How to tend to Book Cemeteries

“When the Britains and America are fused into one book market; when it is recognized that letters, which as to their material and their aim are a high-soaring profession, as to their mere remuneration are a trade; when artificial fetters are relaxed, and printers, publishers, and authors obtain the reward which well-regulated commerce would afford them, then let floors beware lest they crack, and walls lest they bulge and burst, from the weight of books they will have to carry and to confine. …

A vast, even a bewildering prospect is before us, for evil or for good; but for good, unless it be our own fault, far more than for evil. Books require no eulogy from me; none could be permitted me, when they already draw their testimonials from Cicero and Macaulay. But books are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of communion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man. They are in a certain sense at enmity with the world. Their work is, at least, in the two higher compartments of our threefold life. In a room well filled with them, no one has felt or can feel solitary. Second to none, as friends to the individual, they are first and foremost among the compages, the bonds and rivets of the race, onward from that time when they were first written on the tablets of Babylonia and Assyria, the rocks of Asia minor, and the monuments of Egypt, down to the diamond editions of Mr. Pickering and Mr. Frowde. …

The purchase of a book is commonly supposed to end, even for the most scrupulous customer, with the payment of the bookseller’s bill. But this is a mere popular superstition. Such payment is not the last, but the first term in a series of goodly length. If we wish to give to the block a lease of life equal to that of the pages, the first condition is that it should be bound.” But, “bound or not, the book must of necessity be put into a bookcase. And the bookcase must be housed. And the house must be kept. And the library must be dusted, must be arranged, should be catalogued. What a vista of toil, yet not unhappy toil! Unless indeed things are to be as they now are in at least one princely mansion of this country, where books, in thousands upon thousands, are jumbled together with no more arrangement than a sack of coals; where not even the sisterhood of consecutive volumes has been respected; where undoubtedly an intending reader may at the mercy of Fortune take something from the shelves that is a book; but where no particular book can except by the purest accident, be found.

Such being the outlook, what are we to do with our books? Shall we be buried under them like Tarpeia under the Sabine shields? Shall we renounce them (many will, or will do worse, will keep to the most worthless part of them) in our resentment against their more and more exacting demands? Shall we sell and scatter them? as it is painful to see how often the books of eminent men are ruthlessly, or at least unhappily, dispersed on their decease.

Without answering in detail, I shall assume that the book-buyer is a book-lover, that his love is a tenacious, not a transitory love, and that for him the question is how best to keep his books. I pass over those conditions which are the most obvious, that the building should be sound and dry, the apartment airy, and with abundant light. And I dispose with a passing anathema of all such as would endeavour to solve their problem, or at any rate compromise their difficulties, by setting one row of books in front of another. I also freely admit that what we have before us is not a choice between difficulty and no difficulty, but a choice among difficulties. …

Clearly these masses, and such as these, ought to be selected first for what I will not scruple to call interment. It is a burial; one, however, to which the process of cremation will never of set purpose be applied. The word I have used is dreadful, but also dreadful is the thing. To have our dear old friends stowed away in catacombs, or like the wine-bottles in bins: the simile is surely lawful until the use of that commodity shall have been prohibited by the growing movement of the time. But however we may gild the case by a cheering illustration, or by the remembrance that the provision is one called for only by our excess of wealth, it can hardly be contemplated without a shudder at a process so repulsive applied to the best beloved among inanimate objects. …

Undoubtedly the idea of book-cemeteries such as I have supposed is very formidable. It should be kept within the limits of the dire necessity which has evoked it from the underworld into the haunts of living men. But it will have to be faced, and faced perhaps oftener than might be supposed. And the artist needed for the constructions it requires will not be so much a librarian as a warehouseman.

But if we are to have cemeteries, they ought to receive as many bodies as possible. The condemned will live ordinarily in pitch darkness, yet so that when wanted, they may be called into the light. Asking myself how this can most effectively be done, I have arrived at the conclusion that nearly two-thirds, or say three-fifths, of the whole cubic contents of a properly constructed apartment may be made a nearly solid mass of books: a vast economy which, so far as it is applied, would probably quadruple or quintuple the efficiency of our repositories as to contents, and prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded some centuries hence into the surrounding waters by the exorbitant dimensions of their own libraries.”

How best to tend to these book cemeteries, according to William Ewart Gladstone:


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