Tag Archives: libraries

In praise of (occasional) marginalia


Clifton (1983, p.75)

As you leave the Institute of Education library, there’s a montage of photographs showing the awful things that people have done to books, like water damage and coffee stains, highlighting and tearing, as a reminder to treat their books nicely.  Writing in books, particularly library books, is a real annoyance. But occasionally, you come across a bit of marginalia that is so enlightening, and as in the case I’m about to relate, so charming, you have to forgive the reader for taking their pencil to paper. (But don’t do this at home, and particularly not with an IoE book).

The book in question is Thomas Clifton’s Music as heard: A study in applied phenomenology (1983). It’s very difficult to get hold of, and I’m so glad that Senate House library had one (as I’ve remarked before). I’m thoroughly enjoying it because Clifton gets at a point which is very relevant for my research:  Music analysis that explains how a piece of music was constructed says very little about the way that you actually experience music.  But on page 75, there’s a bit about the relationship between feeling and reflection where he seems to slip into a very dodgy value judgement about rock concerts.  It’s at this point that a previous reader, who has commented in pencil several times in the margins with  very small, neat handwriting, has underlined Clifton’s  sentence (“We have encountered  the resultant spectacle at rock concerts, where the music is not at all the main attraction but a side show”) and then written in the margin:

“How do you know?! One suspects Clifton is contradicting his own phenomenological precepts here by making a judgement independent of experience!”

And underneath, another reader has written in a larger, more exuberant hand

“Yes, I agree!”

Now I know I shouldn’t be advocating writing in library books, but this bit of marginalia is a really useful commentary on Clifton’s book, and a heartwarming proof that two previous readers had given close attention not just to the text, but to the marginalia as well.

For the record,  I agree! too: I think  Clifton is wrong here, too, because everything he says about rock concerts could be said of classical concerts (that we may ‘run the risk of submerging into our own feelings and confusing the expression in the music with the spontaneity of our own responses’).  It seems strange for a phenomenologist to ascribe a mode of listening to an event or a musical genre rather than to individuals attending the event and experiencing the music, but if I’m not wrong, I think that betrays a prejudice against rock music that made him drop his phenomenological guard. All of which I might not have given so much attention to if two people hadn’t defaced the book.

There are plenty of solutions to this out there – annotatable pdfs, or tagging and note-making in Zotero groups for example. But there’s something about holding and reading a book that someone else has held, transported back and forth to a library, and inscribed literally with the mark of their hand, that is  phenomenologically different to the experience of tagging an electronic file, and that’s yet another reason why physical books will always win out for me over the electronic.

Happy National Libraries Day – especially to Tooting Library and the IOE


I’m no Luddite. I was an early-adopter of computers and the internet. I earn about 25% of my salary from playing the piano, and 75% from being a pretty expert user of all kinds of software. I use the internet all the time for research, and I’d be lost without my computer and my iPhone.  The world is full of incredible opportunities now that were not available to me when I was an undergraduate or at school. That’s wonderful, and I use those opportunities all the time.

But not a week passes when I am not even more blissed out by libraries and what they have to offer.  This last few weeks I’ve been doing an ‘Info and Lit’ course at the IoE, and I’ve learned so much from our tutor Nazlin Bhimani in those sessions that I never got from sitting for hours in front of a screen. Through really good guidance and teaching, I’ve learned to make better use of the resources that I’ve already had available to me for years, and all because when you’ve got a real human in front of you, you learn how to use stuff, how to evaluate, what to ignore and avoid.

I’d live in the IOE library if I could, but I equally love my local library in Tooting, not least because it’s only 5 minutes away. I go there when I need to concentrate, somewhere quiet but where other people are working so you feel motivated to do the same. The staff are amazingly helpful – I’ve seen so many instances where they’ll help someone out with using the internet, teaching them how to search, for example, and nothing is too much trouble.  The study room has always been packed (but spacious) when I’ve been there.  They have lots of new books, a range of newspapers.

My favourite library moment was on Thursday this week. I’d been scrolling through the Musicology Must-reads over at the Taruskin challenge blog, and noticed Thomas Clifton’s Music as Heard, a book advocating a phenomenological approach to musical experience. As this is right up my particular research street, I decided to hunt it out. Could I find a copy anywhere? Not on Amazon,  not in the IoE library, and Abe Books were £90+ for the only two remaining copies. So I took my tutor’s advice, and searched the Senate House catalogue. And sure enough, there it was. When you know how hard-to-get a book is, the moment when you hold it in your hands is one of awe and excitement. And it’s a fabulous book.

