»  The Straggler, No. 70

September 1, 2008

   On the Shelf

Has there been some kind of revolution in library management this past year or two? The reason I ask is that I recall library fines as being puny — nickels and dimes even for books overdue by a month or more. And then it seems — and this is impressionistic because I am, you understand, normally punctilious about returning library books on time — it seems that the fines were suddenly multiplied tenfold. On one occasion last year, for the first time in my life, I paid a library fine with paper money, and got no change.

Well, no more. On my birthday this year I passed one of those milestones that appear as Middle Age shades off into Senior Citizenship. Tidying my study a few days after the birthday, I turned up a book that was disgracefully overdue. It was Peter Ackroyd's Albion, just as gripping and learned as all his others, but somehow set aside and forgotten in the drifts and piles of books that accumulate so relentlessly in my much-too-small study. I hastened down to the library with it, bracing myself for a monstrous fine. But: "Thank you!" chirped the librarian as she finished checking in the book, her voice and manner clearly indicating that our transaction was over.

"Isn't there a fine?" I asked, anxious to be a good citizen.

"No." She nodded at her computer screen. "You're a senior now. Don't have to pay fines."

The clouds parted, a shaft of sunlight breaking through. No more library fines! What else do I have coming to me? Waivers on parking tickets? Free cinema admissions? I am now an elder of the tribe, to be honored and deferred to. (Will someone please tell my children?) It was a complete surprise, as the birthday just past was not one of the usual markers — was not in fact, I hasten to say, any very large or significant number at all. Bless my town and its wonderful library service! — which costs me a mere 7 percent of my property tax, I see from the breakdown on my statement. Given the choice, of course, I would trade in my new privilege for a couple of lost years. Matters are so arranged, though, that one never is given the choice. I'll take the privilege.

The whole episode reinforced my lifelong love affair with libraries. In every place I have lived, I have been intimate with the local libraries. I have always headed for them instinctively, and spent many happy hours among their shelves. I would not mind very much dying in a library, though preferably from natural causes, not crushed by a falling bookshelf like the fellow in Howards End.

I remember my libraries more clearly than I do my actual living spaces. Of the academic ones, most were mathematical, long groaning shelves of Comptes Rendus, Gesammelte Werke, and Nordisk Matematisk Tidskrift. At Columbia University's math library, the wall near the entrance is decorated with four large portraits of mathematicians, two male and two female. Since only 2 percent of first-rank mathematicians have been female, this is unbalanced mathematically, though of course of perfect correctness politically. When I told Charles Murray about this, he thought it interesting enough to put into his book Human Accomplishment.

Of scholarly libraries other than the mathematical, I only know the one at London's School of Oriental and African studies. The forbidding ranks of dynastic histories and commentaries on commentaries on the Confucian classics were beyond my abilities, but I loved to seek out 19th-century travelers' accounts, diplomats' reports, and memoirs by lone missionaries in remote districts. I still have my notes. Here is Scottish missionary/doctor Dugald Christie, from Ten Years in Manchuria (Edinburgh, 1895):

Some begin to use opium to relieve pain. Others take it to cheer them in sorrow and trouble, or to distract their thoughts; for the Chinese have no such social pleasures as we have in the West. Their lives are colourless and tame.

Not enough libraries, perhaps.

Ordinary municipal libraries have their own pleasures. The one in my home town was a grand affair, with a broad marble staircase leading upstairs to the reference section, the staircase walls lined with lovely watercolors of old churches, manor houses, and monuments around the county. Upstairs, when you got there, were all the one-inch (to a mile, that is) Ordnance Survey maps of Britain bound up, unfolded, in two tremendous volumes — the biggest books I have ever handled.

Library history is a worthy study. The essentials of a library are vast masses of paper, with sufficient light for reading. Until Thomas Edison came along there were only two sources of reading light: the sun, and naked flame. Both are problematic. Too much sunlight causes paper to deteriorate, while fire is an obvious hazard. Sunlight was the lesser evil, and architects struggled for centuries to bring it to book stacks and carrels. The widespread availability of window glass (and floor glass, as in the elegant math library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) helped a lot, but even then a library was still a conflagration waiting to happen. It is surprising that libraries did not go up in flames more often than they did.

Every Eden has its serpent, of course, and libraries are plagued by their own characteristic evils. Mildly nutty people seem to gravitate to the reading rooms of public libraries, and there is always one hunched over a table having a muttered conversation with the New York Times. These eccentrics should be treated with care. One of the only two actual fist-fights I have ever been in was at my hometown's main library reading room with a patron who had made himself obnoxious enough that I attempted a citizen's expulsion. We were, or course, both expelled, against my indignant protests. Public-spiritedness is rarely given its due.

In recent years the cellphone has intruded too, and a pleasant reading-room browse of The Economist or National Review is liable to be interrupted by one of these fool gadgets tweeting Vivaldi's Four Seasons. More often than not the thick-skinned owner of the thing then favors us with one side of his (much more often her) latest shopping list or domestic dispute. I may attempt another citizen's expulsion, if I can overcome the humiliating memory of the last one.