Since I don’t really know what to write about this week, I’m going to take inspiration from Lesley Donaldson (whose blog on the same panel is here) and spin out some of my thoughts from a Can*Con panel a couple weeks ago on books in stories. This is something I have thought about a fair bit in my history research, and I’ve continued to do so as part of a course I teach about the history of the book at Algonquin College.
I want to think a little about libraries.
As writers or readers, libraries are some of our favourite places. They’re the place we go to find stories! I certainly encountered a lot of authors I would come to be a fan of and stories that I would love at the public library in the town where I grew up. I think I worked my way through just about every book they had under ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’.
The library as we think of it today is (among other things) a place we go to access things. The library is where the stories are, it’s where the information is, where learning and study happen and also (as libraries have embraced their role as providers of internet connectivity) a place where we can make connections to the world. Within certain fairly broad limitations, anyone can use it. It’s a space fundamentally about access.
But the library or the archive doesn’t have to be a space like that, and hasn’t always been. On the Can*Con panel I touched on the idea of the library – a space where a bunch of books are stored – as a containment system for knowledge. It can be, and historically sometimes was, a space where access was restricted. Only certain people allowed past the doors, to look at the books, and gradations of clearance within that. The idea here that knowledge might be dangerous, used for the wrong purposes, or that something read by the unprepared or improperly trained mind might cause harm.
The library thought of this way is not a space about access, or at least not in the same way. It’s about controlling access, and making sure that only the ‘right’ people get in touch with certain kinds of book. When I’ve travelled around as an academic, one of the comforts has generally been that I can walk into a library most anywhere and find what I’m looking for, because they’re designed to make that task easy, with classification schemes that are well-understood and tools to help you in your search.
We look at libraries that are not that way – that have no finding aids, and used their own private systems of classification and organization – and wonder what was going on. It would have been exceedingly difficult for an outsider to go into such a place and find what they were looking for, especially unaided. But that’s part of the idea, and part of the containment system. It’s not a place for strangers, it’s a place for those who are known to have been properly trained and vetted and prepared to encounter all the things that might be on the shelf. If you can’t find the book, you’re not ready to read it.
That kind of sounds like a line from a bad movie, but this kind of thinking about information, as something with potential dangers that needs to be contained and controlled, underpins a lot of our ideas about books in fantastic literature and the way they show up in our stories. Those dangerous grimoires that can scour the sanity from your mind, possess your soul, or corrupt your spirit are all these old philosophies about information taken literally.
All of this somewhat inevitably sounds negative to the modern mind, given our positive view on knowledge (more is always better) and learning (always good!), so the libraries of the past often seem ‘worse’. I’m not convinced that’s true, and perhaps I can add yet another perspective on information that I didn’t get to in the panel that might help a little.
You can also think of a library – that place where all the books are – as a place that preserves knowledge, as a lifeboat for information. We’re not used to thinking of our information as fragile; most books that we’re interested in have hundreds or thousands or millions of copies, and most of what we care about even a little bit also exists digitally in potentially as many ‘copies’ as we need it to. The idea of a story we used to have, or something we used to know, being ‘lost’ is hard for us to get our minds around. As a student first getting to grips with archival research, I struggled a bit with the idea that no, there wasn’t another copy or another version that I could check. What was there was there, and that’s all there was.
Libraries in the past were, at times, literally the place where the disappearance of books and knowlege were prevented. This was part of their reason for being; for example, it was part of the reason why keeping a library and copying books was seen as a suitable task for a medieval monastery. The preservation of knowledge was a good end in itself. Producing new copies of a book to increase the chances of it surviving for the future was a worthy purpose.
If this is your mission, the library isn’t necessarily about being easy to access or how many people you can get in the door. The primary mission is for the collection to survive. This is a slightly more comprehensible point of view when you remember that books used to be made by hand, a labour of months just for the text, each a unique physical object created from scratch almost certainly by a series of artists and craftsmen. The frustration of copyists that had to return their exemplar before their were finished is still (to me) palpable on their not-quite-finished pages.
Again, these books that were precious objects are the foundations of the books in many of our stories, I think. The idea of the book as the initiator of a quest, as something to be treasured or fought over or prized or stolen all comes from periods when all of those things would have been true. The copy of a book in a library might be the only copy of that text in all the world. It’s almost impossible to put a value on such a thing.
Libraries of the past were these places of preservation, they were knowledge containment systems, and they were too places where this information could be accessed, albeit in a far less public fashion than we would expect. Most were some kind of compromise with all of these functions, and perhaps modern libraries are as well. The constant across the ages seems to me to be the recognition that the place where all the books are is a place of considerable power. How we approach that power and how we feel about it varies, but it always seems to be there.
There isn’t an ‘and therefore’ for this, just a bunch of thoughts out loud, or on the page, as the case may be. I’ll try to have something a little more directed for you next week.