Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hope for the Libraries

Have you ever been to The British Library, Gentle Reader? I've had the opportunity twice now, in May, and during my most recent trip across the Pond. If you haven't been before, please, let me try to explain to you what it feels like to walk inside those doors.

At first, it's almost disappointing. As an American, I expect Everything British to be either Medieval or Victorian (and as a Victorian Scholar, I pray for Victorian). I expected The British Library to look just like The Reading Room in The British Museum. But in fact, The British Library is awfully young, and while a part of its collection was transferred from The British Museum, it's not at all that old.

But there's a feeling there, when you walk in, that All Of "The World's Knowledge," as The British Library's slogan proclaims, really is just waiting for you. And when you walk into one of The Reading Rooms, Friends? Well, you know, without a doubt, that you are Home.

I love books. Is there any other way to say it? I've made My Life's Career out of Reading and Teaching, and Writing About Literature. I read books. I write books (unpublished, but written). I have, on occasion, sold books (not mine, unfortunately). I own books, hundreds of them, even more, if we were to include Mr. Reads' collection, and the books we still have at the Parents Reads and the Reads-In-Law houses. And one of the greatest Book Moments in my life was walking into The British Library's Humanities Reading Room for the first time.

And the second time.

And the third.

Did you know that in Britain, most of the museums are free? It's true, Friends. The British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Britain, the Tate Modern, and yes, the British Library are all free and open to the public. That's to Anyone, Gentle Reader. Even the non-tax-paying visitors to England, such as myself. Do they ask for donations? Of course they do. Did I donate? Of course I did. Why? Because I cried when I saw Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott. Because I saw one of Queen Victoria's gowns. Because I am an Anglophile of the Highest Order.

But now, Gentle Reader, oh, now, The British Library is in trouble, financially. As an American, I am saddened, for certain, but perhaps not surprised. It seems that if funding is to be cut, the educational resources are the first to lose money. But for The British Library, home to so much world knowledge, to suffer under such funding cuts breaks my heart.

Because in the end, it's not the Library that suffers, but the Readers. The future Woolfs and Marxes and Trollopes, and all others who once enjoyed the Reading Room Experience, at the British Museum, certainly, but the Experience all the same. The scholars, the bibliophiles, the Random Joes and Janes. The Readers.

We the Readers are the ones who might not stop by to read a few books, or enjoy a random 1855 pamphlet on the dangers of fashion for women, simply because we might not be able to afford it.

And what good is knowledge if it is not to be openly and freely shared? Why hold the books for future generations, and then deny those same generations free and open access, when the time comes?

I believe in protecting manuscripts, rare and fragile all. I believe in interviewing potential Reading Room Card Recipients, as I was interviewed. I believe in having several librarians on duty, to make sure no one harms the works at hand. But I believe in sharing and distributing the knowledge contained within.

You may wonder, Gentle Reader, why I feel that this post is important in a blog on popular culture. It's for this simple reason:

One generation's popular culture is the next generation's Great Literature.

Don't believe me?

Take a look at Charles Dickens' publishing record sometime, then. And compare it with someone like, say, Stephen King.

And please, please do Save The Libraries.

2 comments:

Thomas L. Strickland said...

It sits there on the corner, so huge and yet somehow precarious, guarded by Paolozzi's Newton.

When we were last there in 2005, we spent hours just creeping in the half-dark around the ancient and not-so ancient books and papers. There is something terribly profound -- something that speaks to your Dickens/King comment -- about looking through glass at medieval illuminated manuscripts that rest hermetically in cases only a room away from preserved 45rpm records of "Love Me Do" and Lennon's lyrics scratched on an envelope.

The news is terribly sad, though for the life of me ... I cannot imagine an alternate means of support. What the Library needs is probably a sizable amount of corporate donation. In exchange, Barclays and Cadbury get their names emblazoned on a plaque in the foyer. Reasonable enough.

Because really, were talking about a kind of stewardship. Not environmental, but cultural sustainability.

Amy Reads said...

Hi Thomas,
When we were last there in 2005, we spent hours just creeping in the half-dark around the ancient and not-so ancient books and papers. There is something terribly profound -- something that speaks to your Dickens/King comment -- about looking through glass at medieval illuminated manuscripts that rest hermetically in cases only a room away from preserved 45rpm records of "Love Me Do" and Lennon's lyrics scratched on an envelope.

It's really, really true. I try to impress upon my students that pop culture is not a new thing. In fact, I study 19th-century pop culture, when you get right down to it. And the British Library seems to love it all, from the medieval manuscript to those Lennon scratchings.

The news is terribly sad, though for the life of me ... I cannot imagine an alternate means of support. What the Library needs is probably a sizable amount of corporate donation. In exchange, Barclays and Cadbury get their names emblazoned on a plaque in the foyer. Reasonable enough.

I know, I know. I can't think of anything to fix it, either. But then, that's why I'm a reader and writer, not an economist. I've no head for figures or grand solutions.

Because really, were talking about a kind of stewardship. Not environmental, but cultural sustainability.

I really worry about the future Marxes, unable to write or view in peace.

Or for free.
Ciao,
Amy