I must apologise for the sorry lack of posts recently. I have been finishing a book on the Senate House LIbrary collections and also writing a lecture. In the previous week I wrote over 37,000 words. Either this is impressive or obsessive, or perhaps both. Anyway, thanks to so many people who came to the lecture and who’ve asked for the text. I thought it best to upload it here. The video will soon be available on iTunesU as well. Settle back…
Borges meets Orwell: The 21st Century Research Library
The 2011 Charles Holden Lecture
I would like to begin by thanking the Friends of Senate House Library for inviting me to give this year’s Charles Holden lecture. I would like to take this prestigious opportunity to offer some thoughts on where I believe the priorities and strengths lie for research libraries in the 21st Century. I will view the future of research libraries alongside the future of research universities as their fates are inextricably linked. For the most part in this lecture I am also considering collections in the humanities and social sciences, as this is my own professional field and also the principal role of our libraries at Senate House. Finally, I will view the world of knowledge through the eyes of two writers. At first glance, there may be little similarity between the works of Borges and of Orwell. From the perspective of a librarian however, I hope to explore how each man has constructed and investigated truth. And it is the elusive concept of truth that is at the heart of this year’s lecture, as it is also at the centre of how I believe, through the act of collecting, libraries find purpose and meaning.
Senate House Libraries and our research role
To elaborate on the essential contribution made by libraries to the research process, it is important to first provide a context. Most importantly it is critical to note what may be seen as the obvious, that all libraries are not the same. The context of libraries is defined by three areas; Coverage; Intensivity; Scale.
Coverage: Science libraries differ from humanities libraries.
It is possible to measure the value of science libraries by usage, either physically or online. Science and medical librarians rarely interpret their collections, their principal role being to provide access. Few people enter the library profession with higher science degrees. In the humanities, the partnership between librarians and their users is often deeper owing to shared academic experience. Usage is key to the humanities too, but what happens beyond the library gate is very different between science and humanities collections.
Intensivity: Teaching collections are not as complex as research collections.
Management processes drive teaching-intensive collections. The role of the library is to follow course tutors in the provision of multiple copies of books and online materials that support reading lists. Acquisition and disposal are repetitive and uncomplicated tasks. There are important training and information literacy contributions made by the library, but the collection development itself is not the key role. In research-intensive collections, the reverse is true, where some teaching support is provided, but the roots of expertise lie in knowledge of extensive holdings and in their coordinated growth.
Scale: Large libraries change in different ways to small libraries
Scale is definitive, in that the future of small libraries is likely to be fundamentally divergent to that of large libraries. The future of small libraries has already been transformed by the Internet age. In the next five years, a relatively small teaching collection will be effectively redundant due to mass digitisation programmes of texts and the greater availability and acceptance of eBooks. These libraries will focus on training and designing collaborative spaces. The large research library has a more complex future. Many millions of materials will remain in print and analogue form. Many more will continue to be produced in those forms, or with digital surrogates. The interpretation, management and expansion of research collections will become ever more multifaceted. This will be most acute in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
The three facets of the above context in which libraries operate within universities present themselves in a particular way at Senate House Libraries. These constitute very large research collections in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The librarian’s role is complex because of a higher degree of subject knowledge than is common in science. The collection is complex because it is based on expansion and depth, rather than relegation and recycling. The scale is important because it affects the libraries’ ratio between future print and digital collections, a ratio fast disappearing in smaller institutions.
Libraries in other research-intensive environments share these characteristics, such as in the larger members of the Russell Group. However, there are two additional factors that define the role of libraries in the process of research facilitation at Senate House Libraries. Firstly, many of the collections are not only large but are amongst the finest of their field in the world. Secondly, a considerable percentage of these collections are held on the open shelf in central London. This provides a unique provision of internationally important materials made easily accessible, and defines the role of Senate House in the sector and as a partner of the British Library, whose collections are closed access.
The nature of humanities, social science and arts research still requires engagement with and the development of, large physical collections. The principal research outputs in these fields are still in printed form. Research libraries in the broader humanities though, are not merely stores. A research project is a partnership between the researcher and the library from the earliest survey of current materials, through the interpretation of materials or digital environments, finally to the placement of that research in the setting of the library. Research is concerned with discovery. Libraries are the essential mode of travel.
