Friday, September 1, 2017


This was a fun hangout, not least because we'd put it off trying to make sure our discussant Brian Dolton could be there... and he made it! He's got a lot of cool info about libraries, so read on...

In fiction, libraries are often places where you find secrets or forbidden magics. We wondered if there was a systematic difference to their role in science fiction versus fantasy. Science fiction often has libraries that are not in book form. Some are housed in computers, and others are more mysterious, like the library that looked like a blue gel-filled lightbulb in Star Trek: TNG, that turned out to be an archive in a DNA-based medium.

Paper books are harder to erase than magnetic marks, but paper quality has gone down. Brian remarked that as paper manufacturing has changed, the quality of the paper has gone up but its durability has gone down. Water and fire are the big dangers to books. On the other hand, they are not in danger from errant keystrokes. With technology always changing, obsolescence is a big problem. Optical and magnetic media are a short-term solution.

Brian told us that the history of libraries takes a dramatic turn at the point where the printing press allowed mass production of books - you can divide library history into before and after, because libraries function so differently in 1450 versus 1600. Before the ability to reproduce material, books are precious objects, loaned around Europe for the purposes of hand-copying. People were employed to translate books. There was a mania for book collecting. Books were super valuable. This is where Brian pointed out that the chained library in Game of Thrones was wrong. He told us that in his grammar school, which had started in the 1500's, there was a chained library, and the books were literally chained to the shelves, so if you wanted to read them you had to stand there and read them.

There is a key difference between a library using the stack system and using the wall system. Libraries were designed with their shelves orthogonal to the walls, with windows between the stacks, because you had to stand in that spot and read the book.

Reggie remarked that books can be a quest in fantasy. They can also be what sends you on a quest, as in Tolkien (when Gandalf is looking up the One Ring).

I mentioned working in a situation in my Varin world where books can be easily printed, but paper is scarce.  It's helpful to think about the steps of book production and ask where the bottleneck is. Is paper reused? What is printed on?

There can be economic or other barriers to access.

In Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, libraries were ancient repositories for finding knowledge.

Often when libraries appear in fiction, the information in them is too easy to find. The production of indexes is a topic unto itself, in fact. Brian remarked that sometimes libraries were not organized by subject or title but by the time when the library acquired the book. This made it very difficult to find what you needed. He told us a story of  Persian grand vizier in 800AD who would travel with a train of 400 camels who had been trained to walk in alphabetical order, carrying the vizier's collection of over 10,000 manuscripts. These would then have to be unloaded carefully to keep them in good order.

In modern technological times, it can be a real problem if the index of your database gets corrupted. there are many ways to index and organize a library, including the Dewey decimal system and card catalogs.

Libraries don't function well when their organization is lost.

Context is really important for understanding something described in a book. In Victorian times, sometimes there were accounts of events where the core scandal is not referred to. Complete lack of context can kill a library's usefulness. Often collections are needed to provide context.

Sometimes you can have a catastrophic break in societal continuity. These can cause the context of a library's collections (or the collections themselves) to be lost. Colonization and war can cause catastrophic breaks, as when monks burned the records of the Mayan civilization, calling them heretical.

Destruction of libraries has been tragic, historically, as in the case of the lost library of Alexandria, or as Kat mentioned, the case of a Chinese emperor who ordered the destruction of all materials before his reign. Early Chinese history was preserved in a repository that was deliberately hidden.

Often the continuity we perceive in our literary history (and our history itself) is due to editing by the victors in catastrophic conflicts. This is one of the reasons why we find information on gender and sexual orientation missing from more modern narratives about Christianity, but it can be found in accounts of very early Christianity.

Kat noted that archaeology is now discovering that aboriginal Australian oral history is accurate and backed up by physical evidence. Passing on oral history is a critical discipline. People become the libraries.

There is a historical European tradition of reading a document out loud and having other people transcribe it. The book thereby gets translated through people, but it's not like a game of "telephone" because accuracy in transcription was a key goal.

In the Islamic tradition, reading of the Koran is a big part of education. The text of the Koran is designed to facilitate memorization.

The plays of Shakespeare were some of the first non-religious manuscripts to be mass produced.

A lot of political pamphlets were mass produced but then lost.

Ask yourself what survives, and what doesn't. We happen to know a lot about early works of literature because of references to them in other works of the time, but some of those manuscripts are gone.

Shakespeare was a form of political propaganda in its time because of the patronage of the English monarchy. Our picture of the history of that time is colored by the narratives that he constructed. Our picture of history in general is influenced by narrative, as in the case of stories about the Founding Fathers of America. Many bad things get erased. The character of those narratives influences the current day, as with the arguments now being fought around Confederate statues. Kat noted that when she traveled around the Caribbean, there were a lot of statues commemorating successful slave rebellions, but those narratives aren't encouraged in the usual Southern narratives.

Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed to the discussion. As usual, there's a lot more we could have discussed that we ran out of time for! We'll have to come back to the topic another time.