Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why I Hoard

I picked up another half dozen books yesterday from the Oxfam in Chorlton; it was actually a specific trip there, as I'd not been for ages. I got W.N. Herbert's "Bad Shaman Blues", a Creation records "books sampler" (which I may already have...but probably not), a Richard Yates novel I'd not heard of before, another novel, and a fascinating looking book called "Recording Conceptual Art" with interviews with various artists that were made in the 1960s (the book is more recent.) There's a tottering pile of books on the table, that I've not yet looked at since another charity shop trawl on Monday, and there's a couple of things arrived in the post this week.

Looking at my packed shelves yesterday morning, I picked out Nicholson Baker's "The Size of Thoughts", a collection of his essays and started reading his essay from the mid-90s (published in the New Yorker, so available to subscribers), "Discards", which is an elegy for the library catalogue. Libraries are on my mind, as Manchester's magnificent Central Library reopens in a couple of weeks. There was some hoo-ha when it closed about books being got rid of or pulped; and I'm assured that the new library will still have books at heart its heart, though not necessarily as literally as before, where the book stacks themselves were the load bearing walls of the central dome. Yet there's a word of caution, when the word "books" is absent from that press release, yet "Apple Mac" computers get a mention. In fifty years we may well have no idea what an "Apple Mac" is (its a bit of anachronism even now - as their business has moved primarily to the iDevice motif) but we'll certainly know what a book is. Baker's article was a precursor to a later one about archives removing and destroying their "physical collections." This earlier article is a period piece, of course as we know how online catalogues and searches have changed since 1994. Nowhere does he predict that the internet might end up being the greatest "card catalogue" of them all; or that something like Wikipedia might enable the kind of army of fact checkers that he could never envisage. But he does quote the systems analyst Jim Bradley who talks of a "short dark age of scribalism as we transcribe from the original records into the electronic form" - a process that continues today (Google book search etc.) - but acknowledges there will be a "blot on the historical record."  In other words - in the remorseless move of technology we'll gain much, (and he's been proven right), but in the transition something is lost, just as when we move from one home or city into another we may discard things in the clearout.

Some of Baker's caveats about electronic catalogueing are no longer an issue - or less of an issue - as searches are now far more intuitive than they used to be, though "colocation" (locating similar items together so that books about Madonna the pop singer are not inadvertently catalogued with books about the Madonna) remains problematic. We had a debate a few years ago about "search" vs. "social". I reckoned that "search" was the way that librarian's catalogued; not knowing the value of an item, but knowing the value of the collection; whilst "social" was the way people actually retrieve items, through recommendations or other leaps of logic. What I'd misunderstood, of course, was the extent to which librarians have always done this. That the catalogue is the early version of Amazon's recommendation engine. As Baker points out, a librarian might cross reference "Censorship" with "See also Freedom of Speech" whereas a computer might not knowingly understand the binary. In general we have moved on: but I've always said that there's a bit of a year zero for the internet - pretty much at the time of this article; and twenty years ago. Look up something prior to 1994 and its less likely to be on there. In other words, although Wikipedia, AllMusic, IMDB, the Internet Archive, and UbuWeb have done a fine job in many ways; they can never make up for the fact that only since 1994 has the digital record also been the contemporary record.  Prior to that you need the physical artefacts, the newspapers, magazines and books of the day.

We are lucky that books are such steadfast items. They last well (though there's another erosion that surely takes place with the cheap British paperback of the last thirty or so years - already looking woeful compared to older versions); they are easy to store and index (their spine is a catalogue item in itself; their retrieval mechanism, the flickable page is unrivalled - replicated of course on electronic devices like the Kindle); and, most of all, pace Fahrenheit 451, we cherish them.

What Baker does say, which I think does sometimes get lost in the modernisation of our library estate is a simple thing. "The function of a great library is to sort and store obscure books." In other words: the role of the library is not purely that of the "lending library" with Catherine Cooksons and J.K. Rowlings read dozens of times; it is also about the unread. Manchester Central Library was, and is, a reference library, and acts as one node on a network of libraries throughout the UK. In other words, books don't necessarily need to be popular or read; but they do need to be stored, they do need to be catalogued and they do need to exist and be available. There have been some great initiatives in digitisation of late, that we shouldn't knock, such as the British Library making available PhDs online, 300,000 catalogued, 100,000 available as full digital texts, with others available on order. No one can surely deny the potential value of something like this, and the advantages it holds over pure paper based storage (And bear in mind that each of those PhDs will have a substantial reading list which will in itself be a mine of information). But of course, this is only possible because the paper was so carefully stored, and catalogued. Just to test it out, I looked up a friend's PhD from a few years ago, and it came up within seconds.