Funds spent on libraries as a generic service are an entirely different matter to those spent on world-class, unique, rich collections in the heart of London. The remit of the School of Advanced Study, University of London is to act as a focus, as a symposium for research facilitation in the arts, humanities and social sciences in the United Kingdom. This is performed in central London for a reason: as part of the greatest concentration of libraries anywhere in the world. Nowhere else in the UK can offer this combination of access, intellectual importance and geographical setting.
In 1936, the architect of Senate House, Charles Holden began building this art deco masterpiece. The library is designed to be a building that would only stand naturally in London. There are echoes of the lives of other great universities, such as in the inclusion of cloisters, but Holden did not design faux-medieval or classical copies. The cloisters at Senate House are new ideas born of Elegance, Purity, Integrity and Coherence. As in all the vast spaces of Senate House, they are epic in every sense.
Senate House was designed to stand at the centre of the third great English university. It was to be a university rooted in the contemporary world, and only at home in the world’s capital.
Holden designed to a level of detail unusual amongst even the finest architects. There is a ‘Greek’ motif, variations on which decorate not only the architraves of the front elevation but also the backs of chairs, the staircases and railings, the moldings of doors and cornices and even some of the wood paneling in the Senate Chamber. Every single one of thousands of light fittings is an art deco original.
Perhaps the most striking infrastructural feature of the building is its least known. Senate House can only ever be a library. From Floor 7 to Floor 19, the supporting mechanism for this early skyscraper is bookshelves. They are welded into the skeleton girders and rise in perfect symmetry for about two hundred feet over London. If you ever want to sense what it is to have millions of books directly above your head, just stand in the foyer of Senate House.
The public floors of 4 to 7 are, particularly in the cases of floors 5 and 6, spaces of almost indescribable immensity. There are some views where it is almost possible to see roughly from the North to the South of the building. It is as though the great circle of The British Museum Reading Room had been rolled out flat. There are others, for instance when walking into the Goldsmiths’ Reading Room, where your breath will be removed for a short time before being dutifully replaced in order that you might continue researching.
Goldsmiths’ is a room built specifically for a collection of the same name, the Goldsmiths’ Collection of Economic Literature. Dating from the 15th Century to the 21st Century there are some exceptional items, and important strata, such as the history of slavery. The room itself has lines of bookshelves carved from English walnut and a ceiling in Canadian cedar. Resulting in a large stained glass version of the University arms, two rows of high windows provide extra height to a room that I believe to be the most beautiful academic library space in Britain. (For the record, the number two spot might be claimed by the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge and the number three by the John Ryland’s Library at Manchester.
There are many further examples of Holden’s genius and clarity of vision throughout his great white library. The essential thing to note though is that this is an epic building made of comparative microcosms. Its architectural coherence means that when you close your fingers around a door-handle you are symbolically holding the entire tower.
In the next few weeks our long refurbishment will be one stage closer to completion. This has painstakingly recast Senate House in its original 1930’s élan. Every piece of furniture, all of which were also designed by Holden has been reconditioned. Light fittings have been removed and cleaned. It will give back to London its tallest art deco structure.
Following so much original care under Charles Holden’s pencil, and the enormous effort of the refurbishment project we must be equally thoughtful about how we create a research experience that is not only surrounded by art deco wonders, but is inspired by them. Senate House was born of clear design principles.
There are many projects to be undertaken at the library, but perhaps one of the most important now is to rethink our physical and web presence in terms that would meet with Holden’s agreement. For a man who designed almost every armchair in the building he could, I am sure, be guaranteed to have had an opinion.
There are many great, new library buildings but in general they are either driven by public or teaching agendas, which moreover means there are generally very few books, or there are thousands of similar ones. Senate House is a tower of research materials, millions of individual titles.
We should be clear concerning what we are aiming for. An EPIC library is not one solely defined by its collections, but one where its products and services, to appropriate terms from commerce, are recognised to be driven by principles not just profit, or in our case reader numbers.
This means that we intend to develop services around those four words; elegance, purity, integrity and coherence. This would be an aim that would sit easily with most large libraries but at Senate House we have an added incentive; Holden built the entire library and designed most of its contents on very similar principles. Our responsibility is not only to English Heritage to ensure that the light fittings are correct. Our accountability is to Charles Holden. We must, as far as is possible, place nothing in these spaces that wrestles with the original design. We must, again as far as possible, create services within the building and on our websites that are true to Holden’s ideas on simplicity and usability. In short, the Senate House Library design principles were written in 1936 but now need to be reinvigorated for the 21st Century.
