What Do Libraries Mean?

Apr 9, 2019 10:19:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf focuses on the importance of libraries as an exploratory establishment and space for preservation of knowledge, themes, politics, and stories. He also discusses the physical and ideological impressions of libraries and its utility for public use, education, and intellectual discourse. 

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
—Jorge Luis Borges Dreamtigers (1960)

Libraries are not just collections of books; they are political environments. At a very basic level they demonstrate a belief in the value of the printed word. We store and preserve books because we assert, for example, that it is better to read them than to burn them. They also affirm the importance of the past and embed those values in concrete.

Libraries embody the interrelationship between forms of knowledge. Open shelves are interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary spaces. While libraries are organized by some principle of thematic connection, volume A nevertheless resides in the vicinity of volume B creating potential for unanticipated, random accidents of creative connection.

They express a belief in the significance of the past. In these museums of knowledge, books do not become redundant or go bad. The artifacts of the past reside alongside that which was made yesterday and today. There is space for the things that will be written tomorrow. The connection between ourselves and our forefathers is woven into the fabric of the place.

Libraries make no distinction between wisdom that derives from one nation or another, or one place or other. There is no hierarchy of knowledge. Nothing suggests that this or that volume is better than another. Judgements are reserved for the reader and are a matter of private taste and inner contemplation. There is one kind of hierarchy; English, in our times, is, like Latin before it, privileged as a dominant language. That is a symptom of contemporary realities, not a reflection of a qualitative judgment. Books in English are not better than books in any other language; there are just more of them.

Trinity College LibraryThe library at Trinity College in Dublin.

There are also special and specialist libraries that exist to sustain a narrative. City Lights in San Francisco describes itself as “a library that sells books.” Founded by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it is best known as a center committed to maintain “the Beats' legacy of anti-authoritarian politics and insurgent thinking.”

London houses two important examples of libraries built around a specific history and ideology. The Women’s Library began its life as The Library of the London Society for Women’s Service in 1926. It had two aims: “to preserve the history of the women’s movement, and to provide a resource for newly enfranchised women to enter public life.” For the British feminist and journalist Mary Stott (1907 – 2002), “it keeps alive the history of ‘the long march to equality’ which has so often been forgotten or ignored.”

Another library that exists for specific political or ideological reasons is The Marx Memorial Library. Since its establishment in 1933 it has welcomed generations of scholars interested in studying Karl Marx and Marxism. It is a haven for radical thought.

However valuable and significant these establishments are, they are exceptions to the norm; for the most part, libraries are inclusive and catholic. They are nonjudgemental environments except in so far as the material has been selected but, in display, nothing suggests that there is more worth in one volume over another.

With the exception of online libraries, what we imagine when we envisage a library is a building; physical space that asserts points of view: books are valuable. Libraries protect and preserve them for readers. There is, of course, value in the online library but it is also a shadow. It is usually experienced alone. The reader is denied the sense of human connection that studying alongside others brings. In orthodox Judaism, the enrichment gained through studying with another is known as havruta. In a collective space where others also seek pleasure and enlightenment, we enter a kind of community. Furthermore, if we are unable to browse the shelves, the chance of making rich accidental connections are more limited. Physical contact with collections facilitates the benefits of unanticipated conjunction.

Libraries as Shrines

Libraries are as the shrine where all the relics of the ancient saints, full of true virtue, and that without delusion or imposture, are preserved and reposed.
—Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

Most libraries have spaces in which people, keep warm, rest, and read. The norm is that these are quiet—not silent; pages rustle, low voices murmur, sounds of ease and unease, of frustration and satisfaction. Relative silence is maintained and enforced, by custom if not by regulation. The library is invested with significance, becomes a cathedral of learning. Few would speak loudly or shout in religious spaces. Similarly, hushed respect is still the convention in the typical library. The book is analogous to the icon or religious image. The space demands restraint.

Unlike that other huge repository of knowledge, the internet, libraries are edited versions of accumulated information and creativity. Editing is no guarantee of quality, but the printed book has, at least, been filtered through an external judgment and has been subject to some selection process involving someone’s taste and commercial standards. Unlike the virgin blog, it has been touched by hands other than those of the author.

As an edifice on campus or in the city, the library is an ideological statement; knowledge is worth preserving; it is not derived solely from any single nation, time, nor orthodoxy. Instead, it is a cacophony of voices coexistent in a single space: all libraries are libraries of Babel.

The Library of Babel

Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) was an Argentinian writer and librarian, and the author of a strange haunting short story with that title (1941). Borges envisages a library that contains all possible combination of letters in all possible languages. Thus, while “the Library is unending,” it also contains, somewhere or other, all wisdom known to man and endless false versions of that knowledge.

The library is analogous to the universe both in size and infinite, random conjunctions. It contains all that exists—a record of both the chaos and order of our world:

When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist ...I suspect that the human species … is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.

This haunting, disturbing story creates a version of the library as a mirror of the universe where all truths and all lies reside. Thus, seekers restlessly search the massive, endless edifice. Pilgrims engage in futile journeys for ultimate answers, a yearning for ultimate wisdom. Borges offers a metaphor for the human experience; the library contains hope and despair, history, chaos, and confusion.

An Orchard Within

The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.
—Ta-Nehisi Coates

In contrast to Borges’ troubling construct, the history of libraries presents narratives of enrichment and freedom, escape from mundane poverty, a route out of ignorance. As the American writer Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) said: “When I got my library card, that’s when my life began.”

