Building a library for all time

March 7, 2016

 

I love old, beautiful books: the way they were hand-made individually and bound so carefully, the crackling pages, the fading gilding. I enjoy exploring the high quality illustrations and lithographs inside which make many volumes individual works of art.

Then I can sense the energy of a book’s many readers over the years, and I like to imagine their joy.

At a recent reception in the 17th-century library in Lambeth Palace for The Prince of Wales Fund, we fortunate guests heard His Royal Highness talk of his fascinating childhood exploring the Royal libraries, and heard how he “grew up surrounded by books and all the fascination that goes with the books – the smell, the dust, the occasional strange beetles that eat the paper”.

The Prince of Wales is patron of the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL), a cause I am delighted to support. And his Fund is helping the charity to purchase many important literary works, including documents and papers of immense value, so that they may be saved for the nation.

Not only can the works be preserved but also digitised so that important books may become more accessible. Digitisation is of course also important because most of us no longer have the space for our own libraries. It won’t replace the human touch – we still cherish vinyl records over MP3 downloads – but a Kindle has so many advantages: you can buy on impulse and not wait until you find a book shop; you can download a book spontaneously on the beach; you can even read in a dark room without disturbing your partner.

Does digitisation change the nature of reading? Umberto Eco, the recently deceased Italian author and academic, said: “The book is like the wheel – once invented, it cannot be bettered.” This, in This is Not the End of the Book, was part of his published discourse on the future of publishing with French essayist Jean-Philippe de Tonnac.

In the same work, De Tonnac himself asked: “But what is a book? And what will change if we read onscreen?” He wonders if we will lose that “peculiar intimacy between the author and reader, which the context of hypertextuality is bound to damage. A sense of existing in a self-contained world that the book and, along with it, certain ways of reading used to represent.”

Of course there are differences between those lovely old tomes and a glowing display on a beach. But, for me, the constant is perhaps stronger: the act of reading itself. This is what unites us now, just as it did since humans first learnt to communicate through hieroglyphics. And it is why I am so happy to support the conservation of literature so that future generations may share our energy and joy in centuries hence.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation