In reference to the idea of doing most things, I still unashamedly answer, that frankly, “I’d rather be reading”.
As Benjamin Disraeli remarked to questions regarding his origins “I was born in a library”, I would say that my curiosity and more specifically my desire for knowledge of the world and the history of human culture was born in our family set of encyclopedias. I remember spending hours poring over numerous entries and enjoying following the related cross-references almost as much as the initial entries themselves. Now that those encyclopedias are gone and my desires are currently assuaged by Wikipedia, even though I have spent much of my professional instructional work with college students illustrating the differences between Wikipedia and published print sources or other online reference tools with higher levels of authority, I still like following my actual patterns of curiosity casually with Wikipedia and following the consecutive branching hyper-text entries instead of print cross-references.
Tracing and retracing the infinite branching of the web of associations of curiosity of inquiry in being encouraged to “Look it up” when posing the difficult questions of a precocious child to my mother, of following the seemingly illimitable inner promptings of sometimes fascination sometimes idle curiosity and other times an often blinding desire to know how other cultures lived in every period in history that emerged in almost cyclic and serial progression; wanting to know the culture of ancient Babylonia, learning ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and going so far as to write to the Smithsonian when I was eleven to learn to play the favorite ancient Egyptian game of Senet. From ancient Greek daily life, Roman, ancient Persian, ancient China, Japan, India, the culture of medieval Europe, the Italy of the Renaissance, the Mayans, Phoenicians, ancient Crete, the Baroque world of Louis XIV, and the culture of court life of Versailles and of the Enlightenment and the 19th century world of the Decadents and Symbolists. I had developed an escalating desire to know more and more and to immerse myself as much as possible into my emerging interests of the moment. My encyclopedic historical and cultural interests led me from our encyclopedias and historical surveys, anthologies and illustrated monographs inevitably to our neighborhood public library where I was allowed to browse its card catalogues and its then labyrinths of massive and well stocked shelves unimpeded.
It was a hushed, well ordered labyrinth whose space was dominated by its mazes of tall shelving completely packed with books. It was a sacred space of desire for me which led me to seek out the most obscure topics and cultural historical miscellanea sequestered in every nook and cranny of its tightly packed and silent contents which I sought out to devour and to listen to the often cacophonous voices of the past that like Borges haunting preface to his volume of poetry Dream Tigers or The Maker, that deserves to be quoted in full:
The sounds of the plaza fall behind [or, Leaving the babel of the plaza behind], I enter the Library. Almost physically, I can feel the gravitational [pull] of the books, the serene atmosphere of orderliness, time magically mounted [desiccated] and preserved. To left and right, absorbed in their waking dream, rows of reader’s momentary profiles in the light of the “scholarly lamps” as a Miltonian displacement of adjectives would have it….
That same public library now reflects the changes of many US public libraries that have cleared the majority of space of stacks of books and have utilized more of their space for computer terminals and instructional spaces and class rooms which are mainly used for computer skills training. Whether guided by well-intentioned specific narrow analysis and appeal to the demographics of its primary user population’s anticipated needs, competing for the customers of the now only surviving major bookstore chain, results of diminishing budgets or because of the unquestioned decline in interest or desire for books, in general the public, and now some university libraries are less labyrinths of exploration and miscellanea capable of answering the endlessly branching associations of the patterns of thought and the ability to satisfy the spontaneous urges of desire for free and often random inquiry which the invisible and opaque non-structure of the Internet is now primarily relied on for. Libraries have now sacrificed the conspicuous presence of the book for the merely mundane aspects of utility. Libraries now are less what Alberto Manguel refers to in his paean to the now sadly culturally neglected act of reading, A Reader on Reading, the “numinous memory palaces we call libraries” and are becoming more and more like the “babel of the plaza” that Borges sought to escape. Manguel in his youth in Argentina became an actual reader for the then nearly totally blind Borges, and his book A History of Reading is an historical masterwork yet poetic tribute to this strange habit that is the hallmark of civilization which now seems to be made to appear antiquated through the illusions of the marketing of technology.
