Saturday, 4 May 2013

David Pearson’s Foxcroft Lecture (2) Marginalia and Marginalisation

Philip Harvey
The Carmelite Library regularly downloads catalogue records from the database of the University of Toronto. Toronto has one of the best sets of Catholic academic titles around, including medieval holdings and precious French language records, so useful for a Carmelite collection. Toronto has hundreds of records that include a special indicator for works in the Northrop Frye collection.  

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was one of the truly influential literary and biblical critics of the 20th century. Toronto was his home town, so it makes sense that his own lifetime of books would find its way into the University of Toronto Library. I use the word ‘sense’ in a world where many universities now ignore the heritage of their own great educators and expect donors to pay for the privilege of having such collections processed and added to their holdings. These Frye records don’t simply indicate that the book was owned by Northrop Frye, helpful enough as that is for scholars wanting to climb the rungs of his bibliographical mind, they were annotated by Northrop Frye. Such marginalia makes this a special set at Toronto, it is a special species of his own written oeuvre. It also means that, without much question, the books cannot be loaned out, except perhaps in very special circumstances.

This vision of a library within a library came to mind while reading the Foxcroft Lecture for 2013. The presenter, David Pearson, believes that with the insistent takeover of digital information, more of this kind of special book collecting will become the practice, even a norm. He talks of the “copy-specific aspects of books where they can offer unique research value.” (A curious feature of Pearson’s lecture is that this digression from the main subject of the digital revolution, i.e. annotated volumes, itself turns into the main subject of the lecture.) Unique research resources of this kind are not new. Pearson cites some of the special collections at Yale University in Connecticut, as well as the William Gladstone Library, heavily annotated by the man himself, at Hawarden in North Wales. In fact, not only are they not new, there are universities, foundations, and families throughout the world dedicated to saving and protecting the private libraries of great writers, artists, politicians and so forth. Long may the practice flourish, especially in an environment where governments, boards, and institutions actually show increasing reluctance or just plain indifference, to the written past. Unless it can pay its way, leave it to survive come what may.

While we applaud Pearson’s belief in the future of special collections of “unique research value”, and no doubt Pearson himself is devoted to such a future, there is a touch of unreality about this being the future of libraries themselves. Such collections have a very narrow clientele, a highly specialised focus, and limited means for expansion. His thesis that libraries will become more like museums may be true of some libraries, but hardly true of all libraries. Our idea of a library as a place that expands research potential by the simple elements of chance and subject concentration has been displaced here by an idea of the library as no more than a set of bibliographical artefacts held together by a limited research focus. While such special research collections should be proliferating, one has to say that this is something of a sidetrack from the main aim of libraries in the 21st century.

David Pearson’s faith in unique research libraries is admirable, notwithstanding, and his argument sparks off other ideas not addressed in the Foxcroft Lecture. The first is the unavoidable truth that although the digital revolution is altering our ways of reading and learning, it has not undone the market force of the printed book or the readerly attention worldwide to the printed page. Nor has it exactly replaced the printed heritage of the book in quite the sweeping manner claimed by Pearson. While unique research libraries are important, they will always be marginal to the main objectives of a library, which are to provide whatever literature is perceived to be in demand, or is anticipated to be in demand. Not everyone is rushing to read the criticism of Northrop Frye, though there are may be a few Blake scholars who would love to know what else the critic said in the column of his annotated Blake edition. Likewise, students of Victorian politics, some of them, may arrive at a point in their study where a visit to Hawarden becomes irresistible. The rest of them want all the best books on Gladstone and his age in whatever form they can find, wherever they can find them. That is going to mean online, at the local library, at the college library, or anywhere that hasn’t been shut down because of cost cutting or denied entry because the license expired, or because your library doesn’t subscribe to that database. There are libraries at the margins and libraries in the mainstream: all are vital.

Pearson’s belief in annotated editions and unique research collections comes, as he himself makes dramatically clear, in the midst of the digital dialup. One wonders if Pearson himself is not retreating into a book world that cannot be threatened with irrelevance. When he talks about the value of private libraries in Yorkshire or the Lake District, and how they tell us about the tastes and fashions in the past, certainly we must acknowledge their value for posterity and learning. But so must we place a value on other library holdings without such pedigree or special status. Indeed, some would aver that the action in libraries is elsewhere anyway.

Interest in marginalia is perennial. Also its practice. Which makes us wonder what happens now that our handheld devices defy any attempt by us to write on them. What do people do now that they can no longer write in the margins of their ebook? The answer is simple, they write it all down on their computer, they save it into a document on their laptop, they send an opinion online via social media, they write everything down in a blog like this one. And whose job is it to save this massive output of opinion? Who decides what is of value? Will this become the job for a new kind of librarian? Are we in fact looking at a whole new set of role descriptions for the position ‘Librarian’? There they are, even as we speak, discerning which words need to be saved online and everywhere digital by the next William Gladstone. Somewhere a librarian scholar at this very moment may have their work cut out for them trying to assemble every word of excellence by the next Northrop Frye.

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