July 2008

Sarah Burke

features

Alberto Manguel and the new Alexandria

We don’t read books in the same way sitting inside a circle or inside a square, in a room with a low ceiling or in one with high rafters. -- Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

I.

Google Book Search arrives in a library as a team of twenty-somethings of varied backgrounds who systematically remove books from shelves, barcode each and send it to a warehouse, where more employees earn their keep or prove their loyalty by digitizing every page and pressing save. The book goes back to the library stacks, marked only by the barcode inside its front cover (a codicological detail that should mystify future archaeologists). Depending on copyright issues, all or part of a given book will be available on the Internet within months. Because copyright is less likely to apply to older books, we can watch them mushroom up on the Internet as if from nothing, the history of the printed word rapidly replicated in digital form.

Fifteen months ago, an Internet search for information on the Glossa Ordinaria, a medieval commentary on the Bible, yielded a sparse Wikipedia entry and little more. Not many libraries have this book. I made regular trips to the one library in a major city that had a copy, consulted it with a Latin dictionary at my side, photocopied important pages for my files. It was an old-fashioned library, the kind of library I love, where you have to sign in to use the collection, where tea is served at 4pm, where hours change subject to weather and the whims of the librarians. Now the entirety of a 19th-century transcription of the Glossa Ordinaria is online. Thanks to Google, I can search for specific words. I can consult the book at 3am, during a blizzard, on weekends. Seventeenth-century books on witchcraft. Eighteenth-century treatises on chemistry. Victorian travel literature. Books that have been out of print for centuries, books owned by only a few libraries in the world. This is amazing, egalitarian, useful.

It is also incredibly disorganized. Google Book Search has often scanned the same book multiple times because multiple libraries own it, the project’s systematic approach creating redundancy. It has run into trouble with magazines: how to barcode something that reappears in new form several times a year? Furthermore, how do you make it clear that the two physical volumes of one book are connected? Or that a book is part of a series? Right now, I usually end up looking at a scanned book because I have started by asking a question of Google’s search engine. This is part of the plan, I know: increase the amount of data available by adding the words in books to the words in websites. But the fact that it takes a Google search to locate information in Google Book Search is emblematic of the disorganization of the scanned books (and reminiscent of Google’s approach to ranking websites: quantity is quality). Rendering physical libraries obsolete will only be a side effect of Google Book Search if Google manages to organize its information better, finds a way to put books beside one another based on shared subject matter, somehow replicates the serendipity of browsing the stacks of a library collection.

It redeems Google Book Search to realize it is run by humans who sometimes scan pages at awkward angles or leave their fingers visible in the frame. You can find screenshots of these accidental fingers on several blogs. They show up sometimes in older books, the fragile books that probably needed to be held open or held together during the course of the scan. A now semi-famous hand was captured wearing bright red nail polish and two pink protective plastic finger-guards -- the publication was called The Gentleman’s Magazine. More likely to appear than fingers, though, are the pixelated shadows where fingers once were, clouds of anti-information in the midst of all the words. Add this to the list of jobs at Google: erasing fingers. The erasures are, to my mind, more distracting than the fingers, in that they look more than anything like fuzzy grey gloves. Not only does this erasure seem like more trouble than it’s worth, but it aptly summarizes many people’s (read: my) general (read: irrational) fears about the Internet -- that it will render our flawed memories, our ragged and smelly old books, our fingers, the details that make us human, obsolete.

When we read a book we hold it with our hands. Sometimes the pages are dry and, barely thinking, we lick a finger to separate the pages. We use our fingers to mark a spot when we look up from the book to talk to someone. Our fingers, like our eyes, are how we physically interact with a book. In Google Book Search the eyes still read but the fingers just scroll and click. This is a different means of absorbing information. But the occasional fingers are reminders that the information before us is reproduced from a physical object, something tactile, something made of leather and paper and ink. They are reminders that humans still operate the machines that form such a huge part of our lives. They are, in their way, like the notes medieval scribes left after copying a very long manuscript, an indication that the book didn’t just appear by magic but was the product of intensive labor. But the fingers are unwanted. Unlike a traditional palimpsest, nothing is written over the erasure and the thing that was underneath can’t be recovered. Am I the only one who finds this slightly melancholic?

