Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
What becomes of our books when we are no longer present to care for them? Do family and friends incorporate our carefully constructed collection into their own? Shall the volumes wind up in the aisles of a used bookshop or on a table at some “Friends of the Library” sale? Once our hands can no longer turn the pages what sense remains of the logic with which we arranged the books on the shelves?
What becomes of these stories, written by others woven into our own tales? And what of our own stories? True, some of these we may have written down, but still more are those that we have spoken, perhaps in hopes of inscribing them in memory.
Despite the abundance of systems for organizing books on shelves, most people’s collections transcend simple groupings. To view a person’s personal library shelves is to confront a far more complex riddle than that of the sphinx (though as I write this one of my cats sleeps atop a bookcase), why these books on this shelf in this order? A person may know where each of their books should be located based on some carefully organized mental system, but can such an odd arrangement be understood when passed along? And does the same not hold true of the stories we tell? The teller may have known the meaning of each tale, but is the subtext truly conveyed in the telling?
A bookshelf (or better yet, bookshelves) may tell a far more important tale than any of the stories contained in the books themselves. For each library is ultimately the story of the one who collected the volumes, like a glass door upon a case, the story of the collection’s assembly is that through which the collection is seen. The window through which we gaze.
When the life ends, when the window shatters, we are left with hundreds of stories but we lose the uniting frame.
The cover comes asunder and the pages blow about in the wind.
The day before I entered graduate school to study archives and librarianship I was in Toronto for my Bubby’s funeral. As we comforted my Zaidy, and each other, the course of conversation (particularly with extended family) would frequently turn from the topic of the life of the deceased to that of our own lives which had not yet ceased. Thus, I was asked repeatedly why I was choosing to pursue a library degree. Though it would be reasonable to think that I would have had a good answer at the ready, I generally gave rather bland explanations. After all, a bland question usually is not asked to solicit a flavorful response.
To some I explained that I simply loved books. Books had always fascinated me when I was young (and still do). Looking at a full bookshelf always seemed to me equal parts promise and riddle. Every bookshelf was a promise of wondrous and intriguing tales to discover and a riddle to solve about why these books were on this shelf. While a room bereft of books always seemed boringly obvious, as if there was nothing more to be found, no mystery to be uncovered. I distinctly recall that every room in my Bubby and Zaidy’s home contained books – and when I was young I always had a sense that I was being asked to understand why these books were in this room. Why these stories? Why here? Maybe I hoped that the skills of a librarian would help me make sense of the placement of all those books.
To others I explained that I was fascinated by the ideas of memory and forgetting. This was an interest that I felt acutely even before I watched the deterioration of my grandparent’s memories. Archives and libraries seemed to me to be the hallowed halls in which people and cultures enshrined their memories to keep them safe from the forces of forgetfulness. Worried about the fate of memory in an increasingly digital age it seemed to me that libraries and archives could be bulwarks for memory against the present fetish to live only in the moment of modernity. Or, moreover, as if such sites were the last lines of defense in a world that sought to forget the lessons of yesterday except as fodder for summer blockbusters or nostalgic inspiration for next season’s fashions.
While I did not explain it in these terms to many people, it was my sense that to pursue librarianship and archiving was to stand in defense of memory in a world committed to forgetting. And one of the lessons that was imparted to me by my grandparents was that it is important to remember, and that it is important to stand for more than just yourself. Indeed, there always seemed something faintly utopian about libraries to me.
Stories matter. This was the underlying moral of every tale that was passed on to me by my grandparents. It was as if another voice whispered beneath that of the storyteller, saying: “These are our stories, do not forget them.” For, tales are not told for idle amusement, even when the stories are amusing, it is because remembering these things is important.
Even if we are never told why.
Sometimes we never receive a definitive answer.
I heard the concluding line of my Zaidy’s story while I was at work—at a library—leaving me, and my family, to ponder this “why.”
While many towns and cities have various structures that are officially marked as “libraries” or “archives” there are within those same community limits tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands if not millions of libraries. For even if they have produced no books, every human is a trove of tales.
Each person is but a library, a collection of stories stuffed in odd order onto shelves, and it is the task of every person to lend out these tales as appropriate and to try to convey a sense to others of why these tales appear in this order. And as our libraries grow and we intermingle our books with those of others the story just grows in richness and complexity, and yet it remains our story, the story of our library.
