This is a picture of the London Library after being damaged, rather substantially, during the blitz. I came across this image when re-reading The History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. When you take the time to consider this picture you are struck by how incredible it is and how much it can tell us about the nature of books. This is exactly what Manguel does. We can do the same right now.
For starters, we see one of the features of printed books that is always noteworthy and that is their robustness. Certainly many books would have been obliterated by the initial explosion. Others would have been soaked as the London Fire Brigade battled the attendant flames. But a great many books would have survived. I have touched on the persistence of books before (see The eBook Revolution: Blowing Books to Bits) and the importance of this quality is worth returning to from time to time.
But as Manguel points out, there is a lot more here as well. Most notably, instead of the bustle of emergency workers we find people who probably arrived to survey the damage but who have been distracted by the books on the shelves. They immediately revealed themselves as incurable readers, as seekers of knowledge. Now I cannot but help seeing one of the quintessential qualities of the British, a stubborn fascination with learning, and then seeing this as one of the reasons why Britain never flinched during the onslaught and invariably prevailed.
We also see here a common fate of libraries. As has been chronicled in a number of books, libraries have a nasty habit of falling afoul of forces who seek to strike at the heart of any given society by striking at their libraries. As two examples, see A Universal History of the Destruction of Books and Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries throughout History. There is a perverse logic at work in these cases. The mainstays of a society will seek to collect, enshrine and protect what it knows, believes and values in institutions that declare, quite physically, the importance of these resources. Hence libraries. And hence the specialized communities that build up around them with these sometimes being very exclusive communities (just try wondering into the Bodleian Library without a readers card, for example). When strife appears, these institutions quickly become targets. In other instances, an earnest but expensive lattice work of investments is erected around these institutions which attracts the attention of a more pedestrian enemy. Funding cutbacks inevitably follow. This circumstance has led me on occasion to make a highly uncharitable substitution of librarians for lawyers in one of Shakespeare's more notorious declarations about what do with lawyers.
More interesting to me than the destruction of books and libraries, however, is their remarkable ability to survive. The more common fate for libraries than destruction is in fact their dispersal. When the investment needed to manage and protect a library wanes, what usually happens is that the holdings are boxed up, shipped out, sold off, or in some cases simply pillaged. Then the books enter a wider circulation and one that is usually uncharted. This is where things tend to get really interesting, to my mind. Unchained (sometimes quite literally) from their shelves, ex libris books have often travelled widely and sparked unforeseen consequences. So while the learning circle that grew up around John Dee and his Elizabethan library is noteworthy, the dispersal of the books and the new circles it might have spawned is even more interesting. The same can be said of the renaissance library of Matthias Corvinus, the Raven King of Hungary. The holdings of this library, filled with some of the latest and most exquisite examples of scriptorial art, found themselves being spread widely across Europe and the Islamic world. Books that were once only accessed by the invited few suddenly found themselves in the bargain bin of history, accessible to anyone with some spare change.
I am also reminded of a story I remember hearing about the early Bodleian Library when investigators dispatched under a reactionary Queen Mary (aka Bloody Mary) found that about 300 of the 303 volumes in the library should be classified as prohibited. I have a fanciful image of clerics running out of the library in a state of horror after having encountered volume after volume of astrology, magical science and heretical philosophy. The immediate consequence of this investigation might have been the destruction of the books but I can't help but think that the tomes would have simply shifted around the town of Oxford thereby remaining in unofficial circulation. (I have not expended any energy on researching this further, as I am sure that someone has looked into it. And I suspect that I will prefer my version of the story over what I might discover. Nonetheless, the more than a little quirky, and at times irreverent, nature of many Oxford scholars - then as now - leads me to be quite confident that at least some of the prohibited books found a life after being proscribed.)
The persistence of books does have a material bearing on how this pattern of dissemination has operated in the past. Now the emergence of electronic books offers us new channels of movement, and ones that operate at the speed of light. The persistence of these electronic artifacts does become an interesting topic to consider. In some ways, the unbridled replication that theoretically comes with digital representations may make these electronic books highly persistent. In other ways, however, electronic formats have a habit of falling out of favour, or disk drive space oddly becomes a precious resource to be protected through ham-fisted purges, and information that was once widely available can suddenly find itself to be very rare indeed.
Even in my own experience, the mountains of electronic documents written and posted on the early web - ironically frequently about digitizing information resources and business processes - have all but vanished. So it seems that some of the forces that regularly threaten books and libraries do not distinguish between the hardcopy and the digital. We should be mindful of this fact as we move more and more of our books online. And we should think seriously about how we can bolster, instead of undermining, the persistence and portability of books in a digital world. I suspect that more depends on this than we currently understand.