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.
My experience at the 2013 American Library Association conference & exhibition began before the official beginning by joining a Freedom to Read Foundation committee meeting and concluded with a variation on the theme via a Q & A on an important piece of rebel “science-fiction” writing.
In between, I headed into meetings considering the value of education (whether it accomplishes its goals and its ROI), how to work out licensing for research data between research university libraries; we pondered the notion of classroom education vs project-based learning; I learned about a fantastic nonprofit created to link arts conversations to library programing (playing around with the idea of programming as collection development); I learned of public libraries dropping Dewey in their nonfiction sections for eye-readable language-based subject headings favouring the casual browser (logical within the assumption of the browser but not helpful to research-minded library patrons); and enjoyed a lively Q & A on privacy, surveillance and the NSA.
There were plenty more sessions attended by yours truly. I could write an essay on my experience. But here I will restrict my word-count to a relatively blog friendly number.
I wrote in the first paragraph my #ALA2013 experience was sandwiched by intellectual freedom themes…Well, my concluding session was a fascinating learning experience tied to an examination and appreciation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In this discussion we talked about banned books, a recent motion in a small town in Texas to remove the book from school reading lists and I learned the FBI investigated Ray Bradbury for eight years and for another six years only an expurgated version of F. 451 was in print. It was a pleasurable and engaging discourse on intellectual freedom – an abstraction Ray Bradbury referred to as “creative freedom.” Certainly, a theme of creative freedom can be found in library/learning conversations as a whole.
Don’t be afraid to bring up your own #ala2013 experiences or unifying themes. The more themes the merrier. Bring your ideas into the conversation below in the reply box or @Twitter.
Thank you for reading.
Currently, The Neighborhood Writing Alliance is working on a project in which interns are adding sets of non-hierarchical keywords (sort of like a tag cloud in social media) to an internally accessible bibliographic database of the journal it has published for more than 20 years, The Journal of Ordinary Thought – Or JOT as it is called. The database is being created in a log-in controlled environ called CiteuLike. This application works like other reference-maintenance software available. Users, who are given controlled log-in web-based profiles, build collections and can add multiple levels of information to each bibliographic record. One of the types of information users can apply to records is tags.
I am working as Metadata Specialist on this project, overseeing the work of the interns, editing tag-sets for better search potential and presenting examples through assorted instructional techniques best practices/policy for adding tags to the collection. One of the questions anyone who considers subject access in library catalogs is this notion of “aboutness” – that of determining what a piece of writing or other cultural artifact is about. In other words, if we could attach a subject to some cultural artifact, what would it be, how many subjects can one artifact have and how do we decide? To make matters more abstract, “subjects” themselves are also cultural products based on factors such as who might be in charge at the time, who is most likely to be the common users or viewers of said artifacts and whether there are requisite resources (money and other factors) at the time of creation of the bibliographic record to add or attach all possible permutations. For example, here is a link to a search for manuscript papers connected with Abraham Lincoln in Library of Congress’ holdings. If one clicks on Andrew Johnson Papers, 1783-1947, it is apparent the record contains a summary of that collection’s contents. This summary works to tell what the collection is about. On one level, this bibliographic record contains pure data referring to the collection. But on another level, the writing of the summary is a human-decided process that involves processing (thinking) and writing (also a human experience). It is not obvious what a piece of writing is “about” – even if the writer or bibliographic record creator states so – nor how it will affect the reader or viewer.
These are the fun challenges in front of us on this project. It is underway and progress is being made. The document which holds the tagging Best Practices [which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines as performances or forms which excel all others]* is being written along with some other helpful guidelines by way of examples with specific explanations. I think we will each learn a little something along the way.
PS: As always, dialogue is welcome.
* Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2001. 108, 912