Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Footpath Library

Philip Harvey
The shift from print-only reading to apps, e-books, i-pads, and online overload has caused a u-turn in our experience of reading itself. Sit in a peak-hour train some morning and we see in microcosm the reading habits of contemporary society. Maybe a few commuters read the morning paper picked up at the station kiosk. A decent number read hardcovers or paperbacks of differing standards, while a few are immersed in downloaded texts. A couple of students read their spiral-bound class notes. Quite a proportion of the carriage are busy tapping apps, while the rest read the graffiti going by outside the windows, if they are reading at all. The trees are beautiful on an autumn morning.

Few people are more attentive to the changing nature of reading habits than librarians. This is not because of any threat to their livelihood, but because it is their job to know what readers want and how they want that reading delivered. Expectation is a standard, if not usually quantifiable, measure by which librarians order and process reading matter for their collections. Nowadays a collection is not just what is in the building but what is out there in the multiverse of the world wide web.

The physical fact of the printed book remains a constant, whatever the urban myths about digital replacing print. Most librarians are beyond such simplistic views. After all, it was library science that helped propel the internet revolution, with a librarians’ need for proper management of all written resources. We live today in a world in which online and ink line necessarily co-exist. Despite the rumours, there will never be a time when everything in print has a digital twin. The primary human sense of vision is irrefutable: we will read whatever is put in front of us, whenever the mood suits.  

Some readers do not have such access to books. Some readers cannot afford to catch a train. They will not be found downloading the sequel to their favourite thriller, or indulging in facebook chitchat, for the simple reason that they don’t have the device. I am talking in particular of people who live on the streets. Odd as it may seem to some, they are the very people who front up at libraries in the morning, as much for the warmth and comfort as for the books. But even then, they are often the ones who are not members of any library, because they cannot pay the fee and do not have an address a librarian can enter on the database. But there is an answer.

Australia leads the world in its awareness of the reading needs of the homeless and disadvantaged members of our society. This may be related to the fact that Australia is one of the best-read countries per capita in the world, where more people spend time reading books than going to sporting events. Reading is a national pastime.

The Footpath Library, in particular, is a concept that has steadily grown. ‘Enriching lives by giving books’ is not a slogan so much as an ancient statement of value, a philosophic tenet familiar to all educated individuals. Many homeless and disadvantaged people who never go into a library, or couldn’t join if they did, get access to books through this volunteer service, which helps reach those who might otherwise be isolated from learning and live without the possibilities of human contact, even through something as ordinary yet enlivening as a book. 

Boredom and isolation are common realities of the homeless and disadvantaged. Reading fills the hours with meaning. Reading helps us all make connections, wherever we may rest our head. Attention is drawn to other possibilities in life. By locating Footpath Libraries where they meet in refuges and clinics, or congregate each day for breakfast programs and in shelters, people on the street connect with those offering support, but also with those who have written the books. The librarians take the books to the readers, rather than the readers coming to the librarians. And the librarians in this case are not usually trained professionals but the volunteers, donators and supporters who run these special collections. So far there are outlets in three cities: Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.

In this way, Footpath Libraries build community by meeting the intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of their users. Such objectives are the standard aims of any library and, like any library, the librarians must have a selection process so they are not inundating themselves and their clients with material that falls outside the policies of the collection. In this case, the donation guidelines are clear about receiving high-quality books of fiction and non-fiction, including dictionaries, simple cookbooks, parenting, and self help, as well as geographic, and car magazines.

More tellingly are the books that Footpath Libraries, out of respect for the customers, will not accept. Top of the list is true crime, but the list includes books that cause the average reader at home to pause and reflect: travel, wine, and restaurant guides; get-rich-quick and other financial guides; coffee table books; home decorating, gardening, sewing and other domestic occupations; sport (unless biographies); any books with suicide, depression, or drug themes; computer manuals; encyclopaedias; and religious material. Another forbidden genre that makes us stop and think is used crossword puzzle books. If these are on the list, it means such expendables are sometimes donated.

Today many people complain about the overload of information they have to read each day, while truth is we are spoilt for choice. We not only have more paper product than ever covered in vowels and consonants for our eyes to feast upon, but electricity lights up our reading day and night, without end. The Footpath Library reminds us that this is not a universal condition. It strives to connect the wider community with homeless people, creating for them a sense of belonging. It is the start of a new conversation, found inside books.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Books of Wikipedia extracts

Blasphemy law in Pakistan: apostasy in Islam, Blasphemy, freedom of religion in Pakistan. Fredrick P. Miller, Agnes F.Vandome, John McBrewster USA: Alphascript. 2010.
It looks like a real book and, problem is, it still is a real book.

