“But it belongs in a library!” is the bleat of the scholarly-industrial complex whenever some choice book, usually of great monetary value, appears for sale on the open market. It is the unconsidered shibboleth of intellectual and moral sloth. (You will not often find librarians among those offering this drivel up because they know too well that it is an endless cry, quite capable of smothering even the largest library under a relentless tide of books). It suggests an easy panacea: that all worthwhile things are simply to be stored (nobly) by museums and libraries, that universalist appeal of the great unconsidered treasure-house, serene, supreme, and beyond such meddling questions as how the great bulk of its stores were filled. The spoils of war, the blood-money of drug-pimping pharmaceutical dynasties, dubious oligarchs, the systemic rapines of imperial extraction, or the catastrophe profits of oil conglomerates? Take your pick. You could ask such questions as easily of Istanbul as of London, but this piece will focus on the British because that is the context I know best.
This is not a scholarly article. It will not be considered. It will be: intemperate, unfair, and agitated. If you want citations: find them. I have written anonymously because I spend my professional life in the production of measured, polite texts and the quiet handling of old books. This is agit-prop. (There are plenty of thoughtful, principled people involved with old books. This article ignores them. If you feel attacked reading this: consider why.)
Museums and libraries still presume a moral authority in retaining and collecting books. But special collections, with their regulated, delineated, tediously narrow specification for how books may be read, enjoyed, or consumed represent a fraction of the long social life of books. A book belongs in the hand while you drink tea and read poetry and tease an old friend over nonsense. A book on the shelf of a sealed store, sterile, boxed, covers falling off, leather decaying, barely seen, still less read, perhaps even deemed t0o fragile for use other than in reproduction, is a rotting corpse.
Why collect erotic books in university libraries, to push the point still further? The academic study of historical erotica could not be further divorced from the smutty context of their original uses, their surreptitious collection, clandestine circulation, and titillating enjoyment. Erotica is pornography dressed up in expensive paper and print: the line between the two falls simply as a reader draws it.
The reality is simply that the acquisitions of privileged institutions, museums and libraries alike, follow the course of power and money. Those erotica collections, for instance, most often reflect the interests of an overwhelming male university population of yore. Good luck finding much suggestion of a queer or female gaze. Ignore the belated, token efforts to oh so generously include your queers, your subjugated persons, the unvoiced downtrodden historic mass of everyone not riding the tiptop of the social pyramid.
It is window-dressing. Look at whose use and needs are given priority. A library that only allows access to its own students, professors, or academic fellow-travellers is no public benefit at all. It is a temple to privilege, a bulwark of cultural capital, and it deserves no greater assumption of moral authority than the dastardly private collector of popular imagination, with their books stolen to order and their library a bunker-lair. At least the collector will not pretend to collect for public benefit – though, in truth, the individual passions of private collectors have often saved material entirely ignored by institutional collecting.
The point of this is not to suggest that private collecting is somehow superior to that of a museum or library, but simply that in some ways museum collections are the monstrous bastard child of the same currents of compulsive wealth which fuel some private collectors. There are museums and libraries who generously champion broad access and care about encouraging wide use and appreciation of their collections. Just so, some private collectors do the same. But, in turn, there are museums and collectors who serve no public good at all beyond documenting the wants of extreme wealth. Observe the revolving door between contemporary and modern art museums in London and the great mega-galleries of the art market, with exhibition and acquisition schedules shaped, ultimately, by the mega-rich and their handmaidens.
Why not throw open the great stores of London’s museums and libraries? Who cares? Give it all away by lottery, to be sold or circulated as the recipients wish. Set the art and objects and books out in the world to be enjoyed and worn and used to near-destruction and then renewed. Let the Greeks have their marbles, not their government – those sculptures don’t belong in Bloomsbury, really, whatever the legal explanations. Cultural heritage law is endlessly fascinating and complicated but it offers no moral certainty. The line between looted items where people care, and people do not increasingly looks like a floating function of distance and time. Beyond three centuries, it often seems, interest wanes, unless that looting and destruction represents the destruction of cultures wholesale – think, perhaps, of the Spanish in the Americas. More recently, then, the Italian campaigns in Ethiopia, or, between those two temporal points, the British looting and killing their way through Delhi in 1858.
