The romance of research
An academic’s love letter to the stacks, to mark National Library Week.
Now, I’m as appreciative as the next obsessive-compulsive recovering-academic of the vast riches of material becoming available online, thanks to all those Google scanners crouched in the basements of libraries around the world, madly feeding books through their machines. I download obscure tomes onto my iPad and give thanks to the dual gods Gates and Jobs, singing hymns to all the lesser pantheon of geniuses.
But there’s nothing like a book.
And especially, there’s nothing like an old book, a book with history, a book with dedications on the frontispiece and the occasional comment in the margins.
One of the books I received in recent weeks from Inter Library Loan came in a box, with packing bubbles: oh, the drama in opening that one. And when it comes to thrilling, I haven’t even brought myself to undo the gift ties from this volume—Christmas in April!
Old books themselves are sometimes the treasure. That lovely oversized book with many photographs that came to me in the shelter of plastic and cardboard (Many Days in Morocco by John Horne, 1925) included the puzzling:
Other times, the prizes inside the wrappings of a book are even more ephemeral. In recent months, I have found a discarded card catalogue slip left there as a bookmark, a brochure from a hotel whose models wear clothes from the Fifties, and in a book called A Vision of Morocco, by V. C. Scott O’Connor, notes made by some previous scholar on ultra-thin, airmail stationery (hence, in the scans, the obverse leaking through) from a Damascus hotel:
Published in 1923, with a book-plate from the Royal Thames Yacht Club in the front (Bookcase 26-27 GEOGRAPHY &C.), later sold for £15 (in pencil, under the annotation Africa) the reader’s first note says:
Resentment at behaviour of lower-class [something] p. 70
When one goes to page 70, the reader sees that what caught this good gentleman’s eye in whatever year he was making his notes might well catch the eye of someone 86 years after the book was published. In an interview with a wealthy, highly educated Moroccan, “a man of Sherifian blood, a descendant of the Prophet” the author is told:
A lesson for the twenty-first century, as well. This sort of connection across the generations is one reason why I love my library, and why my books will be the less on the day that I can retrieve everything electronically.
Long live libraries!