Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.23


Marc Baratin and Christian Jacob (edd.), Le pouvoir des bibliothèques. Paris: Albin Michel, 1996. Pp. 338. FF140. ISBN 2-226-07901-7.

Contributors include: Bruno Latour, Christian Jacob, Ann Blair, David McKitterick, Salvatore Settis, Roger Laufer, Anthony Grafton, Roger Chartier, Paul Nelles, Jacques Revel, Marc Baratin, Luciano Canfora, Pierre Riché, and Jean-Marie Goulemot.


Reviewed by Michael Ryan, University of Pennsylvania, ryan@pobox.upenn.edu.

Word Count: 2,135.

The fourteen pieces collected in this volume were originally presented at a conference in 1993 to mark the opening of the Bibliothèque de France. The title of the book is certainly appropriate to the pretensions of the occasion: the imposing towers of the new library proclaim their solidarity with ancient assumptions and traditions about the role and function of libraries. It seems a short step from the Bibliothèque du Roi to the Bibliothèque de M. Mitterand.

Perhaps a better title for the pieces assembled here, however, would have been, "The Power of Myths about Libraries." For of the several threads that link these contributions, one in particular stands out. The Museum of Alexandria has exercised a tenacious grip on the western imagination, and it seems to be ever present in the literature about libraries. "Alexandria" embodies enduring fantasies about the power of libraries: the power of possession (the status conferred by artifacts), the power of exhaustiveness (having it all), and the power of controlling cultural memory (finger on the imperial delete key). As someone whose profession is the library, I can testify that the spirit of the Museum has survived in practical ways: until quite recently, large American research libraries were managed as omnium gatherum sites. It has taken the rapid shift to the electronic word to end that particular example of Alexandria. But the fantasy of Museum is still with us, only now it is both nowhere and everywhere, in the nebulous realms of cyberspace, and it is being offered to Everyman, not just to the Ptolemys and Caesars. We have reinvented More's utopia/eutopia. As Roger Laufer remarks in the present volume, the electronic revolution makes every scholar her own librarian. It is not yet clear how welcome a development information utopia truly is.

Le pouvoir des bibliothèques is not intended as a collective history of libraries but rather as a series of retrospective views of the roles, functions, meanings, and (yes) power of western libraries. On the balance, the individual contributions are quite useful, even where they recapitulate familiar positions. Thus, while Bruno Latour's lead piece on "libraries, laboratories, collections" sketches an epistemology of science that he has elaborated more fully elsewhere, it is worth reading if only for the marvelous image with which it concludes. Latour conjures up Winston Churchill, alone in his underground war room deep beneath Westminster. Alone but not alone, Churchill was at the center of an enormous network of information sources supplying him with data from around the world on the war effort. Churchill in turn becomes the scholar in the library, the scientist in the laboratory, the curator amidst the collection, never alone even when most alone, creating and responding to the involved knowledge networks that make intellectual activity possible. Libraries, in short, are congeries of possible networks and possible centers.

Christian Jacob does a masterful job presenting in brief compass the complex agenda that was the Museum of Alexandria. The Museum was first and foremost a political creation, an essential part of the Ptolemy's project of Hellenization. The pretention of having gathered together all texts -- Greek and barbarian -- was nothing less than an assertion of the supremacy of Greek culture and the ability of Greek elites, working under the aegis of the emperor, to control cultural memory. The scholars in Alexandria comprised a community dedicated not to independent study but to a common enterprise of translation, summarization, and purification. More than that, Jacob argues, "the library forged a new way of seeing on the part of the reader, distanced, attentive to style, to literalness, to the very readability of the work." (62) Ivan Illich's text-centered culture has its roots in the Alexandrian project. This new reader was the editor, the project philological analysis. The disciplined reading of the Alexandrians was a way of bringing order to the multitude of texts, a praxis of imposing hierarchy on the 500,000 or so rolls believed to have been in the library during the time of Callimachus. In the process, the scholars produced a new paradigm of knowledge: erudition. All knowledge was based on prior knowledge derived from texts; knowledge was text based. Like Latour's networks, the Alexandrian text became, in turn, a collection within a collection. The legacy of the Museum, however, for research libraries was an essential tension still with us: that between the desire for comprehensiveness and the need for selectivity. If all texts have some value, not all are wanted or needed. Alexandrian scholarship became the thin neck of a very large bottle.

Later eras generated other means of contending with the imperial mandate of the post-Alexandrian library. David McKitterick neatly sketches the development of bibliography and classificatory schemes in the early modern period, when the proliferation of books due to printing created the first age of information glut. The most basic principle -- with us today, alas -- was the separation of manuscripts from printed books. This unfortunate development has had the consequence, according to McKitterick, of separating "research from genuine historical understanding." (111) The advent of the electronic word promises the same kind of format-niching at the expense of content. The power of modern libraries for McKitterick is precisely their filtering and categorizing function.

Individual scholars, though, performed -- and still do -- similar functions within their own Latouring worlds. Ann Blair's piece on the role of commonplace books in the Renaissance reminds us of the importance of individual compendia of fragments derived from reading and experience. Schools taught students the importance of such personal "bottlenecks", which surely go back to the medieval florilegia of the monasteries. If the electronic word threatens or promises to make every scholar his own librarian, Blair can shows us how we've been there, done that by drawing on her excellent work on Jean Bodin.

