Depths of the Phantom Library:
Jacques Bonnet Reaches for the Unreachable.
Jacques Bonnet writes in, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, of a vast library. No, not the Borgesian library of “The Library of Babel” or “The Book of Sand,” but a personal library he has collected for his own use – some 40,000 + volumes. Massive. I am a fan generally of books describing avid readers and collectors (though I am mostly of the first type) – books such as that fabulous pair of titles by Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude.
I have been recently rereading Jacques Bonnet’s book. In my progress through that book, I also found this essay/review piece of writing by Alonzo McBride called, “Phantoms and Personal Libraries,” which made stylistic sense to me and by acknowledging the metaphor of books and libraries as phantoms, I thought it perfectly appropriate to bring to light the essay and the book again. In a previous post of mine, I mentioned a quote setting up Bonnet’s premise of the blurred line between what makes a personal library and an institutional library.
The quote is, ““…to return to the library. Once it has been established, it [the library] tends to become an unavoidable transit zone for reality, a sort of vortex that sucks in everything that happens to us” (100).
The library is a cultural heritage space as much as it is a personal heritage space. Sometimes these spaces are the same in space and sometimes they are not. The focus for Jacques Bonnet’s book is the personal library as memory collector for his own life. Even with that “narrow” focus, the book tackles nearly every issue institutional libraries must tackle except maybe ones related to archival technology such as finding aids or physical handling best practices, code such as XML and its publication on the web with CSS or anything having to do with web archiving. Bonnet certainly brings up the internet as it relates to text encoding, information searching, book buying experiences and the like. And in this humble blogger’s opinion, all the above technical services could be extrapolated to take account of Bonnet’s collection. Or…he could reissue the book with all the ways be built a homegrown OPAC for his personal use. 😉
Specifically, Bonnet discusses issues of categorization (the eternal question). He mentions the French OULIPO writer, Georges Perec, when he makes his “brave attempt at listing the possible methods of classifying one’s books: “alphabetically; by continent or country; by colour; by date of acquisition; by date of publication; by size; by genre; by literary period; by language; by frequency of consultation; by binding; by series” (37). One sees from this list how several of the categorization headings would be preferred by a person over an institution – “by date of acquisition” as the best example. Yet, even this category system applies to libraries that have a “recently arrived” or “new” section to encourage library users to catch up on what’s current. Except, even this classification does take into account the difference between newly acquired due to recent publication or newly acquired due to replacement for damage etc. Some of the other categories (which obviously fails to take into account anything like LC Classification or Universal Dewey) are well suited for research libraries – such as “by literary period” or even “binding” in a rare books special collection. The largest flaw, however, in Perec’s classification is the total lack of subject access (which has to be the single most challenging classification of them all) – though some of the other categories work with subject access.
Bonnet does bring to light one aspect of his own classification I will write as ABSTRACT vs. CONCRETE (102-103). In the first he puts subjects such as theology, religion, philosophy, literary topics and science. It is interesting he defines “science” as abstract instead of concrete. In the second category he drops in history, anthropology, biography and documents (though it is not clear to what this term applies). One can appreciate the presuppositions necessary to refer to one subject as abstract and another as concrete even though both may be examples of humans thinking and writing their words. I recommend everyone reading this also go out and take a look at the subdivisions within Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), Dewey, and thesauri such as the one for art and architecture published by Getty by first examining the depth and granularity of each system within its own rules and then by looking through World Cat and Library of Congress catalog records.
I fully understand Bonnet’s book is personal – not designed to be an institutional best standard for understanding large collections. But even from this personal point of view, it is not without meaning (I recommend this book be on the curriculum for all ischools). Other examples of meaning come through his acknowledgment of the internet’s impact on not just information as a whole as it relates to libraries, but also the procedures by which a person or institution acquires new materials – scaled digital content in the form of periodicals searchable through aggregation technologies or the purchasing of new print items such as monographs from academic presses (though he talks about how collectors use the internet to search for titles unavailable locally).
The truth is the book is simply pleasurable to read. And it asks the same questions all libraries ask themselves: how long should a title be kept in a research collection (or a public library) if it circulates infrequently?; how does one best use space limitations (of which every library has a few struggles as such)?; and what happens in the event of the death of the collector or a fire in the library?
Bonnet includes a quote by Petite Larousse (a lexicon) of the term, “fantôme [phantom]” – a sheet or card inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf, or a document which has been removed” (110).
The remainder of what was there before… What was there before? Was it a resource that got weeded from the collection? Was it a library that became underfunded over time? Was it a trace of an object that was reformatted as a digital object available on the open web or behind a subscription pay-wall? Something is missing. For Bonnet, even if he chooses, as do so many other librarians (personal and institutional), not to lend any out any items from his collection, the fundamental missing feature among such ideas as not having time to read every book in the library, not having enough shelf space to best hold each item and not having a perfect classification system of either knowledge or objects is lack of total control of the library. The library, as the first quite implies, is made of a river of occurrences that enter and exit the way time and life itself enters and exits at varied and uncertain rates. I would say Jacques Bonnet’s fun little book for book geeks revels in, and still tries to make sense from, the powerful uncertainty in this world.
