I may or may not have held an original Manet in my hands today, itself enclosed in a book from James McNeill Whistler’s personal library.
The University of Glasgow’s Special Collections Library is found on a quieter floor of the Library (the twelfth to be precise) with ample space for reading and reviewing specific rare and protected works from the University’s archives. First editions, rare editions, ancient texts — everything and anything. It offers an intimidating front (the illustrated diagram of a fetus in-utero in the entrance display case, however beautiful, is not altogether helpful), but an inclusive atmosphere once you’re in the door. You sit in peace and quiet reviewing a book lain on a specially designed pillow with “book snakes” (yes, seriously) to weight down the pages. Contrary to popular belief, no white gloves here — bare, clean, dry fingers only. Standing in a line, my classmates and I initially stood with militant precision (though admittedly avoiding laughing at various in sundry jokes) before realising that we could operate normally among the books.
In a world of increasingly freely-accessible literature even for those outside of the academic community, and particularly at a University with so many digitised resources, why are books still important?
While digitising resources in a digital age is critical to accessibility and use of literary materials and their cultural longevity in a society which is more and more heavily rooted in technology with each passing year, reviewing the nuances of an original physical copy which holds high relevance to the period in which it was written or published can tell us more about a work which we otherwise may have easily overlooked due to its physically intangible nature.
As wonderful as digital resources have become (and as advanced) they are a gateway to the pursuit of knowledge itself as they should be a gateway to the handling of real material. At some level, the review of these materials enables students to contextualise nuances of the material which could otherwise be a missed but relevant portion of their academic or personal analysis — the colour of the binding, the manner of the binding, the cut of the pages, the material of the paper. And it doesn’t hurt that you just can’t replace a good book.
We are bound to the books as they are bound to their own history, and it is our responsibility to continue a balance between digital resources and hands-on examination which encourages critical review of the works by parties educated by digital resources first. Digital resources should act as training wheels to handling the books themselves, and while special collections is alive and well, it certainly doesn’t seem the busiest floor of the Glasgow University Library.
These facets of the library provide sustained and childlike hope in discovery itself — discoveries yet to be made in a world which often seems to have done everything already. With continued student participation in special collections and adviser / professor / tutor mandate and introduction of its use in a contextual light, there is hope that the floor might get some more attention… even if it’s not the books that get students in the door, because who can argue with this view?