The Library at Night

Written by the prolific Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night examines the history, culture and religious circumstances surrounding the establishment of libraries, both public and private. Throughout what seems like a rather short book in hindsight, the author lovingly takes note of the various ways in which to design and maintain these paperback communities:

We dream of a library of literature created by everyone and belonging to no one, a library that is immortal and will mysteriously lend order to the universe, and yet we know that every orderly choice, every catalogued realm of the imagination, sets up a tyrannical exclusion. Every library is exclusionary, since its selection, however vast, leaves outside its walls endless shelves of writing that, for reasons of taste, knowledge, space and time, have not been included. Every library conjures up its own dark ghost; every ordering sets up, in its wake, a shadow library of absences. Of Aeschylus’ 90 plays only 7 have reached us; of the 80-odd dramas of Euripides only 18...of the 120 plays of Sophocles, a mere 7.

I heard about this wonderful little book via an impromptu gathering held by Contents magazine called The Library as Dinner Party, which led many of my Internet book chums to discuss it and share their notes. Though, for one reason or another, I held off on reading it until I stumbled over an old post by Mandy Brown a few weeks ago. The Library at Night propelled her to write about the current state of digital libraries, where she argued that the hardware/software dynamic we see today in ebooks is designed to solve the wrong problem entirely:

I wonder, then, if the promise of an ebook isn’t the book but the library. And if, in all our attention to a new device for reading, we’re neglecting methods for shelving [...] The metadata of a book extends beyond the keywords held between its covers to the many hands the text has passed through; it’s not enough just to scan every page. We need to also scan the conversations, the notes left in the margins, the stains from coffee, tea, and drink. We need to eavesdrop on the readers, without whom every book is mute. That is the promise I seek...

How do we design better shelves? Well, first we must learn about their physical compatriots, and so I can’t think of a better starting point than The Library at Night.