themselves safe. If that safety comes in the form of a rubber stamp, so be it.
posted by quin at 3:29 PM on June 7, 2007


Everyone knows that the easiest way to be a cool trend-setting librarian is to look down on books.
posted by washburn at 3:48 PM on June 7, 2007


"Do you like, like, books and stuff?"

"Shah. I used to. When I was twelve."
posted by cortex at 3:52 PM on June 7, 2007


Librarians are sexy. Books, not so much.
posted by telstar at 4:24 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


But I'm sure that book historians of the future will be thrilled that the British Library saw fit to retain the 1124234th paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Whatever the Fuck.

Libraries are not meant to be repositories for items that future book historians will like. They are meant to be places where people can borrow books they want to read. As such, Harry Potter and the Whatever the Fuck is a proper book to have.
posted by Bort at 4:26 PM on June 7, 2007


languagehat: Are you serious? Man, I thought I knew the worst after reading Nicholson Baker, but I see things are even more hopeless than I imagined.

You know what? I'm almost certainly wrong. I thought I'd read somewhere recently that there had been changes to legal deposit in the UK so as to exclude titles with very low sale volumes, but I can't find anything to confirm this. So I think we can file this one under 'the confused imaginings of a disordered mind'. Sorry about that!
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:38 PM on June 7, 2007


Libraries are not meant to be repositories for items that future book historians will like. They are meant to be places where people can borrow books they want to read.

Public libraries, yes, but not all libraries are public.
posted by dhartung at 5:02 PM on June 7, 2007


This reminds me of when I was in high school and learned the distinction between a ‘bibliophile’ and someone who loves reading. Two completely different things.

I discovered this at St. John's College, which is all about books. Obviously, everyone there is a great reader of books. But because the community is so book-centric, one really begins to notice a division in temperament, with some folks being very pragmatic about books themselves, while others have sort of a fetishistic interest in books.

I'm in the former category. While I admit I have a great deal of trouble in letting go of any book I own—so I accumulate large amounts of useless paperbacks—that's pretty much the extent of my own affection for books as objects. There's a very few books that I simply like owning, of course. But they are the exception and thus in no way, really, can I be considered a collector of books.

At the College, and here at MeFi you can often see the bibliophilic book-collector personality. I don't dislike that personality whatsoever—indeed, I find it admirable in a relative sense. If one is to have a collecting hobby/obsession, a love of books is an attractive version of this, as far as I'm concerned. Still, though, I do find that I'm slightly bothered by this sort of bibliophilia in the sense that I am suspicious that these folks are missing the point. Which I would be sure is the case if they didn't actually read the books—luckily for me, I don't think I've known anyone like this...as far as I've been able to discern.

I also find that I don't much think of books as status objects or social signifiers. I noticed at the College that some people put considerable energy into choosing, displaying, and defending their particular choice of translation. While I don't deny that some translations are better than others—of course they are—I find that for both my purposes and the College's purposes, which is a reading that takes the larger view rather than word-by-word textual criticism, differences in quality between already respected translations are not critical. My sense, then, is that in this context such aggressive affiliation for different translations are manifestations of social identity and status-seeking. Which doesn't only bore me, but in this context sort of offends me.

The pragmatic approach to books and how it manifests in my behavior was also seen in how I was perfectly happy to simply check out from the library most of the books I needed for class, rather than owning them. This is quite exceptional for a johnnie—owning a library of the so-called "Great Books" is, for most, a priority. Well, I was very poor. That wasn't an option for me, and I didn't rue the lack very much. I'd like a complete library. But note that years later when I easily could have afforded it, it wasn't a priority that I purchase a complete library of these books.

My best friend is also a johnnie and, while not extreme by any measure in these bibliophilic tendencies, does have a great affection for books as objects. When I look at his library and we discuss his books, this character trait becomes very evident. He has a great number of books that he cherishes, and rare editions and the quality of the book making factor heavily in his affection. You'll find almost no examples of this in my library.

But of course I love books as much as anyone—at least in the sense of loving the reading of books. I love reading books that are serious and influential in teaching me and exploring my character, and I love reading books that are simply pure entertainment. I don't apologize for the latter. My love of the reading of books and my learning from them has directed my life and is my chief interest since I was a small child.

When I was four years old, I attempted to run away from home for the first time. My mother had punished me “unfairly” (of course). I packed a suitcase, snuck out the front door, and began walking along the sidewalk toward the street in front of the married student off-campus apartments where we lived. An older girl, maybe seven or eight, my friend, stopped me and asked what I was doing. Running away, I told her. What's in your suitcase, she asked, as she took it from me and opened it up. Inside were nothing but books—the suitcase was loaded with my favorite books and contained no clothing, nothing that would practically sustain me in my life away from home. Except for books, which were the most important things.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:05 PM on June 7, 2007 [4 favorites]


I thought I'd read somewhere recently that there had been changes to legal deposit in the UK so as to exclude titles with very low sale volumes, but I can't find anything to confirm this.

At the risk of self-linking: the second response to this post is from one of the manuscript curators at the British Library, throwing some inside perspective on the matter.

I could definitely use an air-conditioned vault for my books, but I think the new bookcases will have to do for now.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:10 PM on June 7, 2007


My young academic (jr. college) library director hated books and "brick and mortar" library buildings. Computers and Ebooks were the only ones he cared about and wanted to "collect"

As much as I loathed him, I sadly, came to the realization that, unless the faculty directly forced the students to look at books via specific assignments, the books just sat and sat there on the shelves and no one ever went near them. Only the computer stations were busy with porn, sports, etc.

The few faculty members that did give them assignments that required they looks at books are, generally, the older ones and many are retiring so the future of books is bleak, indeed.

The most shocking thing to me was so much of the homework the students do is of the "cut and paste" from the Internet variety and when they realize they need a bibliography or "works cited" sheet at the end of their paper they, frantically, run to the library and ask the librarian for 10 or 15 "sources" on their topic. They then open the books to garner the basic bibliographic citation information and, happily, go on their way.
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 5:19 PM on June 7, 2007


I noticed at the College that some people put considerable energy into choosing, displaying, and defending their particular choice of translation. While I don't deny that some translations are better than others—of course they are—I find that for both my purposes and the College's purposes, which is a reading that takes the larger view rather than word-by-word textual criticism, differences in quality between already respected translations are not critical. My sense, then, is that in this context such aggressive affiliation for different translations are manifestations of social identity and status-seeking. Which doesn't only bore me, but in this context sort of offends me.

EB, I was nodding along while you were talking about not having "a fetishistic interest in books"—I'm pretty much the same way, though I went through a brief period of being interested in "collectibles" before realizing I couldn't afford that interest—but then I hit the wall of the paragraph I've quoted and fell right off the path. What the hell? Are you seriously maintaining that a concern for accurate translation is comparable to a fetish for first editions and falls under "manifestations of social identity and status-seeking"? That's so bizarre I don't even know how to respond. It's like saying a concern for correct addition is comparable to a belief in astrology.

I dunno, maybe you've never actually seen a bad translation, or you once knew somebody who went around all day yelling at the top of his lungs about which version of the Aeneid was preferable, but... well, all I can tell you is that if you care about literature at all you should care about translation, just as if you care about the arts you should care about reproduction. You're in the position of someone who claims that caring about seeing a modern color reproduction of a Botticelli rather than an old black-and-white one from the '50s, or hearing a good recording of a symphony as opposed to a scratchy set of 78s, is some sort of pretentious fool. It's reverse snobbery, is what it is, and you're not usually given to that sort of thing.
posted by languagehat at 5:20 PM on June 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


What the hell? Are you seriously maintaining that a concern for accurate translation is comparable to a fetish for first editions and falls under ‘manifestations of social identity and status-seeking’? That's so bizarre I don't even know how to respond. It's like saying a concern for correct addition is comparable to a belief in astrology.

I think you missed the part where I qualified making these distinctions between well-regarded translations and where I limited my judgment of this to the cases where one is reading for a particular purpose that makes differences in good translations relatively unimportant.