Yet nothing could better illustrate the peripatetic random pattern of inquiry than Poe’s memorable byzantine, exquisitely written passage in the opening of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” where the protagonist, the eccentric romantic decadent with almost hermetic mythic qualities, Auguste Dupin, whose powers of “rationation” take on impossible almost preternatural aspects as he proceeds to list the exact succession of free branching unrelated thoughts of his unnamed companion, the narrator of the story, simply through careful observation of his actions and reactions to surrounding phenomenon almost like trying to remember one’s dreams after a deep sleep, as they walk silently through the streets of Paris together “enamored of the night”. The Internet especially via hand-held devices can keep up more effectively with the random evanescent often serendipitous meanderings of the fickle desires of the imagination and the intellect than the stolid and fixed multiple indices of the library can. The invisible spiders instantaneously retrieving the exact mention of any word desired in any recorded text seems like the dangerous consorting and manipulation of arcane spirits, the powers promised by the correct interpretation and practice of dark sorcery or of the siddhis accrued like anima from the yogic recognition of Siva’s grace. While the end-user revolution allows anyone with access to the internet to have instant free access to free text search engines that don’t require arcane taxonomies of controlled vocabularies such as Google whose “Google Books Project” allows its key word searchers to instant access to every word on every page in an ever escalating number of books that include the entire contents of vast research libraries across the US that have been scanned into its full text databases as well as the nebulous unregulated, unedited and frequently unsubstantiated contents of the void of cyberspace.
Yet it is still true that not everything is on the Internet and even with Google’s escalating Book Project, which is now not allowing as much access to the passages cited as it did over a year ago, and only at the time of my writing this, I can now no longer access any of the cited text from my I-Phone where it only displays my option to buy the available e-book version of the text while it still pulls the citations, but I still can access the entire cited passages from any general keyword search from my computer. It is doubtful how long or even the feasibility of the complete and unimaginably total scanning of everything ever accumulated in print, or now of the future of its free accessibility due to publishing and the growing field of intellectual property rulings, and even though Google won the recent appeal of the Author’s Guild v.Google that their massive scanning project did not violate the “fair use” clause of copyright law and that Google’s project “had much cultural value in the way of preservation and access and even in promotion of sales of books”. It is still unclear exactly what Google will do or plans to do with all of this scanned print material, and that their ultimate intentions may not all be culturally philanthropic in scope. This also emphasizes the still essential instability and ephemerality of text in any electronic format. Digital archiving and preservation still poses hosts of problems, not the least of which is escalating obsolescence of platform formats, which leads to the still very unfashionable and unprofitable truth, that print is still the most stable format for “information” (that is excluding carved stone). While including the preservation problems of print, it is still true that if you don’t shred, submerge in water or set them on fire, they can conceivable still effectively deliver their “information” without obstacle for nearly 500 years. While it is equally underemphasized that anything you find on the Internet may not be there tomorrow. Aside from the many contingencies, not the least financial, in maintaining a web page, most subscription databases also have clearly defined clauses that allow them to edit, change or delete any information in their contents without having to alert their subscribers.
While Poe’s Auguste Dupin meets the narrator in what is considered the West’s first true detective story in a library in search together of the same obscure book, it is arguable if now most users of US public libraries instead go in search of free Internet access as public libraries are the only institutions in the US that not only offer free Wi-Fi, but also free terminal access as well as free classes in computer skills development. The hand-held electronic device today is most suited for Dupin’s peripatetic rationating meditations and hypertext’s ease of access to branching textual associations and its powers to assuage spontaneous and emerging and idle curiosities and desires, does and can it compare with a well stocked library?
While the I-phone gives instant access to labyrinths of unedited and indiscriminant text rather glibly referred to as “information”, it is not suited for extended or deep reading. E-readers and I-Pads are more suited for extended reading and have the ability to store vast amounts of e-books; it is now interesting to note the stagnancy of sales of e-books through Barnes& Noble and Amazon. Libraries are responding and adapting to how the public likes to receive its textual materials and have settled with now seeing themselves as “hybrid” environments, part print and part electronic databases and e-books and many are actively competing with the inviting customer-service heavy environments of the remaining large book stores by offering Wi-Fi and coffee bars.
