Upper and lower case stones

The architect who eventually drew the library’s plans (fortunately for me) lives in the village. She insisted that traditional methods be used to clean the wall and rebuild the space, and she contracted masons knowledgable in the handling of the local stone, tuffeau, which is soft as sandstone and the colour of butter. It was an extraordinary sight to see these men work row by row, placing stone next to stone with the ability of skilled typographers in an old-fashioned printing shop. The image came to mind because in local parlance the large stones are known as upper case (majuscules) and the small ones as lower case (minuscules), and during the building of the library it seemed utterly appropriate that these inheritors of the bricklayers of Babel should mix stones and letters in their labours. `Passe-moi une majuscule!” they would call to one another, while my books waited silently in their boxes for the day of resurrection.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

Big Brother can find out what you read

Readers, censors know, are defined by the books they read. In the aftermath of ii September 2001, the Congress of the United States passed a law, Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, allowing federal agents to obtain records of books borrowed at any public library or bought at any private bookstore. “Unlike traditional search warrants, this new power does not require officers
to have evidence of any crime, nor provide evidence to a court that their target is suspected of one. Nor are library staff allowed to tell targeted individuals that they are being investigated.”156 Under such requirements, a number of libraries in the United States, kowtowing to the authorities, reconsidered the purchase of various titles

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The first executive summary

Though a library such as that of Ashurbanipal was the visible expression of earthly power, no single person, however royal, could hope to read through it all. To read every book and to digest all the information, the king recruited other eyes and other hands to scan the tablets and summarize their findings, so that in reading these digests he might be able to boast that he was familiar with the library’s entire contents. Scholars extracted the meat from the texts and then, “like pelicans,” regurgitated it for the benefit of others.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The library is the result of choice

Every library is by definition the result of choice, and necessarily limited in its scope.
And every choice excludes another, the choice not made. The act of reading parallels endlessly the act of censorship.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The right to a public library

“What is the best gift which can be given to a community?” asked the most famous of these benefactors, Andrew Carnegie, in 18go. “A free library occupies the first place,” he declared in answer to his own question.”‘ Not everyone was of his opinion. In Britain, for instance, the truism that “a public library is essential for the welfare of a community” was not officially proclaimed until 185o, when the MP for Dumfries, William Ewart, forced a bill through Parliament establishing the right of every town to have a free public library.”‘ As late as 1832, Thomas Carlyle was angrily asking, “Why is there not a Majesty’s library in every county town? There is a Majesty’s jail and gallows in every one!”

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

Paper books vs. digital books

In comparing the virtual library to the traditional one of paper and ink, we need to remember several things: that reading often requires slowness, depth and context; that our electronic technology is still fragile and that, since it keeps changing, it prevents us many times from retrieving what was once stored in now superseded containers; that leafing through a book or roaming through shelves is an intimate part of the craft of reading and cannot be entirely replaced by scrolling down a screen, any more than real travel can be replaced by travelogues and 3-D gadgets

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The cost of digitizing books is cost prohibitive

Google, announced that it had concluded agreements with several of the world’s leading research librariesHarvard, the Bodleian, Stanford, the New York Public Library-to scan part of their holdings and make the books available on-line to researchers, who would no longer have to travel to the libraries themselves or dust their way through endless stacks of paper and ink.83
Though, for financial and administrative reasons, Google cancelled its project in July 2005, it will doubtless be resurrected in the future, since it is so obviously suited to the capabilities of the Web.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The problem with digital archives

Since no clear solution is available, electronic experts recommend that users copy their materials onto CDs, but even these are of short duration. The lifespan of data recorded on a CD with a CD burner could be as little as five years. In fact, we don’t know for how long it will be possible to read a text inscribed on a 2004 CD. And while it is true that acidity and brittleness, fire and the legendary bookworms threaten ancient codexes and scrolls, not everything written or printed on parchment or paper is condemned to an early grave. A few years ago, in the Archeological Museum of Naples, I saw, held between two plates of glass, the ashes of a papyrus rescued from the ruins of Pompeii. It was two thousand years old; it had been burnt by the fires of Vesuvius, it had been buried under a flow of lava-and I could still read the letters written on it, with astonishing clarity.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The paradox of the library

Like Nature, libraries abhor a vacuum, and the problem of space is inherent in the very nature of any collection of books.This is the paradox presented by every general library: that if, to a lesser or greater extent, it intends to accumulate and preserve as comprehensive as possible a record of the world, then ultimately its task must be redundant, since it can only be satisfied when the library’s borders coincide with those of the world itself.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel