Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"How long has it been since someone used that book?"

By Frank Boles

In late November National Public Radio aired a story regarding a children’s book about William the Conqueror, sold by a British bookstore after it had sat on the shelf for 27 years. Check out the article here. In the story author Sarah Todd Taylor is quoted as tweeting what she thought the book might be feeling: "The book held its breath. It had hoped so often, only to have that hope crushed. Hands lifted it from the shelf, wrapped it warmly in paper. As the door closed on its past life, the book heard the soft cheers of its shelf mates."
It is a charming story, and one that speaks clearly to those of us who live in “special collection land.” We seek out books not because they are guaranteed use through their appearance on the required reading list of a university course or a quick turnover because of being a New York Times bestseller, but because there is information in the book, information someone is going to be looking for one day. Some of the books we save are not very well written. A few of them are virtually unreadable. But even in those with confusing pages are located gems of history. Little nuggets that, in the right hands, are things of great value.
And like the book about William the Conqueror in that British bookstore, many of our books quietly sit on the shelf, waiting for that reader who needs what they possess. Public libraries rightly weed out books that just sit, assuming the space can be given to something the public is more interested in checking out. Special collection libraries take a perverse pride in those same books. They are unused, but not useless. Rather, they are simply waiting for the right person to walk into the reading room and say, I need to look at you. Waiting for that moment when their shelf mates can softly cheer the arrival of a soulmate who asks to see the book, knowing that they share something very important between them.
I sometimes wonder, as I walk through the stacks, if the books are quietly holding their collective breathe, wondering who I’m coming to look at this time. Being blessed with an identity card that swipes me into the stacks, I have occasionally just looked across the shelves, wondering what would happen if all the books the library houses suddenly started to tell their story. Steam engines would roll down the tracks. Mysteries would be played out. The voices of those long gone would be again heard. It would be a wonderful learning opportunity, although certainly a bit noisy.