Obviously, there are bad translations and good translations and the difference between them matters a great deal. At St. John's, I rarely noticed anyone actually choosing a bad translation. One gets recommendations from peers and authorities and such and then result is that the group from which one makes a selection is pretty high-quality anyway. The differenced between well-regarded translations matter only when differences between good translations become important. When a qualified scholar conducts a microscopic reading of a text, these differences matter a great deal. But I and none of my classmates where qualified scholars in this sense, nor where we reading these books on this level of detail. Yet some students would defend their choice of translation as if they were 70 year old classicists who'd studied the text their entire lives. Yeah, I do think there's more than a little bit of pretension in this.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:33 PM on June 7, 2007


Books, who needs'em. The last time I cracked one open was just to hear its spine break! (Speaking as a Systems Librarian who stares at an LCD all day)
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 5:37 PM on June 7, 2007


I think you missed the part where I qualified making these distinctions between well-regarded translations

I was all set to humbly apologize, but then I went back and discovered that you never said anything about "well-regarded translations." But now that you've said that, your attitude makes more sense. I still don't share it, mind you, and I deeply distrust the whole idea of "the larger view" vs. "word-by-word textual criticism," but I see where you're coming from.
posted by languagehat at 5:54 PM on June 7, 2007


but then I went back and discovered that you never said anything about "well-regarded translations."

But I did. Here's what I wrote:

differences in quality between already respected translations are not critical.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:02 PM on June 7, 2007


and I deeply distrust the whole idea of ‘the larger view’ vs. ‘word-by-word textual criticism,’ but I see where you're coming from.

Putting aside for the moment whether one is actually better than the other, there's the simple matter that in the contest of SJC, where the education covers the western canon in only four years, it's simply a practical matter that the focus is on the larger view and not word-by-word textual criticism. There's some internal tension in that, as the College holds to the "close reading" ethos. And part of our education is learning two of the languages in which many of these books were written and one of (not the only) reasons for this is for us to be aware of choices in translation and to be able to look at the original text for greater comprehension.

But I firmly believe that this opposition is firmly a matter of intellectual temperament and that neither is superior to the other. I think both intellectual approaches have value. I think that it's sad and unfortunately that the two temperaments think badly of each other. When I was younger, I used to think that intellectually detail oriented people were like the accountants of intellectualism, always missing the forest for the trees. But when I became more mature and experienced, I realized that the two styles are complementary and necessary. It would be best for a person to contain both characteristics, of course. In my experience, that's so rare as to be almost non-existent.

Everything that's important to me about, say, War and Peace is going to be evident in any good-to-great translation. I write that, but I suspect something even stronger—that it's true even in the case of a mediocre translation.

Now, that's not to say that were I to devote my time into a continuing study of War and Peace that I might not become sensitized to a more microscopic view, and rightly so. And perhaps, after doing that, I might be tempted to say that I understand the book far beyond those who have never examined it as closely as I have, but I'd be wrong to do so.

Playing devil's advocate though, and admitting a counterexample from my own experience, I'm picky about a choice of translation in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. It's the choice of translation for eudaimonia. Some translators choose to translate it as happiness, which I think is very misleading and promotes a bad misreading. Well-being is a much better choice, and makes a big difference.

So, either the exception proves the rule, or I'm wrong. :)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:17 PM on June 7, 2007


A perfect opportunity to say to all the librarians out there:

Without you, and music, this world would suck.

And to everyone who doesn't like books:

SHOOSH!
posted by Twang at 6:18 PM on June 7, 2007


Tullyogallagan writes:
My young academic (jr. college) library director hated books and "brick and mortar" library buildings. Computers and Ebooks were the only ones he cared about [. . .] I sadly, came to the realization that, unless the faculty directly forced the students to look at books via specific assignments, the books just sat and sat there on the shelves and no one ever went near them. Only the computer stations were busy with porn, sports, etc.

It's worth noting, however, that this phenomenon may be more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than some realize. Colleges and Libraries can do things to make books more visible, available, and attractive, or they can bury their books in a vault somewhere. Anti-book librarians are more apt to go the vault route, and then to point to the low circulation as a vindication of anti-book librarianship.

This is a shame and even an abdication of responsibility however, since colleges are supposed to be encouraging students to enjoy learning.
posted by washburn at 6:26 PM on June 7, 2007


When a qualified scholar conducts a microscopic reading of a text, these differences matter a great deal.