For a research library of the intellectual depth of Senate House, no detail should be considered too small. That the collections are held in a building formed from design principles of modernist simplicity is an important opportunity. Senate House confirms its function and usability by adhering to those principles. Integrity is derived through clearly stating purpose. The purpose of Senate House was made physical by Holden and will be secured for the future by allowing the objects and designs of the contemporary world to integrate with their art deco surroundings. Every technology, every sight line, every website, every product and every service in such an important building needs to be considered in terms of design, as something people interact with. Everything we do in the library must have a rationale.
A word on the act of collecting
The library is not a new idea, in fact librarians may well lay claim to being one of the oldest professions – although I doubt we are the oldest.
The Latin author and grammarian, Aulus Gellius describes the birth of the library as both a concept and tactile collection like this in around 150AD:
The tyrant Pisistratus is said to have been the first to possess books of the liberal arts that were to be supplied for the public’s reading at Athens. Later the Athenians themselves augmented them in a learned and accurate manner; but after Xerxes had obtained the whole abundance of books and had burned the city apart from its citadel, he took them away and brought them to Persia. Then the Seleucid King, called Nicanor, took care that all the books were returned to Athens a long time later.
As an aside, this may be the first recorded case of that bain of the librarian’s life – the late return of books! The narrative, which is quoted in full in a recent book by Yun Lee Too, ‘The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World,’ is a description of the beginnings of the library in Greco-Roman antiquity. Not only is the description a clear attempt to claim the idea of the library as Greek, rather than Babylonian or Assyrian but it is also a clear picture of the library as a collection of texts that is passed down from ruler to ruler, from society to society, across cultures until it arrives in Alexandria – the great iconic library of the past. It crucially retains, as Yun Lee Too notes, the ‘identity of ‘library,’ indeed the library. In this sense the library of antiquity is also ‘global,’ being the only collection of its time. Smaller certainly than our own world collection, but then the world too was smaller and less known then.
What I believe we share with ancient culture in our understanding of the role of the library is a sense that knowledge can be passed from generation to generation. It may happen faster and in more ways now, but information was a shared, precious and powerful commodity in antiquity as it is for us. Texts were carried from past to present and it is this narrative, unbroken and incorruptible that gives the library its power and validity. In antiquity the very act of collecting, of bringing together many texts injects into each book an added command over the population. The early library is the material meaning of the phrase ‘safety in numbers.’
As the library is passed through the centuries it results in fascinating concepts that outlive anyone who cares for it – our lifetimes are nothing in comparison to the immortality of the collections we receive and add to and leave for others. This process of what might be called textual adoption creates canonicity and, as Xerxes and Hitler and many others knew, books mean power. So, the library, that has been passed to us in many forms and is most recently constituted as the Internet, is a trajectory of political power, of stories, of wealth, of failure and of the determination of human beings to record and collect and organise and preserve. The library of today is a continuum of the library recorded by Aulus Gellius – indeed, all research libraries prove that knowledge is not linear because of rediscovery. Libraries are labyrinths.
The writer perhaps most concerned with the power of books is Borges. This writer can be ‘read’ in as many ways as he wrote; as magical realist, as literary science fiction, as surrealist poet or as avant-garde essayist. Behind all of these epithets though there remains an extraordinarily honest mind. Borges’ ability to imagine mazes was in one sense the life-long achievement of the finest deception. It is a fiction made of lies in the strictest sense because the work proposes the existence of worlds that cannot be true. However, it is based on the reality of Borges’ own mind, his personal world view and I would be the last to call any great writer a liar simply because he could not prove the physical presence of one of his creations.
His profession defined Borges as much as politics and artistic antecedents influenced him. No writer has reimagined the entirety of human knowledge in such compellingly brief detail. (The only other notable attempt, although not a literary one was by Dewey). The ‘library’ for Borges, himself a librarian of international importance, became eternally associated with the concept of labyrinths. Within this construct we find the true Borges.
Borges’ heroes and heroines play out their lives in what, at first glance appear to be environments unknown to the laws of physics or the convictions of religion. Incidentally, it is this aspect of his work that makes him more than a writer of beautiful stories. It means his stories are also genuinely controversial in the challenges they set to our own understanding of what is possible in terms of science, or what may be possible in terms of religion.