II.

Alberto Manguel expresses some opinions on the universal library in his new book The Library at Night. (New in the United States. It came out in Canada in 2006, which is why some of his comments on Google seem dated.) He writes in defense of books as objects:

The world’s tiniest book (the New Testament engraved on a five-millimetre-square tablet), or the oldest multiple-page codex (six bound sheets of twenty-four-carat gold in the Etruscan language, dating from the fifth century B.C.) possesses qualities that cannot be perceived merely though the words it contains but must be appreciated in its full and distinct physical presence. On the Web, where all texts are equal and alike in form, they become nothing but phantom text and photographic image… Compared to a book that betrays its age in its physical aspect, a text called up on the screen has no history.

Elsewhere he is more diplomatic, admitting that digital libraries are not only inevitable but valuable. He believes that a digital library is to a traditional library what photography was to painting, a new technology that made itself indispensable without supplanting a previous technology. Nevertheless, Manguel is fascinated with the hubris of assembling a complete library: the myth of the Library of Alexandria (more than the historical reality) has driven subsequent collectors to gather books in a place safe from decay, as if protecting the books somehow guaranteed our own immortality. Knowledge -- and the ability to access it -- becomes a sign of power and a safeguard against time. As if a library could keep an empire from collapsing.

The Library at Night is not exactly a history of libraries. Rather, it is arranged in thematic chapters (“The Library as Order,” “The Library as Shadow,” “The Library as Mind,” The Library as Survival”) that all tie into Manguel’s own lifetime experience of arranging, re-arranging, transporting, and reading the books in his personal library. Manguel has written previously on the history of reading. In this book he is interested in the process of collecting and living with our collections. He is as fascinated with the books in his library that he has not read or cannot remember as he is with those he picks up regularly. He returns again and again to the importance of having these books together in one place:

One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A half-remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear. If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world’s essential, joyful muddle.

This communication between books is influenced by their arrangement on the shelves but also by Manguel’s own dynamic mind as he reads, remembers, and makes connections. A library is not an assurance of immortality at all, Manguel seems to imply, but the opposite: one person could never read everything in a lifetime, let alone re-read. Manguel treats some of the darker episodes in the story of libraries -- the clandestine collections assembled in concentration camps, the destruction of Mayan and Aztec libraries by conquistadors and missionaries -- but these are never merely anecdotes. They are illustrations of the power of texts both politically and personally. A banned or burned text can be more subversive than an intact text because it attains “a kind of immortality” in its absence.

Manguel is fascinated with the buildings, bookshelves, arrangement schemas, and human characters that dot the library landscape. Samuel Pepys built “little high heels” so that all his books would stand at the same height. Jorge Luis Borges kept none of his own books. Manguel is particularly fond of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who at age thirteen traded his right to run the family bank to his younger brother Max, with the understanding that Max would buy Aby every book he wanted for the rest of his life. Warburg assembled a personal library intended to trace the ideas and images of antiquity as they changed and developed through time. Because history was ongoing, Warburg continually rearranged his books to suggest new associations. Manguel quotes Fritz Saxl: “Assembled and grouped, [the books] expressed the thought of mankind in its constant and in its changing aspects.” Manguel collects stories of libraries in a similar manner. One by one, his anecdotes and reflections coalesce into a portrait of these peculiar institutions. He has also assembled a visual library of libraries, in the form of dozens of black-and-white photographs and architectural diagrams, many of which are credited as “Author’s collection.”

Few libraries have ever finished acquiring books. A library is aspirational, incomplete, a work-in-progress. This goes especially for Google Book Search, which changes so quickly that it is difficult to define. Any valid criticism could be remedied tomorrow. Any conspicuous absence could be filled ten minutes from now. But although it operates with remarkable speed and efficiency, Google Book Search is a new example of an old paradigm. At his best, Manguel reminds us that libraries have always been designed by humans to house the ideas of other humans. This has been the case since the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (685-627 B.C.) ordered the collection of clay tablets from throughout his empire and it is also true of Google’s ambitious project “of whose universality,” Manguel writes, “I remain a moderate skeptic.” A library is not just a database. It is a place that allows human wisdom and imagination to thrive. It is a place where human logic and madness are on display together.