Ironically, today was the day that I finally got a Kindle to see if would be any use to my parents. It’s not. As with most gadgets, they didn’t think about the elderly or people with poor motor skills.  I also thought I might be converted if I actually had one. I’m not. I hate it with a passion, and I hate the way that Amazon are helping people to forget what libraries do, and that you could go to a local charity shop and buy a paperback for 50p, and then give that to someone else.

But worst of all, the Kindle doesn’t supply you with the computer, the power, the wifi, the money, the quiet, the space, the chair, the desk, the teacher, the other like minded readers to sit and enjoy the space with. This is why Sadiq Khan was so right when he wrote this to Edward Lister at Wandsworth Council last year:

Popularity and utility cannot only be measured by the number of books issued in any given year – there is a wider social benefit to a community that comes from the local provision of good IT facilities, or a quiet place for children to do homework. (Sadiq Khan)

If you don’t believe that, go to your local library and have a look. Long live libraries.

Another group hit by library closures: the U3A



Education: The Age of Uncertainty is an impassioned but factual article in today’s Independent about the effect that library closures are having on the elderly, and in particular on members of the University of the Third Age (U3A).

Ian Searle writes:

The mass closure of public libraries is hitting older people and retired people who want to learn and keep their minds active. The sort of learning that goes on in the University of the Third Age (U3A) – the learning that retired people do because they want to do it, not because they need it for their careers – will be worst hit.

It’s a convincing argument, and I hope that the 250,000 members of U3A lobby government to make it strongly, but the specificity of the statement above  bothers me: it blurs the effect that the closures will have on everyone else. As I pointed out in a recent entry, my local library at least was full of young people.  Learning and the opportunity to gain access to what libraries have to offer – including a quiet and warm place to think – are important at any age, whether you ‘need it for your career’ or not.  The concept of a career in itself is fast becoming an anachronism, as people have to adapt to a very unpredictable and insecure job market.

Argos? What about the library?


I’d no sooner pressed send on the previous post about the wonder of libraries, than I happened to see a ‘heartwarming’ story in  today’s Evening Standard about a 7-year old  girl who came home to find £500 worth of brand new books from Argos waiting for her.

I put ‘heartwarming’ in quotes, because while it’s very nice for anyone to get £500 worth of something out of the blue, this  story rather sickens me. Where is there any mention of libraries?  How does such an act benefit the wider community over the long term? That’s what they’re there for: books are expensive, and to spend £500 on them when you’re a child is overkill. You’re not going to like all of them, you might only read most of them once, and if they’re popular books, there’s no reason to buy them new. Giving one child a mass of books looks good on paper, but it’s not half as fantastic as the library services that are already there. And thanks to the way that libraries serve their communities, the chances are Aurelia’s mum could have taken out a load of books in Polish as well – she certainly could in Tooting.

This single benevolent act by Argos benefits one child for a very short time, and in a very limited way (though the benefit to Argos is probably much greater and longer lasting). The Evening Standard story completely disguises the wonderful services that local libraries provide their communities and have done for years. Why would they do that? Why would they continue to propagate a fiction that if you don’t have books at home, then there’s nothing for it except to wait for your local chain store to air-lift a box of them into your living room, when there are magnificent libraries everywhere, at least for the moment?

The wonders of a library in Tooting

Tooting Library 2006

Tooting Library in 2006 - it's been completely revamped since then

For as long as I can remember, I have had difficulty concentrating, to the extent that libraries are the only reason I have ever achieved anything. It doesn’t matter how much space I have at home, or how much time and opportunity I have, when I need to concentrate and get any kind of mental work done, I have to go to a library. I’ll buy a day membership to a University library, travel for more than an hour, do anything just for the peace and concentration it affords.  The quality of work I do in libraries is so much better than anywhere else, that I have vivid memories of what I read and when, going back decades.

I’m in between courses, so whereas for the last couple of years I could have taken myself to the Institute of Education library, I’m now without anywhere to work.  After two years of having an oasis in the middle of Bloomsbury to work in, I’m lost. So on Saturday, I went to Tooting Library, knowing that they have a wonderful quiet study area upstairs. It was the most useful and enjoyable two hours work I’ve done in weeks.