Borges is important as an artist because he takes a position between the two great modern sides of the debate on human purpose, or its absence – on one side the apparently unassailable evidence found in atoms and on the other, the equally impregnable certainty held by billions of people, that they are in direct contact with a deity. Borges’ position though is not that of the agnostic, which would get him nowhere and would make his labyrinth nothing more than a mental toy. His writing is derived from a third truth; that art itself can offer an answer to the confusion of life.
In Borges’ labyrinth we find a place literally built on the entire measurement of human knowledge and experience. This is his literary vision. Additionally, we see an environment that most closely resembles the only atmosphere that could support such epic, discoverable life: the library itself.
When Borges achieved his long-held dream of becoming the Librarian of the National Library of Argentina it was a dream realised initially as a nightmare. He said, ‘God finally gave me all the books I had craved and then removed my sight.’ It was a cruelty akin to Beethoven’s deafness or Ravel’s apraxia, but it did not halt either Borges’ reading or his ability to conceive works of art.
In his short story, ‘The Library of Babel,’ Borges merges his professional understanding of libraries with his personal view of the ultimate authority of texts. The Library is endless, containing all the knowledge in the world. It is populated by people (acting here as eternal librarians), who move amongst the endless shelves and point-less spirals of books. They are searching for a way to comprehend this place of comprehensive knowledge.
In the hexagonal rooms of Babel, Borges created the most compelling description not only of libraries but also, it might be said of the Internet. Owing to the epic deception of his imagination we are also shown the truth about libraries from a rare perspective; that of a librarian who was also a writer of genius. Borges holds a view common to librarians that it is the knowledge itself, the books indeed, which are the real purpose. The act of collecting is its own religious fervour and its own scientific proof.
The purpose of libraries is not to reflect human knowledge or trends but to exist beyond these things. In imagining something from nothing, Borges uniquely describes an everything. It is a literary device no doubt, but also one envisioned by professional conviction, resulting in a Library containing all other lies and truths. This library needs to be understood for what it is, a precious and valuable resource. The Library of Babel is in that sense no different from any other. It is a construct owned by the public. Books form libraries and each book is created in private for public use.
A single book is a library of references, reflections and rediscoveries. When placed beside another it becomes a collection. As part of a group of millions it transforms towards Babel.
Borges perhaps could not have predicted that librarians who began practising in the last ten years have had the phrases, ‘the death of the book,’ and ‘the end of libraries’ ringing in our ears for much of our careers. Yet, relegate a book to the store and you invite letters to national publications. Reduce opening hours and be prepared to sit through aggressive student committees – and in both cases, sometimes rightly so. If libraries are dying, a lot of people haven’t noticed.
Libraries in all their forms are organisations managing the delivery and care of intellectual content to all disciplines and to all aspects of society. They are multi-million pound services, often with hundreds of staff serving tens of thousands of people, and they are linked across the world as the ‘global library.’ Individual libraries have never been the only source of information, but they have always been the most significant point of access.
One of the finest characteristics of humans is our ability to share. In the academic library context this has meant, and is still defined by libraries’ contribution to the archiving and rediscovery of human action. This has allowed us to provide access to quality research through the global library and to offer help, space and time to students and researchers in traditional reading rooms and collaborative learning centres.
At the heart of all universities, the library in its many facets continues to balance tensions between print and digital collections, between the demands of teaching and research, between the arts and sciences, and perhaps most importantly, between the commercial supply of research information and support for its creation in academic practice.
Libraries are present at the generation of ideas, in delivering content to the desktop and the desk top. They deliver in perpetuity for results and theories. Libraries bring people into contact with innovation, with innovators and with each other. They draw an inconceivably long line of thought in every discipline to the minds of current thinkers. Libraries are critical in our need to share and to discover. They are vital in allowing access to our recorded thoughts by those who follow us.
Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science are principles upon which the practice of librarianship still rests:
I. Books are for use.
II. Every reader his [or her] book.
III. Every book its reader.
IV. Save the time of the reader.
V. The library is a growing organism.
These typically succinct compressions of what it means to manage vast quantities of information for an immeasurable number of readers, have carried the world’s library services through some unsettling times. The question is, are they still relevant in a world where so much content is beyond the library walls?
The Internet is the railway of our generation. It has transformed life, at least in the western world. The library profession took a while to realise that it, unfavourably caricatured as it often is, had found itself in the midst of the greatest shift in human society for generations. Librarians, once guardians of knowledge had become its inertia. Or so it has been alleged by parts of academia.
I have heard keynote speakers at conferences challenging the profession to wake up (in the early years of the web) or give up (more recently). We have all read statements by people critical of libraries who are not themselves criticised for collection management decisions, (affectionately referred to as ‘the bin’). People who do not sit in student union meetings trying to find an answer as to why it’s no longer possible to read D.H. Lawrence at 3am in the library. People, in summary, that do not actually manage libraries, or perhaps people (and this includes many in government), who seem to think that all libraries are the same.
It is perhaps not fully comprehended that for the most part, the use of one library is in fact the use of all the world’s libraries. The systems of Inter-Library Loans and now, shared digital resources allows access to quantities of books and electronic content across countries and continents, halted only by licences and local laws. It is also not fully recognised that librarians have been at the forefront of challenging commercial practices that are detrimental to students and to the sharing of ideas, indeed to society.
Commentators, who use the term ‘the future of libraries,’ do imply an understanding that all libraries are in some way linked. What is missing, in defining the future of libraries in this way, is that not all libraries serve the same purpose. Even in higher education the differences are stark.
The twenty-five or so libraries which form Research Libraries UK hold data and physical collections on a scale not replicated in other parts of the sector. This is derived from age. Collecting takes time and enough time offers breadth and depth. In the UK sector this is most notable in Oxford and Cambridge, but other large print collections exist at Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Senate House Libraries, SOAS and the LSE. In these cases a combination of investment, attraction to benefactors or even geographical location serves to increase the scale of collections.
In the past size has been important. Universities have used their libraries not only to appeal to students but also to researchers, who in turn have added depth to the collection. In this way, libraries have been major contributors to the formation of hierarchy in British universities, not only in themselves but also in what they support and whom they attract.
Google currently holds the cards to the ability of these institutions to continue to think of their libraries as special in this way. When Google extricates itself from the courts they will be able to release ten million (and counting) digitised books onto the Internet. In the UK this has the potential to level the playing the field between the Russell Group, those with important but smaller collections in the 1994 Group and those with very different libraries in the rest of the sector. Google will mean, if not immediately then certainly soon, that all universities will have similar library collections.
However, despite its current position, Google is only an example of how the world is changing around our libraries. Very few companies exist forever, or survive unchanged and unchallenged. Many of the materials in research libraries will outlive us and will need care long after Google itself becomes a footnote. The content of libraries teaches us much, but the most important lesson is that change is constant.
With or without Google, mass digitisation of books and journals will be a strong trend in combination with pervasive computing. The legal implications of these developments are yet to be resolved. Google’s mass digitisation programmes, now including languages and cultures beyond the English-speaking world, are the largest single transfer of knowledge from one format to another in human history. However, they are also only part of that history, not its conclusion.
Additionally, printed or digitised, Ranganathan’s laws remind us that the library is made up of more than books. A library is space – collections – readers – librarians. Google is focused on collections, as is the case with almost all technology. As an advertising company it is not surprising that it wishes to use content to attract advertisers to its services, in fact we could learn a lot from them. What might be learnt reciprocally is that the library as a space filled with people is part of Google’s future. It is not closed by it.
I remember two things most clearly as a trainee librarian: the unpredictability of questions at the Enquiry Desk: the demanding queues at the Issue Desk. I still see both in libraries. Even with many services available online and self-issue now ubiquitous, readers continue to visit the physical library and they still expect to find librarians inside it. This is especially so for subject specialists in large research libraries. The web has greatly improved our ability to communicate but, as with dating sites, it is a tool for actually meeting people rather than a substitute for human contact. Libraries in the future will continue to embrace technology but only to enhance existing services, not to replace them.
In the late 1990’s, as the Internet was beginning to impact on academia, we began to use the phrase ‘the hybrid library,’ to describe the emerging environment of print and digital collections. The term has been out-of-use for some time but may be appropriate now, not to describe the collections, as such a fusion is now common, but to describe the readers’ future experience of the physical library. A reader still wishes to work in the library but will increasingly work with greater access to digital collections via mobile devices. The library will continue to provide suitable environments for both solace and collaboration, but will be enhanced by the web. Reading rooms will increasingly merge with websites.
Of course, there are discipline variations for the academic library. Its physical use is less important to science than to the humanities, although content is still managed in both fields by the library.
There are also the differences in libraries. For most academic libraries, electronic resources have been transformative. ‘Early English Books Online’ put the Bodleian onto the shelves of universities that could never acquire the original materials. For the large research libraries, the opportunity to redefine historic and special collections as the heart of their service is the next iteration of the hybrid library. The web encourages physical meetings. Digitisation of manuscripts brings greater demand to see the original.
