Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Library At Night by Alberto Manguel

Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

"Solid libraries of wood and paper, or libraries of ghostly flickering screens, stand as proof of our resilient belief in a timeless, far-reaching order that we dimly intuit or perceive."

This book is about libraries, but it is much more than a "natural history."  Manguel writes about the history of libraries, but also what they mean for us and our civilization.  The book uses the design and construction of Manguel's own personal library as a framing device, from which he launches off on a magical exploration of what libraries mean to him, and perhaps to all of us. 

He discusses how books are organized on shelves (the Mississauga Library System uses the popular Dewey Decimal System to organize its collections).  But chance also breaks books out of a structured system and gives them new collected meaning - books left on a bedside table or in a pile have their own unintended relationships.  Libraries are also very much about their external and internal space - the overall design and shape of the building, the available space to place books inside, and use of the space for other activities.  Libraries empower their community through knowledge, and can be a repository of collected wisdom and identity.  What is chosen to go into a library collection also by extension defines what is absent by exclusion or removal.

There is even a chapter on imaginary books and libraries, including H.P. Lovecraft's "Necronomicon" and other forbidden tomes of the Cthulhu mythos.  I feel though, that two important mythical libraries are conspicuously absent in this discussion - the great library of Celeano (a Lovecraftian library that happens to reside in outer space), and the library of the Dreaming (from Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics), containing every book ever written, and every book ever imagined or dreamed of, even if they were never actually written down.  That library has many holdings from this imaginary novelist! 

The title of the book refers to an idea expressed by the author that during the day, the books in his library retain their rational order, but at night, they become more furtive.  "Unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A half-remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear…the library at night seems to rejoice in the world's essential, joyful muddle."

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you enjoy libraries?
  2. Do you have a library at home, or elsewhere?
  3. What are the essential characteristics of a good public library in your opinion?
  4. What is your favourite library building that you have visited?
  5. If you could design your own library space (at home or elsewhere), what would it look like, and what would be in its collection?
  6. What role do libraries play in society?
  7. Manguel discusses the library's place in history, culture and world events. How did you feel about reading these sections? Would you champion libraries as he does?
  8. Think of books you have seen on a display shelf in a library or book store.  Did you notice any unintended relations between the titles displayed?
  9. How do you think the internet age has affected our pursuit, access, and organization of knowledge?
  10. "It is likely that libraries will carry on and survive, as long as we persist in lending words to the world that surrounds us, and storing them for future readers."  How do you feel about libraries and their survival?

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