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still fragile and that, since it keeps changing, it prevents us many times from retrieving what was once stored in now superseded containers; that leafing through a book or roaming through shelves is an intimate part of the craft of reading and cannot be entirely replaced by scrolling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

Dust it shall be but dust in love

In Elias Canetti’s 1935 novel Die Blendung (Auto da Fe), Peter Kien, the scholar who in the last pages sets fire to himself and to his books when he feels that the outside world has become too unbearably intrusive, incarnates every inheritor of the Library, as a reader whose very self is enmeshed in the books he possesses and who, like one of the ancient Alexandrian scholars, must himself become dust in the night when the library is no more. Dust indeed, the poet Francisco de Quevedo noted, early in the seventeenth century. And then added, with the same faith in the survival of the spirit that the Library of Alexandria embodied, “Dust it shall be, but dust in love.”

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

A warning that all we gather may be lost

We can roam the bloated stacks of
the Library of Alexandria, where all imagination and
knowledge are assembled; we can recognize in its
destruction the warning that all we gather will be lost,
but also that much of it can be collected again; we can
learn from its splendid ambition that what was one man’s
experience can become, through the alchemy of words,
the experience of all, and how that experience, distilled
once again into words, can serve each singular reader for
some secret, singular purpose.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

The library as protective fortress

By housing as many books as possible under one single roof, the librarians of Alexandria also tried to protect them from the risk of destruction that might result if left in what were deemed to be less caring hands (an argument adopted by many Western museums and libraries today). Therefore, as well as being an emblem of man’s power to act through thought, the Library became a monument intended to defeat death, which, as poets tell us, puts an end to memory.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel