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?

Hurrah, this site is now Zotero enabled


Zotero is one of the most remarkable bits of free technology out there, in my view.  For anyone who’s ever had to create a bibliography, it saves hours and hours, as well as being a great way to keep track of anything – your books, video collection, web links and so on.  I’ve been an Endnote user for years,  so have been a bit lazy in getting my head round Zotero, but now I’m teaching a course where I’m introducing students to it, so I’m working probably as hard as they are to stay a step ahead.

The thing that I really like about Zotero is the way that certain sites – Amazon is one – have a little icon appear in the RH end of the address bar that you can click in order to create a bibliography entry in Zotero from the item you’re looking at.  It works on library catalogues brilliantly.  In fact, it’s so clever, it’s a bit disappointing when a site doesn’t have this facility available, and you have to click the button inside Zotero instead.

Thanks to The Chronicle of Higher Education, I’ve now discovered the secret of Making your WordPress blog Zotero enabled.  It’s all down to a little plug-in for Word Press called Scholar Press Coins.  Now, fair enough, I can’t think why anyone would want to create Zotero entries for some of the nonsense I populate this site with, but you never know. It’s the fact that you could if you wanted to that I think is really, really cool.

More joys of libraries & Der gestohlene Abend

The Institute of Education, London at twilight today

The Institute of Education, London at twilight today

It’s some time now since I finished Wolfram Fleischhauer’s latest novel, Der gestohlene Abend, which I enjoyed so much I wanted to blog about it even before I’d got past page two. But the trouble with his novels are that it’s difficult to describe why you like them so much without giving away one of the greatest causes of the enjoyment, which are his plots.

Then on Wednesday, on my way to Roehampton University to get hold of some articles that were unavailable elsewhere, I realised what it was that I had enjoyed so much about this latest novel, and indeed all his novels.

As I was climbing the interminable West Hill on my bike, freezing my face off and trying to avoid ice patches, then emerging in the quasi countryside of the bit beyond Tibbet’s corner (and nearly coming off my bike in some frozen mud in the underpass), I began to feel a sense of exhilaration and excitement at the thought of finally being able to read these two articles (a very critical review and an author’s response to it) that were so hard to get hold of.

It was partly the physical challenge of getting at the stuff that made reading it so much more exciting.  It’s an odd way to get your kicks, I thought. And then I realised that I’ve always been a bit like this about books and information – the more obscure and difficult to get at it is, the more fascination it holds (see here, for example). It’s a similar concept to Walter Benjamin’s ‘aura’ – by the time I got to the journals section of the library, and finally found the item I had seen referred to so often, but never seen in the flesh, the journal seemed to vibrate and radiate aura on its shelf.

And then I remembered that this is often what happens in Fleischhauer’s novels.  There’s a search for some truth that is not necessarily even hidden, it’s just that no-one except one of his protagonists can be bothered to look for it, because the journey is hard. It usually involves a real, physical journey, and physical encounters with obstacles to information like difficult librarians, illness, early closing, being attacked, or hindrances like misinformation, concealment, or simply mistakes. It might involve detours and time-consuming blind-alleys, or having to gain new skills and knowledge in an unfamiliar field.

The search for truth, which often hangs on some minuscule detail, involves his heroes and their circle in adventures which are every bit as exciting as the truth that is about to revealed, and the reverse is true too: Fleischhauer’s searches for truth are like cognitive car chases.  His novels are, even if this is not their main aim, tales of the thrill of investigation and curiosity.  You rejoice that your hero refuses to let things pass until he or she has solved the mystery, crime, conundrum that everyone else is happy to leave alone. And sometimes, things you’ve been looking at all the while (like the title of the book) are found to reveal unexpected secrets and meanings.

Funnily enough, I wouldn’t have been able to describe my excitement in Walter Benjamin terms had I not been reminded of the  book in Der gestohlene Abend. I must –  finally – read that book, I thought, and so I did. Benjamin’s book is about art works in an age of mechanical reproduction, but every time I visit a library, I get an excitement about being in the presence of information,  and the possibility of finding things in some quiet corner that no-one looks at, that is unrivalled by anything you can do or find on the web.

Der gestohlene Abend on Amazon.de

Google, Gutenberg & Research


Just how exciting is all the hype about Google’s venture into online books? Is it really the dawn of a new era?

