Eulogy for a library

Date

Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

Those were the days... The university of Sydney Fisher Library Undergraduate Reading Room in 1963.

Those were the days... The university of Sydney Fisher Library Undergraduate Reading Room in 1963.

I met Fisher on my first day at Sydney University. The air was perfumed with summer, soft purple bells fluttered from Jacaranda trees and students twittered in sandstone corridors, giddy with the excitement of a new year. Having just moved from a country town I knew absolutely no-one. As I watched friends swarm and disperse like schools of fish I realised I had only one real option for lunch. Like any self-respecting girl with glasses I would take refuge amongst the muses.

Fisher library is not your usual classical-columned beauty with porticos and pediments. In fact, it’s staggeringly ugly: a steel rectangular box, nine stories high that looks like it’s sinking under the weight of its own bulk. But as I learnt on my first day, inside this brutalist building was a vast sprawling wonderland brimming with the relics of a thousand years of learning. It was dizzying in size (the largest library in the Southern hemisphere) and its collection – from 7th Century BC stone tablets to 16th Century witchcraft manuals – was breathtaking. I say ‘was’ because like all arcadias, Fisher library was sliding ineluctably towards destruction.

Without libraries our imaginations will shrink, our curiosity will contract and our world will be a sadder place.  

 If you go to Fisher today you’ll find its shelves looted, its bright tranquility replaced by boorish banter and its twelve splendid floors of books reduced to three. Given that its fate has been that of many other libraries, and given that pillaging barbarians don’t bother to give eulogies, I thought the least we could do was to say goodbye. And to inform those who come after of what we have lost.

Firstly, we have lost the thrill of being ambushed by books. Have you ever seen someone striding purposefully towards the accounting section only to be stopped short by a book on Persian poetry? It can happen to the best of us. I remember being unable to reach the legal philosophy section without being accosted by a saucy red book with a gold embossed title: THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS. For a few delicious hours each day I would blissfully surrender to a world where women could turn into celestial objects: ‘I swear I saw Mary last night when she fell into grievous fits and became a STARR.’ In setting students readings in downloadable chapters, universities today kill curiosity, seal up the rabbit holes students SHOULD fall down and banish serendipitous learning.

Secondly, we have destroyed an arcadia of silence. The reason why people are so perfectly happy in libraries is because libraries suspend the noise of time. They let you sit in the lap of eternity communing with the dead and the immortal. Only in hushed silence can you enter the world of a book. Why? Because books are loud and clamorous places. Added to the jostling of voices on the page is your own conversation with the author- sometimes debate, sometimes haughty indignation, sometimes swooning love song. And unlike reading online, books have margins that let you record all these feelings for future readers. Before there were online trolls there were bookish trolls with brains and they would jam the white spaces outside the text with furious, brilliant scribblings.

And then of course there’s the smell of a room bursting with books: sweet and dusty and musty. And maybe it was this heady concoction that made libraries such LUSTY places. There is no aphrodisiac like an aisle of books and it saddens me to think that my students won’t know the devilish delights of stolen kisses in a darkened stack.  At Fisher, the eighth floor was designated queer and the ninth was for heterosexuals. For those more prudish, romances would flourish on the steps outside the library as couples emerged from their writing to seduce each other with wit and words and thoughts.

Finally, when we lost Fisher, we lost its librarians. Of course there are still librarians, but they are not of the same variety. Fisher library was filled with eccentric and ebullient staff. They had ferret noses for following the scent of the most obscure books. One librarian, who bore a striking resemblance to the paddle pop lion, once ushered me into an aisle to show me a book: ‘And so you see’ he gushed, ‘the very first UFOs were drawn as canoes, and then after that ships, and then air-force planes. The way people imagine UFOs changes with technology!!!’ Librarians were like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland enticing you down holes that led into labyrinthine universes of marvels and magic.

Fisher was a rambling old growth forest which has now been scorched to the ground. It’s the closest we come to literary clear-felling. When I went inside recently I felt winded. There are no books in sight when you enter. Sharp fluorescent lighting accentuates wide open spaces that blink with cheap chrome finishings.  It looks like Hoyts. People talk loudly to each other. Computer rooms have replaced book-aisles. A television is running constantly on the second floor. And most of the old librarians are gone. Why? Because books and journals have moved online and some students apparently learn better in noisy groups and open plan settings. 500,000 books have been removed.

