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Wisdom Builds Itself a House

I am interviewed by a team of grave librarians, and suddenly a lifetime of quiet industry in Kildare Street beckons enticingly, until the gravest of them leans forward and asks me neutrally what I think of the Dewey Decimal Classification system, compared with, say, the Bliss Bibliographic Classification. I can think of nothing to say in reply. I travel up and down the stacks in my mind, trying to match the numbers with the appropriate books. Nothing happens. It’s as if the books have fallen off the shelves of every library in the world. No insight into the human need to assemble and classify enters my mind, no witty speculations about the correlation between decimals and the universe of knowledge, no mantras about ease of access and retrieval. “They’re both very useful,” I begin, “where would we be without them?”

Peter Sirr writes: I lock my bike in Leinster Road and go up the steps of Rathmines Library. How long have I been coming here? I used to visit after school to raid the children’s library and later consumed as much as I could of its fiction, history, travel and whatever else took my unsystematic fancy, later still gravitating to its poetry section. Before it was renovated in 2011, what used to strike me was how little it had changed. The issue desk was in the same place, the novels were in the same place; history, geography, travel all stood to attention on the same brown shelves under the same classification labels. I think part of the reason I used to come here had nothing to do with books but because it seemed to be a still spot in time, a place which was not subject to the same alteration as everywhere else. I simply wanted to sit in a chair under one of the high windows and contemplate the books.

Not that I was ever here early enough to get a seat. Every available seat was occupied by someone furiously pecking at a laptop, and one of the major ancillary functions of this space was to provide not books but the silence that books confer, the promise of a quiet place to sit. You sensed that the librarians themselves were in several minds about this. They couldn’t actually prevent people coming in with their laptops but there were not very many places to sit, and upstairs, in the reference library, the desks were those diagonal workspaces excellent for consulting large volumes or for a spot of scrivening like a Victorian clerk, but useless for the positioning of a laptop.

As I look around at the high ceiling and the comforting brown shelves I realise there’s a certain ambivalence in the relationship, an affection laced with guilt. I borrowed some books fifteen years ago from another library and forgot to return them, then lost them. Computerisation eventually caught up with Rathmines and exiled me from the ranks of borrowers. I could just pay the fine and have done with it, but even now that the city libraries have declared an amnesty on fines and all I have to do is produce the book, I keep snagging on some kind of institution-induced sloth, and now if I borrow I use my wife’s card, shuffling uneasily before the desk, preparing to be challenged. I think guiltily of another breach of library morals – my copy of Yves Bonnefoy’s poems, taken from the Centrale Bibliotheek, Amsterdam in June 1989 and still on my shelves. I was leaving the country and the book found its way into the movers’ boxes. I console myself by telling myself no one had borrowed it in the previous ten years. Now in Rathmines I look at the library flap in one of my own books, just to make sure no one has been borrowing it. A few years ago I tried to use the photo on the back cover of one of these books as identification, but it didn’t count as a valid photo ID. “We need a driver’s licence or a passport,” the librarian told me, looking at me as if I might not be all there. How could I have imagined writing a book, especially an unborrowed one, would entitle me to join a library?

I did, though, work in libraries …

I stumble into the greyness of Kilmainham Courthouse. The court is in session, and the hall is heaving with solicitors and their clients. The library headquarters is upstairs and I hurry up, groggy and late. I enter a tall light-filled and smoke-heavy room and take my place at a large table, and the task begins. Each of us has a pile of books on the desk, and our job is to put the protective plastic covers on them. This is not as easy as it sounds. The covers seem to be designed not to fit any known book and the paperback must be slit down the middle and then sellotaped together when the cover is flush with the book and the edges don’t show. At another desk sits the inspector of book covers, a severe woman to whom we carry our piles of books and who subjects them to a scrupulous examination, deciding whether or not our work will be allowed to enter the branches of the Dublin County Libraries. Mostly not, in my case. For the first couple of weeks I work there, almost every book I cover is deemed unworthy of further advancement and I slope back to my space to try again.

