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Monday, 14 October 2013

Treasuries of collective minds

Libraries are the repository of knowledge. Historically, when an important library was destroyed, knowledge was lost, perhaps never to resurface. The library of Alexandria springs to mind. There must have been so many blitzed in war. So the digital revolution is a marvellous boon – perhaps this knowledge can be distributed so much that it will never be lost (unless an ElectroMagneticPulse stills everything). Of course libraries contain more than knowledge; they contain dreams, visions, perceptions of dead people, the emotions that we label the human condition.

When an alien race discovers our planet, doubtless when we’re all dust, maybe they will disinter books, either in tree- or digital format. Maybe they will glimpse what we were, what promise we held…

A long time ago, while serving on HMS Diomede, a group of us were landed at Leith Harbour whaling station on South Georgia, Falkland Islands, an abandoned place, a ghost town.

Leith whaling station
Leith was established 1909 as a whaling station and by the end of the 1950s it was utilising every part of the whale, including the baleen which was used in the manufacture of brushes. Nevertheless whaling was going into a steep decline through over-fishing of the whales. Salvesen's ceased operations at Leith Harbour in the 1961/2 season but the station was sub-leased to a Japanese company which operated until December 15th 1965. This was the end of whaling at South Georgia but there is a postscript. Salvesen's bought the leases of all the whaling stations on the Island in the mid-1970s. In 1979, Constantino Davidoff of Buenos Aires contracted with Salvesen's to salvage machinery and other items from the abandoned whaling stations. The involvement of the Argentine navy in Davidoff's venture was a prelude to the invasion of South Georgia and the Falkland Islands in 1982…

Post-conflict, HMS Diomede arrived. Among the derelict buildings was a library that required a little tender loving care. The five of us spent two days and a night there, putting on a corrugated roof, sorting the books on the shelves. You see, from time to time a seafarer would pull into the harbour and might visit the library. I felt there were quite a few ghosts in the library, let alone the station.

Any derelict library is a sad sight to me. Now, having recently seen some pictures of the Mark Twain branch of the Detroit library, I was greatly saddened. The images showed shelves and shelves of books untended, with the roof caved in, serious structural damage. See here:

Yes, Detroit is in financial dire straits. Yes, people are more important than books (though some folk might change that to ‘some people’). I don’t know the full story. Initially, it was about eradicating mould, and then asbestos was discovered, so that called a halt. That was all to do with the structure, though. Not the contents. The books were left there – and were left from 1996. They were subsequently, eventually moved (somewhere) and the building was demolished in late 2011. A 2011 footnote with further explanations can be found here:
Whoever was responsible seemed pretty slow on the uptake to rescue the books.
Last image shows the building after demolition

Those books belonged to the community, bought by the local taxes, I assume. At the very least, they could have been distributed or sold to the people – unless the people didn’t want them, of course. Yes, how we treat books is very much a reflection of how some people treat people, perhaps: out of sight, out of mind?

I’ve seen photos and film of London, Liverpool and other British towns where libraries have been bombed in WWII and people scrabble over the rubble to rescue books. They, clearly, treasured books, the treasuries of collective minds.

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