Shelves of books, lying in temporary storage, waiting their inevitable demise… Someone’s life’s work, perhaps, this small part of a once, great library collection, now no longer needed – changes in course content, changes in university policy, changes in public attitudes, all contribute to consigning vast racks of paperbacks and hardbacks to uncertain limbo and beyond to some ultimate dissolution. Should I waste my empathy on this library carcass? I have no choice but to quell a futile urge to weep that comes over me in the face of this utterly trivial tragedy. I cannot ask that anyone else cares, but as for myself I have no choice in the matter.
The other week, two postgraduate philosophers appeared in my office – a rare sight in this campus, since there are no philosophy courses on offer. I had met them both at a conference the university had held the other month with the barely concealed purpose of forcing the faculty to mingle with itself. They had come from a dilapidated building on the other side of the university’s plot of land, an old mill that has seen better days. They told me of a room with shelves of books that had been culled from the library proper, and which were effectively free to a good home – and that the collection included an array of philosophy books.
One of the librarians took me there, and talked me through the situation. In essence, I was free to take whatever I wished from the storage shelves, but I had to leave them on the floor first so that they could catalogue what had been taken. It seemed like a simple enough task. So I began to make my way through the philosophy collection… Upon the floor, stacks of books began to rise, my picking of the flesh from the dead bones of this library. Books of ethics, famous and obscure; old dog-eared hardbacks of classic Nietzsche and Kierkegaard; fresh, glistening paperback tomes bursting at the spine with essays – all rescued from their internment like pets from death row.
I love libraries and second-hand book stores, all the places where musty pages congregate, but this rescue of unloved volumes saddened me. I couldn’t help but see in these shelves the work of someone who compiled a great collection of philosophy books – hitting all the obvious touchstones, while seasoning with rarities and oddities. With each book, the same harsh question? Can I use it? Such a cold way of dealing with things, but there was no other way to make the problem tractable. In the end, my ragtag caravan of refugee texts were just a tiny proportion of the books being held there – and I didn’t even look in disciplines outside of philosophy.
Why did taking these books feel so empty and distant? Titles I would have been thrilled to find in a shady used bookstore and purchase for a few coins depressed me when acquiring them for free. And with it all, the nagging sense that there was no possibility whatsoever of reading them all, that these books were so much baggage I was bringing into my life. Perhaps I will feel differently when they are in the book shelves of my office, which frankly have needed populating since I only filled one or two of them when I first arrived here.
Libraries are more than storehouses, they have their own personalities – they violate their well-known imperative to silence by shouting their ideas and opinions to anyone whose eyes will dare to listen. Within every shelf, a view of the world. Their death, their putrescence, is the abandoning of chaotic character for the diverse homogeneity of the internet, where you can find myriad interjections about anything at all, as long as it’s popular and inconsequential. Bless you, oh librarians, for the honour you have bestowed the humble book over this millennium of paper words. Your collections may fade to dust, but your service is eternal.