Resurrecting the Book

Opinion - Libraries Wednesday, 20th November 2013

Between the lines, between the covers - there's more to books than their pages disclose. Dr Matthew Day (left) reports from this week's Library of Birmingham Conference.

That the online world is causing a seismic shift in the book industry is hardly news. Questions about the need for physical books when online versions are available have been asked for a considerable time. Yet the relentless march of the digital age looks set to have pushed the demise of the physical book to a critical phase: that Amazon's best-selling product is the Kindle suggests stellar demand for the online book; Google's success in its law-suit with the US Authors Guild makes the release of its 30 million, as yet unavailable, digitised books a step closer to seeing the light of day. What hope the material book?

The almost simultaneous opening, in September, of two new libraries with very different approaches to the physical book exemplifies the liminal moment we are in. Just as the Bexar County Digital Library opened in Texas, providing digital copies of books only, on this side of the pond the £189 million Library of Birmingham opened with, at its heart, a book rotunda which soars to the top of the building, valorising the book in all its tangible materiality and physical glory. This almost simultaneous opening of two public libraries promulgating such different views of the book makes us ask: What is the role of the public library in this digital age?  Moreover, while the Library of Birmingham does indeed also engage with the digital, it is hard not to wonder whether a city that was once the industrial heart-beat of a world-wide empire has lost its nerve and turned Luddite. The (on average) 10,000 people a week who have been through its doors since it reopened, and the Christmas-sale like queues that form each morning outside its doors, suggest there is still a deep-seated preference for the paper book among the community it serves.

But much-used books create their own problems: they wear out. Big libraries also inevitably have a problem that may, one day, also beset the Bexar County Digital Library: what to do with books that are obsolete - unwanted and unloved - and unread for nearly 100 years. One answer, as Susan Kruse's exquisite exhibition The Library of Lost Books makes plain, is to turn them into artistic objects. Will the rise of the digital book mark a golden age for the book arts? In 60 years' time will the obsolete digital books - of which no doubt there will be some - facilitate the creation of such intellectually stimulating, visually delightful works of art?

These were the sorts of questions that led Dr Caroline Archer, of the Typographic Hub, Debbie Mynott of Digital Ink Drop and I to organise the Resurrecting the Book Conference, held 15-17 November at the Library of Birmingham. We sought to bring together international experts from different fields relating to the book to provide what we hoped would be a stimulating, interdisciplinary exchange of ideas about books as objects in a digital age, the importance of the material book, the book as book-art and the uses readers make of books.

Four stunning plenary lectures set the tone for an inspiring and uplifting conference which confirmed that rather than being dead and requiring resurrection, the book, in its multiple forms, was very much alive. Professor Johanna Drucker, Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography at the University of California, Los Angeles, reminded us of the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of digital humanities, challenging the notions that digital copies would always survive and noting the problems of cost and complexity that went with digitization projects. At the same time she highlighted the usefulness, convenience and ingenuity of so much of the digital humanities world and the great enrichment such projects brought.

Professor Sir David Cannadine, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, and Trustee of the Library of Birmingham, provided a stimulating history of the four Birmingham Public Libraries. Stressing the tradition of public service which lay at the heart of the public libraries since their inception in Birmingham, he noted that public libraries had a crucial role to play in contributing to the cultural and social life of a community as well as its learning and literary pleasure.

Dr David Pearson, Director of Cultural Heritage and Libraries, City of London Corporation, focused on the histories of books derived from readers. Noting that annotated copies of 17th-century books were now prized much more highly at auction than clean, washed copies, he showed how people's marginalia brought out important literary, personal and cultural histories. Yet, as head of a major library service, he hardly sought to encourage his readers to annotate books in the libraries he runs. Moreover, marginalia, as he pointed out, are just one of the ways in which physical books disclose their histories, and if we neglect the diverse histories of production, consumption and circulation on offer from their materiality we are in danger of impoverishing our understandings of our histories and ourselves.

The final plenary speaker, Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, Director of the Ligatus Research Centre, University of the Arts, London, showed the remarkable histories of book-bindings and considered their implications for our knowledge of book-history. With his wide-ranging knowledge and extraordinary attention to detail he demonstrated how book-bindings disclosed individual and social histories. Like David Pearson, he suggested that libraries might benefit from beginning to think of themselves, in part at least, as having a museum-like function, and he also stressed the need for training of librarians on book-bindings, so that they can better understand the uniqueness and value of what they have in their collections.

These plenary speakers set the tone for what was a truly stimulating, diverse and wide-ranging conference that traversed medieval manuscripts and the latest digital books and ranged from contemporary book-arts projects to detailed attention to the layout and format of 16th-century books and sonnet sequences. Such interdisciplinarity brought a rich understanding of the diverse value of the material book and offered insights into the myriad ways in which people create meanings from the production, circulation and use of books. That scholars from more 15 different countries gathered at the new Library of Birmingham to share their knowledge and expertise suggests it is not just in Birmingham that interest in the material book is alive and well.

Dr Matthew Day is Interim Associate Dean, Student Experience and Curriculum School of Human Sciences Newman University, Birmingham.

Photo, from left: Brian Gambles, Director of the Library of Birmingham, Dr Matthew Day, and Professor Sir David Cannadine