How did the imperial Mughal library find its way to a basement near King’s Cross? The British Library’s collection guide to “The Delhi Collection” is coy to the point of dishonesty:
«The entire collection of manuscripts, estimated at 4,700 volumes, was acquired by the Government of India in 1859 at a sale organized by the Delhi Prize Agents and was transferred to Calcutta. In 1867 a second sale was held at which 1,120 less valuable items were sold. The remainder had been intended for the newly completed Indian Museum in Calcutta but instead was eventually transferred to the India Office Library, London, in 1876».
A neat, bloodless process by which one country’s cultural heritage moves all but en bloc into the possession of their imperial rulers. No mention of war, or looting, or blood at all. How tidily magical. The only whiff of war in the entire nonsense is the mention of the “Delhi Prize Agents” – this is not looting, this is imperial extraction, all neat and legal. Why trust an organisation willing to publish such excrement with anyone’s national heritage, British or Indian? Any national library ought properly to be held guilty until proven otherwise – they are nothing but agents of state power and privilege by default, whose collections and priorities will always vaunt the past and present tastes of the wealthy: conservative, repetitive, and dull.
Unmentioned, of course, is that the Delhi Collection (apparently still only possessed of an estimated number of volumes – why leave books with libraries if they can’t even be bothered to count them, let alone provide accurate, accessible electronic cataloguing) includes not only the imperial Mughal library, but the books of individual private libraries in Delhi also looted by British forces. Every time I hear someone from the British Library twitter about provenance and standards and restitution I simply want to scream: what about your basement?
Sending those books back to Modi’s fascistic Hindutva carnival of horror would be an obscenity. But even if restitution now is not a realistic option, surely an institution with principles might take its temporary stewardship seriously. Digitise the lot. Catalogue everything. Tell the actual story of the collection’s acquisition. Loot! War! Empire! Acknowledge that there is no moral case for those books to be in London. Force anyone who wants an easy panacea to recognise that retaining those books in London is a conscious choice which demands explanation. It can only ever be a stopgap. Where is the moral courage in museums and libraries? If they are such a great public good: preach it!
And if they aren’t: consider what models of heritage might be if power were not so readily and totally vested in the unhappy alignment of state power and privileged wealth. Heritage isn’t neutral or easy and that holds as true for objects or books being restituted to their countries of origins. The process cannot stop there. As the Delhi Collection’s bloodily awkward position shows, restitution is not necessarily even desirable in practice, frustrating though that may be.
There is a terror of transparency in most large institutions, and a horror of discussing, in public, anything that might be “controversial” – any admission of complicity to be deprecated, at all costs, even when it kills any hope of actually proving honest, worthwhile stewards of the heritage mounded up within their walls. Controversial here means simply anything that embarasses the status quo or forces any kind of consideration beyond that – even narratives of restitution and recognition are treated with a bloodless kind of distance, if at all.
Why should books remain the privilege of a few? What is the point? For whom, at some distant point, are we preserving them? A public lending library may actually serve a broad mass of people. A special collections library? I remain sceptical. A university research library, all cloistered? Ditto. The onus is on all these institutional arks of past power and past wealth, to clearly articulate what good, if any, they serve, not to presume to some unearned moral and scholastic authority. I’d rather see a book in hand, with someone sitting in a park, or riding a train, or really almost anything than pinned down in a glass vitrine or left inside a closed store and only allowed out for handling by the few. Books are there to be read and handled and circulated. There is a static kind of death intrinsic to any special collections library. Is a scholar’s exploration of an author’s milieu worth any more than the pleasure of a single reader’s enjoyment? As a despairing historian friend once noted, when you know that your life’s work may be read, closely, by say twenty people, you do begin to wonder: what is the point in keeping books within a library that simply makes incarnate injustices, unaddressed and barely acknowledged, and then pretends to some kind of saintly purity of purpose?
(What is Marilyn Monroe’s dress without the woman herself?)
X has worked with printed books and manuscripts in the United Kingdom.
(Most of those books did not originate in the United Kingdom).