Four Notes on our Love of Books and our Need for Libraries

Four Notes on our Love of Books and our Need for Libraries

by Henrike Christiane Lange, Associate Professor of History of Art and Italian Studies, University of California, Berkeley

UC Berkeley, Spring Term 2023


A Note on Historical Books

The historical books in our collection are honeycombs of the centuries. They provide us not just with their specific knowledge from other times, but also with new insights about our own historical situation that we can only fully appreciate when seeing it compared to other eras. The material presence of historical books offers a shared experience with earlier readers – the readers of their time. Finally, the very awareness of the books’ own different time and place of origin generates a friction which allows us to progress with better consciousness and determination in our own timelines – not to be free-floating and lost in space, without time and context. The library thusly can both anchor us and liberate us at the same time in this process of discovery. Finally, a library of such historical objects for teaching and training is more than the sum total of the books. It is the select and familiar presence of those books together in an organized space, carved out of the chaos of the rest of the world as a refuge for the calm immersion into the records of others’ long-gone thoughts that spark the magic of understanding.

A Note on Scholarly Monographs

Monographs are little time machines: In a matter of hours, one can walk with the author through a specific and manageable field of knowledge, acquired over years, condensed yet decompressed, presented in a reader-friendly way, and focused on a valuable question. A monograph is not as short and shallow as a blog post, and it is not as limitless and infinite (therefore ungraspable) as the whole wide virtual cosmos of the world wide web. In a scholarly monograph, an author explores at the speed of the reader’s reading time what they have learned from having done years and decades of work of researching, reading, sorting, evaluating, weighing, expressing, writing, re-writing, and editing under the harsh conditions of double-blind peer review. This model can help enable readers and researchers to produce, eventually, their own unique contribution to a field in the form of a book – sent into the world to find its readers, way beyond the personal sphere of its author. The department library is the space to encounter and compare these kinds of books (at the height of their training, graduate students are expected to read up to a dozen of monographs per week in order to grasp their different styles, approaches, rhetoric, and strategies of presentation of the material).

A Note on Art History Libraries

Art history libraries have a double importance for the discipline, as they contain both secondary and primary sources: Books in art history research are not only containers of written, textual knowledge, or simple records of visual material, but also often serve as primary materials when they contain large or unique plates, a corpus of drawings, of maps, or of prints. They provide core materials such as large folio-sized works that outdo our screens, or plates that we use for comparisons in teaching around the table. Art History Libraries such as ours in Doe Library hold original documents that are themselves primary sources also when it comes to photo books and artist books, and the library’s rooms filled with books are our equivalent of a “lab” space. Large prints, maps, and photos need to be spread out on folio-size accommodating tables and compared, arranged, discussed with small groups in our training of emerging experts in our fields. The access to these physical materials together with small groups of students in a dedicated library space is an irreplaceable feature of the training of future architects and art historians. As is true for all our campus libraries, such specialized department libraries are not only collections somewhere without roots in time and space, but carefully grown, cultivated, specific places that have been assembled only here for a likewise growing and developing student population according to their specific needs.

A Note on Berkeley’s Libraries in the Now-Moment

Entering someone’s personal research library, fascinatingly, can feel like entering someone else’s brain – and to move about as if in a silent conversation with them, following their lead or jumping between sections and fields of knowledge, seeing the surprising and original connections that someone else made a long time ago, and getting inspired. The same applies to the experience of wonder and discovery in the large departmental, field-specific library: when we enter our library, we truly enter the good will, deep knowledge, and great care that generations of librarians, faculty, staff, and students have left there in invisible traces – in the objects as much as in the coherence, distribution, arrangement, and context of the objects. This is why off-campus storage removes the most important component from research, teaching, and learning; the eureka moments that can only happen on the quiet days alone in the library. We sometimes forget that not only the books and their authors speak to us, but all the caretakers and champions of the books that helped them find their way into our collection. As disciplines in the arts and humanities in a worldwide context that is hostile to the slow, deep, focused, and truly generative conditions of our work, we need those moments more than ever – not just the researchers, but especially our brilliant, insightful students.