I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be a reader in a rare books library, a place like the Folger, or the British Library, or the Beinecke, for instance. That is, the sort of place where the lucky among us get to do research and routinely handle rare materials.
I think about this topic often while I am teaching my undergraduate course on book history. Undergraduates are not typically allowed into rare book libraries–I’ve heard stories that even some university special collections don’t like to let students handle their materials, an attitude which is sorely misguided and shameful and not, I hope, actually common. But because undergrads are only a recent, and quite small, presence in the Folger reading rooms, I worry that they might be looked at askance by other readers. And because it is a wonderful thing that the Folger lets my students have full access to the collections, I am especially careful to train them on how to be good library citizens.
I tend to think of being a good library citizen as common sense: there are the usual rare materials guidelines (no bags, no food or drink, no pens) and the usual library protocal (cell phones off, voices quiet, don’t turn up your ipod so loud that others can hear it–actually, that last one comes from my own private distate of ipods in libraries, a quirk that might be mine alone).
What needs to be taught more explicitly, of course, is how to handle rare materials: use foam supports and book weights, don’t force the binding to open further than it wants to, turn the pages carefully, wash your hands frequently. In my experience, students take to this instruction quite well. They are thrilled with the privilege of having access to these books, and they want to treat them with care and respect. And they really get it, especially once you explain the principle behind proper usage: the oils on your skin will leave marks on the page; if you force the binding it will break; if you flip through the pages, the edges will tear. If you can show them the structure of a binding–how the boards are attached, how the gatherings are stitched together–then it makes even more sense. The basic point of such handling techniques is obvious, especially to students of book history. Use the books with respect so that others can learn from them in the future.
But what I’ve been thinking about recently is not how to handle rare materials, but how to handle rare materials users. This is something that librarians are always conscious of, along with the need to balance access to materials with preservation of those materials. Go too much to either extreme, and nothing makes sense anymore. Too much access, and the materials will disintegrate. Not enough access, and what’s the point of keeping them? I kvetch about digital surrogates sometimes, and how much information is lost when you are looking at an image of something rather than the thing itself. But one thing that facsimiles do is to protect materials. The first round of information that a reader is looking to gather can often be found through looking at a facsimile or other surrogate; some will need eventual access to the original, but even if the number of uses is reduced by only a third, it’s still a reduction.
More tricky is the need to balance attracting readers into your collection with protecting the collection. The British Library’s recent installation of hand sanitizers during the swine flu scare is a perfect example of this. They installed the sanitizers to make their visitors and readers feel more secure in coming to the Library, but then they had to remind readers that the sanitizer could damage Library materials if it wasn’t used properly (let it dry, people!). In her post on this, bookn3rd saw this as “as a tug-of-war between our society’s panic over disease and the continuous, low-level panic of managing library collections” (her parenthetical insert in the previous sentence would have been the even more sensible injunction, “just wash your hands, people!”).
But I want to think about the question of what it means to be a reader in a rare book library not from the perspective of a librarian (since I’m not a librarian) or of an institution (since I’m not an institution, either). What does it mean to us, as readers in libraries, to be a reader of rare materials? What are our responsibilities to those materials, to the library, and to the other readers?
Since I assume that you, my lovely readers, either know how to handle rare books or would teach yourselves how to do that before you start handling them (more on that in a minute), one of our collective responsibilities is to help other readers handle their materials safely. That might mean intervening yourself, or it might mean getting a librarian to come to the rescue. I certainly realize that it’s not as easy to do as that. We tend to come from a world that punishes snitches and whistle-blowers rather than the wrong-doers. And most of the time we come to libraries to do our research, not be on the look-out for what other people are doing. (Well, I hear stories about rampant flirting in libraries, but you know what I mean.) I can think of instances when I saw something in a reading room and I thought “what?!” and let that be the end of the situation. In my defense, the most recent time, I was stunned that someone would try to staunch their bloody nose while sitting in the reading room rather than in the privacy of a bathroom–and the books on the table weren’t from a restricted collection but from the modern stacks. But still, I wish I had said something. Blood on a rare book is bad, but blood on a modern book isn’t good either.
The problem with my reticence, and the reticence that I know many of us feel in the face of poor library behavior, is that we too often rely on librarians to be the caretakers of rare materials, rather than seeing it as a collective scholarly responsibility.
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be visiting a number of libraries (including the fabulous British Library), looking at promptbooks and other rare materials. I’ll wash my hands thoroughly and let them dry completely, I promise! I’ll be careful with the materials. And I’ll try to speak up if I see someone who needs help. Or at least I’ll go find someone who can speak up.
For those of you who would like some instruction on how to safely handle rare materials: The best way to learn what to do is to ask a librarian; she or he will be able to inform you about general practices and show what the policies are of that specific library. You can also find some information online, including written guides from the libraries at Univerisity of British Columbia and University of Southern California, and videos demonstrating handling practices for a wide range of materials from the BL.
One last word: The photo heading this post is of a highly responsible reader in the Folger’s Old Reading Room, a reader who happens to be one of my former students. And check out the use she’s making of surrogate materials: she’s comparing two copies of a book, one held in our collection (nicely supported on foam) and one from EEBO. Just makes you want to come for a visit, doesn’t it?