What is a Library? Thinking about what Alberto Manguel thinks about

Over the October long weekend, I had the occasion to get some pleasure-reading done.  I took a trip to Iceland and packed some real ink-on-page books in my case.  On planes, on busses, in cafés, and in hotel rooms, I turned the pages of Alberto Manguel‘s The Library at Night (2007).  Reading the book made me think about what we want a library to be versus what it actually is.

What is a library?


Blueprints to the Chicago Public Library (1897)

Blueprints to the Chicago Public Library (1897)


Manguel’s text is not a treatise or essay you’ll find in JASIST or Library Administration and Management.  There are no surveys, no reports, and no methods sections.   Manguel is a writer and thinker whose essays read like poetry. He’s unafraid to infuse his own opinions into the arguments he proposes, and he writes with a narrative arc and rhetoric that won’t allow the beauty of the written word to become lost in the work’s subject.  (It’s a form of prose I admire and admittedly try to emulate with little success.)    With this style in mind, Manguel’s idea of a library is hauntingly romanticist: the library is a refuge and a pleasure-house; it is a place of intellectual ambition and of location of imaginative indulgence.  And the librarians who help manufacture these libraries are the heroes (and sometimes the villains) who make it all possible.

Through the first half of the book at least, Manguel’s idea of library is just that – an ideal.  It is a concept that we should aim for.  Manguel’s rhetoric suggests that there exists a perfect, complete form of “library” we should aim to create, a wonderland of knowledge and of perception we can spend the rest of our days in.  This library is the library we all want to work in: it is a Xanadu of intellectual content.  It is at once a refuge from the din of society and a staging ground for us to take on what lies beyond its doors.  Playing on Borges time and again, Manguel’s library is an encyclopedia of the universe, of our singular and group existence.  The library records knowledge and creates histories, but it also expects us to nourish it with new information and to create our own tales within it.  I think this is why there is almost a dreamland quality to this sort of library: in spite of the fact that the library holds all the knowledge known to man, it is left to our own imagination and wit to piece this knowledge together as we see fit.

We know, however, that the libraries in our lives are not the libraries in Manguel’s dreams.  Manguel’s library is a fantasy, a myth.  In Manguel’s library, nothing must be managed, controlled, budgeted, or evaluated.  Manguel’s library is perfectly built to last to the ends of time; its only expansion will be a steady increase of knowledge-texts that complement what already has been collected.  But libraries as we know them today are managed, physical spaces that hold documents, workspaces, and the systems that provide access to electronic texts.  Physical collections in today’s libraries (at least today’s academic library) have been reduced in size so that space can be found for more people to work with the collection itself.  And to many users of libraries, the actual print collection, which surrounds them when they work in the library’s confines, is subordinated to the electronic collection which can be accessed whether one is at or away from the building.  The browsable library, full of dusty texts and their marginalia that records one patron’s notes for another to use, has been supplanted by the searchable (searched?) library, a collection of electronic indexes, proxy servers, and license agreements.

All the same, part of me longs for Manguel’s library.  Although I’m very much a realist on this issue and understand that libraries as we know them today have more to offer the communities they serve than ever before, I realize I’m still the kind of person that longs to “get lost in the book,” or better yet, “get lost in the library.”   If a library really is an encyclopedia of the universe (or of Heaven, as Borges sometimes put it – he couldn’t ever decide between the two), then I’m more than happy to create my own worlds by wandering the stacks and drawing connections between otherwise random texts, as Manguel wonderfully notes.


Abbey Library of Saint Gall, Switzerland

Abbey Library of Saint Gall, Switzerland: where worlds are made manifest


This may be one of the reasons why I love working at the reference desk of any library – academic, public, or special.  When you are at the reference desk, people come to you with questions and puzzles about their own special subject, riddles about the worlds they are creating in front of you.  The texts we reference may no longer be physical, but they remain objects that inspire people, objects that nourish our intellect and imagination, objects that drive us to respond, react, and recreate.  (Is it any wonder that librarians are the biggest defenders of intellectual freedom and the biggest fans of mash-ups and copyleft?  We’ve been helping people build worlds from texts for thousands of years now.)

When I asked myself the question, “What is a library?” in a plane cabin high over the north Atlantic ocean, I had to chuckle because I haven’t given the subject any thought since my first days in library school several years ago.  I try to avoid these questions since the answers tend to illuminate the division between the ideal and the real without explicating on the real at all. But now that I work as a librarian in a library, and everyday I see people working with library collections to complete their research, I wonder if I can reconcile Manguel’s musty ideal with the here-and-the-now.  Most of the people I pass as I walk to my office probably don’t know who Manguel is and likely wouldn’t care about his book, but I can see in the time they spend in the building, working with our texts and resources, that things get done in the library. And that’s got to count for something.  Their work may not always be an elevated treatise on renaissance aesthetics or on classical music theory, but the work nonetheless is validated by the work completed before it.  In the library, one uses prior knowledge to create new theories, new arguments, and new art.  If the Manguel’s ideal library allows for constant renewal and regeneration in the person and in the collection, then I’m definitely along for the ride.