I have noticed that many new library renovations, both public and academic alike, have put more emphasis on the buildings and on empty open space which first greets and envelops the entrant usually with open seating and lounge areas and open tables meant for laptops and or banks of computer monitors, completely free of any sight, trace of familiar scent of books, of which large organized quantities of, I have come to feel are particularly intimidating for the young post-millennial public, even in academia. While I still, when visiting someone’s home or apartment for the first time, tend to feel instinctually distrustful of someone if I discover that they have no physical books, almost as if they have no identity, no matter how many electronic devices they have.
After several years of collecting data from college students, I found that they felt the least confident in their abilities to navigate a real physical library and they had little to no idea on how the books were organized and frequently assumed that they were alphabetized by the author’s last names as in a bookstore. They in general felt much more confident in their abilities to navigate the virtual labyrinth of an electronic database but frequently had no idea that they were any different and were often surprised and confused to hear that they were different from the Internet. While many of these traits arguably led to the development of the “information literacy” movement at the turn of the millennium, there are indications that there has been a key educational and cultural disconnect after the development of the Internet. Many academic librarians began noticing and communicating with faculty about key problems in incoming student’s abilities to use and cite published information along with the rampant temptations to simply cut and paste whole selections of text due to electronic format as well as their inabilities to locate information in libraries. It is my opinion that post-Internet students have fallen into a key skill sets gap where they are obviously not familiar with navigating a physical library, nor are they familiar with traditional bibliographic location tools of indexes or even online card catalogues and on the other hand their electronic database navigating skills are also lacking on the tech side, so they have become caught in between in a gap where they are losing the older bibliographic skills and also not functioning well enough in newer electronic search skills able to retrieve relevant information from databases mainly because of their overconfidence in their generally uncritical habits of Google searching.Many of us who grew up pre-Internet remember that we had little choice and had to develop library skills as there were really limited avenues to be able to access information or to satisfy our curiosity. While many high schools across the country no longer require students to complete any substantial research projects partly because of pressures to focus on testing, the phenomenon of students unable to navigate a library is more culturally troubling to me.
There are several factors in my opinion that are contributing to this besides the Internet, such as consumerism. I was amazed even before becoming a librarian, how many students would prefer to come to me as a bookstore clerk to ask for help with sources for their schoolwork even though the art museum had a large art research library that was open to the public. While as an academic librarian, I was even more amazed at how many students when asked where they would go if our library did not have the sources they needed, that they would prefer to simply ask a clerk at a bookstore. I can’t help from feeling that this generation feels more comfortable and prefers to identify themselves with the privileged role of the customer rather than as a student accountable for their own independent learning, willing to cooperate with librarians and library staff whom they don’t seem to perceive to be able to relate to as customer, even though they are trained to be able to offer professional reference services. I remember also almost getting escorted out of a large bookstore chain as the results of a library school project, where I had posed as a customer while interviewed staff on their abilities to offer research and reader’s advisory assistance to customers, which needless to say was purely subjective at best or otherwise non-existent.
Aside from this there is the issue of public spaces and retail spaces which seem to carry more status than the public spaces such as public libraries which many now identify with the homeless or indigent. While I did hear the poet Gary Snyder talk about how great libraries were to stay warm in while you were homeless, there might also be a status or class issue in the assumption that public library spaces or services are free and therefore must be for people who can’t otherwise afford the materials and “services” of a retail bookstore or who can’t afford to buy them online. On the other hand a recent American public library survey revealed that the top priority for young library users is now security. This is quite understandable in the fact that aside from the recent terrorist shooting in California, you are still more likely to die of gun violence in America today as recent statistics show, than all of the domestic or European terrorism combined. And the public shootings in America do not discriminate between public and retail spaces with plenty of mall and movie theatre shootings that are not terrorist related. While most public libraries are doing great jobs of providing great services to their users and communities and remaining relevant in the current landscape of “information”, many of these factors still serve to erode their place as places of pride and cultural and community identity, which I see eroding into the “library” as hand held device. And aside from the issues leading to the development of the information literacy movement, there is an even more important literacy that is being eroded as print itself is becoming seen as antiquated, LeVar Burton of the once public television’s Reading Rainbow has said in a recent Forbes magazine article about the program’s new app that “one in four children in America are growing functionally illiterate”.
Yet for me, libraries of any shape, size or scope are still sacred spaces. I have always felt the words of Borges’ haunting, oneiric preface quoted earlier, almost more poetic than the works of that slim collection, “…I enter the Library. Almost physically, I can feel the gravitational [pull] of the books….”
I think that my initiation into bibliophilia began with a precocious request for a collegiate dictionary for Christmas when I was still in grammar school. I poured over every word even in its front matter as if it was the most engrossing story. My bibliographic passions arose out of my love of words and language which shortly after led me to teach myself Egyptian hieroglyphics, its letter combinations and its grammar leading me to decipher a passage on a carved inscription of an Egyptian antiquity on a visit to a museum with my father when I was twelve. This fascination with language is now amplified with my interest with Trika Saivism that uses language and grammar as one of its many metaphors for its complex multi-layered monistic theology and ontology as well as a model for Divine creativity called the “Theory of speech” or Para Vak.Yet I still feel that gravitational pull of books and no matter where I am they seem to almost fly to me by themselves and to spontaneously accumulate in piles.
Aside from being a frequent user of my local public library, loving to linger among its tall labyrinths of shelving, preferring to browse its well stocked and tightly packed contents, I preferred to discover the areas and zones of its arcane subject classifications on my own and the serendipity of finding a volume of particularly fascinating miscellanea in the neighboring crannies near my initial search. One of my first favorite libraries aside from the local public one that became my refuge, my hermitage of wonder and cabinet of curiosities was the windowless locked room, more like a large closet that had no librarian and never in my memory had anyone else even remotely curious or bothering to use its contents except for the stray faculty who would unlock it to let me in. Whether it was a purely random collection of books on free standing metal shelving or if it actually had some form of order without labeling, it never mattered to me. This hermetically sealed closet of a room reminds me of one of my favorite quote about libraries or collections of books from The Arabian Nights, “The most beautiful garden is a closet full of books”.
The monotheistic religions all mention mankind’s origins as the first couple who live in a beautiful sequestered garden where they know no hardship or privation and live free of care, but their idyllic life is made conditional only that they not dare to attempt to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge or else they will be expelled from that garden and henceforth must earn their food from the “sweat of their brow”. Loss of innocence, bodily shame and nascent sexuality are also involved in this myth of humanity’s origins as a consequence of their transgressive curiosity and of their forced eviction from that original beautiful garden.I cannot help but sense resonances of metaphor of expulsion from “the most beautiful garden” through reading an opinion piece in the July 18th issue of Forbes magazine titled, “Close the Libraries And Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription”.
While the title alone is too depressing for me to bother reading the author’s attempts at argument, there is another more prurient theme that is resonant to this beautiful garden metaphor and the transgressive desire for forbidden knowledge. While libraries used to be used by furtive adolescents to find snippets of information about sex in old medical reference volumes, the Internet now is a superhighway for freely accessible porn of every type imaginable and libraries have their computers loaded with screening software that frequently censors innocent searches in its net. Yet libraries themselves and their ironically stolid and almost sterile controlled and sensory deprived environments have the reputation of seeming to attract libidinous desire and even illicit sex.
Academic libraries apparently have the most notorious reputation for this type of clandestine activity that forces administration to hire security to patrol restrooms and study areas. It is almost as if prolonged study and contact with the hushed asceticism of bibliographic environments can have the ironic effects of inciting concupiscence. On a trip to Turkey in the archeological reconstruction of the ancient city of Ephesus while visiting the still impressive reconstructed elaborately designed façade with almost Baroque columned multi-tiered porches and niches holding full size sculptures of mythic and historical figures, the ancient Roman designed Celsus Library, I was surprised to see the remains of a threshold carved with the outlines of two dainty footprints which the guide said was a Roman advertisement for a large brothel that not only bordered the library, but also was reached through secret passages from the library.