Humanist culture was a bibliocentric culture, and Tony Grafton, Roger Chartier, Paul Nelles, and Jacques Revel examine aspects of its acquisitive dimensions. Tony Grafton -- who reads as well in French as he does in English -- elegantly retraces some familiar paths as he describes the ways in which bibliophily and erudition shaped the social contours of quattrocento Italy. As the secular religion of the new monied Italian elites, humanism required of its practicioners not simply rooms of handsomely bound books, but the right books and a knowledge of them to boot. It wasn't enough to be Molière's bourgeois gentilehomme. Paul Nelles turns to Lipsius and his own work on Alexandria, the De bibliothecis, which attempted to wed an ethical stoicism with antiquarian research to produce a mixture not unlike that of Grafton's confection: a humanist culture that is good because it makes you a better person. More importantly, what Lipsius saw in Alexandria was not only the union of high purpose and deep learning but a community of scholars open to all points of view. The Museum had no ideology, no sectarian orientation, and for Lipsius this was a model of the role libraries could play in his own strife-ridden time: oases of tolerance, where topics could be pursued without fear of violence or repression. For Nelles, Lipsius becomes an early advocate of a "truly public library," a space of learning open to all and free of rancor.

Lipsius's project had its French equivalent in the magnificent library of Jacques-Auguste de Thou, whose 6,000 volumes epitomized the status and prestige conferred by libraries on their owners. But, as Jacques Revel nicely points out, De Thou's celebrated collection was an important part of a larger vision on the part of its creator. Built at great personal and material expense during the chaos of the French wars of religion, the library was an expression of De Thou's irenicism and his attempt to create institutional ways of restoring peace to a fractured society. De Thou's library was his version of Lipsius's Alexandria: a collection that served as the space for a community of scholars to engage freely in their work, thus insuring "the commerce in ideas." Revel's portrait of De Thou serves as the backdrop for his illuminating discussion of Gabriel Naudé's Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque, a work often presented as a classic in the history of librarianship without regard for the context in which it was fashioned. Revel supplies that context by presenting the Bibliotheca Thuana as the model behind Naudé's foray into librarianship. The work of a young libertin érudit, the Advis is for Revel not a document looking to the future but a summary of the irenic, humanist culture of powerful lawyers and magistrates like De Thou on the eve of its eclipse by the absolute state. On the other hand, as Roger Chartier points out, the patronage of kings and princes was a two-edged sword. An instrument of control, to be sure, princely patronage could also mean liberation, a certain freedom of expression not otherwise possible in tradition-bound societies. It was not the monarchy but the Parlement of Paris and the Sorbonne who were the great book-burners of eighteenth-century France.

I can report that (happily) I found no references to Walter Benjamin unpacking his library and only a couple to Borges's imaginary library. But no collection on the power of libraries would be complete without something on Aby Warburg's creation. Salvatore Settis supplies the desideratum with a long, patient, and non-tendentious reconstruction of the Warburg Library in its various settings. Reading Settis's account of Ernst Cassirer's reaction to Warburg's library, one is struck by the hold this collection and its arrangement maintains on the twentieth-century imagination. I recall interviewing for a job some years ago at a noted research institute on the west coast and being lectured by the associate director -- an art historian -- on how librarians had gotten it all wrong. He then pulled out a sheet of paper and began outlining the arrangement of the Warburg Library. "See, this is what we want here." For me to have asked, "But why?", would only have confirmed the ignorance of my profession.

Two contributions in this volume are written in a minor key, one an elegy, the other an anxiety, and both preoccupied with the fragility of libraries. Luciano Canfora reminds us of how little we know about libraries and written culture in the ancient world. In fact, he asserts, what is extraordinary about ancient literature is how very little of it survived: "The disappearance of such a vast quantity of books, despite the range and depth of their diffusion over an enormous geographic area, is a phenomenon practically unique in human civilization." (267) Be that as it may, Canfora's piece offers a provocative, backdoor approach to the nature and role of libraries in the transmission of culture in antiquity. Violent acts of God and of man are not the only reasons for the paucity of texts and information. The internal dynamics of cultural choice are also responsible.

Jean-Marie Goulemot, on the other hand, turns to a dark side of the Enlightenment as he examines eighteenth-century fears about coming catastrophes. With the fate of the Museum in front of them, many in the eighteenth century were struck by a gloomy irony: with so many books at hand thanks to the printing press, wasn't it also possible to imagine a future world bereft of them due some enormous calamity? Condorcet's benevolent view of time and the future was never unchallenged; the project of the Encyclopédie itself drew from a sense of urgency about the need for a major cultural epitome to aid an uncertain future reconstitute civilization. This was the age of Gibbon, of the proliferation of encyclopedia projects, anthologies, "libraries," and opera omnia.

The "Post-Scriptum" of this volume, though, makes us fellow travelers with Goulemot's nervous philosophes. It is the text of an ingenious sculptural installation by Anne and Patrick Poirier entitled Mnemosyne. As we are guided through the hundreds of rooms of this gigantic memory palace (which seems in the accompanying photo to resemble a space ship from Star Wars), we come to the final collection: Salle des Architectures Noires. The exhibit and the volume conclude ominously: "La Salle des Architectures Noires comprenait-elle les ruines calcinées de Mnemosyne? Ou la maquette eventrée de la Très Grande Bibliothèque?" (314) Network failure, system collapse, disc crash, recorded culture menaced by invisible bugs and viruses ...

Other contributions include Pierre Riché's quick summary of the role of libraries in the forging of early medieval cultures and Marc Baratin's discussion of the emergence of formalized grammar in the context of ancient libraries. While conference proceedings marking celebratory occasions are often collections to be avoided, the present volume is a happy exception.