The near future for all libraries will depend on genuine innovation in their web presences. The distant future for research libraries will be defined by an acceptance that size is no longer everything, but that close collaboration between librarians and academics in exploiting the complex scientific research web, in parallel with dynamic access to historic collections (some of which are already born digital), will be what readers want. In the future the library will continue to be a ‘growing organism.’
George Orwell was inspired to use the library at Senate House as the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen eighty-four. His wife at the time was working in Senate House during WWII, as it had been commissioned by the government to provide accommodation for the Ministry of Information. On the roof of the library, there are still the disconnected phone lines direct to the Cabinet War Rooms. Senate House was the tallest building in London during the War, (apart from the crucifix atop St. Paul’s Cathedral), and the library acted as a viewing tower to watch for the Luftwaffe coming up the line of the Thames to bomb central London. The library played an important part in the defence of London. Orwell still plays an essential role in the defence of freedom.
‘The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact…Underneath this lies the hard fact, so difficult for many people to face, that individual salvation is not possible, that the choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands.’
George Orwell wrote this in his anti-pacifist essay ‘No, Not One.’ This seems to me a clear and realistic position to take on the matter of aggression and a viable response to it. I have struggled with an innate pacifism for many years, formed on the streets of late 20th Century Belfast. When you live amongst violence you quickly grow to hate it. Yet, I was aware that others, older and braver than myself stood between the bombers and me. Now these people are younger but they still stand between my life and those who, despite how distant this might seem to many in Britain, want to kill us.
Orwell authored hundreds of essays. These are often published alongside reviews of other people’s books, as it was often his habit to use a book review to discuss his own views of the novelist’s concerns. ‘No, Not One,’ is a famous dismissal of pacifism but it is in fact a book review, this time of Alex Comfort’s ‘No Such Liberty,’ which was published in 1941. Orwell thought most reviewers were idiots, forced by the need to be paid to say that all books were good, as the publishers were advertising in the Sunday papers.
The thrust behind ‘No, Not One,’ is that society is imperfect. It is faced with brutal decisions as a permanent state of being, and that any attempt to say otherwise is precious, unrealistic and dangerous. When Orwell writes as Nazism becomes dominant in Europe, it is too easy to reduce the authority of his voice to a particular time. He writes of his own desperate present, but also of ours and of the future. There will always be war. There will always be violence. There will always be conflict. There will forever be a need for some to stand between the armed and the unarmed.
Orwell believed that society depended ultimately on coercion. He adds a subtlety that the police officer does not hold this society together, but the common goodwill, which does sustain it, is powerless without the police to support it.
As one of the most important observers of English culture, (although it is hardly different from any other), Orwell makes two fairly blunt statements in this ‘book review.’ Firstly, that the working classes are never pacifists because they live so close to violence, or as Orwell puts it, ‘their life teaches them something different.’ Second, that those who are pacifist hold a fake moral superiority based only on the real sacrifices made by others. They conveniently forget about those who stand, between what Orwell calls ‘their research-lives,’ and the gun. The police are ignored or criticised by people who at that moment have no need of them.
To Orwell, pacifism was a sign of luxury. This is not to say that war is good. It isn’t. The question is how do we respond to violence? Orwell at least had the defence of western civilisation to call for, and he knew his enemy.
I did not think anything of seeing, on the walk to school in Belfast, a Landover with its rear doors open and soldiers with machine-guns hanging out of the back. I thought nothing of going to bed with the constant sound of helicopters, and the frequent, mostly distant sound of bombs or gunfire. I only experienced a bomb physically once, which was enough to shake me out of any real thought for pacifism that I may have otherwise tended towards.
This is not to say that violence is ever justified as an end to itself. Defence is one thing but peace is a greater aim. The problem is that many people do not want peace.
The choice between submitting to Nazism and fighting it was no choice at all, and Orwell knew it. He knew that it mattered who won, even as he was honest in criticising Britain’s own imperial aggression. The choice between simply praying for peace and supporting the police in Northern Ireland was also no choice at all. There were people trying to kill us when we were shopping. There was evil on both sides because both sides were violent, but a choice had to be made between which was lesser and which greater.