Forgive me, but I think a truly qualified scholar should know the language of the original (maybe not fluently, but pretty well). Of course, that's not reasonable if you're dealing with works in a lot of different languages, but a scholar, by definition, should have the leisure to learn at least one other language, if not two.
posted by uosuaq at 6:29 PM on June 7, 2007


The article is sobering for those of us who do collect.

My local State University Library has a "Special Collection" in the area I collect; fully twenty years ago, dropped in on them to check out their holdings - and my eyes widened when I realized that my collection was already superior to theirs.

I was still a young-ish man at the time, but I felt a distinct brush of mortality, as I realized that the University Library would outlive me, and the day would come when I'd be talking to them about my making them a donation to fill the gaps in their collection.

So - even though I hope that meeting is still a few decades off - I take to heart the article's advice about how the collector needs to "size up your librarian".

Thanks for the post.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:04 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Bort: "As such, Harry Potter and the Whatever the Fuck is a proper book to have."

Man, JKR's not even trying any more.
posted by graventy at 7:04 PM on June 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


On translations: if you are reading a translation (even the best one, by whatever metric you may choose), then you have ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT to claim a "close reading" of the text.
posted by djfiander at 7:29 PM on June 7, 2007


My library polled its users before a renovation, asking what about the library they used the most. Reference collection? Reserves? Journals? Databases?

Nope. Bathrooms and pay-phones.

We shut the poll down early and spent the rest of our funding on sweet, sweet whiskey. Money well spent, that.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:41 PM on June 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


Libraries != archives
Libraries != museums

Libraries exist to provide access to information. This information can be stored in many forms, and delivery can take many forms. It just so happens that books are both a storage and delivery medium, and they've been pretty effective at both. Except now we can unbundle storage and access, and have alternatives to books for these purposes.

As to college students not reading books: in many disciplines the main way to disseminate new knowledge is through articles in academic journals or conference papers. For some time now the preferred way to access these items has been through databases such as PsycInfo or ISI Web of Knowledge. College students are taught how to search these databases. Depending on the discipline, serious scholars are not likely to be found in the library stacks but in front of their computers, searching through the ACM Digital Library or JSTOR.

Please, stop equating libraries as book storage spaces. And stop thinking of books as being the only medium of scholarly activity.
posted by needled at 7:47 PM on June 7, 2007 [4 favorites]


Anti-book librarians are more apt to go the vault route, and then to point to the low circulation as a vindication of anti-book librarianship.

This bears repeating. And there are far more anti-book librarians around than people realize. So much so that I get the impression that Hating Books 115 must be a compulsory paper (at least at my university's library school), along with Buying Crap Proprietory Software that Will Be Obsolete in Five Minutes 124 and Being Relentlessly Enthusiastic About the Internet While Knowing Absolutely Nothing About It 125.

Once they graduate with their new MLIS, they become the kind of people who wouldn't be seen dead walking into the staff cafeteria without a copy of the new J. K. Rowling, or maybe one of those lifestyle magazines with articles like 'Never Saying "no" to You Child', or 'Buying Yet Another Investment Property', or 'Driving an 8-litre Suburban Assault Vehicle While Simultaneously Voting for the Green Party'. But, for God's sakes, nothing that wasn't popular!

bort: Libraries are not meant to be repositories for items that future book historians will like. They are meant to be places where people can borrow books they want to read. As such, Harry Potter and the Whatever the Fuck is a proper book to have.

Right, but that's not exactly what I meant. Of course public libraries should be buying crap, mass-market genre fiction. What I was talking about was the corresponding impulse to reduce library holdings to nothing but, either by refusing to purchase new books that might not be 'popular', or deaccessioning older titles that don't have nice pictures on their covers.

And let's not forget that bookreaders don't make their reading choices in a vaccuum. Most people seem to choose books by what they see other people reading, or what's displayed most prominently in the media or on their local library's shelves. So they're essentially having their minds made up for them by the marketing divisions of large publishing houses. Librarians who hide the non-Dan Brown parts of their collections away like they're some unfortunate family secret are simply aiding this process.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:54 PM on June 7, 2007


I work in a public library, and weeding is probably my favourite part of the job. I guess that makes me a serial killer of books.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:33 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of when I was in high school and learned the distinction between a "bibliophile" and someone who loves reading. Two completely different things.

