On Libraries


Art Libraries Journal [cover]
v.11 no.3, 1986

This article was first published as Artists on Libraries [no.] 1 in Art Libraries Journal, vol. 11, no. 3 (Preston, England: 1986),  pp. 9-10.

I love the word 'library' and feel sorry for the French who wasted their equivalent on a mere stationery shop and cornered themselves into using the nobly historical yet somewhat dry term 'bibliothéque'. I feel that my own books make up a library but would scarcely constitute a bibliothéque.

I am temporarily separated from the bulk of my books and thus more keenly aware than ever of their importance to me. It is not only the contents that I miss but the visible presence of them. I can picture the shelves and the configurations of buckrams and dust-jackets: in my mind's eye particular books can be located. I see Bergson's Creative Evolution there next to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Shall I ever read it again? I doubt it; yet the sight of it, austere on its appropriate shelf reminds me that in some sense what lies within its covers is also to be found within my head, although I cannot quote a word of it. Books do furnish a mind. The visual array of them is a house of memory in the form of a mnemonic of evocative spines.

Thus I love the look of a library, the frontal phalanx and the ribbed perspective.

I love the romance of a library. Among the plum and burgundy and sombre Oxford blue are stored moments of pleasure and enlightenment, moments when I discovered that I could question the printed word, moments when I found that I was not alone in thinking this or feeling that.

I love the smell of a library and the feel of books. Most of all I love the serendipity and the aleatory quirks of browsing. The only time I decided to sell off seemingly unwanted volumes I was cured immediately of such rash behaviour by a happy accident. Having made a tottering pile I slipped and knocked it over. All the books tumbled down the stairs. One alone reached the bottom and lay there, open at a page which solved a problem in my work that had long troubled me and which I had despaired of solving.1 Much labour was saved, except for the chastened replacing of all the books back on the shelves. Every book, however unpromising, will turn out to have its day.

Trips to the local library (Clapham Common, North Side) were the first (parentally approved) solo journeys that I made and I thus associate libraries with the perhaps paradoxical (at least to librarians) concepts of freedom and adventure. I still get the same feeling when I now enter the London Library, a heady mixture when combined with expectation and promise. Not even my short spell as a librarian (at Wolverhampton College of Art in 1969) cured me of it.

I love the arbitrary mystery of those drawers in alphabetical order which characterise the catalogue of even the humblest library. I can recite my favourites; A-BAN, BAN-CAV, CAV-DRI, DRI-GOL, GOL-JYP etc. etc. and ruminate in wonder at what book title could possible have begun with the enigmatic letters JYO.

Except for a set of Dickens my family house as a child was relatively bookless, though one of the lodgers belonged to a book club and I read the books he left around (in most of which there seemed to be too much kissing and not enough crime). Another lodger actually wrote books. His name was Shrimpole but he wrote his romances (on a typewriter with a purple ribbon) under the name of Ellen Love. My first acquaintance with a library might have confused me for it was a thing coming to me rather than a place to which I went; a trolley in hospital from which, uncensored, I could take any book I please.

I started building my own library at the age of thirteen or so and was conscious from the first purchase, an eighteenth century copy of Lemprière's Classical Dictionary, that what I was making was not a mere accumulation of books. Since the visual aspect was important to me I bought my standard poets in second-hand prize-bindings and for good measure had a few odd volumes of calfbound sermons to give age to the collection. I still have them, now augmented by works more germane to my interests for I find the greatest pleasure is to have and read a work in the nearest affordable form to its original. When I see a friend reading the Anatomy of Melancholy in paperback, I rejoice in the possession of a moderately battered copy of 1676 which I perhaps foolishly believe brings me so much nearer to the essence of the work. To see my shelves full of such books reminds me that through books I reach back into the past to make my future.

Artists use libraries in strange ways and it is difficult to suggest how a librarians can predict their needs, except not to de-accession anything with pictures, for it is often the murky and bad illustration that gives the right inspiration at the right time. Eduardo Paolozzi is a good example of an Autolycan plunderer of unconsidered pictorial trifles, and Max Ernst has made haunting books out of the stereotyped illustrations of rubbishy French novels. I also have made books from books, largely from a forgotten novel by W. H. Mallock called A Human Document which would normally seem a likely candidate for de-accession.2,3 (Please note that if you have a copy of same to throw away do send it to me instead.)

Today I might need to know what a toad looks like from the back and shall look in books before I search through ponds: tomorrow I might want to see a picture of Garbo or the Turin Shroud or need a list of the men that fell in the battle for Crete (to mention a few real and recent examples).4 If I cannot know in advance how can any librarian foresee my needs?

One final delight to explain why I now love libraries more than even I did twenty years ago; what started for me in the lending library at Clapham Common and the Battersea Reference Library, where I first got the truffle-hound instinct for browsing, has now come full circle. Having made books myself I now not only visit libraries but am in them. If you see a bearded plump (though not perhaps stately) figure sneaking a look in the catalogue drawer marked PADUA - PLEBS, it may well be me checking my own existence. It is as if, by being a long term admirer of architecture, I have finally qualified as a brick.


1. Works/Texts to 1974. Editions Hansjorg Mayer 1975, reprinted 1984.

2. A Humument. Thames & Hudson 1980, reprinted 1987.

3. The Heart of a Humument. Editions Hansjorg Mayer 1986.

4. Dante's Inferno. Translated and illustrated by Tom Phillips. Thames & Hudson, 1985.