Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Bibliophilia: Why books don't mean what they used to

Posted: Dec 25, 2013 14:12;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01


My wife, Inge Genee, and I have moved house nine times in our life together.

In most cases, this involved a move across water: New Haven to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge back to Amsterdam, a summer in Toronto, Amsterdam to York, York to Lethbridge, and twice within Lethbridge.

Especially during our transatlantic moves, we became very adept at minimal packing. Nobody was paying for our moves and, since we had no money, we moved each time with what we could bring with our airline baggage allowance: 32 kilo per bag, two bags per person (most of our moves were in the 1990s, when this was standard across all airlines).

We had a basic procedure we followed, especially on moves from Amsterdam to North America (we had a long term lease on an apartment in Amsterdam and so, apart from a few things I had in storage in Toronto, we left our bulky things there): we’d fill our four suitcases with 128 killos of books, throw some absolutely necessary clothes into our carry on luggage, and head off to the airport. When we got to the other end, we’d rent a furnished apartment and then head to the local Walmart or similar type of store to buy any additional things we needed.

In other words, our most important possessions were our books. We were both graduate students at the time and over long careers as students and bibliophiles, we had both built up significant collections. These included (since we were both working with medieval languages) many of the most important dictionaries, manuscript handbooks, and other reference works we needed for our dissertation research. Although we usually had library access in our new location, we could never know exactly what books would be available to us at the other end (it was difficult to check library catalogues from overseas in those days), or precisely what privileges we would have. Even if we could access the same dictionaries, grammars, and atlases in the local university library, moreover, they would usually be non-circulating. A personal second copy meant we could work at home as well.

A few years ago, the issue of our libraries came up again.

We had refinanced our house and were planning a major renovation of our kitchen and toilets—all the plumbing in the house, in fact—as well as some structural work. Because you can’t live in a house with no water, we had to move out for the duration of the renovations. But because the work was going to be restricted to only a few rooms and our basement, we did not have to move all our stuff as well. We could move our furniture and books into a couple of rooms in which the contractor would not be working, seal them up against the dust with some plastic and tape, and rent the furnished house of a colleague who was heading off on sabbatical.

This time, we didn’t really think we needed to move our books, or anything else. We’d both been working at the University of Lethbridge for some time and had established offices with many of the books we needed for our day-to-day work located there. And if we discovered after we moved that we needed anything at all from our place—books, furniture, or pots and pans, we could always come back to the house and get them.

At the very last minute, however, this changed. The day we were to hand the house over to the contractor, we got a call from our insurance agent, who had been double checking our policy and discovered that our house would be classified as a “construction site” while it was unihabited for the renovations. This meant that our insurance would cover the building’s fabric—its walls, floors, roof, etc.—but not its contents. Anything we left inside the building would be, in effect, uninsured. And anything we wanted our insurance to cover had to come with us or be put in offsite storage.

This threw off all our assumptions. We’d thought we were just borrowing a house for the summer so we’d have somewhere to stay. Now it looked like we were going to have to arrange a move of everything—and since the call from the insurance agent came about 4pm, we didn’t have a lot of time to do it. We’d need to find and rent a moving truck and then figure out what to do with the things we were removing: rent some storage space or figure out a way of cramming them into our friends’ already furnished house.

Our insurance agent said she would look around to see if she could find us a different policy. And in the meantime she advised us to prioritise. That is to decide which things we could absolutely not leave uninsured and which things we could afford to risk, if only while we arranged storage or otherwise found a way to get them safely out of the house.

Inge and I sat down to decide what we would take that night and what we would leave behind. Initially, we figured the choice was easy. We’d moved eight times before with only our reference books. Presumably if we were going to do it again, the books were the things we had to take—especially since, after more than a decade working as faculty members at the University of Lethbridge, we had expanded our already large libraries considerably.

As we thought more about it, however, we began to think that we should actually be thinking more about the furniture. Although both of us had large libraries, there were no longer that many books that were absolutely essential for our work. I have a manuscript catalogue that I would take with me anywhere (it contains notes on manuscripts I have personally examined and so is a unique repository) and there were a few other books that had similar additional value. But, we began to realise, it was simply no longer the case that our books were irreplaceable. It would be terrible to lose them and many had great sentimental value. But it the worst thing happened and our libraries were lost, it would now be much easier—and in some ways less essential—to rebuild them.

This was not primarily because much of the information they contained could now be found on the internet—although this was definitely a factor. Rather, it was because we realised that everything was simply much easier to replace now than it had been 20 years ago.

When we had started building our libraries in the 1980s and 1990s, books were hard to find. A large collection of (relatively) obscure grammars and dictionries such as we had each built said something about you as a person: that you knew where to go to find things; that you knew what were the essential books you needed for your discipline; that you had the patience and experience to keep looking until you found them; that you had bought them to ensure you had the right resources at your finger tips. A large scholarly library, in other words, was an index for your learnedness: good scholars had large libraries because they had the disciplinary skill and patience to build one up and a practical need of access to the volumes they contained. You could not build a large disciplinary library quickly. If you had one, it was evidence that you were a scholar; and if you lost it, it was a life-changing setback.

What we realised when the insurance company told us we had to decide what we needed to take with us was that that was what was no longer true. A large library was no longer necessarily evidence of great disciplinary effort. Now that nearly half of all books are sold online, finding rare books is simply a matter of having good search skills (interestingly, our upstairs neighbour in Amsterdam in the early 1990s was something of a pioneer in this regard: he ran an email-only “online” medical antiquitarian bookshop). Had our libraries been destroyed now, it would have been very unpleasant; but it would not be impossible to build back up the most essential parts of our collections relatively quickly. What 20 years ago would have been a setback of catastrophic proportions would today be an unpleasant and expensive inconvenience. Or, in other words: as much as we love our libraries, they were simply no longer the irreplaceable foundation of our academic careers.

This, I think, is by far the biggest change in our information world. Twenty years ago, when I read of a antiquitarian bookstore closing, I saw the loss as a loss of access to books I might not otherwise be able to find. Now, when I read of the same thing, I see it as simply the loss of a fun place to hang out. Places that were once essential to my work are now really just fun places to visit.


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