Saturday 25 April 2015


When I was a History student (in the 1970s and again at the turn of the century) one of the things I liked most was being buried in the library.  In those days, part of the joy of historical research (and one of the main things we were being tested on) was slogging through cardboard indexes and untangling illegible handwriting.  We were looking for something no one else knew about, or which had been routinely overlooked.
In those days, it was perfectly in order to spend several years doing a PhD.  Some people never finished at all.  In the great mahogany stacks there were old men who never spoke to anyone, but shuffled to the same seat every day to slog away at a great work no one would ever see.  The true professionals sat in a strange huddled posture, their arms guarding their books and papers from the prying eyes of rival scholars, like children protecting their chips from hungry siblings.

Not much changed for four hundred years
Those of us who were on time limits of three or four years for delivering a thesis laughed about the Gnomes, as we called them, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who silently envied their secret world. I learned, like them, to feel a frisson of superiority when a new person arrived at an archive, unaware of the particular bureaucratic gymnastics that particular institution had invented for ordering something up.  I remember the thrill of finding letters and notebooks that ad languished, unread, for hundreds of years.
My excitement was only slightly dimmed by the knowledge that I was the only person in the world who cared.
I was even a little sad at the thought that when my thesis was done, anyone with the detective power to trace a copy, and the muscular strength to lift it down from the shelf, would be able to find the location of 'my' documents in the bibliography.
My idea of a fun place
But then, in the early years of this century, the grown-ups taught me to share.

I was lucky enough to be taught by some truly wonderful scholars.  They were all equally brilliant, but in academic esteem, some were more equal than others.  Those whose books were commissioned by commercial publishers and sold in normal bookshops were condemned by the Gnomes as 'popular' historians.  Their success in spreading their knowledge to people outside the magic academic circle was taken as proof of their intellectual inferiority.  It's not surprising that the collective noun is a 'malice' of historians.
The popular historians got their own back in the late 20th and early 21st century, when well researched, beautifully produced history books temporarily became money-spinners, but that was also the time when the Gnomes' contempt for such authors reached its highest point.

When broadband came along, even popular historians were tested in their belief that their work - and, more importantly, their source material, - should be available to the masses.  Many ancient documents are now online in facsimile form.  You can zoom in and out of indistinct lettering until a meaning emerges. You can compare documents housed a world apart, wearing your pyjamas or over a cappuccino. And you can do all this without any entrance exams, just for fun.

Try deciphering this by the light of a 40 watt bulb in a library
I know that is a good thing, and I love using the Internet. But I'm ashamed to say that somewhere deep in my heart, I am sad. I miss our old secret world.  I'd like to think that there's something noble in that sentiment, but if I'm honest it's founded on a pretty despicable form of snobbery.  I liked knowing things that other people didn't know - and stood little chance of finding for themselves.  I adored my old work tools (pencil, notebook, magnifying glass and silence).  I thrived on the simultaneous torture of being kept away from my source material when the library was shut and the blissful encounter with real life that the closure forced on me. 

Many professionals whose status depends on feats of memory are being undermined by our new world of information.  Imagine how medics feel when patients arrive having correctly diagnosed their own illnesses online. It is becoming more difficult for them to appear omnipotent, or to bury their mistakes.

It is still (just) possible to do an historian's work in the old way.  Some of the Gnomes are still there, bending over their books.  Many more must have died of starvation in a world that only rewards published results.  Others may have been driven out by the clicking keyboards of students using the library as a place to access the Internet while saving on heating bills at home.

I have said goodbye to my inner Edward Casaubon.  But sometimes I secretly wish that I'd been born a little earlier, and could have carried on gnoming forever.

pictures :Wikimedia Commons.  Library picture: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I love the old style libraries too. I researched my first two books at the State Library of Victoria. The first Internet cafes were just beginning to open when I was working on the second book. I never got to see the primary sources of which you speak, though. And now I can do it if I want, through those facsimiles. That is a source of joy. Not everyone can visit the British Library or those other institutions. So having them online makes it possible for the hoi palloi like me to share the resources and I can't regret that. Nowadays I'm able to access the National Library's digitised newspapers from 1803 onwards, and used some from the 1860s to research a piece of children's historical fiction I was writing about the Eugowra Rocks robbery and the bushranger Frank Gardiner. I can download the Australian Women's Weekly of the war years without having to fly out to Canberra. And the State Library reading room is still there if I want it. ;-) Though now it no longer looks like the picture you have in this post - it is flooded with light as was originally intended when it was built.

Sue Purkiss said...

I was just thinking about poor old Casaubon when I got to your last paragraph! I was never a proper researcher in the way that you were. But I do remember the old library on Palace Green in Durham; you could go on an expedition between leaning stacks and down winding staircases, till eventually you found a vacant desk in a nook where the sun had never been known to shine, and you felt the weight of the years and the learning as you lost yourself in the work. For a little while, till you emerged back into the world you had to cope with here and now, or there and then.

Ann Turnbull said...

Eleanor, it may cheer you to know that when I recently renewed my reader's pass at the British Library and went in search of a particular 16th century letter (a copy, not the original handwriting) I copied it out in shorthand in pencil and transcribed it at home.

I must admit that as a mere member of the public I always feel intimidated in academic libraries, as if I shouldn't be there. The old historians would no doubt agree!

Ruan Peat said...

As a Library student nearly 30 years ago I was taken to the Bodleian, the atmosphere and the glimpses of potential vistas has never left me and I like to think despite the 'normal' libraries embracing change that somewhere the Bodleian is still full of 'gnomes' and papers with silent study and insider knowledge inspiring studies, I know it likely has changed but like my grans house if I never go look it never changes :-). Thank you for this reminder of what libraries were even if it no longer true.

Yvette M Hunt said...

As an Australian I am so happy that these texts have been made available online, but I understand exactly what you are talking about. Our libraries have become bright spaces of natural light and completely lacking in ambience they had when I was an undergraduate.
I had a student ask me what it was like to have researched papers before Google last year. They looked at me like some historical artefact and were eager to here my undergraduate reminiscences about what they dubbed as "real research" which no one taught any more.
I love the Bodleian for its dark wood and poor light, and I too wish I'd been born sooner, but when you are stuck in Australia those digitised works make all the difference in world, and the unusual need to use a microfiche machine a pleasure rather than a chore.