Yet we live in an age of unparalled publication - and whereas in the past, all books were ISBN'd, that's no longer the case. The "legal deposit" that I even did with our small magazine "Lamport Court" may well cover the majority of books, but not all. A friend - researching Manchester history - found the local newspaper archives brilliant until the eighties, but then as local newspapers became less papers of record (court reporting, government business etc.) our record becomes less certain. Hearing of a family friend who had passed away I went online to see if there was an obituary in the local paper, only to find that there isn't actually a local paper anymore. In this world the library becomes even more important as a professional resource. Its wonderful that Manchester and Birmingham, two cities built as much upon their intellectual property as on physical production, have recently invested so much in their city libraries, both of which I hope to see within the next month or so; but  I wonder who would start a career in librarianship these days? Have qualified librarians been replaced by counter assistants? Not quite yet, but a librarian doesn't just value the contents of books, but the books themselves, though I accept that can be in electronic as well as physical form.

Like Baker's computer scientist, I'm an optimist regarding technology. Software, after all, is always in "beta", it gets better. (And then it gets worse, but that's another question.) But looking at a shoebox of old family photographs, you can't help but wonder where my shoebox will be when my time comes? There are whole periods of my life that aren't recorded - and no amount of Facebook timelines will replace that. There must be lots of digital "early adopters" who have fading self-produced photographs from around the turn of the century, and a non-compatible disc from a broken camera. I only hope you didn't keep your baby pics just on there...

We do learn things from the physical object - and maybe that's our job as much as the library's. Just as the BBC were incapable of storing their Dr. Who episodes carefully, or the legacy of iconic labels like Factory records or Immediate ended up in skips and lockups, after the company's failed, I'm no longer as sure that our library system is as capable of storing our contemporary media culture. There is too much, it is too fast, there is little compulsion on us to catalogue properly.

So I go round the secondhand shops, I create my own collection, haphazard, as yet uncatalogued - and I'm sure I'll use portable scanners, and online databases when the time comes - because not only does it seem the best way to have at hand much of the information I want, but its also vital in terms of context - whether I'm researching something for a poem or story, or simply wanting to understand more about a subject.  We live in a rich country, a steady environment. One of the surprises I've had with Welsh and Scottish devolution is that more hasn't been done around cultural preservation. Imagine an independent Scotland - so much of its history and culture intertwined with England's yet spread out among museums and collections in both countries. Manchester has kept a commitment to its archives, libraries and other intellectual assets that is admirable, and - with the edifice of beautiful buildings as "cover" (for nobody gets nostalgic about a book warehouse on an industrial estate), if it hadn't been done now, I hate to think what a "privatised" public sector might have prioritised in five or ten years time. The irony about modern Conservatism is that the pull of its economic policies is anything but conservative. Yet all political parties are increasingly staffed and led by technocrats, who are the same administrators that Baker rails against. Like hospital bosses wishing they didn't have to deal with patients, a library administrator who's dismissive of the books and other assets that justifies his very existence is a liability waiting to happen.

My personal collection is tiny - personal and impersonal at the same time, but with a good eye to my particular tastes and directions of travel. I'm no completist, no first edition-ist, but I realise now, when I see a book that I've not seen before, there might be a sense that I never see it again. Self publishing, short run publishing, small press publishing - all these things are as ephemeral as yesterday's newspaper or your last Facebook status - but in them may lie greatness; but that hardly matters; any library - however small, however large - is more than the sum of its parts. For Baker's essay bemoaning the loss of the card library was saying something profound, but simple, that we don't know what it is we are losing. Anyone who has transferred their files to a new computer will be livid that the metadata on the original is so often lost, so that dates of creation are replaced with a new date, 1st January 2014 or whatever, the anonymous physical file has transformed itself, stripped itself of contextual meaning, because in the end it is only what we tell it to be, it is not an "it" in itself.

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