Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Design Files

In a recent interview in The Design Files, an Australian online design blog, photographer Bill Henson is asked “Can you list for us a few favourite resources across any media (i.e. specific books, journals, magazines, websites or other media) you tune in to regularly or which inspire you creatively?” Here is Henson’s reply:

“I’m very interested in unpopular culture. So what I tend to read are books which have been out of print for years. So I would nominate as one of my favourite resources second hand bookshops. I think second hand bookshops are the most interesting bookshops anywhere in the world now, whether you’re in New York or London, Paris or Melbourne or Sydney. They’re interesting because they’re almost starting to accidentally fulfil the role that libraries used to play. Whereas libraries now are being emasculated – anything that hasn’t been borrowed for more than two years is taken out, which is an appalling state of affairs and will sadly keep libraries entirely superficial and fashion prone in future. But second hand bookshops are filled up to the rafters with all this stuff which is not necessarily in vogue, so they’re a real treasure trove. Second hand music shops that sell vinyl and CDs I find really interesting  too. I like to be able to browse physically in shops – record shops and bookshops. It’s a totally different thing to browsing online – because you really don’t know what’s going to catch your eye, whereas online the path people use really does involve a line of thought beforehand, so the truly unexpected doesn’t occur in the same way as it does in a physical shop.”

Bill Henson is having little more than a chat, but let’s put aside for the moment discussion of the difference between interview and chat. Maybe they are, after all, the same thing. Henson’s comments on bookshops and libraries require responses. Far from being distinctive views on these subjects, they express unfortunately very common superficial ideas about literature provision in our own day.

Regarding bookshops, all Bill Henson is doing here is reporting on what thousands and thousands of people do every week, and have since the time of Samuel Johnson, never mind the internet. Browsing in second hand bookshops is no big secret. He is not alone in finding pleasure in doing so, or in reading out of print books. True readers of literature lost and found relate to Henson's positivity immediately. But to say that second hand bookshops are more interesting than any other bookshops is a careless slight. To make a distinction between say The Hill of Content Bookshop in Melbourne, or The Avenue Bookshop nearby here in Albert Park with secondhand bookshops in Chapel Street Prahran, say, in terms of ‘interest’ is a bland distinction. The Hill of Content &c. are massively interesting shops, stocked with the best publications of our times. Henson is doing those shops and civilised book production a disservice by inference, running them down. There are mega-stores run for profit that have become barns of paper, true, but good bookshops flourish in Melbourne alongside and despite the internet and the glut sellers. People have not stopped buying from good bookshops, buying the books incredibly inside the shop itself. They are living proof that the e-book and the internet have not fulfilled the urban myth of making print books redundant.

His judgements on libraries are borne of fairly random contact, one would conclude.  If Henson was really up to date with libraries he would be taking more time to visit libraries like this Carmelite Library here in Middle Park, with their extensive standing collections of books going back centuries. No one here is interested in being restricted to the 21st-century. ‘Standing collection’ means no book is ever removed from the shelf, except for a very good reason known only to the librarian. Special libraries are where it's at. Melbourne is full of libraries that contain remarkable collections, they are one of the city’s big secrets. They contain hundreds of extraordinary books from all periods that neither Bill Henson nor any other genuine fossicker will ever find in a second hand bookshop. Henson is right about one thing though, the turnover of books in the public library system is a scandal. Can I emphasise that he is talking about public libraries only in his chat? In some public systems today books are removed if they have not been borrowed after twelve months (not two years). Some public libraries put up sales but most send their new books, old after only a year, to the tip. This is a waste of taxpayers' money that should be front page news. The culled books are not even sent where they truly belong, Bill Henson's beloved second hand bookshops. A reason for this situation is that the public libraries have felt the pressure to go technological for decades now, which is why funds for books have diminished. Public libraries have the appearance of chat rooms with books attached. I tend to relate to Henson on this score. Because public library collections have become streamlined ("superficial and fashion prone", is how Henson puts it), with terminals and robots arrayed all over the place, they no longer possess the same sense of adventure and discovery. We no longer expect surprises when we go into a public library, not even in one of my favourite sections, Dewey 770 Photography.

The full transcript of Bill Henson’s meeting with The Design Files can be found here: http://thedesignfiles.net/2012/10/interview-bill-henson/

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