Matthew Battles’ quiet masterpiece on the history of mankind’s habit of building and maintaining libraries, in the book’s tumble through history and all of its labyrinths of obscure miscellanea related to libraries worthy of its frequent mention of Borges, its exposition is yet written with a timelessly unhurried quality worthy of its title, Library: An Unquiet History. Battles writes about the ironic duality and contradictory phenomenon of library’s striving to provide open access to materials yet also equally restricting it through censorship or through sequestering some more controversial or salacious materials into restricted access archives or basements. He also mentions the hidden agendas of the influential 19th century father of modern American librarianship and founder of the world’s first school for librarianship, Melvin Dewey, who felt that in particular, the immigrant populations needed to be more actively molded into cultural assimilation by the suggestions and services of librarians that emphasized certain “more practical subjects” over others such as literature or the humanities which Dewey felt to be more frivolous and less relevant to the goal of assimilation.
Yet the restrictions of free access to books and diverse thought is an unexpected outcome of libraries, not only because of librarians and administrators, sometimes censorship happens as a result of library’s staff or user’s. On a recent visit to the San Francisco Public Library, I was struck by the unusual sculptures and wall decorations that I could see were constructed out of books. These artworks were made out of thousands of books that had been defaced or destroyed, it turned out, by a guard working for the library who felt it was his personal mission to destroy texts that had anything to do with homosexuality or feminist issues.
Nevertheless, one of the most important points taken from my readings of Battles’ beautiful book, which I would raise to the level of literature as I enjoyed my reading experience of it even more than the “information” I gleaned from it, are the now underemphasized points that the great libraries of the Medici sponsored Italian Renaissance and even those of the great House of Wisdom of the first millennium Bagdad, were not built because of the technology of the printing press, but primarily because of desire, an overwhelming desire for knowledge reminiscent of the title of the Middle East scholar, Robert Irwin’s, For Lust of Knowing, a defense of scholarly inquiry into the culture and literature of the Middle East against the totalizing dismissals of “orientalism” by Edward Said . Whereas now it seems that desire is primarily directed towards the technological devices of access and delivery of what has now become “info-tainment” that are capable of taking selfies, the imagery of its essential characteristic stance of solipsism. A desire mainly directed towards the technological medium that has eclipsed the desire for the message or of its content, which has become increasingly unstable and ephemeral that has no organization and that increasingly proliferates in the black hole of the vortex of cyberspace.
While digital access is still ruled by keyword search screens, admittedly I still find them even as a professional librarian, maddeningly frustrating, unreliable and seemingly more ruled by chaos theory than by any ultimately predictable logic. I have settled on the best illustration for a search screen, whether for a database or for the Internet is like going shopping at the world’s largest store and being told that you are not allowed to browse or even look at what they have and being met by a single clerk who is annoyingly taciturn, laconic and literal who offers no help but who sphinx-like asks, “What is your question”? then given an endless printout of possible replies that have no seeming logical relevance to your question. I find that search engines would more effectively qualify for Borges’ views of libraries as either heavens or hells of endless labyrinths of bureaucratic misdirection and blind alleys.
For me, libraries even today, of any size, once you can actually find the books, still embody the almost magically hushed qualities of “frozen time” that is evoked in Borges’ passage; and for me, the almost simultaneous whisperings of voices of the past as in one of my favorite scenes of a film, aside from the truly magical Gesamtkunstwerk of Peter Greenaway’s version of The Tempest, as Prospero’s Books, that gives one of the greatest tributes to libraries, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, where an angel willingly suspends like a bodhisattva, his eternal state of beatitude to become embodied in the mortal state of man and to walk in his shoes for a time again and to observe them. The scene of his obvious joy in lingering in a library and hearing the audible simultaneous whisperings of texts reciting themselves as he walks past rows of volumes or as he observes tables of silent readers still lingers in my mind when I enter any library now.
While I love the instant gratification of searching the Internet for snippets of information, to me it remains mute, there are no whisperings of “time magically preserved and ordered”, no “gravitational pull” to be felt only feverish and distractible desire, and instead it more evokes and accelerates the “babel of the plaza”. I hear no voices through its medium, or if so, only indirectly and am always reminded of the contingencies of time.If as the Decadent poet of suggestion, Stephane Mallarme wrote that “everything in the world exists in order to end as a book”, it virtually has little to no meaning or value to say the same thing as,“…to end up on the Internet”. And I find it fascinating how we still preserve the mythic and ultimately illusory, almost Gnostic dualism inherent in the pejorative expression, “brick and mortar” with its implied contempt for materiality with its naïve digital soteriology as if we really have the option of existing without it as if the concept of architecture is also antiquated.
