I discovered http://www.futureofthebook.com/ today, while surfing the net. I thought it sounded as though it might be interesting (it’s about “the future of the codex book”), but the first paragraph on the homepage made me smile so much, I didn’t get any further into the site – instead, my thoughts went off on their own little tangent, and I never did read about the future of the codex book. Here’s the first paragraph:
“The easiest way to achieve planetary peace and cross-cultural understanding is for libraries all over the world to issue a Planetary Library Card. This should be a paper card with the two global hemispheres imposed over the spread of an opened book. The card will be signed by the reader and issuing library and be considered a welcomed credential at libraries everywhere.”
What a fabulous idea! Spreading world peace through a mutual love of books. Sadly, never going to happen. I was pondering the wonders that must be concealed in libraries of other countries, that I just don’t have access to, then I remembered my trials at the China National Library in Beijing…
I read Chinese for my undergrad degree, and as I am wont to do, selected what I thought would be an amazing topic to do for my dissertation, and didn’t realise how much research I would have to undertake in China. Silly me. The National Library is spread over several sites, and it is extremely hard to get a reader’s card for any of them if you aren’t Chinese and don’t have a Chinese University card. I had to rely on personal connections to wangle myself a card, along with lying and saying I was actually doing research for a phd, but that was only the start of my struggles. Each department of the primary site of the National Library is several floors tall, and consists of several buildings on one site. I thought I’d wander in, browse the shelves, pick up some useful tomes and scarper back to my flat to peruse them at my leisure, a la England. Not so. Firstly, there are very few shelves to browse, for reasons given below. Secondly, (something that never even crossed my mind) so many people use the National Library that removing books from the premises is prohibited, else the library would be permanently half empty. Instead, the books are stored on several floors under the library. To view a book, you must call it up from the basement on the computer system, which took me most of a day to fully figure out, and then take your seat in a waiting room for at least two hours, and eventually, your selected items will rattle up from the basement on a little trolley train (probably not all at once), which the librarians will then give you on production of your Reader’s card. Happily, you can call up any number of books, but it involved many hours of sitting and waiting, and cursing as I realised that what I’d thought might be useful was in fact utterly irrelevant. I remember thinking furiously, why won’t they let me at the books so I can flick through them and look for useful articles? Happily, my second experience was far more enjoyable.
My topic was such that I also had to access some older dynastic works, but for those, I had to travel across to the other side of Beijing, to a beautiful site next to an old Confucian college. The courtyard outside the library was gorgeous, with the ubiquitous stone lions that adorn every doorway of any significance in China flanking the tall red gates, and the library building itself was just as stunning. It was an older building than those on the main site, made of grey stone with carved lacquer furniture and staircases inside. When I found the library reading room, it turned out to be a rectangular hall with large windows across every wall, and dark wood tables and ornate chairs in rows across the floor. There were even a couple of venerable long haired Chinese scholars poring over classical texts, who gave me slightly quizzical glances. To be fair, I shouldn’t expect they see young white girls reading late Qing texts in semi-Classical language in there very often. The reading room was empty apart from myself and a couple of other scholars every day I was there, and I can honestly say that given the chance, I would work there every day. The room itself was the epitome of serenity, and between bouts of scrutinising texts, I could gaze dreamily out of the window into the courtyard, and think happy floaty thoughts about all the thousands of people from hundreds of year before who must have been there before me, or read the same texts I was reading.
Still, the thought of a Planetary Library Card is appealing. No need to plan holiday reading, you could pick it up when you arrived at your destination! (Obviously reading for the plane journey would still be crucial – planes should have libraries on board! Although books are quite heavy…ok then, planes should have the option to read books on a screen. I personally hate doing this, but could bear short stories or poems or articles. I read blogs off a screen all the time! Anyway…) Until a Planetary Libarary system is developed, book bloggers will have to spread the love online. If anyone else has any experiences of libararies abroad (that is to say, not in your native country), be they good or bad, I’d love to hear them.