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Library: Grave or Paradise of Books

Posted October. 08, 2004 23:17,   


Library: An Unquiet History

Written by Matthew Battles, Translated by Gang Mi-gyeong

296 pages, 15,000 won, published by Nexus

Argentinean writer Jorge Lois Borges (1899-1986) once compared a library to the universe: countless reading sections, identically shaped rooms, aisles, and mirrors. The world is full of mystical meanings and was this what he meant: putting all such meanings in one spot would create another counterpart world?

Borges worked his whole life as a librarian, and he lost his eyesight just after he became the head of the Argentinean National Library. Blind, Borges’s last discovery while fumbling within the dark bookshelves was a famous paradox, “Books are best preserved intact as they become distant from the hands of people.”

A librarian at the Houton Library, the rare book library at Harvard, and coordinating editor of the Harvard Library Bulletin, Matthew Battles, meticulously describes humans’ desire for collecting and preserving letters, and talks about the destiny of books and libraries.

Books Burn into Flames –

Books are destined to be used as a flame for awakening people’s minds. However, often they remain as ashes in the flames of reality. Arabian invaders destroyed the papyrus in the Alexandria library in ancient Egypt, and the burnt rolls of papyrus were sent to the fireplace for the sauna room to be used for starting a fire. According to the legend, those books could heat the sauna for six months.

The Nazis burnt 100 million books for 12 long years of their reign. Each book was enlisted on the destruction list based on the following reasons: Marx hampers the union of the nation, Freud impedes the nobility of humans, and Lemark hampers the armament of national spirit.

Atrocity over books continues in modern days. Military leaders during the siege of Safajevo in 1992 waged artillery attacks on the library of the Bosnian National University and the East Study Institute. Plenty of documents from the Turkish rule were destroyed.

“Book burning” has not always caused the destruction of culture. Many writings on papyrus and documents written on sheepskin that were not attended to, were stained by dust and sun, and spread all over ruined libraries until the 18th century. Italian priest Piaggio brought out the burnt books to the public’s eyes and invented the method of reading the intact parts of them. So, the decoded ancient knowledge could be delivered from past generations. If they had not been burnt, they would have been scattered all over.

The History of Librarians, the Real Bookworms—

Even today, some librarians sit up all night arguing over some minor marking issues in framing index cards. And, they are the wild dreamers who imagine that around somewhere here, there will be some secret note about “the Sorcerer’s Stone” walking through the reading room in the middle of the night.

In 19th century England, there was a librarian who was awarded the knight title. He was Antonio Panici from Italy. He was a political refugee in his nation for his activities in a radical group and came to the United Kingdom. He got the job as a librarian at the British National Library and made a new book index. His introduced the concept of “linking” between books, similar to today’s Internet links.

Some people complained about his way of engaging book borrowers to fill up the book cards before checking them out. When the hearing regarding his work performance was held, Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle stood up for him saying, “His index method is very useful.” Rather being a realistic politician, Panici was one of the most influential revolutionists of the library through the 1950s.

Melville Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, was “the God of Librarians”; he founded a school for librarians and started a company by manufacturing tools and utensils for them. The card index method was originated in the 1860s by William Corsewall, who reclassified the books at Harvard by arranging them by cutting each book list out.

By Rulers, for Everyone –

The first library was built to glorify the honor of power. During the Renaissance in Italy, library building played an important role for the merchant family, the Medicis, to step up the family to the level of monarch. It was a worthwhile investment since it satisfied the desire for rare books and was considered a big philanthropy for the “common citizens.”

Since the printing revolution by Gutenberg, a library became the space for the ideology competition with an enormous increase in new books. The rulers intended to disseminate the rules and norms; however, the people wanted to be equal with their rulers by satisfying their intellectual desires. Libraries that allowed people to borrow books became very popular in the mid-19th century in the United Kingdom, and capitalists expressed their worries, “When the low class becomes equipped with knowledge, the society will collapse.”

Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Dickens played a huge role in changing the capitalists’ perspective. Dickens once said, “The library will play a role as a teacher, who tells the capitalist and the labor that they are in a relationship of mutual reliance and guidance.”

Brattles did not mention this in his book, but the greatest event in regards to enlightenment of the masses of the people via letters occurred in 1446 in the Joseon Dynasty. It was the first time in human history that a new language was invented and announced to the public, aiming to enable the people of the nation to express their opinions.

Yoon-Jong Yoo gustav@donga.com