Soon no-one will ever be ambushed by a book again. Nor will they lazily flick through the other books surrounding the required reading on the shelf. Without libraries our imaginations will shrink, our curiosity will contract and our world will be a sadder place. And the damage may be irreparable simply because we won’t have the books to find out why we got here and how we can go back.

 

19 comments

  • I agree that libraries are a sacred place- there really is no better place for becoming lost in a book. It is a loss to curiosity and spontaneity that libraries might be becoming less reliable for allowing us to discover so many wildly different books in the one place. However, I do think the era of online reading/libraries does have much to offer the world. Although the physical presence of a library is very important to reading and learning, I think the era of online libraries can offer convenience and accessibility that might do wonders for encouraging more people to use their resources.I might be more encouraged to read a chapter or two on the salem witch trials if it involves logging on to a computer rather than lugging around a heavy book.

    Commenter
    bec
    Date and time
    December 07, 2012, 8:43AM
    • This is lovely.

      The changes you see in the library might be reflecting a shift higher education generally. As universities become more business-like, the value of traditional libraries are questioned. Sadly, if value cannot be demonstrated through patronage or circulation of items, libraries are at risk. If a shelf of books that are rarely borrowed can be replaced with a row of computers that will be used frequently, the university will do it.

      Commenter
      canthelip
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 07, 2012, 8:45AM
      • Alecia, I know exactly how you feel. I am devestated that libraries will soon go the way of the dinosaurs. There is nothing like "real" books made of paper. No electronic gadget can inspire that feeling of sweet anticipation when picking up a new book. The smell of the pages, the feel of it, it's just not the same to look at a stupid screen.

        My local council recently announced that is was thrilled that it was going to introduce electronic books. I was appalled. The next time I went to the library I got into an argument with the librarian who said it was great that they were going to go electronic. I stated that it was a travesty. Did she realise she would probably soon be out of a job? That no doubt council would close most of it's branches over time and just have some little shop front with 1 or 2 staff members and a a bunch of computer terminals. Think of the money they'd save. Though I doubt that any money saved would go to an practical purpose like our shocking roads.

        Sorry, I digress. Books are a passion of mine. I adore reading and there is really nothing I like better than to curl up with a good book. But I don't know where I am going to find books in the future as they are bound to diisappear. And with that disappearnce goes a huge part of western culture. We shouldn't just mourn their passing. We should gight to stop it happening as well. Where would we be without the written word?

        Sure, electronic books are find for travelling but they can never replace the real thing.

        I am suddenly feeling very old.

        Commenter
        wendy
        Date and time
        December 07, 2012, 8:59AM
        • Wendy, I too share your love for real books. However, I bought myself a Sony eReader for Christmas last year, and this has allowed me to read so many more books that I did not have access to previously. It is difficult for me to get to a physical library, so the availablity of so many books online, for me, is wonderful. I'm finally able to get into so many of the classics that I've always wanted to read, but could not because I did not own them. I use my reader every day.

          I think librarys offering digitised versions of their collections is a fantastic idea. Not only can users be able to access books easier, but more people can read the same book at the same time by using a digital version. This way, should someone want to read a certain book that is popular, they do not have to worry about it being constantly on loan at their local library. Librarys can also be better able to offer book-of-the-month discussions, where they digitise a book so that as many people can read it as want to, then the library has monthly get-togethers to discuss the work if people want. It just opens up so many more possibilities to expose people, and especially children, to the wonderful world of reading.

          Commenter
          Diane
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 12:45PM
      • I love real books so to an extent I share your pain. But I disagree with your premise and with most of your comments about university life. There are other reasons than the fall of the library to explain student lack of interest nowadays. And frankly, it is easier than ever before to find old books online that otherwise would be impossible. I was reading CS Lewis the other day and he mentioned a few works which piqued my curiosity. Spenser's Faerie Queene, MacDonald's Phantastes, the Kalevala, Morris' Beowulf and the story of the ring saga. All of them I found for free on the Gutenberg Project website. Tell me (who no longer has access to a uni library) where I might find these works for free elsewhere? And just reading through the list of works on the Gutenberg page promises the discovery of many delights not available in most libraries or bookshops. I mourn the library and the solid presence of books, but you are wrong if you think they have disappeared - they are more accessible than ever before.

