Strange Catalogs, Labyrinthine Libraries, and Bookmobiles

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December 6, 2016 by libroshombre

Once I visited merry England and unexpectedly found myself inside Chetham’s Library, the first English-language public library in the world. It was established in Manchester in 1653 by a wealthy merchant named Humphrey Chetham in a building constructed in 1421 to house and office priests. The books are shelved within the former priests’ cells in some arcane arrangement devised by the library’s first staff, and the reading room’s about 15-20 square feet large, including the projecting alcove. That’s where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used to hang

out in the mid-1850s, and most of the library’s 100,000 books (focusing on northeastern England’s history and topography), were published long before their protocommunistic tete-a-tetes. The library’s method of organizing the collection is a gim-crack, in-house scheme, so good luck finding anything without the personal assistance of their librarians.

The ancient librarians in Alexandria were the first to work with a collection so big (reportedly hundreds of thousands of scrolls) that it was unwieldy. To make sense of things, they were the first to use an alphabet as a means of ordering things. Before the advent of printing presses and Industrial Revolutions, information was incredibly hard, and expensive, to come by. Libraries of a few hundred volumes were considered enormous from the Greeks hey-day until the last few centuries.  However,

the Alexandrian Library is thought to have owned hundreds of thousands of scrolls.

Generations of librarians and their overlords felt it behooved them to keep their book organizing schemes secret, even intentionally confusing. Libraries of olden times were almost always acquired through military conquest. Then, as now, knowledge is power, but it wasn’t intended for just anyone. As mechanized printing lowered the cost of books, literacy mushroomed, public libraries sprang up, and librarians started trying to make locating books as easy as possible. Before long the Dewey Decimal System, the Library of Congress System, and others were devised.

By contrast, consider the monastic library in Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose.” It’s on top of a three-story “aedificium,” or fortified tower, into which only librarians could enter. Its floorplan was literally a booby-trap-infused labyrinth meant to severely dissuade unapproved research. Eco was inspired by “The Library of Babel,” a story by Jorge Luis Borges about an infinite library composed of limitless interconnected

rooms filled with books that between them contain every possible combination of twenty-six letters and punctuation marks. The librarians know that somewhere there must be a book with the answer to everything, but there was no catalog, so they spend their lives searching fruitlessly.

Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, a leading English bibliophile in Shakespeare’s day, created the best library then in Britain, thanks to Henry VIII shutting down the nation’s monasteries and selling off their possessions, including their books. Cotton acquired many precious tomes, including the original “Beowulf” manuscript, and a fifth-century Greek Bible, the “Codex Alexandrinus.” The Cottonian Library was twenty-six feet long by six wide with fourteen cabinets along the walls, each surmounted by a bust of a famous Roman.

The catalog consisted of the first letter of the Roman’s name, followed by shelves labeled alphabetically, then the places of the books counting from the left in Roman

Coincidentally, apart from the statues, this is similar to how the Fairbanks Library Foundation’s commemorative booktiles are arranged in Noel Wien Library. Booktiles make thoughtful lasting gifts, and all proceeds go towards helping our libraries.

One of the Guys Read volunteer readers knows my penchant for accessible libraries, and he passed along an article from this month’s High Country News (“a bi-weekly newspaper that reports on the West’s natural resources, public lands, and changing communities”). It was an essay by a Flagstaff, AZ bookmobile librarian named R. Kelley about why he loves his job. And what greater contrast with secretive, hidden libraries – and many still exist – could there be?

            Our local libraries are the antithesis of the confusing, labyrinthine institutions of yore, so naturally we enjoy an active bookmobile here, too. Besides visiting the homebound among us, our fully-stocked bookmobile visits Haystack the first Saturday of the month, Ester the second, Salcha the third, and Two Rivers the fourth. Our library not only doesn’t hide information, it brings it to you.



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