All of this happens in a thick pall of blue smoke. This is still the seventies, and to look back is like watching old black and white films where smoke is the unacknowledged but ever-present supporting actor. I light up another Rothmans and cut through the backing of a cover, determined that the next book will look as though machine-fitted with its sheet of cellophane. For years after when I handle books in a Dublin library I find myself wondering if the cover might be my handiwork, if some small part of my labour has entered or even prolonged its life for the length of its allotted span. How long do books survive in libraries in any case? I think of the systems, strict or lax depending on the available shelf space or the energy of the librarians, that determine the fate of the books. Is the author still alive? Has the book been borrowed recently? Has the book ever been borrowed? Are the pages intact? Has the cover come off? Is this book, yellowing and unloved by anyone apart from the author or the author’s ghost, already half-way to oblivion?

We sit at our long table and chat and smoke. We’re a ragged bunch of students and permanent employees, in our Victorian workroom, toiling away like doomed clerks, desultory and vaguely disreputable. At the end of the day, counting the minutes until release, someone opens the ancient clock and moves the large hand forward and we bolt for the door like school kids. But we’re also firemen, waiting for an emergency in the county, waiting to be summoned to Clondalkin, Tallaght, Walkinstown, Dundrum, to fill in for stricken librarians. If our grim headquarters offer an inkling of our lowly station in the system, the full realisation of our abjectness is withheld from us until we enter the branches. A cloud seems to descend on us the moment we cross the threshold and shuffle up to the desk to offer our services. It seems a particular disdain is reserved for the temporary relief, as if we were barely to be trusted with returning books to their shelves or mastering the complexities of the issue desk. In the old libraries in the solid suburbs we look messy, sweaty and bedraggled after our epic bike rides from Kilmainham; we are unpresentable, a blot on the county.

Some of the libraries are still footholds in new communities, provisional buildings in the chill of bleak housing estates. In due course I find myself adding to the legends of relief incompetence. It starts in a Portakabin in the south county where I find myself hovering ineptly over terraces of tickets in their wooden slots as the librarian watches in disbelief. “What’s the problem?” The problem is I can’t find the twenty fifth of July, or the fourth of August or in fact any of the due dates where the tickets are filed, because, it turns out, however eagerly present I am, my eyes are some way behind, in their own dimly apprehended reality. I’m short-sighted, have been for years, but have somehow managed to miss the obvious signals. The edges of the world blurred so gradually that when everything seemed to have a kind of mist over it, it seemed entirely natural, so that when I eventually get a pair of glasses, the sudden clarity of everything is a shock. Where did all those edges come from, all those sharp distinctions? The world crowds in to the eye with a profusion of unsuspected detail. One day I return to the Portakabin, startled at the vividness of the grass and mud around it, suddenly able to read the spines of the books on the shelves, and when my turn comes to issue the tickets I march confidently to my place, where the dates and the blue ticket cards leap out from their compartments and announce themselves. The librarian looks at me quizzically, then shakes her head.

Apart from myopia, my other failing as a relief library operative is reading the books. It’s a bit like the drug dealer using his own drugs, or the betting shop assistant busy filling out his own dockets and ignoring his customers; it’s a serious breach of the employment contract. Often, when shelving, I can’t help stopping to read. In Dundrum it’s Auden, in Walkinstown it’s A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assisant, in Tallaght it’s Graham Greene. In all cases it’s ended by the hot breath of the librarian on the back of my neck and an angry remonstration. In The Library At Night, Alberto Manguel recalls the words of the librarian in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities: “The secret of every good librarian is never to read anything of all the literature with which he is entrusted, except the titles and the tables of contents. He who puts his nose inside the book itself is lost to the library!” It’s probably sound advice.

