Tuesday, 30 April 2013

David Pearson’s Foxcroft Lecture (1) Big, Bigger, Biggest

Philip Harvey

“Once the value or quality of a public library was determined by its size or the number of books and records it held.” This innocent-looking claim opens ABC Radio National’s online coverage of this year’s Foxcroft Lecture. It introduces us to the broadcast of the lecture given by David Pearson, the former president of the Bibliographical Society and currently Director of Culture, Heritage and Libraries for the City of London Corporation. It caught my eye because the claim is unsubstantiated, it is fallacious, a misleading idea about public libraries based on the notion that bigger is better. Although the sentence is more likely to have come from a colourful “eye-catching” journalist than a Director of Libraries, it points up an historical assumption we live with, through no fault of our own. It is one that librarians could spend more time overturning, if only they had the time. While the uninitiated may agree with the claim, librarians and regular library users would reword the sentence thus: “Once the value or quality of a public library was determined by the value, quality, breadth and depth of its books and records.”  Only secondarily were the size and number of items regarded as an important factor in its value or quality.

David Pearson himself is more subtle in his actual discussion of library size, as we would expect. He makes no bones of the fact that his subject is as much about money as heritage, about online and its discontents. What is it about libraries, he asks, “which makes them worth investing in as recipients of public money, as an ongoing burden on the public purse?” Clearly, substantively, he lives in contemporary Britain, where loaded questions like this are the air they breathe. When he talks about public lending libraries needing to diversify, he means diversify or die.

We have to watch him carefully when Pearson starts talking about national libraries, art and medical libraries, and other big humanities libraries. “These kinds of libraries have grown up around a core concept of libraries as storehouses and quarries of knowledge or ideas, held in books and other documentary formats. Human endeavour of many kinds, including education, research, invention, business and leisure, has always depended to some extent on access to information, or on what other people have known or said, and for many centuries books have been the containers for holding and transmitting these things. Books were created to be communication devices for texts, and libraries evolved to store, organise and make them accessible in large quantities.” Size in this case matters precisely because the collections are “authoritative, cumulative and trustworthy places.” Unlike his casual attitude to public libraries, he is not questioning the need to protect these other kinds of big libraries. His argument is therefore somewhat contrary, with its implication that some users are more equal than others.

Because the library, especially from the 18th century onward, played the crucial role of  preserving the wisdom and record of the past, “the value of libraries has therefore often been measured in terms of the size of their stock; more books means a greater reservoir, more comprehensiveness of coverage.” Comprehensiveness is a reason for why we have bigger libraries, despite ourselves sometimes. But while size matters, it is not the reason people use libraries. They use libraries to find the works they cannot find anywhere else, the works of one kind that are housed in one library but not another, the works that, whether available in digital or not, the user still wants in print form. Quality trumps quantity, need overrides pretension. Comprehensiveness, as well as concision, is the driving force.  

Information technology and the Internet have changed the way libraries work, as if we didn’t know. But the thinking that insists they have undermined the need, the requirement in fact, for print collections, needs to be questioned. Pearson seems happy to go along with the idea that the physical size of libraries has been replaced by your handheld device. Book content can now be downloaded, goes the logic, so let’s reduce libraries, or even close them completely. It is an easy argument in the hands of politicians who want to cut costs, but it ignores many of the reasons for why we have libraries, whether print, digital, or both, and cannot answer the great unknown, which is whether the information technology delivers comprehensive everything in the same ways as a library. It is economic rationalism taken to its ridiculous and bitter extreme: if it costs something, shut it down. The size argument carries in fact a threatening supposition. If it’s big and useless, knock it down. Also around the edges of the argument is the implication, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Why so few people are questioning the meanings behind the argument is worth pondering.

I don’t for a minute think that David Pearson wishes an end to print libraries. We are unquestionably learning to manage “the hybrid and transitional nature of the world we are living in.” Our libraries are certainly having to diversify, working with e-resources of all kinds, rethinking the library as a social space, and improving information literacy for its users. (These things, by the way, are not new: they are just extensions of the original expectations of librarians.) But once we lose sight of the benefits of access and depth of our collections, thinking that the technology has replaced it, we have lost sight our own purposes in having libraries. Anyone can see that a Stack outweighs a Kindle, but why is this an argument for disposing of your Stack? And since when do we read handhelds in the same way we browse libraries? Placing Stack and Kindle on a scale to see how they tip on the fulcrum ignores many questions about the value and quality of our collections, too many to list here. 

