BC Seal Boston College Magazine Summer 2002
current issue
Linden Lane
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
Shelf life.  Libraries aren't collections but civilizations.  That's why they have histories, cultures, loyalists, and enemies.

photo of a library interior


Editor's Note: Recently, Boston College's University Library System was admitted into the Association of Research Libraries, a select group of about 120 libraries held to provide the most significant support for scholarship in North America. In celebration of this recognition, BCM invited Larry Wolff, a professor of history, to write about the meanings of libraries he's known and used, from Chestnut Hill to St. Petersburg.

On a summer night in August 1992, Serbian forces besieging the city of Sarajevo fired on the National and University Library of Bosnia, which then burned for three days in a blaze that consumed a million books on their wooden shelves.

The destruction of a library and its books took place in the context of atrocities committed against men, women, and children in Bosnia, and amid paramilitary campaigns of ethnic cleansing, rape, and massacre that put Bosnia on our front pages and made Sarajevo the focus of international conscience and anguish.

A century old, the stately library was built when Sarajevo was ruled from Vienna by the Hapsburg emperor, and it was designed in a monumental neo-Moorish style to reflect the Islamic history of the city. Yet the men who besieged Sarajevo and destroyed the library in 1992 were probably less offended by the Islamic architectural inflections than by collections that reflected the multicultural history of Bosnia and Sarajevo, books and periodicals from the intersecting currents of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish intellectual life, all represented in the library as they were in the history and society of Sarajevo. It was this cosmopolitan coexistence of cultures that was under assault in Sarajevo, and since the library preserved the record of that historical legacy, the brutal logic of ethnic cleansing could mean not only the murder of men and women but also the burning of books.

The greatest library of the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, was also a casualty of fire in wartime, and its destruction has been traditionally dated to Julius Caesar's strategic decision to burn the ships in the Alexandria harbor in the first century B.C., at a time when the library probably contained half a million extremely flammable papyrus scrolls. From its creation in the third century B.C., the library served as the center of the Mediterranean's Hellenistic culture, hosting such spectacularly important research projects as Euclid's geometry, Archimedes' mechanics, and Ptolemy's geography, and including works of Greek science, philosophy, and drama that we will never know. Its destruction thus radically altered and diminished the literary legacy of the ancient world. In fact, Caesar's act of arson was probably only the first of a series of fires that beset the library over the course of centuries, and there has been some historical controversy about whether the coup de gräce was delivered by Christian intellectual intolerance in the fourth century A.D. or Muslim intellectual intolerance in the seventh.

Came the revolution
If you sift through the stacks in Boston College's O'Neill Library, you can find a few artifacts of a time not so long ago when libraries—even American university libraries—were susceptible to the pressures of intellectual intolerance. In the French literature collection on the fourth floor, for example, a little pamphlet-size edition of excerpts in French from Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma contains the notice that "By reason of a decree of the Congregation on the Index, Catholics require permission to read this work." The notice, typewritten on a little label bordered in red, now slightly faded, was probably licked and pasted onto the title page at some moment in the 1950s, not too long before the Index itself was suppressed by the Church in 1966.

I've been using the O'Neill Library as a research facility since the 1980s, and it has satisfied many of my eccentric scholarly needs and yearnings. This is attributable certainly to the maturation of the library, in all aspects, but also to a marvelous 20th-century institution, known as Interlibrary Loan, which allows O'Neill to draw upon the collections of just about any library in the world.

For example, for the writing of my last book, Venice and the Slavs (Stanford, 2001), O'Neill was particularly resourceful in obtaining for me articles from Yugoslav journals published between the 1920s and the 1970s (precisely the journals whose complete series must have been destroyed in the Sarajevo library in 1992). Interlibrary Loan also seemed to have had no trouble laying hands on a study of the Slavic Glagolitic script published in Italian in Zadar in 1922, and on a study of French travelers to Bosnia written by a professor from Sarajevo and published in French in Paris in 1960, and on a collection of documents concerning the Italian occupation of the Yugoslav coast during World War II, published by the Italian army in Rome in 1985. Though I blushed at making the request, O'Neill Library also promptly obtained for me the copy I needed of Casanova Loved Her by Bruno Brunelli.

But if Interlibrary Loan was the supplementary engine of 20th-century libraries—extending their reach to the end of every mail route on the planet—the Internet is clearly the engine of the 21st-century revolution in libraries. University Librarian Jerome Yavarkovsky, who came to Boston College in 1995 with a background in engineering, administration, and computer technology, is fully attuned to this most important theme in contemporary librarianship. The more textual information is available on the Web, he says, the more the library can function as a purely electronic portal: not merely a physical place called "O'Neill Library," or even a physical place connected to other physical libraries, but an array of resources that you can access from your screen anywhere on campus, or in Boston, or indeed from an Internet café in Moscow, as I found last summer.

The library as portal to all the stored electronic information in the world is a revolutionary idea in more ways than one, potentially erasing the distinctions that have long prevailed among libraries based on their fiscal endowments, physical collections, and histories. When I ask Yavarkovsky which university library is BC's model for electronic development—is it Harvard? Yale? Stanford?—he replies, "We are the model."

Library life
Though the building itself is nobody's favorite architectural space on campus, the O'Neill Library is still very much a physical place, especially for the students who have colonized its every corner according to the multifarious modes of study and sociability. Just ask the students, and they'll tell you.

"People like to study in the jungle, of course."

"The jungle?"

"You know, the potted plants. Under the skylight. It's supposed to be the Skylight Lounge, but everybody calls it the jungle."

"I like to study by the windows."

"Except, you look out the window, and you want to stop studying."

"Sometimes you see the hawk."

"The hawk?"

"Yeah, I think he hangs somewhere on the roof of Gasson, and sometimes he dives."

"That is really cool, and the library is the best view."

"Another fun thing is to hang out in the Media Center on Fridays and see what videos professors are taking home for the weekend."

The section for sleeping, in case you're wondering, is to the back and on the right, on the ground level, where you can pull two seats together, though some students prefer the business library in Fulton for really peaceful sleeping.

"The people who stop you from bringing drinks into O'Neill, they are the worst. There are two of them, and they are real sticklers."

"I've smuggled coffee in under my shirt, but it means I have coffee stains on my shirts."

"Well, I smuggled in really hot coffee under my shirt, and I have burn marks on my chest."

"What a man!"

"And the coffee wasn't even for me."

"Do you know about the dog?"

"The dog?"

"Yeah, this is the best. There is one student who smuggles in a dog in a duffel bag, just for company. You know, you need company in O'Neill while you're studying."

"Have you ever seen Spiderman?"

"No, I've heard about him in O'Neill, coming out of the recycling bin during exam period, but I've never actually seen him."

"I think the kid has probably graduated, with his costume."

"Yeah, I heard he went to Harvard Law School."

I myself have never seen Spiderman in O'Neill, or in the Harvard Law School Library for that matter, but maybe he just doesn't come out when professors are around. He probably remains invisible to librarians too.

In 1957 the classic Broadway musical The Music Man introduced the iconic figure of Marian the Librarian, whose romantic ideals, taken from books, almost prevent her from discovering true love with a traveling salesman. She is warned, in song, by her Irish mother:

When a woman has a husband
and you've got none,
why should she take advice from you,
even if you can quote Balzac and Shakespeare
and all those other highfalutin Greeks?

Yet Marian, in spite of her idealism, is suspected of corrupting the morals of the Iowa citizenry with Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac (though not Stendhal). In the end, she is wooed away from her literary fantasies by a brass band and the declaration: "I love you madly, madly, Madame Librarian!"

Boston College students also have a sense of the library as a place of romantic possibilities, maybe just because studying is lonely, and you naturally look for solace.

"Well, like, hang out around the Shakespeare section when Shakespeare papers are due. That's where I would go to try to meet someone."