The public library is democratic space. The English playwright and poet Bernard Kops was born in the East End of London in 1926 into stark poverty: a constricted world with narrow possibilities. His formal education ended at the age of 13. His enlightenment began at the Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East. The library opened in May 1892 and closed in August 2005 (to be replaced by a modern learning resource centre so all was not lost). It has been called the “university of the ghetto” wherein generations of curious, impoverished residents were able to find other richer, wider worlds.

Oxford LibraryA library at Oxford University.

The reading room offered a haven of warmth, comfort, and relative privacy; things not easily found in the cramped tenements of the East End. Amongst the multitude of Jewish and, later, Bengali residents who used the space, there are famous figures for whom the library was a gateway to learning, advancement and enrichment: a doorway to the world beyond an impoverished neighborhood.

Jacob Bronowski (1908–1974), scientist and historian, learned English there. The artist Mark Gertler (1891–1939) borrowed books on art and made copies on notepaper in the reading room. As a child, the playwright Arnold Wesker (1932–2016) was exposed to the wealth of literature it contained. A blue plaque remembers the poet Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918) who uncovered the poets of the past, developed a unique poetic voice that was silenced prematurely at the battle of Arras in World War I.

Bernard Kop’s poem “Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East” (2012) is an elegy for that great institution. It describes a pathway towards enrichment open to all; a feast of the mind:

I was finally, irrevocably done with this scene,
The trap of my world in Stepney Green.
With nowhere to go and nothing to dream…
I emerged out of childhood with nowhere to hide
when a door called my name
And pulled me inside.
And being so hungry I fell on the feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.

And my brain explodes when I suddenly find
an orchard within for the heart and the mind.
The past was a mirage I’d left far behind
And I am a locust and I’m at a feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.
And Rosenberg also came to get out of the cold
To write poems of fire, but he never grew old.
And here I met Chekov, Tolstoy, Meyerhold.
I entered their worlds, their dark visions of gold.

That door of the library was the door into me.
And Lorca and Shelley said, “Come to the feast.”

Old Photo of Whitechapel LibraryA vintage shot from Whitechapel Public Library

Libraries take us beyond the streets in which we live. This is a form of education “abroad.” We encounter worlds elsewhere in the works of other imaginations. The value to our societies is evidenced by the fact that public libraries are funded through taxation, for all by all; access open to all. The library represents orchards of knowledge in arid wastes of ignorance. As Albert Einstein tells us, “The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” As educators, we have a profound obligation to defend and protect these vital institutions.

Two Libraries

The inscription over the door of the lost library at Thebes read “Medicine for the soul.” There used to be private library in Norwich England which precisely encapsulated that statement. It was as close to heaven or Nirvana as I shall ever get, I suspect. It closed with the death of its owners: two ancient, blessed sisters who loved books and tolerated people. Deep leather armchairs and ashtrays (really!) seduced you into a euphoric state of bliss. If the sisters liked you, they would remember your name and bring you coffee with “there you are dear.” The organizational principle was known only to them. Certainly, the Dewey system or alphabet had no role in the manner in which books were piled together.

Unless you were a well-informed regular you had to ask where things were—advisedly in a tone of obsequious politeness. The sisters had no time for modern manners or efficiency. One afternoon I forgot where Herman Melville resided. “Behind the coal bucket dear” was the response as if this information was obvious, logical and utterly reasonable.

These women are in heaven with Herman Melville, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and all the giants they loved and preserved behind the coal bucket, under the armchair, outside the 2nd floor toilet—wherever there was a little space in that rambling, ramshackle building that they could make holy.

At the other end of a spectrum of efficiency is the British Library in London: a massive, brutal structure on the Euston Road. It has a catalogue organized without reference to coal buckets or brown armchairs. You may even order books weeks ahead (if you are that kind of person). It is the epitome of modern efficiency.

The British Library is enormous and has free WIFI and outlets!Inside the British Library

However, beyond the obvious differences, these two great libraries serve the same noble purpose. The readers are pilgrims and hermits; they journey towards some yearned for object in a pursuit that does not require them to move beyond the walls of the library which contains, if only they could find it (perhaps behind the coal bucket), whatever they seek to discover. They too are protagonists in Borges’s imaginative construct.

Conclusion: Nourish the World

Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.
—Ray Bradbury

The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.
—T.S. Eliot

Libraries encourage contemplation and teach humility. In the face of massive accumulations of knowledge, even the most diligent of us are awed by that which we can barely penetrate. The individual can only feel small, inadequate, subsumed in oceans of words. At best, the best of us, can only dip tentatively into the ocean, but we are enriched by that baptism.

The existence of libraries is a measure of the intellectual, moral health of a nation. We have an obligation to affirm the importance of these great democratic, profoundly political spaces. There is no real education without libraries, no history or access to the minds of those who have made our worlds. A bigot has no need of a library because therein bigotry is exposed. A fool has no need of a library because foolishness is a product of the unchallenged mind.

We cannot take our libraries for granted. Bigots, fools, and philistines see little value in them, and their voices are increasingly, ominously loud. We need to resist the braying noise that seeks to drown out the sounds of those quietly turning another page in a library somewhere. That is the sound of wisdom that nourishes the soul of the world, as Shakespeare tells us:

They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain and nourish all the world.
Love's Labour's Lost

Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.

Read More From Dr. Michael Woolf

Topics: London, England, International Education