David Pearson is not himself advocating that libraries should throw books away. At least he doesn’t seem to be going out of his way to say such things. But therein, I think, lies the dilemma that faces all of us today. Print versus Digital, Library versus Online: these are black and white arguments. They argue an either/or position which can too easily be accepted as gospel by decision-makers and the uninformed. The net effect on libraries is potentially disastrous, if not actually tragic. Meanwhile, I find that most every reader I know does not share this view of the modern reading experience. They are realistic followers of the both/and position. We are in the enviable place at present of benefitting from all media and all outlets for those media. There are things that our libraries do much better than our IT, and vice versa. But once we lose the libraries, we cannot have them back.

A place of spiritual life and growth

The vibrant living reality of the Carmelite Library today is due to many things. The Library offers a vast range of works in spirituality and life experience that meet the needs of the people of Melbourne. New visitors regularly express their amazement that such a rich collection is right here in Middle Park, readily available for borrowing. There is no other place like it in this city, where similar kinds of collections are hidden away and usually cost prohibitive. The Library has a staunch core of regular users - students, researchers and readers – who swear by the excellence and variety of materials on offer.

Location is an advantage for residents of bayside and inner Melbourne, who treat the Carmelite Library as another local library where they can escape, read, take time out, and find books they will never find in their public libraries. It is one of the best kept secrets of the neighbourhood, though the librarians wish it became more generally public knowledge. The Library has well-established connections with the community and with the City of Port Phillip and its council, which has been generous in its grants and its support of our initiatives.

In particular, the Library is part of the City’s Multifaith Network. It promotes interfaith dialogue and makes available the best collection of spiritual writings in all the major faith traditions. It is a contemporary library with its own history, representing the spiritualities of every period and, of course, preeminent in this case the great tradition of Carmelite spirituality. This necessarily means making available all the best and latest expressions of spirituality, too.

The value of the Carmelite Library for people today cannot be gauged by statistics. It brings to its users the necessary sustenance for their life journey, the Word that brings life, the means to make sense of God, the world and themselves. By making such a growing collection openly available, the Carmelites are offering to everyone an invaluable gift the working of the spirit in our lives and sure directions for the future.

As well as the materials, the Library increases each year its program of events. A spiritual reading group meets monthly, Library lectures are well-attended, and sacred writing courses are available. This year will see exhibitions in the Library to coincide with seminars on icons and calligraphy, as well as displays of the book arts. All of this activity reinforces and complements the central ambitions of the Library in making available a place of spiritual life and growth. This is more easily achieved by the Library’s positive collaboration with the Carmelite Centre. Indeed, the Carmelite Hall itself has become a by-word for quality and excellence with these endeavours, a place of welcome.

My main message is that you come to the Library and see for yourself what is on offer. The staff is trained to sound out your interests and provide the works you need on your own spiritual journey. Our policy is hospitality first. Come in and introduce yourself.

This is the original version of an article written for Carmel Contact by Philip Harvey. It appears in slightly edited form in the April 2013 issue, No. 92, p. 1.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Accordion Music, by Les Murray -- It can drop a breathy quote

Philip Harvey
 Accordion Music, by Les Murray

A backstrapped family Bible that consoles virtue and sin,
for it opens top and bottom, and harps both out and in:

it shuffles a deep pack of cards, flirts an inverted fan
and stretches to a shelf of books about the pain of man.

It can play the sob in Jesus!, the cavernous baastards note,
it can wheedle you for cigarettes or drop a breathy quote:

it can conjure Paris up, or home, unclench a chinstrap jaw
but it never sang for a nob’s baton, or lured the boys to war.

Underneath the lone streetlight outside a crossroads hall
where bullocks pass and dead girls waltz and mental gum trees fall

two brothers play their plough-rein days and long gone spoon-licked nights.
The fiddle stitching through this quilt lifts up in singing flights,

the other’s mourning, meaning tune goes arching up and down
as life undulates like a heavy snake through the rocked accordion.

On first reading the poem is a straightforward celebration of the aerophone instrument known as the accordion, or more colloquially still, the squeezebox. The instrument’s physical appearance is described in best Martian-style (see blog on the Anglo-Saxon Riddle), its sounds are recorded in close detail, and its social memories carefully collected. It has the characteristics of a typical Murray riddle poem, in fact, with only title and final word giving the reader an unequivocal answer to the poem’s contents.

Reading the poem again we notice that there is a second main subject, which is interchangeable with the first. What starts out as an analogy in the opening line, the fact that an accordion can look like a large family Bible being opened and closed, becomes itself a subject, even the main subject of the poem. It is a poem about the Bible. Unless we are in any doubt about this, we have only to attend to some of the lines. For indeed the Bible “stretches to a shelf of books about the pain of man.” It “never sang for a nob’s baton, or lured the boys to war”. The music of the accordion “consoles virtue and sin”, but so also does the Word of the Bible. Some phrases are overt: “It can play the sob in Jesus!” Others carry their own references but more subtly. For example, that the Bible “harps both out and in” instantly conjures an image of the Psalmist, for anyone who cares to notice this possibility. That “life undulates like a heavy snake” comes as no surprise to readers of the early chapters of Genesis. The physical appearance of the Bible is used as an analogy for the accordion, but equally the accordion and all its works are an analogy for the Bible.

