Libraries as Cultural Hotspots

 

An installation at The State Library of Victoria during White Night in 2014. The library hosted almost 2 million visitors last financial year. Kerry O’Brien publicity

Never one to tire of reading about libraries, the essay below gives me a surge of hope in a world where culture is often upstaged by bullish showmanship. The sense that libraries encapsulate and span centuries of human endeavors, yet still evolve and remain essential to communities around the world is completely on point. “All hail the librarian!”, indeed.

Friday essay: the library – humanist ideal, social glue and now, tourism hotspot

Last year two Danish librarians – Christian Lauersen and Marie Eiriksson – founded Library Planet: a worldwide, crowdsourced, online library travel guide. According to them, Library Planet is meant to inspire travellers “to open the awesome book that is our world of libraries, cities and countries”.

The name of the online project is a deliberate nod to the Australian-made Lonely Planet. The concept is simple and powerful. Library lovers contribute library profiles and images from their travels; the founders then curate and publish the posts, with the ambition of capturing library experiences and library attractions from around the world.

Why make libraries a focus of travel? There are a thousand practical and aesthetic reasons, as well as cultural ones. Libraries for the most part are safe and welcoming places. And they tell unique stories about the people who build and appreciate them. If books are the basic data of civilisation, then nations’ libraries provide windows on national souls. They are precious places in which to seek traces of the past, and reassurance about the future.

Library Planet now has dozens of intriguing profiles – including from Burma, Iceland, Tanzania and French Polynesia. A recent entry celebrated the Melbourne Cricket Club library at the MCG. The site has rapidly become a favourite among the bibliographical communities and subcultures of Instagram and Twitter, such as #rarebooks, #amreading and #librarylove.

Radcliffe Camera, a part of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, and All Souls College to the right, in Radcliffe Square, looking north from the tower of St Mary’s Church. Tejvan Pettinger/Wikipedia Commons

The Grand Tour – of libraries

Library Planet may be new, but library tourism has been around a long time. In the Western Renaissance, Italian humanists visited derelict monastic libraries throughout Europe to rescue the unique manuscripts that had fallen into mouldy neglect in the late Middle Ages. In the 18th century, old libraries were a focus of the Grand Tour, and the subject of a rich travel literature.

Not all visits went smoothly. The author and historian Friedrich Hirsching called the directors of Germany’s public libraries “arrogant misanthropes who look upon their positions as sinecures”.

Well into the 19th century, people were still touring libraries and they were still rescuing manuscripts. In 1843, the bibliographer Obadiah Rich wrote to the bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps:

More manuscripts are destroyed by ignorant people than by civil wars. I once found a bookseller at Madrid occupied in taking off the parchment covers from a large pile of old folios and throwing them into his cellar to sell by weight to the grocers: I opened one, and immediately bought the whole (120 volumes) at about two shillings per volume: you will hardly believe that among them was one of the most precious volumes in your collection; a volume of original documents relating to England in the time of Philip the second!

The era of the biblio-treasure hunt extended, Indiana-Jones style, into the 20th century. In the spring of 1910, villagers were digging for fertiliser at the site of the destroyed Monastery of the Archangel Michael, in Egypt’s Fayyum oasis, near present-day Hamuli. In an old stone cistern the villagers found 60 Coptic manuscripts. Evidently, early in the tenth century, the monks had buried the monastery’s entire library for safekeeping, shortly before the monastery closed for good.

Written in Sahidic (a Coptic dialect) and ranging in date from 823 to 914 AD, the manuscripts formed the oldest, largest and most important group of early Coptic texts with a single provenance.

Dealers and bibliographers relished the discovery. Soon the illustrious American banker and bibliophile J. P. Morgan would buy most of the manuscripts, and they are now among the treasures that visitors can see at New York’s extraordinary biblio-temple, the Morgan Library and Museum.

Read the entire article here.

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