Sunday, October 16, 2016

LIBRARIES: Why Anglophones Are Tops

Bodleian, Oxford (Weston Library). Reader goes to
desk, then admissions at right. Card admits to stacks via
 readers' door at left. Easy-peasy. Photos by JT Marlin.
I have previously noted that four of the five  great libraries in the world are in the UK or USA:
  • Oxford's Bodleian (the only university library).
  • The British Library in London near St. Pancras Station.
  • The Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
  • The New York Public Library in Mid-Manhattan, branches throughout NYC.
The rest of the world is represented by one library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris.

Why might it be that four of the five great libraries are in anglophone countries?

I think Gutenberg's moveable-type printing press was especially adapted to the heirs to the Greco-Roman language because the European languages are phonetic and based on a relatively small number of component letters. Chinese characters are more complicated and were harder to convert to mechanical printing (computers have made it much easier). Korean and Japanese phonetic characters were relatively late arrivals.

Within Europe, Italy and Germany had common languages but were not unified until the 19th century and therefore didn't have a strong national center for storing and making accessible books.

Bottom line, the major factor seems to be the high degree of literacy and the policy decisions made in the USA and UK to make available free libraries, following the success of philanthropic initiatives along these lines.

I'm a big user of the four USA and UK libraries. A month rarely goes by when I am not in one of them or consulting their resources online. Only one is a university library, the Bodleian. It and the British library receive registration copies of all new published books (as do other UK libraries). The Library of Congress is the singular depository of copyrighted books in the USA, but in usage the NY Public Library has nearly ten times the number of visitors of any other library in the world.

Bibliothèque nationale. Line up. Be ready to wait, then walk,
a lot. Allow a day for orientation. Rely on staff; don't dare to try to
figure anything out on your own because you can't, as you will find
out within a few minutes. Don't expect fast delivery of books.
My main comment on the difference between the four US and UK libraries and the Bibliothèque Nationale is that one could go into any of the four anglo libraries and generally find something on one's own, without requiring high-level support.

The BnF, however, is built like a fortress to protect its books and without help from the skilled staff  one could be lost inside forever.

I have provided at top a photo of what one faces on one's first visit to Oxford's Bodleian Library (Weston building). The inquiry desk is designed essentially to shuttle you into Admissions at right or admit you to the stacks at left. End of story.

At right is my photo of what one faces as ones first introduction to the BnF. The nice murals and indirect lighting don't veil the message that one is in the hands of bureaucracy from here on, and get used to it. One is given chairs to wait in and you take a number. Then you fill out paperwork. Then you are given instructions for your long walks to the vestiaire, the place where you will sit, the place where your books are, and the place where you order them. These places in my case were widely scattered:
Daily tickets.
  • When I first arrived, I walked through several doors that were like submarine or space ship interlocks, and then down a cavernous escalator. The books I needed were at the other end of the huge BnF plaza, a walk I feel sure was a quarter-mile long.
  • I had to go back to the admission office because somehow I had been misclassified. I still have no clue what the problem was but it was very important.
  • So on my first day at the library, I must have walked a full mile inside the library, from one office to another and back again. As Gen. Pierre Bosquet said of the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."
  • I was looking for books on French heraldry and found a gap in the books on the shelves. There was no explanation on the shelf for the gap. I went to the desk and they advised me that all the heraldry books were filed together in the middle of the aisle, some distance from the shelves where the number order would suggest they would be located. I started to point out the problem until, as I talked, it dawned on me that I was just exposing to ridicule my simple Anglo-Saxon peasant mind, expecting things to be in the right order instead of appreciating the elegant waythe BnF provides special status for their "armes".
  • I think you need to buy a new ticket every day you enter the BnF. They provide three "gratuit". I don't pretend to understand where or when you produce these tickets. I hope I never have to find out.

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