"I met my boyfriend at the library."

"Oh, I met my boyfriend at the library too."

"You met him at the library? He never goes to the library."

"He did once. That's when I met him."

"You know, there is a place in O'Neill that is really private enough so that people make out there."

"Where would that be?"

"Well, I can tell you, but you have to promise not to publish the information."

In my conversations with students, I was struck by how much the students seemed to enjoy the library space, really living in it—eating, drinking, sleeping, falling in love—all while studying, of course.

Perhaps the most alarming librarian in American culture is the hypothetical librarian in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's classic of 1946. Remember that Jimmy Stewart is permitted, through the intervention of an angel, to view the world as it might have been if he had never been born. And, among the many hypothetical catastrophes caused by his nonexistence, he discovers that his wife, his true love, the divine Donna Reed, was doomed never to marry, and to become a spinster librarian. He sees her hurrying out of the library at the end of the day, hunched over and wearing glasses (which she doesn't seem to need when she's happily married to Jimmy Stewart). When he addresses her, she begins to scream and run away, an "old maid" librarian traumatized by sexual hysteria at the approach of a strange man. Did Capra have to make her a librarian? Was that the worst fate that he could imagine imposing upon Donna Reed? What does that tell us about American ambivalence regarding libraries and librarians? And is it any wonder that undergraduates find a transgressive thrill when it comes to making out in the stacks?

The end of books?
In an American civics reader of 1948, an immigrant grandmother testifies to the local library as the ultimate expression of American civilization: "When I was a young girl, no school was near my home. I did not learn to read until I came to this country. Here I learned to read in a fine school. Here I have a library where I can get all the books I want to read. And that is why I am so glad that this is my country now."

Yet, in recent years, the world of American libraries has not been all untroubled contentment and patriotic celebration. The library world has been rocked by the furious accusations of so-called library activists, who charge librarians with the wanton destruction of the reading materials that they are supposedly mandated to preserve. The writer Nicholson Baker has published a series of denunciations of the contemporary library world for its embrace of modern technology: first for getting rid of the traditional card catalogues, in their wooden filing cabinets; then for dumping thousands of books, especially in San Francisco, just to save space; and finally for consigning to destruction mountains of irreplaceable original newspapers and periodicals after having transferred their contents to compactly stowable reels of microfilm.

Nicholson and the activists see the librarians of America, focused on computer technology, space conservation, and the Web, as sacrificing the essential custodianship of the material books, magazines, and newspapers that constitute our printed relation to the historical past, the physical artifacts of our cultural legacy. The notion of the library as portal and information as electronic data seems to these dissidents to be fundamentally and dangerously opposed to the traditional concept of the library as architectural space, the idea of reading as a physical and sensual relation between humans and printed matter. From their activist point of view, the administrative "deaccession" of books in San Francisco is an act of cultural vandalism, different in method and purpose but maybe similar in effect to the military destruction of books in Sarajevo.

The National Library in Sarajevo is being rebuilt as an architectural monument, and real books are being collected in an international effort to recreate the collection. Irreplaceable are some of the long serial runs of Bosnian periodicals, dating back to the 19th century, which, as a matter of fact, might have been better protected for posterity if they had all been microfilmed. Indeed, if they had been electronically scanned and made available on the Web, no army could ever have harmed them. In the meantime, the government of Egypt, working closely with UNESCO, has for a decade been undertaking the tremendous project of rebuilding a great library at Alexandria, an internationally encouraged effort to spotlight modernity in the Middle East. Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Egypt's president, has declared that the restored ancient library will also be "the library of the digital age."