Even though we draw draw attention to the fact that according to the verso of the title page ​"All parts of this book are extracted from Wikipedia" does this mean that all of those parts are still on Wikipedia in 2014, four years later?   

What if more has been added since? What if some of the parts have been removed from Wikipedia, or edited in the meantime? Alphascript’s book becomes a capsule in time. Parts of it may be invaluable to the discussion of blasphemy law in Pakistan, if the laws have changed.

Then we have the problem of verifiability of information on Wikipedia itself. Is a book that is proudly Wikipedia through-and-through in fact a book we want on our shelves? Should a label be slapped on the front ‘User beware’?

The librarian faced with the choice of wanting to order this book has the dilemma too of this being about the only text directly on the subject. While she or he may be wary of ordering a Wikipedia-sourced book, it may have material that is nowhere else, not even any longer on Wikipedia.

Warnings about these scams (the word is more like opportunisms) have been expressed increasingly in recent years. Sometimes the publisher’s name is a giveaway, if it’s new, or has a small i as the first letter of the name.

The other sign is the cover. If the publisher uses the same image for most of its book covers then a rat is being detected. Scottish glens covered in heather, 18th century timepieces, and the Roman Colosseum are three favourites of these outfits. Alphascript seem to be aware that this is a giveaway, to scan some of their publications on Amazon. They appear to be lifting relevant images off the net. We find too that the authors Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, and John McBrewster have an encyclopedic knowledge across subjects that puts them way beyond the range of mere mortals.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Reveries of libraries, the fourth : PERSONAL INTERVIEWS

Philip Harvey

Pembroke College Library, University of Cambridge

Photograph thank you Jordan Gordon

He is the writer of scripts from the psychedelic age to the selfie age. He is the author of unreliable memoirs more accurate than most of his contemporaries, and he promises to be even more unreliable in future. He would open night time interview shows with lines like those, introducing everyone short of royalty to the comfy chairs of a BBC studio. How comfy is comfy? None of his subjects went into throes of terror, “No, not the comfy chair!” They couldn’t wait to be seated in the comfy chair. They were princes for a day. His audience was nearly always live.

He is the writer of more Audenesque and Audenish poetry than anyone of his generation. He is the author of so many literary reviews that Google can’t keep up. His magnum opus is a hotchpotch of brilliance and point-scoring that reveals an underlying interest in what Germany did to the culture of the 20th century. Not Britain, or America, or France, or Russia, or Australia, but the country they divided up at the end of the 1940s. He is the translator, late in time, of a foursquare version of Dante’s triangular Comedy of the then, the now, and the to come. Ladies and gentleman …

He sits in the brown shade of an English university old library, answering questions himself this time of an interviewer. He has put to him first “So this is where it all began, in here.” “Yeah, a long time ago now, more years than I care to count.” The brainy books with luminous spine labels line up behind him like the actors of some distant performance at The Globe. TV men have arranged lights to pick up effects of shadow across the books. As aisles of works recede behind his receded hairline, we see in the distance the faint light of outside, the perfect point of perspective. Not a starlet in sight. His own perspective is somewhat different, reminiscing in craggy Sydney accents on undergraduate days when he grappled with Italian medieval vocabulary, whose effect was not unlike a grappa first thing in the morning.

Is this really where it all began though? And not the wild surf beaches of the Pacific Ocean where he read the existentialists to his heart’s content and imagined Paris as it never was. Or cast a glance at the rowdy beery debates in Newtown where liberation was round every corner and the rest of the world was just a ludicrous but tantalising plaything of the mind, when it wasn’t the name of a combined international cricket team the Australians beat anyway. Or people and places we are yet to meet in his own Comedy of life: its pitfalls, purgations and surpassing glories.

This library of centuries of excited ideas, its books ready to knock us awake with their lived experience, is apparently where it all began. But not altogether where it began, if it is always beginning as a new page turns, or someone comes into the frame who makes you see things like you’ve never seen them before, or you suddenly get it … what someone you love is saying for real to you right now. Not that he would do without the library were he doing his time again, like someone he meets by surprise in his own private hell, his own lesson in reform, his own way into complete acceptance of how everything else is, without aid of psychedelics or selfie-reference.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

There is no other place like it in Melbourne

The original words for an article by Philip Harvey that first appeared in Carmel Contact No. 92 last year in April.