For this reason the poem is not only catholic (small-c) in its appreciation of the diverse beauty of Scripture, its power to proclaim and reveal, the poem is also seriously anti-fundamentalist. Line by line we notice how the poet gives different definitions of Scripture, all of them at odds with the view that Bible is any one person’s possession or exists as a set of open-and-shut explanations about existence. That it is a family Bible, one of those cumbersome numbers beloved of the Victorians, tells us that the Bible is about family, it is about us, all of us in it together, the good, the bad and the (against all odds) unbelievably holy. The Bible does indeed shuffle “a deep pack of cards”, that we can be playing with deep into the night. It is not too proud to beg, as we are told when “it can wheedle you for cigarettes”, and we are never in doubt who live with Scripture familiarly, that it can “drop a breathy quote.” That sort of late night jazz is around every corner of Scripture and shows up with amazing phrasing at Pentecost.

There is yet another level of meaning in this poem and the clue is in the metre. The poet actually writes the poem in the jaunty pentameters beloved of the Australian bush poets, and more particularly Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson. This prosodic and musical homage takes on new meanings when we move from a world of Paris and war (i.e. 1914-1918) to a similarly lost world of “a crossroads hall where bullocks pass and dead girls waltz,” the passing world of bush life before the 1960s. It is the lost world of the poet’s childhood, the world of his parents. It is the accordion that both mourns and honours that time of memory. By juxtaposing the half-rhyme words “mourning, meaning” the poet deftly indicates that the mourning is the meaning. It is a tonal contrast in the music itself. Les Murray’s father played the violin, so it is easy to say that the fiddler in this poem can be his father (if you wish), lifting the tune of loss played by the accordionist. These two simple things, the accordion and the Bible, offer up enough meaning for those who love life, its patterns and beauty, and must endure what life brings them, including pain and loss.

This is the eleventh in a series of essays about the book in poetry, first released at this site.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Les Murray and Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Philip Harvey 
In April the Spiritual Reading Group, which meets on the third Tuesday of each month in the Carmelite Library, read poems by Les Murray. The presenter is given 15 minutes. As it was my turn as presenter, I decided to list (without reference to anything outside myself) the first 15 things that came into my mind about Les Murray. This became the presentation itself.

1.    “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” was an expression made by Andy Warhol in 1968, in New York, which is the centre of the world. Les Murray is Australia’s most famous living poet, and Bunyah is the centre of the world. Les Murray’s relationship to fame is measured, he rejects celebrity so is in that way anti-Warhol.
2.    A poem is fifteen minutes of fame, fifteen minutes of concentrated thought and emotion. Many Les Murray poems are like this. But of course the opposite is also true: poems are never just fifteen minutes of fame, they go on into the future and live with us time and again. They defy the ephemerality of immediate gratification, name dropping and instant answers.
3.    Les Murray lives in the centre of the world, Bunyah. I know more about Bunyah from the poems than pictures, but the poems tell me about the bush world of Australia all the time. Not just Bunyah, but everywhere.
4.    Les Murray is Australia’s greatest living poet, just like the Murray is Australia’s greatest river. Personally, I am against these classifications of greatest. The Murray is the greatest because of all the other great rivers that flow into it, and then what about the other river that helps make the Murray so big, the Murrumbidgee? What is greatest? Les Murray is great, but there have been poets in Australia before the European era that were great or indeed greater probably, we just don’t know. It’s not important what is great, it’s a distraction from enjoyment. It appeals to the competitive thing in human beings, while poetry questions and breaks down competitiveness.
5.    Les Murray is the greatest in size. He’s big. Hence his celebration of sprawl: the desert, the suburbs, the bays, the coastlines, everything sprawls in Australia. Likewise, sometimes his poems seem not to know when to halt. ‘Les is more and more is Les’, as the name of this session would have it. Or as John Olsen, the Australian painter, put it Zen-like in one of his graphics books, this time in regard to paint application: “Less is more, more or less.”
6.    Les Murray has a terrible dress sense. This was commented on by the same John Olsen after a launch once, who could not reconcile the highly gifted craftsman with the sloppy joe dresser. But does he have a bad dress sense? Or is dress just getting in the way, not the way he wants to send the main message? His poems contain a vast knowledge about clothing from every era.
7.    Les Murray dedicates every one of his books of poetry To the Greater Glory of God. A theologian would say it is impossible to be more inclusive than that. Some people think it an affront that an Australian poet would dedicate his books in this way. So what?
8.    Les Murray was raised strict Presbyterian and is a Catholic convert. He found Presbyterianism abstract. Catholicism is about substance, tactile, what you can eat, what you can grab hold of. This sensual religion was something he connected with straight away.
9.    Les Murray has a kind of mind of binary opposites, which helps in the construction of his works and sayings but is not always good at the shades of meaning in between. Bush vs. City, Learning vs. University &c. It is the cause of misunderstanding and even hostility amongst some of his readers.
10.                       Les Murray is a difficult person who alienates people. Increasingly I think a lot of this anti-social stuff has to do with him being on the spectrum. He now talks about the spectrum as a fact, an explanation, a nice place to be, but of course the spectrum has its down side.
11.                       Les Murray gets the black dog. Certainly this is the cue and cause of much poetry, even if he never writes a poem directly about the black dog itself. Winston Churchill had the black dog, but my view is that the expression was first used by James Boswell, for whom the black dog was a form of gentleman’s melancholy. Les Murray would not share Boswell’s clubland view of the black dog. Boswell was exploring what we now call psychology. There is certainly a lot of that sort of exploration going on in Les Murray.
12.                       Les Murray lives in a house where the writing desk is the central object in the main room. I saw it once on a TV documentary.
13.                       Les Murray is an Australian. This is a useful thing to keep in mind when comparing him to poets from other cultures and other countries that use English. It makes you see how incredible his poetry really is, because no one anywhere else writes English poetry like Les Murray, or a number of other Australians.
14.                       Les Murray does an awful lot of reading and does an awful lot of travel for someone who lives on a dairy farm. It is a mistake, I think, to regard Les Murray as just your typical bushie. There is not only no one else like him in Bunyah, there’s no one else like him anywhere anyway full-stop.
15.                       Les Murray almost died of a heart attack.