The reason I’m blogging about this is because since the threats to library services started last year, I find myself arguing with people (middle class employed people, by the way) about why we need to keep them.  They talk vaguely about ‘everything being digital’ and ‘you can get it all online’ and ‘books are dead’ or reduce the argument to idiotic in the classic sense:  ‘they never have anything I want’ or ‘it was closed when I went’.

To reduce the concept of a library to a repository of books is to miss the point, in my view. On Saturday, the study room and IT facilities were full. People were having to book slots and come back later to use the computers (and there are a good number of them). All the seats in the study area were taken. There were a lot of young people, and a lot of old people, and a very broad ethnic mix. A lot of them, like me, had gone there to study, some had gone to read the newspapers. I was so grateful for the quiet, but also for the encouragement you get when you’re in a place where everyone else is trying to do the same thing (people say they go to the gym for the same reason, even though they could work out at home).

As Sadiq Khan pointed out in his open letter to Edward Lister of Wandsworth Council in February about library closures in Wandsworth:

Popularity and utility cannot only be measured by the number of books issued in any given year – there is a wider social benefit to a community that comes from the local provision of good IT facilities, or a quiet place for children to do homework.

Well said. It’s not just children either. At a time when more and more people are losing jobs, having to retrain, competing for an ever smaller number of jobs, and have less and less disposable income, libraries are a lifeline. When councillors think they can turn off this particular service, I wonder if they understand it at all, or even know what value it has in their own communities. It is particularly important if the government, as it claims, wants to get young people into work. You have to support that kind of initiative with places to study.

Given the wonderful service that libraries and librarians offer (I don’t think anybody’s put it better than Philip Pullman in his speech about library closures), I find it disgusting that anyone should suggest that volunteers are the answer. I know a number of librarians, and I am trying to envisage how they and I would feel when some financially independent do-gooder turns up at the library and turfs them out of their means of employment, as if their knowledge, experience and education, let alone their need for a job, was insignificant.

Surely before we go down that route, there is an option for some kind of light-touch membership system. If people will pay to go to the gym or belong to the National Trust, can they not pay something to use a library? Keep it free for students, the unemployed, the retired and those on benefits, but offer membership options.  The trouble is that sadly, not enough people are convinced that they’re worth fighting for.




Philip Pullman on library closures


For my taste, nothing to me is potentially more damaging to democracy and freedom than the closure of public libraries. Philip Pullman has said it all more eloquently than I ever could, in a speech to a meeting last week to oppose the threatened library closures in Oxfordshire.   It’s beautiful, poignant and bang on, as the following short extract shows:

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Hear hear.

New Czerny upload at the IMSLP


It might seem such a small thing, but I’m thrilled to see that someone has recently uploaded Czerny’s School of Legato and Staccato Op. 335 to the IMSLP. The interest in Op. 335 for ballet people  is that it has several of the exercises that feature in Riisager’s ballet Etudes, including the silhouette barre and the adage, plus several other great bouncy pieces suitable for allegro.  For my taste, one of the most underrated dance music composers of the 19th century.

I’ve already posted about my joy at finally tracking this down at the University of London Library (The Joy of Libraries & My Czech mate Czerny) but it’s so frustrating that unless you do that kind of sleuthing, you’re left with the same few sets of exercises circulated by publishers. The IMSLP is probably one of the greatest resources in the world for music, because it helps to bring such perfectly preserved, rare and usable materials to a worldwide audience, all free of charge.

Despite my enthusiasm for new technology, nothing beats my enthusiasm for books and libraries when it comes to materials. The other day at the RAD library, I had in my hands the orchestral parts for a variation from Giselle that belonged to Karsavina, all written by hand, perfectly preserved, and making as much sense to me as music as they did to the orchestras that would have played them nearly a hundred years ago.  I could give them to an orchestra now, and we could recreate the music at a moment’s notice.

Wot not books?

It frightens me when libraries are threatened with closure (see the Wot No Books campaign for a wonderful protest). Who fills the gap and controls the information flow and culture when they go? Rupert Murdoch? A political party? Wikipedia? Microsoft? And if access to books is no longer free and shareable (welcome to Kindleworld), what does this say about who may learn?