Monday, September 21, 2015

On libraries

This is a Soviet-era technical library that I first saw on the pioneering Russian picture-blog English Russia.  Any scholar or other lover of books has to have a visceral reaction to this scene of apparent devastation.   But quite recently I visited a nearby university library, and though its books are on shelves in proper order according to the Library of Congress, my experience of taking a good look produced in me some very mixed feelings.

Let me make clear that the University that I am talking about (and will not name) is quite a decent one. It is not a dump. Its facilities are in good shape and are being renewed as we speak. The institution is hiring a bunch of new permanent professors. I am sure you can get a good education in any number of fields at this place.

All the more shocking was that I found when I went to check out the holdings in medieval French history. The books were astonishingly old. I entered university in 1968 and I have retired this year from my position at Nipissing University. The books I was looking at were in almost every case older than my entire career as a medieval historian. I did find one book from the early 1990s, the first volume of Jonathan Sumption's history of the Hundred Years War; also Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. And that was pretty much that. (I also looked for books on chivalry and didn't find any.)

One thought that I had was that this is a neater version of the Russian library above. The university has a simulacrum of a collection of French medieval history, but not a useful one in any sense. If I were still teaching and somebody handed in a research paper in which all the references were to books that could be found in this library, I would be very tempted not to accept it.

What to conclude from this experience? Well, it is clear that for a very long time no historian at the university in question has had a serious interest in teaching the Middle Ages or making possible for their graduate students to study that era. We do have to make our choices. No one would be amazed at a lack of books about Uzbekistan  in a North American university library of moderate size, even though Uzbekistan is a pretty important place if you have a world history orientation like I do. But still, France?

On the other hand I also felt that my sentimental attachment to books might be just that, a sentimental attachment. Those books in the nearby university library are about as useful to a serious scholar of medieval history, or even a serious undergraduate student, as the Russian technical journals are to a working engineer in Russia today.

Over the years since 1968 there has been an explosion of scholarship by medieval historians, literary scholars, and so forth. They have extended our understanding of the Middle Ages immensely. But the idea that the immediate products of that work are going to last forever and must be preserved – I find myself much less certain of that.

People will say, "what about our electronic books and journals?" Well yes, I wait to hear your wisdom on the subject?

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