e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the category “Libraries”

Poetry in dark archives

Browsing through the British Library website, as I do from time to time, I came across an entry entitled A Page but not as We Know It and in it was the following wonderful phrase:

Analytical Access to the Domain Dark Archive

To me it sounded like a cross between the title of a fantasy novel and a line of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry. It also seems mysterious and enticing – I’d never heard of dark archives and I imagined  librarians creeping between long shelves of ancient books lit only by a guttering candles (too much Harry Potter here, perhaps).

Actually dark archives are, according to Webopedia, data stores not generally accessible. Access is either restricted to a few people or completely denied. Their main purpose is to act as a back up during disaster recovery. A sensible precaution for any organisation. The Analytical Access is a project of the British Library and several other academic organisations.

This common sense description doesn’t reduce their mysteries. I’d love to know how many there are, what’s in them, who has access to them, who created them.

I bet the CIA has a huge one. Ditto other security services. Then there are the digitisation programmes of major libraries. And don’t companies have them?

What will become of them in the long term if only a few people can care for them? Will they float forever in the electronic ether, lit only occasionally by the computer of a visiting historian? Or will they fade slowly into nothing? If their creators die without telling anyone the passwords, will armies of hackers have to work them out?

Or will they just be deleted?

‘The Gulshan Album’ and other Mughal treasures

bllogo100One of the e-newsletters I subscribe to is from the British Library. They remind their readers that there are only a couple of weeks left of their major exhibition on Mughal India.

To go with the exhibition they have a blog, and browsing through it I found this post about a famous album. The album (or at least most of it – apparently it’s been divided) lives in Tehran at the Gulistan Palace Library so I won’t be seeing it anytime soon, but I love the sound of it. Milo C Beach (the blog-post’s author) says:

The Gulshan Album (Muraqqa’-e Gulshan) described as one of the world’s greatest books, was originally assembled for Prince Salim, the future emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-27).

What could be more enticing? I love the idea of assembling rather than writing a book. A bit like blogging where one assembles pictures, videos and links to make a post.

National Libraries Day (UK) on 9th February


Tomorrow is National Libraries Day. A day when we can celebrate those amazing collections that have inspired so much and given so many of us a haven of knowledge.

I love libraries – all of them – from the dark panelled, near silent enclosures where the spirits of past readers brood over me, to the modern, brightly lit, wide open ones where children sing and readers sit for hours in a cafe.

Tomorrow there are a range of special events (I’m going on a ‘backstage’ tour), and maybe someone who has never been in a library before will join in and discover something wonderful.


Friern Barnet Community Library video

A lovely success story about a library carrying on.

Friern Barnet Community Library video.

The books that bind – Jane Austen and Timbuktu

burning book

Yesterday the BBC TV news carried two literary-related items.

Yesterday marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Yesterday the French army seized Timbuktu, only to discover that a library of ancient manuscripts had been burned and most of the books destroyed.

What a contrast! The peace of English village life/the violence of war; a book loved/books destroyed; appreciative readers celebrating/an act of childish spite.

The arsonists have achieved nothing but to rob the world of a treasure, and to weaken an age old connection between the local people and their ancestors.

I sometimes think of books as links in a chain joining the past to the future via the present. The chain is anchored in the past when the book was first made and its links uncoil into the future for as long as it’s remembered. Each generation adds a new one.

If the book still exists the links are strong, but once it’s gone the chain depends on human memory to keep forging.

Memories of some of those old scholars who built the library and wrote the books will start to fade. They do not deserve to be forgotten.

Austen however goes from strength to strength and this year will be celebrated all over the world.

Picture from dontstepinthepoop.

Serendipity in the library

In an obscure corner of our local library, underneath a staircase and next to the kind of tomes no one reads unless they have to, is one of my favourite library shelves – ‘Withdrawn from Circulation and For Sale’. Here, among books on Finnish government statistics for 1980 and the speeches of forgotten Soviet politicians, lies the possibility of finding a jewel.

My most recent discovery here is Selected Poems of Al Mahmud translated by Kabir Chowdhury.

I often read poetry in translation (in this case of a Bangladeshi poet). There are differences of outlook and imagery that I find fascinating. No English poet can write about oil lamps or the cries of monkeys as everyday experiences.

