Sunday, December 03, 2006

Third Entry for From-The-Stacks

Formal Entry for From-The-Stacks Challenge (#3)
The Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World

Title: The Splendor of Letters
Author: Nicholas A. Basbanes
Publication Data: 2003 (original publication in hardcover); 2004 (trade paper); [See information at LibraryThing]
Length: 442 pages
Category: Non-Fiction

Summary: Basbanes completes the trilogy he began with Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude. I believe Basbanes' ultimate intent in writing this book was to emphasize the importance of the printed volume in communicating human constructs of self and culture to later generations and make clear his concern that, were we to lose the printed book by embracing too rapidly the digital information environment, we would incur great loss for future readers, scholars and researchers. The blurb on his website indicates that the text focuses on the "efforts to preserve books and other printed matter from the ravages of deterioration, destruction and obsolescence" while a review quoted from the Washington Post indicates, "Basbanes focuses on the transmission of texts, whether on clay tablets or compact discs, and ranges up and down history. He discusses University Microfilms, the Warburg Institute, the deacessioning of books from libraries, acidic paper, the need for new editions of classics, archival storage, e-books and much else." He writes well, and I found the book to be instructive even as it irritated me because Basbanes addresses all but one of the most significant issues facing the institutions he praises and criticizes. Libraries, museums and archives are resource-intensive operations whether you're discussing staffing, operations, or public access. Basbanes never discusses how we're to pay for all of this; he only notes that it is worth paying for.

Extract: (Selected at random) "Written in black ink with a split-reed pen on sections of bark that had been glued together to form long strips, the fragments, sixty altogether, represent about twenty-five texts, including some sermons of Siddhartha Gautama, the religious philosopher and sage known as the Buddha, who died about 485 B.C. The texts are thought to have belonged to a long-lost sect that dominated the region of Gandhara two thousand years ago, and helped to bring the religion derived from Buddha's teachings into central and east Asia from India, where it has since disapppeared. Pushing back the calendar as far as possible is of particular significance since so much of Buddha's instructions were memorized by his disciples and passed on orally for close to five hundred years before being written down in the first century B.C." (page 55, Chapter 2, Editio Princeps).

He writes with complex sentence structures and with incidental detail crammed in. Appropriate to the thoughtful reader who is actually considering his arguments, but apt to slow someone lacking background in the field.

Also Relevant: This book seemed dreadfully one-sided to me. Of course, anyone with an interest in books recognizes that they represent a specific experience for the user not found in any other format. Electronic full text downloaded in PDF file format from Google Books just doesn't offer anything like the experience of a leather-bound edition of an old favorite like Rebecca or Don Quixote. Basbanes' discussion of the importance of the book as historical record as well as cultural artifact is absolutely on target. But preserving and archiving physical artifacts takes a *lot* of money -- money for expertise, money for storage space and proper environmental control, money for mounting public exhibitions and other forms of public access. Libraries, museums and archives would gladly provide all of those services but right now, money for these institutions is largely an issue. Budgets are tight. Basbanes takes private and public institutions to task throughout the text for discarding or selling off portions of their collections but never recognizes the economic constraints that put the institution in that unfortunate situation. He seems to think that de-accessioning books is a wicked, thoughtless activity. He seems to suggest instead that librarians and archivists should carefully preserve and provide access to everything, just because the published work exists and because some day someone might have an interest in it. He finds fault with microfilm as a means of providing access (and I would certainly acknowledge that drawbacks exist) but he never acknowledges that limits exist on how much storage space a single institution can support physically and financially. It takes far less physical shelf space to store a roll of microfilm than it takes to store seventy volumes of a bound periodical.

Libraries in this country can be very good, but they can also be very poor. So much depends on funding. At present, all libraries (public, private, research, etc.) are expected to provide access to content via a myriad of avenues, including print, audio, electronic and video. At the same time, neither their funding nor the space allotted them expands at the same rate as the information. Everyone expects their needs to be satisfied by the local library because it is supported by taxes, but no one stops to consider how those needs change over time.

I don't argue with his message, but I think this man lives in a lovely ivory tower. Those fighting in the trenches have to make hard choices.