Saturday, 21 June 2014

Reveries of libraries, the sixth: CHAMPAGNE READING


Food is a no-no in the library. That is conventional thinking. Crumbs get into the crevices of books. Drinks will be knocked across open atlases. Leftovers bring in the mice. Tomato sauce spoils the e-book screen. This is because highest value is placed on the user and their resources in a library. It is, by definition, an egalitarian environment.

Tell that to Leonid Shutnov. According to the newspaper: “The restaurateur Leonid Shutnov will soon open Biblioteka in St James, where he will offer 100 vintages of Château d'Yquem and 80 of Château Mouton Rothschild, should 79 of Château Mouton Rothschild not be enough to slake the thirst of London's rich. It will be, says the PR guff, "one of the largest licensed premises in central London", with an interior "inspired by some of the greatest libraries in the world", if you can imagine anything worse.”

I could think of things that are worse. However, Biblioteka is an obscene reverie of libraries on a number of counts. One thinks of the Auden line from ‘The Fall of Rome’: “Fantastic grow the evening gowns: / Agents of the Fisc pursue / Absconding tax-defaulters through / The sewers of provincial towns.” For in a city like modern London, where many do not have enough to eat, and many are in that predicament because of issues of education and literacy, the obscenity of offering overpriced champagne in an environment where books do furnish a room, and nothing else, should be apparent. The library, and the knowledge it represents, is reduced to an indulgent backdrop for international wealth. The library is turned into a symbol of power and prestige but is divested of its purpose, which is to educate and improve. Shutnov’s restaurant plays with a received idea of the library, as the preserver of heritage, but in this context the only knowledge being preserved is the harvesting age of mind-altering bubbly. Visitors toast their own knowledge of the world while mocking the contents of “the world’s great libraries,” which warn against such hubristic indulgence.

Biblioteka will be situated in the centre of one of the world’s great cities of libraries, yet it does little to increase awareness of those libraries, starting with the big ones in Bloomsbury. It turns its back on the fact that the British government has a policy of closing public libraries throughout the realm. Biblioteka would treat libraries in the same way as other venues treat say ancient Rome, as a piece of architectural history that can be turned into murals for the incidental edification of millionaires who are just passing through.

Bibliotheka’s most disturbing implication is that this is how libraries now function, as historical showpieces. The urban myth that libraries do not have a purpose now that “everything” is online is writ large in the Biblioteka enterprise. That it reinforces a lie about the future of libraries, an illusion about their past, may be obvious to most readers, though not all of the target clientele of Biblioteka.

One wonders what the super-rich Russian entrepreneur Leonid Shutnov had in mind when he launched this restaurant plan on unsuspecting London. Is it in fact his idea of a tribute to the City? Is the library in his status-conscious mind a symbol of everything civilised and grand about the English? Is he unconsciously refuting the spectre of Karl Marx, who wrote most of the works that helped spark the Russian Revolution (1917) at desks of the British Library? Does he wish to remind us that the Library, like Marx, is part of past history?

His main intention seems to be to set up the largest wine cellar in Britain, with classic champagnes as the foundation of the “collection”. Pretentiously, some of the early promotions for Biblioteka even talk about these labels as a library of holdings. And maybe that is the only reading that will take place at St James in London, the reading of menus, wine labels and iphones, as the patrons get elegantly if rapidly blotto. Silently the décor will stare down at them, packed with all the knowledge they never got around to acquiring.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Reveries of libraries, the fifth : ZEITGEIST SNAPSHOTS


1.      Then there was the Application. It was a library held in your hand.  It contained everything, even your most private thoughts and desires. It was a library of appearances. Actually it did not contain everything. It was a small reference collection of personal data. Material that was up-to-date had the feel of being out-of-date. It perpetrated syndromes. In fact, it was not a library. The Application was weak on quality control. It could not remember every thing. Sorry, it was only a machine. There was no one to talk to about its contents. The Application was someone’s personal library of this and that.
2.      Then there was the 3D Print. It turned flatness into an object. Museums of layered models were realised out of horizontal cross-sections. The paperless museum became the paperful museum. Animated from a flat plane, the 3D Print came clean out of ‘computer-personed’ design. Not that the results stayed clean. Dust settled. Feather dusters were required by librarians to keep things spruce-goose. Exact replicas of fragile objects turned into fossils, sometimes in perfect duplicate forms. A literature sprang up. The fossils themselves were a kind of living paper literature. New cataloguing rules had to be devised to describe this realia.
3.      The there was the Automatic Check-In. This was good practice for borrowers who used airports a lot. Humans no longer needed to be librarians. They could make coffee or join protest marches or write science fiction at home. Fines were handled by a colleague of the Automatic Check-In known as the Automatic Adds-Up. Not that they lacked the personal touch. Borrowers had to personally touch the Automatic Check-In with their index finger in order to follow the directions. If they didn’t do this, or the returned items did not register for some obscure technical reason, the Automatic Adds-Up could get very angry. Not that either of them had any feelings.
4.      Then there was the Touchscreen. Idle turning of pages or flipping through catalogue card drawers was for nostalgia buffs. The catalogue was in the aisle with the searcher. It could be read in the passenger seat during those long trips along freeways. The point of need could more or less be met anywhere using handheld devices and the Touchscreen. Instead of the cumbersome paperback or antiquated magazine, the library became an endless finger dance for background information, enhanced experiences, softening interactions, virtual copies, zooming intuitions, spectral formats, keyboardless sonatas.
5.      Then there was the E-Book. This was a reminder of how impermanent and fragile our libraries really were, as there were no books more impermanent and fragile than the E-Book. Once there was a literature so ethereal it rarely moved from the shelf from one generation to the next, but now there was a whole literature technology sourced entirely from the ether itself. When they said that the E-Book was skyrocketing, they weren’t being metaphorical. The atmosphere we breathed was filled with words. Download made much of the online world one vast regional library network. Borrowing rights were a nightmare, when they weren’t free.
6.      Then there was the Downtime. This was the strange period of a day or night when the information wasn’t available on a screen. It was sometimes called the Realtime by those who could remember a time in their lives when computers did not exist. This was an antique world in which people embraced face-to-face, depending on whose face. In that long gone world now only seen in movies, people sat in large armchairs and slowly turned pages in an effort to find out something. Sometimes they would do this both day and night. The Downtime reminded borrowers that it was enjoyable to talk to one another, often in large groups called discussion groups. This happened in libraries in forms like the Book Group, but in numerous other ways, humans being by nature, talkers. The Downtime had the effect of reminding people of information rich and information poor, as it became apparent some people did not suffer from the Downtime because they didn’t have access to the internet anyway. Librarians were in the unenviable position of reminding everyone that the books were there for everyone. Those rare humans who were still known as librarians.
7.      Then there was the Interaction. Cataloguers became regulators of a flood, rather than a workflow. How to describe Blogger, Wordpress and other content management systems. Leave it to Google? What is the information we lost in the information? Were we describing a river, a lagoon, a lake, a bight? A bay of books looked quaint. During the flood all shape was lost under the prevailing push of wash. And the Interaction extended to more unmanageable daily correspondence. Could we have libraries of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr? At least a print monograph stood resolutely on its feet through all vicissitudes. How were cataloguers to judge what was priority for their library on Youtube, Flickr, Photobucket? Did the cataloguer drop all hits on a subject in a box labelled with the subject? And what happened when their main subject went viral? There were not enough minutes in the day. The waters, it seemed, may never recede. Libraries became Pinterests of self-definition. Librarians became evangelists for the Keyword.