“You’re better off as a customer,” the librarian tells me on my last day as he buys me a pint in the Submarine Bar. The dream of a librarian’s life is only finally killed off a couple of years later after I apply for a job in the National Library. I am interviewed by a team of grave librarians, and suddenly a lifetime of quiet industry in Kildare Street beckons enticingly, until the gravest of them leans forward and asks me neutrally what I think of the Dewey Decimal Classification system, compared with, say, the Bliss Bibliographic Classification. I can think of nothing to say in reply. I travel up and down the stacks in my mind, trying to match the numbers with the appropriate books. Nothing happens. It’s as if the books have fallen off the shelves of every library in the world. No insight into the human need to assemble and classify enters my mind, no witty speculations about the correlation between decimals and the universe of knowledge, no mantras about ease of access and retrieval. “They’re both very useful,” I begin, “where would we be without them?”

Organising books is, of course, what libraries do, whereas what I had dreamily envisaged was a life of haphazard reading. When I marched in to Rathmines Library after school it was never with any particular sense of purpose, but simply to go rummaging or to sit and think. This, for me, has always been the point. The greater the library, the greater the rewards of idleness. When I got my reader’s ticket for the National Library years ago I was grilled by a panel of librarians who wanted to know exactly what I would be using the library for and I had to concoct a range of fake scholarly interests in order to be allowed into the building. You had the sense of being reluctantly admitted to the treasure trove of the nation, an organ of state, and everything, from the difficulty of getting in to the penitential state-issued toilet paper and the dry demeanour of the librarians, had the whiff of a sanctum of the civil service about it. Things are more liberal now, there are no interviews and less of a sense of the library as fortress or citadel. Yet I always felt that in my own case they had actually got it right, had somehow smelled out the purposeless idleness with which I would fill my desk in the reading room, the frivolity with which I’d browse the catalogue in its series of huge ledgers into which the details of the books and their call numbers had been pasted in thin strips. It was like consulting a book of spells. It was as if they knew that as soon as I got there I would order up books I had no intention of reading and leave them open on the desk while I got on with my own work. Part of the pleasure of writing in libraries is the slightly illicit sense of infiltrating a place of serious advancement for your own chancy purposes; but the real pleasure is stitching the private creation into the civic, public space as if to imply, or invent, a connection between the two. Or at least it’s an attempt to bring the city into your head; writing or reading are intensely solitary but doing them in the public space of a library almost feels like a collective act, a conscious alignment of the spirit with the other occupants of the space, past and present, but also somehow with the building itself and ultimately with the fabric of the city. This might sound fanciful but buildings profoundly influence our mood, and there’s nowhere more conducive to the expansive absorption of reading or writing than the light- and book-filled space of a library.

Today, I can consult the catalogue of the city libraries as well as those of Trinity and the National Library on my laptop before entering the buildings, and as often as not a trip to Google Books or the online journals in JSTOR mean I can postpone leaving the house. Every time I do this I realise our relationship with knowledge is changing, and that the time will eventually come when most of everything is online. Part of me welcomes what could amount to the ultimate democratisation of knowledge, but part of me also recognises that copyright restrictions will limit the availability of vast numbers of books, including the ones I’m most likely to be interested in, and that all digital power over knowledge, apart from the closed online resources of institutions, is concentrated in the hands of a single monopoly. Yet for all these reservations I would still love to see digital access for everyone to the sum of human knowledge and creativity in a way that is fair for everyone. Universities are restrictive, closed off to all but their students and staff, and not everyone can get to a public library – and not all public libraries are worth the visit – or to the beautiful domed reading room of the National Library. And I don’t see any contradiction between this and the desire that public libraries should be promoted, encouraged and better funded. We need both, in other words. Sitting at a laptop, for all that our curious fingers flit across cyberspace, confines us to our private space. We need the opportunity to wander and discover and be let loose among the materiality of paper and physical buildings.

