Save for a few odd words I remember from 7th grade, when we had to learn both Spanish and French for one marking period each on the days when we didn’t have “gym” — what physical education classes are called t/here in the States — I don’t really speak Spanish. But I’ve always loved the sound of the word “biblioteca.” Biblioteca. That it means “library” is all the more reason to truly relish this term. Jorge Luis Borges said of this cultural institution, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” I think I have, too. So when I came across this link on my twitter feed to an article about libraries in the margins, my interest was piqued.
In it, the author Shannon Mattern considers the new roles that libraries play alongside the functions they have always served:
“[Libraries] exist not simply to store and provide access to information. Advocates argue that libraries continue to serve crucial civic and social functions, and their tenacious faith is reinforced by a flurry of recent street-level library activity. The last few years have seen the emergence of myriad mini, pop-up, guerilla and ad-hoc libraries, which are part of the phenomenon that Mimi Zeiger, in herInterventionist’s Toolkit series for this journal, calls “provisional, opportunistic, ubiquitous, and odd tactics in guerilla and DIY practice and urbanism” — to which I might add, librarianship.”
What counts, I wondered as I read the words and looked at the images, as a library? The photographic and narrative accounts are stunning and thought provoking, and raise another question: where do libraries exist? Where should they exist; and, by extension, when do they come into and out existence? (That last question is more mine than the article author’s.) Mattern goes on to explore, through interviews with librarians of various types of libraries (that is, little and otherwise) the political context in which the survival of the public library as we’ve always known it is situated. There is tension, she notes, between the little, marginal libraries — like the ones depicted in the fantastic images below — and the efforts of larger library institutions who strive to provide a wider range of resources and support.
“Yet regardless of their aims — whether aesthetic or political or tactical or civic — these projects can’t help but raise big and important questions regarding the protocols of access, the ideals of knowledge and rules of intellectual property, the health of public institutions, the viability of public space and public life, and the definitions of civic values. Some little libraries, self-consciously precious, might seem mainly intended to charm; but ultimately they underscore the great and unbridgeable difference between a phone booth fitted out with books and cushions and potted plants, on the one hand, and on the other, a fully functional and sustainable public library system, with the infrastructure and expertise to serve the diverse publics of a great nation.”
And what about the libraries that we carry with us? This practice is becoming, in one way, easier as our texts are more readily available in digital (read: portable) formats that can be compactly transported via any number of digital devices. But, as I have learned the hard way having spent several weeks and months away from my extended library, you can never take it all when you go…somewhere. There are, of course, drawbacks to this forced distance from one’s personal library. Just the color of a familiar spine can spark an idea, catalyze a connection that might not have existed before; a library can provide the warmth of the best security blanket — the security that comes from visual access to moments in time throughout one’s reading history.
Writing in a similar vein, Liam Callanan has written an article for the Wall Street Journal in which he describes the art of travel (through Paris, no less) as done by the book. In fact, the article is titled, “Going by the (Children’s) Book” and in it Callanan describes the joy that he and his family experienced upon (re)discovering Paris through the lenses of children’s books. They have transported a portion of their library, specifically books in which Paris features prominently, with them on vacation. Implicit throughout his recollection of walking in search of the Madeleine’s residence or the treasures at the center of The Red Balloon is the sense of discovery that can come from ongoing and new forms of engagement with familiar texts — those texts that are like-kin to one person, that are then shared with another.
Libraries, it seems, are ever-lasting. And while their shape, form, location, and even materiality may change, the presence of little corners of the universe dedicated to the intermingling of one person’s printed/designed/crafted words with another’s seems destined to exist. (Yes, I do imagine that when the lights go out in libraries, as well as in book stores, there is a great deal of chatter to be heard amongst the opening and closing of hard and soft covers.)
So, I amend an earlier statement I made about just wanting to pack a carry-on whenever I prepare to leave home for an extended period of time; I’ll need enough source material for a library, thank you very much. What the source material is and what it contains, well that is a post for another time and very likely a different blog.