Libraries are impermanent, no matter how solid they may seem; they are threatened by fire, ravenous bugs, budget cuts, leaky roofs, the slow deterioration of time, and by the danger that the stories stuffing the shelves may not be deemed important by future—or contemporary—generations.
Humans are also impermanent, no matter how solid we may seem; we are threatened by the elements, by the necessity to meet our requirements, by our longing for companionship and love, by the slow deterioration of time, and by the danger that the stories that we tell, the stories that we are, may not be deemed important by future—or contemporary—generations.
We spend our lives telling stories to leave our imprint upon the tales of other stories, and we connect with others so that other stories may branch off. The tales that we tell eventually become the tales that are told about us as we move from the tale weaver to the tale woven. And thus, the stories that my Zaidy once told are no longer stories told by my Zaidy, rather they have become the stories about my Zaidy. In tales we are ageless, once we pass we achieve immortality in stories.
What becomes of our books? What becomes of our stories?
If we are fortunate they are wisely picked up and placed onto the caring shelf of another person’s library.
And if we are very lucky it will be a shelf that we helped build.
My Zaidy was a man of many stories. The stories that he would read to his grandchildren and the stories that he would tell of his life. He was the son of immigrants, a mechanic in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII, a civil engineer, a brother, husband, father, grandfather, traveler, boater, amateur astronomer, and the list could go on; his life—like every life—was made up of the thousands of minute occurrences that provide some form of narrative. A life story, if you will. And as a man who loved to stare at the sky he must have known that his story was but one dot in the story of the universe. A tale in which humanity may not even warrant a footnote.
As children our elders tell us stories and it is left to us to unravel the difference between the stories they tell and the stories that they are. It can be difficult to discern which tales fit into which category as we go about constructing our own life stories, and yet every story that a person tells to another is a fragment of a cipher that must be used to understand the other’s story. This is why we tell stories repeatedly, and even as the story changes in the telling the core elements that remain the same are there to alert the other that these are the elements to pay attention to, these are the central points.
A story that my Zaidy was fond of recounting was from his time with the Royal Canadian Air Force. As the story goes the men from the base would go out for drinks at the end of the day. There, at the pub, they would play a game during which a song was sung and the various airmen were required to perform a feat of drinking endurance wherein after they finished each pint they would have to flip the mug upside down while steadily constructing a pyramid of glasses. According to Zaidy he only played this game once. Sing, drink, flip the glass, sing, drink, flip the glass, sing, drink, and so forth. When he reached the final glass, he sang, he drank it, and placed it atop the pyramid…but he did not flip it. At which point in the tale he would say “It didn’t count, I had to start all over again!” and then he would laugh.
In the telling of the tale the number of pints would vary, the song name might vary, but it always seemed to me that in the midst of the humorous tale he was telling those that listened that sometimes laughter is the best mechanism for coping with disappointment. My Zaidy was something of a serious man, he was affectionate and quick to laugh and smile, but he remained a man who held himself seriously. It takes a serious stance to be able to genuinely laugh at your own life. His tale of pints always seemed like a reminder that seriousness, alone, is not enough to get you through life.
This was a tale he told with his words, and yet a far more important tale was the one he told in his greetings. For my Zaidy gave a hug of more force than any other embrace I have ever felt. It was not so much that it was a serious hug, as that he hugged seriously. As if he wanted you to know that you were being hugged and that he meant it. This hug was the story he told with greatest consistency, from the years during which he would bend to hug me to the years when I bent to hug him, the strength of his embrace never diminished. It was a nonverbal story: one that said, this hug matters. Embracing matters, do it like you mean it.
As I’ve sorted through my memories of the stories my Zaidy told I return to the plots of individual pieces, and yet what remains the most striking is less a matter of individual tales and more the way in which I remember these tales.
For I remember many a story, but most of all I remember the strength of his embrace.
Perhaps, beyond the many tales, the story that he most wanted us to remember was that of all of the things in life to take seriously, the one to take most seriously of all is embracing those you love.
It is a story worth sharing.
[In memory of David Goldberg]