What seems to be missing from all the journalistic screaming is the fact that huge numbers of books and other materials have been available online for some time now. Some of my favourites:

Spell to kvell

But how useful is it to have all these texts, if you can’t spell, type, research, filter, or evaluate? A classic example of this is the difference that accents & diacritical marks make on searching. In a recent search for information on the lovely Daria Klimentova, I decided to see what came up if I spelt her name with the proper Czech accents, i.e. Daria Klimentová. As I suspected, a totally different set of pages, including an encyclopedia entry on Daria from the beautifully designed and webbified ?eský hudební slovník osob a institucí (Czech Musical Dictionary of People & Institutions) from the – as their logo has it – Universitas Masarykiana Brunensis, the Masaryk University in Brno, another beautifully designed site. How would I know that Brunensis was Latin for ‘of Brno’, unless I had a smattering of Latin grammar, geography and the metathesis of medial liquid diphthongs in Slavic languages?

A free lunch?
And in the end, apart from the limitations of Google’s offerings imposed by the humanoids that read the stuff, what will or what can Google actually deliver? Are all those academic publishers who have invested thousands on online journal subscription services suddenly going to stop charging between $10 – $25 dollars an article, or forget about charging universities an institutional rate based on the number of enrolled students?

What’s on the menu, then?
And what of a field like mine, which involves a notation/recording system other than text? As I wrote in another weblog entry, it’s darned difficult to find some of Czerny’s lesser-known works, unless you can be bothered to go to a library, request them from the stack service and search through almost a thousand pages by hand. Similarly, when I tried to get hold of a copy of Tchaikovsky’s 50 Russian Folksongs for piano duet by conventional means, I found that Peters Edition still publish them, but – inexplicably – only 36 of the original 50, and with the titles only in German translation – which is no use at all if you want to cross-reference collections.

I found the full set with the original titles by looking through 60+ volumes of the complete works of Tchaikovsky at the University of London library. I only knew they were there because I saw them on the shelves as I was leaving, having failed to find them in the catalogue ; I only knew when I had found them because I read Russian and music notation.

My point? It takes minutes to flick through hundreds of pages of a physical book, but – even with broadband – hours to do the same online. Catalogues, even in University libraries, are unreliable and inaccurate, prone as they are to the errors and limitations of the person who inputs the records. Materials for study are in multiple languages, formats and notation systems, which you have to know and understand if you want to do anything more than read text in English.

Scholarship? Не пудри мне мозги!”
My rant is about the suffocating domination of English texts in what laughably passes as ‘scholarship’, particularly in my own field, and an insidious acceptance in some areas of Anglo-American academia that this is OK. By contrast, in Central & Eastern Europe, a knowledge of five European languages is not uncommon, and some of the people I studied with in Croatia had a reading knowledge of 12 languages at undergraduate level. A friend in Prague who speaks fluent English, German, Czech, Italian and French had her PhD dissertation proposal thrown out by the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague because she wanted to look at the Tchaikovsky ballets, but didn’t speak Russian, and would therefore not have access to the relevant texts. You can guess where she went instead, of course.

Information vs. Intelligence
I’ve been using the net for nearly 10 years, and I still find that having billions of documents available online is no more useful than having a billion pounds in Albanian lek when you need to feed a parking meter, unless you have some knowledge and understanding about the subject in your head, critical skills, advanced literacy skills, advanced IT skills and a few languages: information does not equal intelligence.

The congress of libraries
But none of this is any use unless you have intellectual curiosity, determination and patience. Ironically, it seems to me that high information at high speed kills off the very passion for knowledge that is needed to process and use it. Furthermore, the thing that used to be at the heart of academic life – dialogue, debate, congress, conference – is also at risk. Webchat and video-conferencing are no substitute for real dialogue. It’s great that you can access libraries online without moving from your seat, but not great if this becomes a substitute for travel and knowledge of an experiential kind.

Study? No thanks
‘Study’ is becoming as boring as it sounds – you, a computer terminal and a lot of words on a screen. I hope I am not still marking papers when essays become little more than a newsfeed from a bunch of anglophone websites, written by students who’ve never had the opportunity to get drunk, travel or sleep with each other, and thus are unable to put the subject, themselves and the whole notion of ‘study’ in perspective.