I read a fic like that once. No joke.

*cough*

My personal library always seems to expand to fill the available space, and then a little more. I put some of the magazines in a box, though, and made a BookMooch pile for the ones I'm not going to read again, so I have a bit of extra space. For now.
posted by Many bubbles at 9:09 PM on June 7, 2007


Forgive me, but I think a truly qualified scholar should know the language of the original (maybe not fluently, but pretty well). Of course, that's not reasonable if you're dealing with works in a lot of different languages, but a scholar, by definition, should have the leisure to learn at least one other language, if not two.

Oh, definitely. I had in mind such a scholar's opinions of different translations of a book of which she is extremely familiar in its original language. That's a person who is going to be very aware of differences in translation and will have strong feelings about the relative virtues of different, high-quality translations. And if you're a scholar of a work that isn't in your native language and where your scholarly environment isn't in that language—that is, you're not writing about that work in its language (and especially if you're teaching the work in translation)—then you're going to be dealing with the work in translation quite a bit anyway.

if you are reading a translation (even the best one, by whatever metric you may choose), then you have ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT to claim a "close reading" of the text.

I think that depends upon the meaning of what a "close reading" is. I think for many purposes you can "close read" a text in translation.

Furthermore, it's often the case that to read a text in a non-native language, a good translation is superior to a reading of a book with poor to mediocre fluency in its native language. Having only a moderate grasp of a written language can often lead to a false sense of competency when reading an important and complex text and, in the end, obfuscate more than it reveals in comparison to a good translation into one's native language. When a preference for reading a text in its native language goes beyond pragmatism and into snobbery, then it causes more harm than good as those ill-equipped to read a text in its native language falsely believe they understand it better than those who have read a high-quality translation.

I won't deny that something is inevitably lost and other things are inevitably obscured when reading a translation. But I disagree that a "close reading" of a translation isn't possible. Of course it's both possible and worthwhile, in proportion to the quality and reliability of the translation.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:36 PM on June 7, 2007


And stop thinking of books as being the only medium of scholarly activity.

I think we book partisans overcompensate, Needled, because we see so many younger students committing the opposite sin: thinking of the internet as the only medium of scholarly activity.

Can we really blame them? Print simply isn't flashy, speedy, or convenient for quick transmission of knowledge as HTML. And when it comes to research, pencils and index cards simply don't hold up to the holy trinity of ctrl-f, ctrl-c, and ctrl-v. Why walk all the way to the library, the modern student reasons, when any subject can be abstracted from Wikipedia?

The answer, of course, is that a book on, say, the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt, is likely to be longer, deeper, more thoroughly researched, and written by someone with some grasp of the topic than a comparable internet article, or even many restricted scholarly article databases. If you have access to a good library, it may even be a primary source, like the East India Company Anti-Napoleon literature I was reading at the Newberry Library a little while ago. Meanwhile, the comparable Wikipedia article doesn't even have a bibliography.

You're perfectly correct, Needled, that a good scholarly article database is more valuable to certain disciplines than an exhaustive collection of unscanned literature relating to their studies. There are also disciplines for which the exact opposite is true. The best libraries, I think, will integrate both, as will the best researchers. At least until it becomes practical to scan and provide access to the millions of analog items in typical research libraries.
posted by Iridic at 9:47 PM on June 7, 2007


It's reverse snobbery, is what it is, and you're not usually given to that sort of thing.

Really? I think I have at least a small tendency for that. I may have gotten it mostly out of my system by my twenties—an unfortunate consequence of this is that I think I'm more inclined to be an actual snob than before. Perhaps you were thinking that my being an occasional snob meant that I'm not often a reverse snob? :) The sad truth, of course, is that the two things are pretty much the same. They're both unpleasant and sometimes ugly.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:56 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I just saw the special collections and rare books section of my university library for the first time just this Wednesday. I learned a great deal more than I ever did before about the criteria they use for their holdings. The most interesting thing I learned was that they hoped to convince guest poets to donate some of their original drafts of their work to show The Process. Of course, this was only a recent decision and they don't know how well that will turn out.