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.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Monday, 12 May 2014

Catalogue of the Carmel Library, Middle Park, circa 1939

Esmae Boutros and Frank Shortis O.Carm. of the Carmelite Archives have rescued this ‘Selected Catalogue of General Literature’ during their sifting. The four page pamphlet records books held in the Carmel Library, Middle Park, a collection circulating from the Carmelite Hall in Richardson Street and shelved in what today is called the Malone Room at the street front of the building. The most recent titles were published in 1939, so we are looking at a date around the time of the outbreak of World War Two.
To judge by the contents, the Library was not one of spirituality or theology, in fact religious literature is not its main priority. It appears to have served an educated Catholic reader interested in popular fiction, church apologetics, British and Irish history, Outback tales, and current European politics.
The politics startle us today, in particular the works of high officials of the then German government and biographies of living dictators. While we judge these acquisitions in the light of subsequent events in Europe, readers in 1939 had access to these books on the basis of being informed about the imminent enemy. Works of Goebbels and Hitler stand on the shelf next to those of British sympathisers like Viscount Rothermere, but also tellingly, I think, those of Waldemar Gurian, one of the first great critics of totalitarianism of both left and right. Gurian, a Russian Jew, saw both Fascism and Bolshevism as threats to the church’s position in modern society.
Interesting too are the absences. In the European Catholic world of that time we might have expected something more on the appalling civil war just ended in Spain. Australian politics seems to be a virtual non-starter and the closest we come to some knowledge of our future wartime enemy are Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto’s novels about feudal Japan.

The Carmel Library continued after the War, being 'conducted' by the Carmelite Third Order and only open Sunday mornings to parishioners. Many of the religious titles are still to be found in the current-day Carmelite Library, so at some stage those books were merged, thus making the Carmel Library one of the contributing collections, if not the foundation collection, which at that time (mid-century) was still growing at Donvale.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Reveries of libraries, the third : COLOUR CHARTS

Philip Harvey

An unkind academic once said of a colleague that his library was arranged by the colour of the books. The implication of this remark was that his colleague never read any of the books on his shelves. There also seemed to be the added implication that he spent most of his time arranging the books to look like a paint chart, because he had nothing else to do.  

Experience frequently teaches us otherwise. The strongest and most used of the five senses is that of vision, which is why when we are asked for a book, or are looking about for one in a sizable library, the colour of the cover is an essential guide, if we know the book already. Then, there are publishers’ series and encyclopaedic sets renowned for their black or purple appearance. We think of the Penguin Classics or Britannica.

There was a time when a cheap laugh could be secured, during a reference question, when the librarian said that the enquirer was looking for you know that light blue book, I had it just the other day. This is no longer such a joke, after years of finding a book on the shelf primarily by the distinctive colour of its spine, especially when that book is shelved out of order.

“Have you got that book by Merton? It’s the green one,” no longer draws an inaudible groan from the librarian, because green may be all we have to go on. Or, the enquiry may be for that very famous green book by Merton, or the only green book by Merton. Sometimes I myself can walk without hesitation straight to the green book of Merton’s, never mind the call number. It remains a truth well-attested, that colour is frequently the one thing about a book that the user remembers.

Arrangement of books by colour has historical credibility. There are collectors who bind or cover their books in different shades to distinguish by subject or trait. Until recently every academic library bound its periodicals in distinctive binder’s colours to help separate runs on the shelf. And some of the most elegant private libraries in the world have their books covered in certain colours in order to match the décor or design plan of the bibliographical dreamer. To make their books ‘invisible’ in a living space, collectors are known to wrap their books completely in white. Many rare books collections follow this model to this day.  

Classification by colour is another matter. How would that work? The larger the library the greater the distinctions of colour we would have to make. It would not be enough to place all yellow books in Yellow. We would need to line them up in sequence by sunflower, lemon, amber, gold, blond. Numerical classification at library school is a cinch compared with this kind of in-depth analysis of the spectrum. And how would it be recorded in the catalogue? No MARC tag is available for Colour Classification. The science simply has not taken into account this most elementary of mental cues. Downloading the cover and putting it on the record too only tells half the story.  

It will never take on, but the appeal of books arranged by colour is perennial. In a library not requiring classification, it is a natural tendency. The sight can be marvellous. Only thing is, we recall too quickly the proverb about not judging a book by its cover; librarians are governed by content.