Orwell makes us face this choice just as he did his own readers during the Blitz. He balances this overt support for the state of course with vicious attacks on it. In his major essay, ‘Why I Write,’ he says, ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ This is not contradictory. It is reality. Orwell physically fought in Spain but his contribution was to write books. He stands for knowledge and stood for honesty. To stand against violence means to stand in the line of fire.
The Line of Fire
When the musket ball tore through the jacket it carried with it some of the gold braiding from the Admiral’s uniform. It drove through his shoulder and came to a halt inside one of his lungs. Nelson never stood a chance.
The surgeon steadied himself on the creaking boards of HMS Victory and cut into the dying man’s chest. He pulled out the musket ball and held it up to the light between his fingers for a few seconds. He made an historic decision. This was no ordinary musket ball. Not only had he just retrieved it from within Britain’s finest military hero but it also glittered as the gold braid had burned into the metal on entry. He handed it to a colleague who pocketed it. The surgeon heard the whisper of Nelson’s voice, ‘Kiss me, Hardy,’ before dying in front of his fellow sailors. He was lost but Britain was saved.
Over 200 years later a film crew arrive at Windsor Castle to make a documentary on the Royal Collections. The highlight of the entire programme is the camera slowly panning across a polished tabletop before halting over a gold locket. We only see how tiny it is when white-gloved fingers begin to open it. Inside is a musket ball with small pieces of gold braiding embedded in the rough sphere.
The UK cultural heritage sector is persistently under direct financial threat and being asked to justify its purpose. Simultaneously, billions of pounds are spent in the UK every month on placing contemporary soldiers and sailors in the line of fire. Britain has always been a fighting nation. It would be fair to say that it has probably started more wars than it has been drawn into. Only a few have genuinely been in self-defence but to be honest, that is not a concern on the whole. The debate for or against war usually ignores the fact that war will happen anyway.
What’s important is that there is an absence of balance in the national budget; our history is viewed as less important than our future. It begins in school, where the sciences, those great disciplines of discovery are plainly seen to be more significant than the other great disciplines of unearthing in the humanities. It continues in universities, where the humanities are always considered to be of less use to society because they cost less to teach and research. They only cost less because they do not receive enough money.
At the other end of the scale, the Large Hadron Collider, (whose purpose, if you’ll forgive me seems gravely pointless, as a need for God will still exist in people’s minds even if it is proved that two entities colliding resulted in the universe – where did those particles come from if they are responsible for everything?) is a machine that has cost almost enough to fund all historical research without limit in every university in the world for many, many years. What more could have been understood about humanity with that money?
Beyond education and into the world of government funding, the questions become more serious on a daily basis. I do not dismiss, for example the need for Britain to have global military reach. I do challenge the assumption that the present and future can be experienced without reference to the past. In other words, that any soldier can march in Afghanistan without knowing why he or she is there based on access to properly funded museums, libraries, universities and galleries which are developed through suitably funded research.
We are informed endlessly by the government that the country needs to ‘cut its cloth accordingly,’ or that ‘we cannot live beyond our means.’ These statements are irritating enough because they are so obvious. Every person in the UK does both each time they enter a supermarket.
The UK has enough money to fund defence and culture. Stop triggering sales in art galleries. Stop threatening museums. Stop closing libraries. Nelson took a bullet not for war itself but because he believed in what he was fighting for – the cultural significance and standing of Britain. That tiny gold-spattered shot represents our history. We can hold it only because the cultural sector exists.
The research library in the 21st Century has a secure future if we can confidently state its purpose. It is a role in support of education of course, but also, and perhaps nowhere more acutely than at Senate House, it is a role in collaboration with other cultural heritage organisations. Orwell shows us why sometimes we may need to fight. Borges weaves images of what we are fighting for.
Borges, in his miniature story staring Shakespeare called Everything and Nothing, describes how when Shakespeare meets God the poet says; ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’ In Borges’ last story, Shakespeare’s Memory, a man is given the entire mind of the poet. As it gradually overwhelms him he passes it on. Borges believed that the words of one man are the words of all men, and that the construct of the library is where they are to be found. In the library, we are all Shakespeare.
The purpose of research libraries in the 21st Century is simply to exist. Without them we are lessened.
Orwell and Borges each discovered that art is an essential force. Both writers believed that books contain truth. It is why books were being burned in Nazi Germany. It is why Orwell sought to defend them. It is why Borges believed the library to be a labyrinth. It is why libraries remain linked to dreams, to memory, to political freedom, to educational opportunity and to truth.
Christopher Pressler, Cambridge