Like pretty much all of the people commenting here, I love books. Mostly for the information and experience I get from reading them, but also a little bit for actually enjoying holding them and collecting them.

The old way is definitely dying out and I'm sure that libraries will have less and less use for books. I think there are three things that will end up propelling this inevitable path. 1)Digitization projects of older material, 2)The dying out of Old School people who love physical books, and 3)electronic paper. The thing to remember is that, whatever else, the information contained in the books is more important than the physical books.

This is why I'm not completely upset that libraries are becoming less about books. I'm mostly looking forward to that electronic paper. If I could get a bound collection of electronic paper that I could treat as a bound book that stores hundreds of thousands of pages of literature I'd be pretty happy. I'd get the visceral feeling of holding onto the information and I get to carry around a bunch of books for reading. Most upsetting is the inevitable DRM that would be pushed onto the technology.

And one day I'll get to show my great grand children my antique book collection while they smile at how quaint us old-fogies are.
posted by Green With You at 10:11 PM on June 7, 2007


I find that used book stores often fill in the gap in community library collections. That has its pluses and minuses of course. As for academic libraries, inter-library loans allow for a reduced collection size as long as the library user is patient.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:46 AM on June 8, 2007


Libraries != archives
Libraries != museums


Are you implying that old books should be taken care of by archives and museums? What do you think an archive is?

Archivists have enough to worry about right now without getting into the realm of published material: electronic records, information overload, proliferation of bureaucracy, expanding definitions of records.

Published material has always been collected by librarians. There is no one else to act as a caretaker of our book-bound knowledge. Archivists aren't going to do it, they are over-burdened and have their own concerns right now.


Libraries exist to provide access to information.

Yes, this is one of the roles of library. (Exactly how "Harry Potter: Whatever the Fuck" falls into the category of information is beyond me.) But libraries, including public libraries, have a long-term goal of providing knowledge for the future. That is what collection management policies are for.

The complaints that libraries are pandering to media driven book vomit is coming from inside libraries, from people who are developing collection policies or from reference librarians who are sick of having to get a book from the basemment or off-site because it is more than a year old.

The idea that anything that doesn't fit in with the "popular" criteria belongs in a museum, truly scares me. Typically the public imagines museums to be the home of the antiquated, and although this is not true, I suspect this is the spirit in which this was suggested.

I despair of a society that decides it's own art, culture and knowledge is somehow irrelevant and belongs off-site or as some part of a museum exhibit.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 1:47 AM on June 8, 2007


Or what about the new acquisitions policy at the British Library, which now refuses to buy books unless they've reached a certain level of commercial sales?

I've never heard of this before, and I'm at a loss to know what you mean. There's certainly no mention of it in the BL's own acquisitions policy (which you can find here, if you're interested).

I thought I'd read somewhere recently that there had been changes to legal deposit in the UK so as to exclude items with very low sales volumes

Interesting if true, but again I can't find anything to confirm it. The most recent change to legal deposit was the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003, which reaffirmed the legal deposit principle and extended it to electronic and other non-print publications (though this is still awaiting secondary legislation to bring it into effect). The only categories currently exempt from legal deposit are exam papers, local bus and train timetables, and appointment diaries.

The topic of 'librarians as enemies of books' is a very interesting one, on which I have a good deal to say (further comment to follow if I have time), but I think the question of legal deposit is a side-issue here. The UK copyright libraries have always been strong supporters of legal deposit (and not surprisingly, since it benefits them hugely). If there is a threat to the legal deposit principle, it comes not from librarians but from publishers, who resent having to hand over free copies of their books.
posted by verstegan at 8:17 AM on June 8, 2007


Meanwhile, the comparable Wikipedia article doesn't even have a bibliography.

Bibliographies are so 20th-century.
posted by blucevalo at 9:29 AM on June 8, 2007


You know who else was an enemy of books?

Guy Montag.