Does it also contain with it the implication of the removal or the antiquation of place, and of place as identity? As shopping malls also seem to become a thing of the past, physical retail spaces and stores and bookstores seem less and less prevalent, common or even necessary. As the US falls deeper in debt, its treasury depleted by nearly continuous war efforts and deployments overseas emphasizing its “spread of democracy” with emphasis on protecting its trade resources not unlike the late Roman Empire; internally its government, state and city public resources continue to dwindle along with its failing infrastructure.
Many economists predict that higher education will be the next economic bubble in the US. From Benjamin Franklin who formed one of the nation’s first lending libraries which in many ways embodied the values and ideals of the Enlightenment, that of the free and independent autodidact. I am related through my mother to John Bonnycastle, the self-taught scholar in Georgian England who published very popular mathematics text books for the public, full of uncharacteristic romantic illustrations of personified goddesses by his close friend the artist Henry Fuseli and poetry, that were not long before were the exclusive property of universities most of which were the exclusive property of the Church or of the monarchy. I was asked in 2010 to create a site-specific performance in Zurich as part of a very generous informal but very congenial artist fellowship organized by fellow Essayist contributor, Brett Davidson, and was encouraged to base it on Bonnycastle. What was appropriate for Zurich was his inseparable companionship with Fuseli who was Swiss, and through Bonnycastle’s many close associations through his radical publisher, Joseph Johnson, he even became the math tutor of the young Mary Shelley and was a cherished frequent dinner guest of Byron who was also published by Johnson. This was performed in a small intimate library in the basement of the Department of City Planning for Zurich and for me was a dream worthy of Borges. It was dedicated to historical research and to that mysterious stage when the subject seemed to appear all at once in the mind of the researcher as a living person. Bonnycastle was particularly interesting for an oblique view at a fascinating period in English and world history and its cultural and political foment. It was also interesting to study an individual and cultural context where autodidacticism was so valued as part of the Enlightenment and of the burgeoning Romantic idealism.
While higher education is now almost exclusively viewed as a means to gainful employment with little to no attempt at justification for a liberal arts degree primarily because of its accelerating prohibitive costs. As colleges and university libraries across the country (including Ivy League colleges whose libraries make up a large part of their institutional identity) are laying off staff and streamlining their book holdings, many of which are some of the largest libraries in the country and the world, in desperate attempts to conserve costs in attempts to lower rising tuition costs. Many are also resorting to online reference services in order to conserve staffing costs. Frankly, I believe access to free higher education should be everyone’s right, regardless of even citizenship status. Many countries are already doing this now and the Internet is making great strides in this direction with efforts such as Khan Academy or multiple training videos on YouTube. Given US libraries’ long standing goals of “fostering life-long learning” it seems that they could also be taking more strides in realizing this goal through reclaiming their Enlightenment status as the “free university” or by reclaiming its Alexandrian status and hiring or sponsoring scholars, all of which would certainly bring more attention and patronage to them.
In such an atmosphere of today, libraries struggle to meet the needs of their users, that ever diminishing population, much less maintain a sense of primacy of the “face” or cultural identity of a people or a nation.I love reading the story in Reynaldo Arenas’ autobiography of the head librarian of the Cuban national library hiring him and allowing him to write on the job in order to support his writing. Literature deserves such a home and fostering environment rather than remaining in the hidden warehouses of Amazon. While the contemporary visual arts are more easily commodified into elite hyper-inflated markets of their own, the written arts are relegated to rely on an increasingly threatened market of publishing in order to manifest and survive. A market that is increasingly democratic in its worst manifestations, that is less discriminate, less literate that demands continuous entertainment and satiation, and that is more amnesiac, where Shakespeare is forced to compete with Kim Kardashian.
I was amazed the last time I entered a phone store whose design and marketing on the interior reminded me of a high end gallery or boutique, whose hushed hermetically modern minimalism is designed to signify a hyper market of cultural significance that has transcended the utilitarian. This was partly the case of the whole nearly empty area featuring new model I-phones displayed almost like museum pieces.