Increasingly, this feels like a visit to the past. Most people don’t visit libraries, and the numbers of those who do are declining steadily. As I write this, there is controversy in Britain about the closure of libraries. One of the justifications for the closures is under-use, the fact that people are staying out of libraries in their droves. Many who justify the closures and the cutting of funding to libraries argue that the various forms of digitisation make libraries redundant. But Kindles, iPads and smartphones position reading firmly in the domain of the private. You can’t share your downloaded book with a friend, you won’t leave it behind in the rented cottage or donate it to Oxfam. You won’t be leaving it on your shelves for your children to read and pass on to their friends. Electronic consumption is a closed circuit, a communion between the single individual and the source of knowledge. On the other hand, the printed book itself is still thriving, and one of the reasons for under-use of libraries is the growth of book-purchasing, especially from online suppliers. People are therefore making a conscious choice to consume books in the same way as they consume any other product. It’s only when the economy dips that people start to drift towards public libraries again, only to find that their absence has left a library culture depleted of resources and under continuing threat. Does this matter? I think it does. Ancient manuscript and modern print culture have always depended on the intersection of the public and the private. The decision to gather books together and make them available is one of civilisation’s defining ideas. As opposed to the keyboard’s combination of guesswork and algorithms, it offers a systematisation of the current knowledge together with access and ease of retrieval. It’s also a public celebration of the achievements of literate humanity, and a constant invitation to discovery. The ancient libraries were important social centres and intellectual hubs, with dining areas, meeting rooms, lecture halls and gardens as well as reading rooms. And the physical building of the library, the solidity of the shelves with their weight of scrolls or books offers an assurance that what is contained there will go on being available, unlike the movable feast of the url or the shifting sands of the search results. That solidity, that continuous availability encourages us to stop and read deeply, whereas the Internet invites us to hurry and skim and search again, appealing to the restless, questing side of the brain for which the pursuit is all.

I think of Callimachus poring over his Pinakes, a bibliographical survey of all the authors whose books were held in the Library of Alexandria, the first such list of the contents of a library. Working on his own, Callimachus came up with a system that allowed a user to find out if the library stocked a particular work, how it was categorised and where it could be found. Alexandria’s other big idea was the requirement that every visitor to the city had to hand over any scroll they happened to be carrying. The library kept the original and sent back a copy to the visitor. It’s a wonderful image of cultural taxation, the city constantly enriched by the traffic of visitors, but also of the hubristic, though doomed ambition to amass the entire body of knowledge in the world. It may be that nothing of the library, or of Callimachus’ tables remain, other than the gesture, the ambition, but they’re powerful enough to haunt our imagination as images of an ideal completeness harnessed by an ideal order.

Despite the supreme achievement of the Pinakes, Callimachus himself seems to have had a troubled career in the library. He never made it to the top, his advancement possibly blocked by his rival librarian and poet Apollonius of Rhodes. A row between librarians might not seem that exciting, but the stakes in this case were high. It was in effect a row about two opposed aesthetics, two radically different conceptions of the role of the poet and poetry. Callimachus is one of the famous poets of the ancient world, a major influence on Catullus, Ovid and Sextus Propertius. Part of the reason for his influence lay in his rejection of the epic mode – mega biblion, mega kakon (big book, big evil) was his mantra. He felt poets should avoid the Homeric and concentrate on brief forms. He claimed to have been visited by Apollo, who advised him to “fatten his flocks but keep his muse slender”. The younger Appollonius, on the other hand, author of the Argonautica, the only surviving epic of the age, strongly disagreed. Evidence of a bitter feud between the two has come down to us and thanks to a fragment of papyrus we know that Ptolemy II passed over Callimachus and appointed Apollonius as chief librarian. It’s unlikely to have been the first time in history when rival poets slugged it out, or when worldly ambition and artistic vision mixed in a bitter potion, but at least the shade of Callimachus can find consolation in his livelier posthumous reputation. His distaste for epic didn’t inhibit a prodigious rate of production – the Byzantine encyclopaedia Suda credits him with eight hundred papyrus rolls of prose and poetry. All we have is six hymns and sixty-four epigrams, enough to supply a convincing flavour of this mandarin perfectionist with his distaste for hoi polloi:

I despise neo-epic verse sagas: I cannot
Welcome trends which drag the populace
This way and that. Peripatetic sex-partners
Turn me off: I do not drink from the mains,
Can’t stomach anything public.