        Commenter
        paulw
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        December 07, 2012, 9:30AM
        • I am posting on behalf of a friend who works in a council library, the policy of which mirrors the trends discussed in this article. My appalled friend has watched the dispersal of a once sought-after collection, built up over years by "bookish" specialists of the kind described by Alecia, and which well-suited its local demographic of highly educated, sophisticated readers. As for the Gutenberg project, its success depends on the survival of specialised books and manuscripts within public collections - the obvious source of its fodder for digitising. Arcane books hoarded in a private attic are unlikely to be traced by the project - with the very knowledge of their one-time existence erased as titles are removed from library catalogues (er, sorry - library data-bases). As for Gutenberg as a source of free information - this remains the case only for as long as its management chooses to keep it so! Some would see the project as a dangerous centralising of information into the hands of the few! Others only feel comfortable when the temperature reaches Fahrenheit 451.

          Commenter
          Library dependent
          Location
          A comfy chair
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 10:39AM
        • @Library dependent: it's hardly the case that Gutenberg is the only project of its type - Google immediately springs to mind. And the national libraries of many countries will either retain books or digitise them. I think your views on so-called 'centralising' are apocryphal - access has never been more widespread. Besides, my primary objection is to the thesis of this piece, that imagination and curiosity will shrink. This common lament is the usual blinkered, knee-jerk cliched response to change (albeit quite eloquently put on this occasion). I have a computer and through it I have access to a far greater library than ever before. Books are but a mode, or a medium, for the written word. The fact that the written word is now available in the digital medium is hardly worthy of a lament for its demise.

          Commenter
          paulw
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 11:05AM
      • Ah yes, change is painful.
        On the one hand, I think it's brilliant that we have online/digital searchable editions. There is so much more that can be made available, particularly to those who do not have easy access to the library.

        But yes, one of the problems I see with the lack of physical shelf space is that you can no longer flick through surrounding books. Search features are handy but sometimes you don't know exactly what you're looking for. Not sure how this can be replicated in the digital sphere.

        My new local library is bigger and contains a lot more different areas and seating. It's wonderful. But quiet spaces have admittedly disappeared. It seems students studying in the library are happy to chat away (often not related to their studies). I have tried studying there but found it too distracting.

        Commenter
        change
        Date and time
        December 07, 2012, 10:41AM
        • I appreciate the authors opinion but i must disagree. While i have always been an avid reader i was also part of the generation where computers became the norm in homes and the internet was born. These things replaced the old way of doing things but could you honestly say they have shrunk our imaginations? I think not.

          Now with the increase in smart personal devices and ebooks the opportunity and availability of material is increasing substantially. I now see around half of the people on my tram reading the news on tablets, reading novels on ebooks and also completing school research on the way to their various destinations. 5 years ago this would have been the realm of the large unweildly newspaper (only 1 usually and not the access to 100's you have via wireless now) and dog eared paperbacks.

          Technology has taken the usefulness of the single library and extrapolated it a million fold. Increasing access to information is never a bad thing and can only broaden our imaginations.

          As the poster above mentioned. I now have access to thousands of classics for free and instantly. No library card, no fee's, no transport issues and i can read it whenever and where ever i want.

          Commenter
          Tommy Prisco
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 10:46AM
          • Shrunk imaginations? I think not. I've reaad more in the last 12 months since having an ereader than I have in any other 12-month period. And not only that, I've read a greater variety of authors and topics than I ever had. I'm spending three months travelling around Europe next year and I'm taking a collection of over 2,000 books with me that weigh less than one magazine. Built-in dictionaries and wifi mean that if there's a word I don't understand or I want to find out more about a topic, I highlight the word or phrase and I have the information instantly, again, leading me to read more than if I had to physically look it up in a dictionary or encylopedia. Metadata is going to start creeping in to make all of this information access even easier. Get with the 2st century, people. Just because the library doesn't occupy a physical space does not mean the day of the library is over. If you think that, then you are the ones responsible for the death of the library, not us.

            Commenter
            summerblink
            Date and time
            December 07, 2012, 11:46AM

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