Stamping them etc. I think only increases the shame factor to diminish the number of people who might otherwise swipe them.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:18 AM on June 8, 2007


I'm a librarian. I love reading books and I love books' physical existence, but I'm not romantic about them. My library has the budget to replace books that get defaced (I work in a mental hospital; our books get mutilated all the time) and I don't weep over those I can't replace.

My goal is to satisfy each user's information need at the time they come to me with that need. Managing collections towards this goal is more art than science, esp. as a solo librarian. To keep my collections oriented towards that goal, I do three things: 1. Walk around and look at the collection regularly, 2. Buy liberally, and 3. Weed ruthlessly. But the main thing I do is I listen to the people I am supposed to be serving. What they talk about, what they say they like or dislike, and what their circumstances are, ultimately have the most influence over my collections.

I would like to encourage people who would condemn librarians for being anti-book, to go look, really LOOK at the collections in your local public library and in your local university or college library. There are things there you would never have believed existed. Someone used their professional expertise, and their belief in Ranganathan's Five Rules of Library Science (replace the word "book" with the word "information" where you feel it's necessary), to make sure that information is available when someone needs it.

Often--very often--needed information is only available in book form. Professional library staff understand this; book collections still thrive. But you can't know this unless you go look. Dire predictions of the death of the book are usually unsullied by any factual basis, so don't believe them. Go see for yourself.

As for the other numerous questions and opinions raised in this thread--woohoo! Librarians and non-librarians actually having a dialogue of sorts! Nobody here at work will talk libraries with me. Keep talking, it's wonderful!
posted by gillyflower at 10:47 AM on June 8, 2007


I would like to add that the main reason libraries stamp books is to help make sure they come back to the library if they're lost, returned to a different library, etc. It's not a shame thing, it's not a "we're librarians so we can deface books if we wanna" thing. It's so we can continue to provide access to an item to many people through the library.

And the call number on the spine...is so PEOPLE CAN FIND THE BOOK WHEN THEY NEED IT. Geez. It's REALLY hard for me to sympathize anyone who begrudges a library the right to put a call number on a book. Would people rather the library purchase an item (with your tax dollars, mind you) and then lose it for all time because no one can find it?
posted by gillyflower at 10:52 AM on June 8, 2007


Not really relevant, but strange and true: I just noticed that when I see the word "Librarian" written, I visualise an Orang-utan.

You can probably tell what I've been reading too much of.
posted by Grangousier at 10:58 AM on June 8, 2007


You know who else was an enemy of books?

Guy Montag.


He used to memorise them and then burn them, thus making the book not about censorship!
posted by Artw at 11:16 AM on June 8, 2007


verstegan: I've never heard of this before, and I'm at a loss to know what you mean. There's certainly no mention of it in the BL's own acquisitions policy (which you can find here, if you're interested)....

Thanks, verstegan. I found that page after I made my first post, and that was when I realized I was totally wrong. To clarify, I read a chapter in an essay collection recently whose author was complaining that his multi-volume scholarly edition of, say, Shadwell (it wasn't Shadwell, but it was someone like him) had been passed up for purchase by the British Library. When he called them on it, he was informed that they had made their decision on the basis that it had sold fewer than, I think, 40 copies.

Anyway, I can't remember who the author was, and I can't find the essay collection now, so this is pretty much useless. In retrospect, the edition was probably published in the US, so it wouldn't have come under legal deposit anyway. So, you're right, legal deposit is a sidetrack and I've been spreading misinformation about the British Library, so I should probably stop now ...
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:12 PM on June 8, 2007


Grangousier : You can probably tell what I've been reading too much of.

Ook?
posted by quin at 3:31 PM on June 8, 2007


Ook.
posted by Grangousier at 10:01 AM on June 9, 2007


I favorited my own thread.

Things seem to have died down finally, so I'll just say that I'm not usually wont to favorite my own contributions, but this is a special case. I fully expected languagehat's assessment to be the case for this post, but the resulting lengthy discussion has been most entertaining to read. I've enjoyed everyone's contributions to this thread. Thank you all for making a relatively weak, one-liner post well worth the MetaFilter front page.

Cheers!

PS -> I am sorta sad jessamyn never chimed in. Oh well.
posted by carsonb at 11:27 AM on June 10, 2007


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