Thursday, April 09, 2020

'To Leave You an Opinion of Their Sagacity'

All branches of the Houston Public Library closed, like much of the rest of the city, on March 16. That’s no longer the loss to patrons it would have represented even a few years ago. Librarians have intensified their systematic culling of the collection, with an emphasis on discarding older volumes. What remains are largely recent, popular titles – in other words, little worth reading.

About two weeks later I drove to our neighborhood branch to return three books we had borrowed before the shutdown, but the return chute was sealed. A sign said the closure was due to the ongoing pandemic and that we would not be fined for overdue books for so long as the library remained closed. The social-distancing precaution I understood but I wondered if fear of COVID-19 contagion via books and other library materials was also behind the sealing of the chute.
I had a vague memory of a nineteenth-century panic associated with libraries and disease. A brief search turned up an account in the Smithsonian Magazine by Joseph Hayes of several such alarms: “This scare, now mostly forgotten, was a frantic panic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that contaminated books—particularly ones lent out from libraries—could spread deadly diseases.” Let’s not start feeling too superior to our benighted forebears. Public and private reactions to the novel coronavirus haven’t always been reasoned or dignified. Like most of you, I haven’t the faintest idea if a book handled by someone infected can carry the virus, or for how long. The library’s precaution is probably prudent.

In a letter to Wordsworth written on this date, April 9, in 1816, Charles Lamb thanks the poet for sending him proofs of his new books. Lamb says we will wait to have them bound before loaning them out to friends:

“I think I shall get a chain and chain them to my shelves, more Bodleiano, and people may come and read them at chain’s length. For of those who borrow, some read slow; some mean to read but don’t read; and some neither read nor meant to read, but borrow to leave you an opinion of their sagacity.”

In a footnote to this letter in Vol. 2 of The Letters of Charles Lamb (1935), the editor, E.V. Lucas, writes: “[B]ooks seem to have been chained in the Bodleian Library up to 1751. The process of removing the chains seems to have begun in 1757. In 1761 as many as 1,448 books were unchained at a cost of ½d. apiece. A dozen years later discarded chains were sold at a rate of 2d. for a long chain, 1½d. for a short one, and if one hankered after a hundredweight of them, the wish could be gratified on payment of 14s. Many loose chains are still preserved in the library as relicts.”


Cornflour said...

I'd guess that the closure of library book return boxes has a more mundane explanation. The library's staff have all been sent home. Nobody's left to empty the return boxes. Yes, I'm no fun at parties.

Wurmbrand said...


You perhaps know Nicholson baker's Double Fold: Librarians and the Assault on paper (2001)?

Honor librarians, but don't trust them....

Dale Nelson