I myself, working as an historian, am addictively devoted to the tactile and intellectual experience of handling and reading old newsprint, and I would be sorry someday to have to conduct my research exclusively on the microfilm reader and the computer screen. But the future is coming on fast. In June 2002, at an international conference at BC on Jesuit history, we had a demonstration of the Athanasius Kircher project, in which the correspondence of the great 17th-century Jesuit polymath, preserved at the Pontifical Gregorian University Library in Rome, may be summoned to anyone's computer screen and analytically searched according to a variety of academic criteria. It was exciting to watch, a demonstration pregnant with thrilling research possibilities, but I also felt a pang of nervous premature nostalgia, imagining a future time when real travel to real libraries might become less relevant to a scholar's life.

In the stacks
Like the balance between books and Web pages, the balance between museum custodianship and traditional use is always being negotiated at university library collections. I recently attended a conference on the history of childhood at Princeton's Cotsen Children's Library. The Cotsen Library consists of one of the world's most important and valuable collections of children's books, including such items as a 17th-century alphabet book of Bible verses, and an 18th-century edition of Jack and the Beanstalk. The collector Lloyd Cotsen insisted in his arrangement with Princeton that, in spite of the precious bindings and editions, the library would have to be used by real children. During some of our scholarly conference, we adult professors found ourselves exchanging academic views while seated in tot-size plastic chairs arranged around nursery school tables, but surrounded by shelves and shelves of elegant antique leather-bound volumes.

This peculiar Alice-in-Wonderland scenario was a reminder of the tension inherent in the missions of university libraries in the 21st century: their simultaneous commitments to the custodianship of the printed treasures of the past, the service of the reading and researching populations of the present, and the exploration of the technologies of information that will determine the libraries of the future.

I have relished my own work in the world's great and glamorous libraries, in the Vatican Library in Rome, the British Museum Library in London, the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris, and others. Anyone who loves libraries knows the excitement of the library as a particular place; whether it's your hometown library or the Library of Congress, each has its own idiosyncrasies of collection and organization.

I have worked in the St. Petersburg Public Library for the odd reason that the Russian empress Catherine the Great bought Voltaire's library after the French philosopher died in 1778 and had his books all shipped to St. Petersburg, where they have remained ever since, in spite of the fact that Voltaire himself never traveled to Russia. When I first made this trip I had to find my way into the bowels of the St. Petersburg library where I finally encountered the late Madame Larissa Albina, who fiercely guarded Voltaire's library during the Soviet period, while making her own multivolume compilation of Voltaire's marginalia. She would, after some cajoling, place one of Voltaire's books in my hands and then watch vigilantly over my shoulder, Madame Librarian, breathing fire, while I tried to read.

More recently I've been working with 18th-century periodicals and publications in the Biblioteca Marciana of Venice. The building itself is the 16th-century Renaissance masterpiece of Jacopo Sansovino, and it faces the Doge's Palace across the Piazzetta of San Marco. Standing outside, you hear the serenading melodies of the little orchestra of the Café Chioggia, but if you step inside you may have access to a library collection first established in the 15th century for the Greek manuscripts of Cardinal John Bessarion, a treasured fraction of the Greek legacy that was lost with the Library of Alexandria. One of the library's regulations is that you can only request old books from the stacks until 1:30 in the afternoon, though you may read them until 7:00 once they've been delivered. Scholars in Venice often divide their time between the library and the state archive, which are at opposite ends of the city. All too often I've found myself on the vaporetto going down the Grand Canal at one o'clock, counting the minutes, jumping off the boat at San Marco, racing past the violins ("Don't Cry for Me, Argentina"), and filling out my library requests in a frenzy as the office prepares to close down for lunch and the duration.

At Harvard's Widener Library, a 10-minute walk from my home and the place where I first learned how to do research, there are no request forms because Widener still has open stacks. If you love libraries, you love open stacks beyond all other attractions.

It's a memorial library, built to honor Harry Elkins Widener, who went down with the Titanic in 1912, and I for one will not forget him. There is a particular coolness, a dimness, and a hush that envelops you as you enter the Widener stacks and begin to navigate the 10 different levels with little metal staircases that would almost make you think you were shipboard. The real magic, however, involves finding your book by its call number—and then letting your gaze wander along the shelf to see whatever else happens to be there.