                                                  Lysanias,
Yes, you’re another who’s beautiful, beautiful – and
The words are hardly out of my mouth, when Echo
Comes back with the response, ‘Yes, you’re another’s.’

(Translated by Peter Jay, The Greek Poets, Homer to the Present, WW Norton, 2010)

For me his most affecting poem is his well known elegy for Heraclitus, in which the poet consoles himself with the thought that at least his friend’s poems will live:

When I heard you were dead, Heraclitus,
tears came, and I remembered how often
you and I had talked the sun to bed.
Long ago you turned to ashes, my Halicarnassian friend,
but your poems, your Nightingales, still live.
Hades clutches all things yet can’t touch these.
(Translated by Edmund Keeley, The Greek Poets, Homer to the Present, WW Norton, 2010)

His faith in the longevity of Heraclitus’s poems was optimistic as it turned out, and only a single epigram has survived, a poem which describes the discovery of a fresh grave and gives us the words inscribed on the tombstone: “Stranger, I am Aretemias, my country Cnidus. I was the wife of Euphro and I did not escape travail, but bringing forth twins, I left one child to guide my husband’s steps in his old age, and I took the other with me to remind me of him.” (Translated by WR Paton in The Greek Anthology, Loeb Classical Library, 1917)

I’ll finish with snapshot from a few years ago. My daughter and I enter the small redbricked library in Kevin Street (now also recently refurbished). This is a fixed part of the weekly ritual. The library is small, but the children’s section is disproportionately large, and my daughter settles down happily to a clutch of picture books while I wander over to the main section. For both of us there’s a certain quiet drama about the building; once we enter the hush a concentration seems to waft out from the combination of books, shelves and the silence of other borrowers, and as we robe ourselves with it and settle down to the examination of books time passes quickly. This is in a way the least tangible aspect of the library experience, but also one of the most important. It’s the library as the locus of spiritual refreshment. You can’t take your child to the internet, after all, but you can take them to a building like this and let them loose on its treasures. As we check out our books the librarian gives us the address of the book search site that holds the catalogues of all the local libraries, and tells us that at least a third of Kevin Street’s business is the boxes of books that arrive each day, summoned by the fingers of browsers on their computers. This seems like a fair bargain, the meeting of technology and physical encounter; this is a future I could live with. I jot down the address of the site for future reference, as my daughter shyly hands up her books to be checked out. It’s childhood, I realise, looking at her, and looking around at the books and the musty desks, that wave of well-being that washed over me as I came in the door has washed down the years from Rathmines, a wave of pure absorption that might, even now, even as the tide of literacy seems threatened, gather her too into its ancient folds. But even as I allow the warm glow of that thought to wash over me I think of its opposite, the library-angst, library-terror brought on by the funereal array of so many books, as if reading, even as it draws us in, has to contain its counterlife. I think of Luis Cernuda:

Don’t let reading be for you, as it is for so many people who frequent libraries, an exercise in dying. Shake that barbarous intellectual dust from your hands, and leave this library, where your own thought could one day end up stored and mummified. You still have time and it’s a perfect afternoon for going down to the river, where young bodies are swimming in the water more instructively than most books, including yours, Oh, to redeem the earth, whole and self-sufficient as a tree, all those excessive hours spent in reading.
(Luis Cernuda, “Library”, in Written in Water, The Prose Poems of Luis Cernuda, translated by Stephen Kessler, City Lights Books, 2004)

27/6/2019