September 06, 2004

In libris

I am just back from the pub, and hence of a mood to be sentimental. But why not be sentimental about librarianship, when you have people like Tim Coates and Will Hutton agitating for it to be reduced to little more than manning the checkout while people take out novels from their local sub-library in the evening?

I have been reading Moses Finley on The Ancient Greeks, and reminding myself that the first of the great libraries was founded in Alexandria by order of Ptolemy I: and as it happened, I mentioned just the other day, at work, that we stood in the tradition of the librarians who worked there. As is true of many of the things I say, I was overstating, but without joking. The line can, and must, be drawn to link what they were doing in Alexandria, and what we are doing in libraries today. The connection is in the why.

When I did my Masters the pre-course reading list was full of asinine management texts, as well as a few that were presumably of some practical use. I wanted them to rewrite it so that it included The Name Of The Rose (which ends, as did the library in Alexandria, in a fire). Something to emphasise that we were librarians, not management somethings where the something was the variable part of the phrase. I was probably wasting my time, since I don't suppose they changed the reading list and I don't suppose it would have made any difference if I had. Half the students, if students is an appropriate description, showed little sign that reading was an activity which they engaged in or that books were something which they valued.

But I thought of another book this evening: Fahrenheit 451. Actually if I am to be honest it wasn't the book I was thinking of, but Truffaut's film, and in particular, the final scene, even more than the celebrated scene with the burning house and - I cannot recall exactly how the line is rendered - "we shall today light such a fire in England as shall never be put out". The final scene, in keeping with the disturbing, non-naturalistic style of the movie, shows the few people who have fled the book-burning society from which Oskar Werner has escaped, each one of whom has chosen to "be" a book, to learn that book word-perfect so that it can be preserved even if the last copy is tracked down and destroyed. They preserved literature, preserved creation and knowledge, even if they did so only within themselves and only for themselves. They did so because it was right, and because they must.

That is what we are, librarians. The preservers, the curators, the Keepers of the Flame. The Keepers of the Flame, even against fire. We do it because it must be done. We do it because we must.

I feel like that every time I walk into a library. Except, perhaps, the one I work in.


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