Monday, May 26, 2008

Alberto Manguel: The Library at Night

Philip Hensher reviews Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night.

Like many writers - "a subset of readers," Alberto Manguel calls us - I am a creature of libraries, and can trace my life through each one habitually used. New Malden branch library; Broomhill (a lovely Edwardian villa in that queen of suburbs); Sheffield central library; the Bod; the Cambridge University Library, always feebly abbreviated to the UL; and the London Library.

And, as Manguel says in this remarkable and lovely book, our personal libraries, too, are "reflections of the owner", carapaces into which we fit neatly. Libraries are living things, and have their own lives, as surely as books or people do. Nowadays, of course, the idea of the library is under attack, and many librarians seem the last people who should be left alone with a book and a waste-paper basket.

Nicholson Baker has chronicled the brutal assaults on library stock carried out by librarians, but it hasn't stopped. The librarians of the university I teach at, Exeter, regularly toss out irreplaceable volumes without any consultation, to the point where academics have to loiter around skips to rescue anything important.

The tragedy is that nobody has ever invented a piece of such durable and portable technology as the printed book, and it has, thus far, proved irreplaceable. Manguel tells an amusing story of the BBC, which, in 1986, celebrated the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book by putting the whole thing on computer discs.

Sixteen years later, those discs proved impossible to read by any technological means. The Domesday Book itself was still fine, but if it had been, say, a 19th-century newspaper rather than a 12th-century manuscript, it would have long been consigned to the flames by a librarian, and lost for ever.

Manguel's study addresses the idea of the library, which will always be incomplete, and empty both of books that remain to be written, and books that remain to be found. Somehow libraries, both shared and private, fill up with complete surveys of the most surprising subjects.
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