One must be willing to change as the collection itself changes.
The question arises then if anyone will be able to insert a fantôme in every changing moment life as it changes into something else so we’ll be reminded of what used to be.
Thank you for reading.
Reference: Bonnet, Jacques. Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Trans. from French by Siân Reynolds. NY, NY: The Overlook Press, 2010.
I have been reading this blog post by Alonzo McBride and rereading PHANTOMS ON THE BOOKSHELVES by Jacques Bonnet. Great book.
There are plenty of relevant points in the small text to library collections and knowledge/resource organization.
I do, however, want to highlight a few lines right now.
“…to return to the library. Once it has been established, it [the library] tends to become an unavoidable transit zone for reality, a sort of vortex that sucks in everything that happens to us” (100).
Bonnet, Jacques. Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Trans. from the French by Siân Reynolds. NY, NY: The Overlook Press, 2010.
Thank you for reading.
Dr. Black’s Creative Empiricism – A Book Review
E.B. Hudspeth’s The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black. Quirk Books. 2013. ISBN: 978159476161
E.B. Hudspeth has added something new to the world of mid-Atlantic & New England horror/dark fantasy with The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black. He does this by taking the world of art, the world of Edgar Allen Poe and creates an amalgamation with some of the darkest stuff from H.P. Lovecraft. This is not to say The Resurrectionist is derivative of either Poe or Lovecraft. But where some advertising for the book talks about Poe, the book actually exhibits a more subtle reference to ole’ Edgar combined with a heavier reliance upon Lovecraft.
My review copy is incomplete unfortunately. It is an Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) – a galley copy in paperback missing art from some sections. The text is present as well as all organization segments making the book what it will be in the final hardcover publication format. The importance of the missing pages relates to the suggestion in the narration of the importance of the creature, Harpy Erinyes – a female human-like being with bird like legs and large wings – to Dr. Spencer Black, the genius doctor with skills in studying mysterious beings and elaborate surgical procedures. Without these images, one loses a sense of the attention paid this particular creature. Hey, but maybe these missing pages become part of the real “lost work.”
The Resurrectionist is, in part, a biography of Dr. Spencer Black, born in Boston, Mass in 1851 as well as a “lost” work containing detailed genus/species style drawings in which are exhibited deconstructed views of vanished beings no longer commonly seen in the world. This collision of art and storytelling is not new to dark fantasy. I think about Lovecraft’s innovative story, “Pickman’s Model,” a yarn of some darkness about a man who found in the bowels of an old city unseen mysterious inspiration for macabre paintings. There are no images in Lovecraft’s story. But one yearns to see them. In this work, Hudspeth (himself an artist) includes lots of drawings of creatures such as Minotaurus Asterion, Satyrus Hircinus, Siren Oceanus and afore mentioned Harpy Erinyes. The allusion here is not to inspiration. Inspiration comes through in other creative ways in the novel. Rather, the drawings allude to another even older form of scientific art – Dr. Henry Gray’s drawings in his famous anatomy book from 1918 – and also coincidentally published in Pennsylvania. The images are integral to the work. Each one will be present in the final edition.
On the subject of scientific art, it is here where Lovecraft’s influence is most felt through the work. Not art as in images, but the art of dedicating oneself to finding out the “truth.” A large current running through Lovecraft’s work is the type of story in which a main character becomes intrigued to find out something seen or heard and then follows each possible clue until that thing is found. The problem with this choice for nearly every character whose narrative conforms to this story structure is the characters end up locked away or doing their very best to dissuade anyone else from following in their footsteps. They become traumatized. Nearly 100 years earlier (1818), Mary Shelley structured Frankenstein similarly. Dr. Spencer Black is a young doctor with tons of adoration and respect when he begins his tenure at the Academy of Medicine. He performs surgeries and wrote well-received papers on the medical questions of his day – 1870s Philadelphia. Dr. Black is well respected and well paid.
All this changes as he turns more of his energy to figuring out the anatomy of all these mythical beings he is sure exist. And of course, as a scientist, empiricism must reign in his methods. The core of the book and the real Lovecraftian influence is felt through as Dr. Spencer Black’s “methods” are explored by E.B. Hudspeth.
The book is dominated by a detached tone. As if he is writing a history. The sections are even segmented by years, e.g., 1869: The Academy of Medicine or 1878: The Fawn-Child. This reserved style adds a lot to the text. Especially in contrast to the fantastical art and the nearly unbelievable way in which Dr. Black swerves his life away from love and peace. The art, as stated above, is stylized after Dr. Henry Gray. But the subject matter…well…therein is the book’s core and play. I have looked through Gray’s Anatomy and have seen none of Dr. Black’s images in those pages.
