What’s Your Dewey? The 020s All Things Library

There is much talk about the relevance of libraries in an age when the world’s information is readily accessible in digital form – but is it true that the sum total of the world’s knowledge can be had by all, on call?  Does Google give us a level playing field when it comes to access?

There are many texts on this topic and  BiblioTech : why libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google  by John Palfrey
is one example that argues ‘anyone seeking to participate in the 21st century needs to understand how to find and use the vast stores of information available online’ and libraries are best positioned to facilitate this within our communities.

Palfrey discusses the threats posed to libraries (and therefore society) through funding cuts and argues libraries must work toward digitising print material and ensuring all digital material is readily accessible. Contents include sections on how libraries are used; what defines library spaces; librarians as networks; education;  copyright and what’s at stake if we lose libraries. Although there is a distinct USA bias to the text, anyone aware of the fate of libraries across the world will find food for thought.

Anyone who has studied the history and philosophy of knowledge, education and libraries will understand that the notion of universal access to the world’s knowledge is not new. Our attempts to manage human intellectual output can be seen in ancient times (Alexandrian Library for example) through to modern times (for example the British Library).

 

Cataloging the world : Paul Otlet and the birth of the information age by Alex Wright looks at the often overlooked contributions of Belgian Paul Otlet who first progressed the catalogue card as a means of bringing together records for everything recorded on paper. Otlet worked on creating a universal bibliography and developing a network of ‘electric telescopes’ that would allow anyone, anywhere, access to ‘books, newspapers, photographs, and recordings, all linked together in what he termed a réseau mondial: a worldwide web.’ A pioneering visionary, Otlet’s ideas seemed likely to come to fruition until  the Nazis took Brussels and seized his work. Cataloguing the world is an unexpectedly interesting introduction to recent library history.

It is well documented that the Nazis were responsible for ransacking and destroying many of Europe’s Libraries but in The book thieves : the Nazi looting of Europe’s libraries and the race to return a literary inheritance by Anders Rydell ; translated by Henning Koch, Rydell tells the hidden story of the Nazi appropriation of books from the libraries of Jews, Communists, Liberals, Catholics, Freemasons, and many other opposition groups, to be used as intellectual weapons against their owners. These books were not destroyed at the end of the war but found their way into the public library system from where a small team of librarians hope, to locate and reunite books to the decedents of the original owners.

Reading The book thieves… reminds us that one of the things that defines libraries are the people who work in them. In This is what a librarian looks like : a celebration of libraries, communities, and access to information for all by Kyle Cassidy, readers are presented with portraits and thoughts of 220 librarians of all ages, all backgrounds, all personalities and styles, to show us that librarians are not what we may expect. Through these vignettes, readers are treated to many perspectives of libraries over time and the people who have been influential in the field. Also included are original essays by well known authors, journalists and commentators such as John Scalzi, Nancy Pearl and Neil Gaiman.

Librarians have been known to defend the right to read throughout their history.  True stories of censorship battles in America’s libraries  edited by Valerie Nye and Kathy Barco tells the stories of several American librarians who have championed intellectual freedom and access to sometimes controversial material.  While the book addresses topics such as age-appropriateness, censorship, crime and cultural expression, some examples depicted can only be considered skirmishes. That being said, it is interesting to see ways in which we deliberately or inadvertently cull our library collections, restrict their access and thus diminish our community knowledge-base.

In this collection of stories, The book lovers’ anthology : a compendium of writing about books, readers & libraries by Alex Wright, offers answers to questions regarding the impact of books on humans and human society: Do books corrupt? and Do badly written books damage intellect? are just two examples being addressed through the thoughts, excerpts and essays of well known authors. Authors include Chaucer, Austen, Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot and Ruskin. ‘A treasure trove of apt quotations from more than 250 authors’ (Sydney Morning Herald); a bibliophile’s ‘essential anthology’ (Bodleian Library).

Of course there is more to a bibliophile’s obsession than just books, there is all the things that surround books – the paraphernalia and ephemera.  Letter to a future lover : marginalia, errata, secrets, inscriptions, and other ephemera found in libraries by Ander Monson  finds meaning in the objects and notations found in books. According to Monson, everything we’ve read, written, collected noted or discarded, defines us. This of course has implications for how we should deal with this ephemera and how in collected form, it contributes to our bank of knowledge.

Seed libraries : and other means of keeping seeds in the hands of the people by Cindy Conner is a reminder that libraries are not just about books but can be collections of items for preservation and education. Seed Libraries is a practical guide to saving seeds through community programs and includes Step-by-step instructions for setting up a seed library and ways to maintain the collection and attract patrons. It also provides examples of existing libraries. (www.newsociety.com)

Although Creepy libraries by Troy Taylor is aimed at children it provides an interesting view of 11 libraries around the world that are reputed to be haunted places. Readers ‘will discover one that is home to the spirit of a young girl who is depicted in its beautiful stained-glass window, one that is filled with ghosts who are distressed because it is built on top of their burial place, and one that has now turned into a bookstore yet is haunted by library patrons of the past—as well as a phantom cat. The creepy photographs and chilling nonfiction text will keep children turning the pages to discover more spooky stories’ (www.overdrive.com).

 While Creepy Libraries looks at ‘other wordly’ library occupants, Staff-less Libraries: Innovative Staff Design by Carl Gustav Johannsen considers the recent trend toward unstaffed libraries as a way to meet the challenge of decreased funding and increased demand. The book considers the pros and cons of this model and presents international experiences and examples. Contents include definitions of the ‘Open Library’ concept, historical perspectives, community profiling and technological implications. An academic text, this book is aimed at professionals and managers.

Not overly convinced of the staff-less library approach,  Improbable libraries by Alex Johnson provided an inspiring account of how librarians around the world are undaunted in overcoming financial, geographic or political challenges to reach out to those in reading need. The book showcases the changing nature of library structures and functions, with insightful interviews and over 250 colour photographs. Open-air garden libraries, pop-up libraries, mobile libraries (using bikes or camels) and the Little Free Library phenomena are all included in this exploration of these communal spaces and places that bring us together. The simple truth is … people like going to libraries. Indeed, going to the library is like getting a pay rise, according to a survey conducted in 2014 by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport. (www.theguardian.com/books)

Nola Cavallaro

 

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