Images such as:

his lips are covered with the fragrance

of powdery flowers. …

from a short poem ‘This World and Beyond’; or this from ‘The Poet and the Black Cat  – 1’:

A rider on a jet black horse comes scaling the wall.

seem to me unlikely ones for a western writer. And I loved the description of the dredger Baleshwar on the Titash river:

When the giant iron tortoise moves forward,

sawing through the bosom of the Titash,

These poems describe small scenes and actions. Some carry a feeling of sadness. The poet states:

Nowadays music does not delight me any more

and in several poems he speaks of being in prison.

A few are more cheerful when he speaks of pleasure in work and the possibilities brought to him by

the favourite devil of my heart

He encounters the ordinary in a pair of sparrows and the village belle among others, and also the mystical like angels and buildings bending low. These poems are complex and beautiful and repay re-reading.

The main effect of the book generally is of a sigh – the world is beautiful, but somehow futile.

Hay-on-Wye and Timbuktu

While browsing the web trying to find an answer to the question:

Why does the small, Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye have so many bookshops?

I came across the information that it is twinned with Timbuktu.

The reason is not hard to find – Timbuktu is also famous for books, this time in libraries. These libraries contain diverse and important collections of Islamic manuscripts.

There have been recent instances of extremist rebels damaging shrines and monuments in the area. So far the libraries are safe but they are still very vulnerable. To make them safer the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project has been studying and digitising their contents, but with so much material this is a long process.

In addition to important works of Islamic scholarship, these collections also form a major source for the study of African history. Even in apparently purely religious texts there are often little notes in the margins giving local details. This is part of the charm of old books – other readers have been here before and left their mark. For a modern version of this take a look at Bundle of Books for 9 July.

My question:

Why does Timbuktu have so many libraries?

is quite easily answered. It was a major trading settlement that grew into an important city on a meeting point of desert and river valley, with a mixed and intellectually active population. From different parts of the Islamic world people came (and still come) to study and contribute to the scholarship in the city.

I still haven’t found the answer to my first question. The nearest I can get is that  Hay-on-Wye sits on a meeting point – this time of England and Wales – and is full of enterprising and intellectually active people. Through its festivals it has numerous visitors from the world of readers and writers.

Replace a word with ‘librarian’

Browsing through Twitter this morning I came across this London trend #replaceawordwithlibrarian.

I think it has something to do with a campaign to save libraries.

Whatever the reason for it, some of the tweets make lovely reading:

like Holly Bodger’s

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a librarian.

or Philip Ardagh’s

The name’s Bond. Librarian Bond.

Joking aside, all efforts to keep libraries open and free to their users are vital. A local library is a treasure-house of knowledge, thought and entertainment available to rich and poor alike.

Closing one now may save a few pounds; restocking and reopening it in the future would cost thousands. Short-termism is always more expensive in the long term.

Library turmoil

Today I had a browse on the website of The Bookseller – a very interesting publication.

An article entitled Surrey residents win library challenge caught my eye. It seemed that Surrey CC planned to withdraw paid staff from several libraries, apparently replacing them with volunteers. Surrey residents objected, took the matter to the High Court and won.

Good for them. Any challenge to high-handed political actions is a strengthening of democracy and shows that our nation has not sunk into apathy.

However, I thought the idea of voluntary libraries sounded intriguing. A bad thing in that it means less paid jobs, but a good thing in that it keeps libraries open.

But next to the original article was a link to another: Public Lending Rights not given in volunteer-run libraries.

I am not at a stage in my writing career where this has any effect on me, but what will it do to the income of published writers?

The article suggests that some new legislation will correct this problem, but, realistically, how close to the top of the government’s agenda is sorting PLR?

The Poetry Archive

I’ve just been browsing round this website. Among their treasures I found this quote by Lucille Clifton:

Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.

If they came out of knowing I suspect there would be many fewer poems and many would be more boring.

Wonder pushes the boundaries of knowledge. Without it we not only wouldn’t have much poetry, but not much science or humanities. Wonder is the driving force behind the search for knowledge.

And poetry is one of its natural expressions. Before we measured the stars, bred new flowers or worked out the paths of migrating birds, we wrote poems about them.

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