I recommend it.
PS: A copy of this review has also been published at LibraryThing.
On Wednesday 16 January 2013, I sat down to talk with one of the numerous helpful Virginia Room staff members, Tad Suiter, about special collections, the role of local history in the public library’s mission statement and library promotion.
The role of collections shifts in libraries and when one thinks about local history within libraries, the realization is that patrons who enter the contemporary Arlington Public Library will be checking out books and movies that are generally popular within the current culture, using the community boards and using computers with their free internet access to do everything from applying for jobs to playing web-based internet games. This role may not be as much about books as it has been. One of the resources that will not be used as often is the rare books and special collections found in Arlington County Library’s Virginia Room – a separate room on the first floor designed to act as a traditional reading room (such as the famous reading room in the Library of Congress’ Jefferson building), a linkage to the rare books vault and archival materials housed and managed to be used ONLY in the reading room. Most of these materials are rare and unique to Arlington and thus would not survive normal circulation cycles.
I asked about the Mission Statement of special collections within the Library and two points were made. <I write, “within the library,” because only a fraction of patrons who walk into the Central Arlington Library also walk into the Virginia Room. The Virginia Room houses the Special Collection – not designed to be circulated for numerous meaningful reasons.> The first point relates the Virginia Room’s collection mission to the APL’s Mission Statement as a whole. The APL’s Mission Statement is “The Arlington Public Library provides access to information, creates connections among people and promotes reading and culture–for every Arlingtonian and other patrons.” The Virginia Room certainly is situated to conform to that mission as the collections are Virginia specific with a niche focus on local history and Arlington history. Another aspect of the mission statement, however, makes mention of “other patrons.” One assumes this is deliberately ambiguous because the APL could never foresee the wide use potential of their special collections for work by scholars or writers from around the nation and world. In particular, Tad Suiter mentioned the excitement expressed by a visitor from Japan who noted unique items in the collection that are about Arlington but may be part of some specific interest within the domain of information collection. Sure, many patrons focus on genealogy or request items about the street they or loved ones lived on in generations past, but these special collections, though local in title, are also used by non-Arlingtonians.
The second point relates to this issue of APL’s mission statement, but subtly redirects the use of the collections – this is the point that local collections are useful to “reach out” beyond the local. In the first place, the Virginia Room houses some of the institutional archives for APL. At first thought, it would seem that local archives are designed for use for APL studies – they are. But a county’s public library archives could just as well be studied in order to explore ideas within a grander scope to reflect trends within county libraries statewide or nationwide. In addition, even though the United States has plenty of diverse lives and diverse life-organizations occurring within its borders, the fact that Arlington is a suburb of Washington, D.C. (a relatively large urban district), means that some aspects of library use and local culture may relate to America generally since DC is where so many important decisions are made and Arlingtonians, many of them, work within these halls of decision. Arlington’s special collections are not just for use by Arligntonians even though the collections are housed within the Virginia Room and the mission statement declares fist the public library is for Arlington patrons. That same statement also declares it is available for other patrons. The above paragraph expresses the potential for extra-local use of special collections.
Truth be told, a theme running through the conversation with Tad Suiter revealed the challenges of promoting special collections. Special Libraries of America certainly believes in promotion of efforts by its members. But even the SLA does not have an “official” definition of what is a special library or special collection. APL has a semi-regular feature on its webpage through which it promotes historical elements found within collections found in the Virginia Room. Tad Suiter suggests he believes patrons would find it very interesting not just to see a piece of history written from artifacts in the collection (a perfectly fine effort for promotion), but also to realize the efforts of digging through the collections and the processing of those items for events, writing, research or other projects. Promotion of libraries runs through much current literature on library use, encouraging wide use and trends in social media. One can even see it pop up regularly in job postings across many fields within librarianship. I suppose this small essay is an act of promotion.
I want to thank Tad Suiter for his time and helpful ideas. The whole staff at the Arlington Public Library is very helpful, but I want to specifically thank the staff of the Virginia Room at this moment. I recommend checking out their special collections, ask questions and maybe send a comment or two here or at Twitter.
Thank you for reading.
In terms of topic oriented collecting, where does one topic stop and another begin? Can we define this line? Is a library, public of academic, supposed to collect all publications by a popular fiction author? Or must we think of this as excessive? If we collect all of an author’s published works, do we also decide to collect monographs on said author? And what about books that might be defined as relevant to understanding context to that author’s works or writing space? And we have not even considered all formats relevant to each topic. Questions abound in library collection development
I have no answers here. The above link to Wikipedia is for dialogue purposes only. I just mean to invite conversation. Please weigh in. I welcome comments here (moderated) or @ Twitter.
Thank you much.
There will be more in the future.