This is the greatest pleasure and excitement of being in a library: not the purposeful encounter with the book you were seeking, but the casual and accidental encounter with the book you never heard of before, but which is about to change your life—or, in any event, your scholarship. You meet people too in the depths of Widener (and somehow you always feel like you're in the depths, even though you might actually be on one of the upper floors). Stay there long enough and you will meet everyone you ever knew in the academic world, and strangers whom you know you will see again, because, after all, what sort of a person hangs out among the Slavic periodicals? The hushed sociability of the stacks, however, is always secondary to the religious intensity devoted to the books themselves, as a succession of bindings leads you along the shelf to some unpredictable destiny that you will only be able to realize on the spot, in the place.


Volumes, total: 1,900,000

Of these, the number that begin How to Succeed in. . . : 13, in academics, banking, business (3), college, company politics, law school, organic chemistry, school, show business, siting a drug abuse treatment center, and the organizational jungle

Number of titles purchased by the system last year:
29,000 (June 2001-May 2002)

Number of volumes discarded: 1,285

Magazine and newspaper subscriptions: 21,400

Of these, the number of periodicals in Japanese devoted to health care: 6

Microforms, total (mostly periodicals, newspapers, government documents): 3,750,000

Of all available federal documents, the percentage that BC selects for its collection: 59

Maps, total: 17,600

Oldest map: from 1493, the first map of Germany ever printed in a book—in The Nuremberg Chronicle, by the Nuremberg town physician, Hermann Schedel

Films, DVDs, videocasettes, and laser discs, combined total
: 8,600

Performances of Hamlet available for viewing: 7—starring Kenneth Branagh, Richard Burton, Nicol Williamson, Ethan Hawke, Derek Jacobi, Lawrence Olivier, and Innokentii Smoktunovskii (in Russian)

Total audio collection (cassettes, CDs, LPs): 12,800

CDs lost or missing (a partial list): BBC Sound Effects, Volume XIV: Cities; Mountain Music of Peru; Motown Dance Party, Volume I

Number of books charged out last year: 370,628

Charged out by students: 67 percent

Charged out by faculty: 13 percent

Time when most books are charged out
: 4:00-5:00 p.m.

Visitors each year to the O'Neill Library (BC's main research facility): more than 796,000

Visitors to the Burns Library (rare books, special collections, and University archives): 5,000

Hits on the BC library system's Web site last year: 7,342,926 (July 2001-June 2002)

Least active hour on the Web in the busiest month of the year (November
): 5:00-6:00 a.m.

Hits per day last November: 49,937, for an average of 17 minutes each

Electronic books added to the system last year: 3,400

Electronic databases added: 25

Contained in American Civil War Letters and Diaries, an electronic database acquired last year: 52,000 pages of personal memoirs, letters, and diaries from 1855 to 1875

Contained in Polling the Nations, an electronic database acquired last year: 400,000 answers from 14,000 surveys conducted in 84 countries

With thanks to the BC library system's 70 librarians, 90 support staff, and 170 student assistants

Larry Wolff

Larry Wolff is a professor of history at Boston College. He is the author of Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994) and was this year awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. His most recent article for BCM was "Fire and Ice," an account of the Edvard Munch exhibit, in Spring 2001.

Photo: The atrium of the National and University Library of Bosnia, in Sarajevo, in 1993. Serbian forces shelled the building, destroying an irreplaceable collection.

AP/wide world photos

Top of page


. . .
. » Saved by the Web
  »  The poet who would be king
  »  Laughing matters
  »  Shelf life

More images
from this article...
. . .
  »  BC's online database collection
. . .
  »  Digitized archives at the Burns Library
. . .
  »  Electronic books in BC's library system
. . .
  »  The British Library
. . .
  »  The Biblioteca Marciana
. . .
  »  The National Library of Russia
Alumni Home
BC Home

© Copyright 2002 The Trustees of Boston College