Poems studied by the Group:
Accordion Music
Church i.m. Joseph Brodsky
The Conversations
Easter 1984
Forty Acre Ethno (August)
The Future 
The Instrument
Poetry and Religion

Copyright and The Book of Common Prayer

Today, Susanah Hanson, Library Director of the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, sent this message to Atlantis, the e-list of the American Theological Library Association:

Dear all,

I just received the below query and wondered if someone out there could confirm my suspicions, as this question has come up more than once.

A patron called in to ask about the copyright of the 1979 (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer.   His reasoning was that as there was no clear copyright notice in the BCP, that it was permissible to cut and paste portions of the BCP into a new yet-to-be-published book.  My thought is that this is not a good idea, for reasons both ethical and legal.

Any expert thoughts on this?

Thank you for your time and thoughts,

Responses on the list ranged from a crisp note that the Book of Common Prayer has never been copyrighted “if I am not mistaken”, through to abstruse legal niceties that modern Americans seem as adept at as a game of squash. Copyright notices were done away with in March 1989, declared one person with finality. This hit was answered with the volley that a book published in 1979 is protected for 95 years from date of publication. There was a feeling that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer could not yet be in the public domain. Kevin L. Smith of Duke University added these slams: “However, much of the ‘original expression’ in the BCP is older than the 1979 version.  Some undoubtedly comes from the King James translation of scripture, and much probably comes from the first U.S. BCP that was ratified in 1789.  Note that that first BCP came out a year before the U.S. actually had any federal copyright law – the first such federal law was adopted in 1790.  Prayer before law!” There was talk of “fixed original creation”, in other words that copyright exists from the moment the biro is lifted from the page. Another contributor thought it at least prudent to contact the Episcopal Church, though whether the patron in question would care to be so prudent remains one of those imponderables. Here is my contribution to the discussion, from a somewhat different angle to the strictly legal:

The custom, as distinct from the rule, in compilation of collections of prayers in book form is to cite the source of the prayer directly after the presentation of the prayer itself. In most all of the prayer books of this nature in this Library, that is the practice. Prayer books in this collection come from all major denominations and all centuries of Christian prayer life. Citation of source is the norm. It is not just courteous to do so, or to solve copyright issues, but because these prayers are part of the continuous prayer life of the church itself. Quotation acknowledges that we are not living merely in a postmodern present but within the communion of saints. Historically this practice is there from the start of the church and takes lively form in the catenae and florilegia of Orthodox and Catholic prayer collections. Just because the prayers of, say, St John Chrysostom are not copyright does not mean we quote his prayers without attribution. In any contemporary collection of  prayers his name would come after the prayer itself, and very possibly the name of the translator too. It is no different in using prayers from the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Susanah Hanson’s patron wants to ignore another custom also: we do not put our name to words we did not compose ourselves It is a curious person indeed who would want to take the credit for something written, as we all know, by Thomas Cranmer, his holy Latin and Greek predecessors and reverend English-speaking successors.