As people now continue to die in car accidents because of mindless addiction to texting or web surfing or news videos of teens screaming in agony because police have grabbed their phones that were not allowed in school and had to tackle them to do so, are these devices really being seen to antiquate libraries? They already are changing the way we read, and not necessarily for the better, while his book is on my reading list, the title of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brain is clear enough to me. Just a look at the top Google searches for 2015 is flatly depressing and it also demonstrates the value and indeed obligation for a civilized society to not simply settle with giving people just what they want or only what they ask for, like children, they would more than likely never choose balanced meals if left to their own devices and only eat potato chips, but to make more proactive efforts to recognize the value, the role and obligation of curation and availability to all of the widest variety of the best of all cultures regardless of its popularity or if it is even asked for.
Given the failures of book retailers as of late, libraries may just become the only public “brick and mortar” book spaces left, which would be just fine by me, and maybe the public would begin to take more advantage of the professional services of libraries that were already available to them.
Yet there are institutions today that still inspire me with hope that fulfill the cultural potential of the mythic mission of the library and that take a culturally heroic stance like Arenas’ library boss who actively encouraged him to write on the job. I remain amazed at the unique mission and skillful realization of a multi-media installation and exhibition at the Literaturhaus in Zurich of Tolstoy that managed to display not only biographic information and his personal artifacts, but to actually bring to life many of his memorable characters and scenes from his novels through a variety of multi-media strategies which was my first time seeing a writer and literature as the subject of a modern museum exhibition. Another institution that fills me with hope is the Poetry House in New York that actually provides fellowships for budding writers and poets to use their library as a creative home that fulfills and honors that mythic mission of the library as the face and embodiment of the inspiration of the muse of poetry, knowledge and wisdom. While it may be true that in Latin America, poetry and literature may play a greater role in their various countries’ self definition and politics, and it may be more of cinema for the US, but I also am reluctant to inquire too closely what would be its current manifestation of identity and self definition.
In many ways my interests and curiosities that led me to seek out libraries are indicative of the astrological sign I was born under, Gemini, which the astrologer and researcher on the history of astrology, Solange de Mailly Nesle, believed was personified in literature by Dante who apparently sought out to devour all known areas of knowledge of his day, only to abandon them all for an overwhelming search for transcendence. For me the library is a living symbol of gnosis, not merely a utilitarian space in service of its communities of users, but a living manifestation of the erotics of knowledge, that space of meeting and juncture between the human and the Divine, of temporality with the infinite, which in Trika Saivism is personified by the Shakti. The face and force by which the Divine becomes aware and seeks to know itself that is mirrored in man’s quest to know himself and the manifest universe. As Shakti, in Trika knowledge is one of the triune powers of the Divine, it is a force that is also essentially ambivalent and it becomes binding, along with language, when viewed as separate from the yogi only to be gained or lost, or when viewed as arrogantly owned by him or her. It also becomes liberating when re-cognized and “set on its own path” as an essential manifestation of that Shakti.It is not just the building or its shelves of books that is most symbolic for me, but its classification systems that organize its holdings and theoretically offer a system to potentially order the entirety of human knowledge. As the Celsus library in the populous city of Ephesus on the outskirts of the Roman Empire held huge statues personifying Wisdom as a goddess, for all of our digital convenience and arrogance, it becomes more and more painfully clear that wisdom is in short supply these days.
I offer up the dust of the four corners of the real and symbolic space of the library of today and that still lives in my memory, of that space of Barthes’ Rustle of Language and of William Gass’ Temple of Texts as offering to that Shakti of Sophia and recite Jaideva Singh’s translation of Kshemaraja’s opening propitiatory verse to the Spanda Karikas:
She, who is ever conscious of the vitality of mantra, who is the endless flash of the perfect and complete I-consciousness, whose essence consists of a multitude of letters, who is the goddess embodying jnana, even knows the totality of categories from the earth up to Siva, which is one in substance with Her own Self and is portrayed out of Her own nature on the canvas of Her own free, clear Self, just as a city is reflected in a mirror. Hail to the Energy of the creative pulsation of Siva that exults in glory all over the world.
© Paul Smith, 2016
Photographs by Paul Smith