The Library Scene

So, I am in the middle of The Confusion by Neal Stephenson, the second book in The Baroque Cycle. I know I keep talking about these books, but I am right now totally engrossed. I can’t read anything else. (Except for websites and trashy magazines.) Also, I haven’t been sleeping well for about six months and twenty-one days, and I have been experimenting with getting up at 5:00 (or whenever I wake up) and reading in the Serenity Room until I fall back asleep.

The other night I was delighted to find:

“Leibniz and Fatio at Wolfenbuttel” (actually, there should be an umlaut over the “u.” Anyone interested in cracking WordPress for me to tell me how to umlaut it up?)

The context: Leibniz is Leibniz. (Also, man, that is not who I was picturing!) Fatio is Fatio. And what is happening here is Fatio, a “very” “close” “associate” of “Isaac Newton” (oops, the last one didn’t need quotes), is visiting Leibniz to do some “investigating,” of which sort we don’t yet know. And Leibniz takes Fatio to the library he is creating and describes to him his vision of the future:

“Behold, the Bucherrad!” [ed. note: there’s an asterisk leading to the footnote: “Wheel of Books”] Leibniz said.
Viewed end-on, the Bucherrad was hexagonal, and nearly as tall as Fatio. When he worked his way round to the front, he saw that it consisted mostly of six massive shelves, each one a couple of fathoms long, bridging the interval between hexagonal end-caps that were mounted on axles so that the whole apparatus could be revolved. But each of the six shelves was free to revolve on an axis of its own. As the Bucherrad spun, each of those shelves counter-rotated in such a way that it maintained a fixed angles with respect to the floor, and did not spill its load of books.
Going round to the other end, Fatio was able to see how it worked: a system of planetary gears, carven from hard wood, spun about the central axle-tree like Ptolemaic epicylcles. [ed. note: like you do.]
Then Fatio turned his attention to the books themselves: curious folio volumes, hand-written, all in the same hand, all in Latin.
“These were all written out personally by one Duke August, a fore-runner of the lot you just met. He lived to a great age and died some twenty-five years ago. It was he who assembled most of this collection,” Leibniz explained.
Fatio bent slightly at the waist to read one of the pages. It consisted of a series of paragraphs each preceded by a title and a long Roman numeral. “It is a description of a book,” he concluded.
“The process of abstraction continues,” Leibniz said. “Duke August could not keep the contents of his library in his memory, so he wrote out catalogs. And when there were too many catalogs for him to use them conveniently, he had woodwrights make Bucherrads– engines to facilitate the use and maintenance of the catalogs.”
“Very ingenious.”
“Yes– and it is threescore years old,” Leibniz returned. “If you do the arithmetick, as I have, you may easily demonstrate that to hold all the catalogs needed to list all the world’s books would require so many Bucherrads that we would need some Bucherrad-rads to spin them around, and a Bucherrad-rad-rad to hold all of them–”
“German is a convenient language that way,” Fatio said diplomatically.

Oh dear God! I realize that this is fictional dialogue, but the truth of the matter is that Leibniz presaged the library cataloging system, as it is used today. We have a series of engines doing the work of storing the abstracts (though most library records don’t include 520 fields and should!), and we have a series of engines to organize those engines, etc. And, in this country, the Library of Congress does the work of collecting “all” of the books published in this country, and OCLC does the job of collecting “all” of the records for published books around the world (that are submitted to them) (which is a lot) (most?).

At any rate, this is all making me think about the origins of library and information systems as we use them today. They don’t seem to me to be intuitive so much as prescribed, and their roots are from the Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment obsession with organization of knowledge and learning. Like I said on Friday, this is the era of the encyclopedia and strangely, relatedly, of landscape gardening, wherein the wild becomes tamed by the careful pruning and defining of terms and plants, respectively. So, the entire basis of library science, as we know it, is based on the assumption that knowledge is this big mess (probably true) that we can organize (maybe?) and classify (??) and control (non).

If not that, then what?

[Next, part II of the Library Scene, wherein complicated and confusing classification systems emerge and the shortcomings thereof are revealed–]



  1. Emily O Said:

    I enjoyed reading about Leibniz and classification. I’ve been combing the Web for just these sort of ponderings about catalogs and classification for an essay I’m writing. I put occasional posts on my blog about what I was thinking about, depending on what subject I had to tackle. Unfortunately, whatever I was pondering hardly ever made it into the essay because these are supposed to be short.
    Also, I found a link to html code for symbols: containing the magic code for the umlaut. Hope it works on WordPress – I know nothing about how to set up a blog on WordPress.


    • gowanstone Said:

      Ooh, where’s your blog?

      I get really excited about this kind of thing, and I would love to talk to other people who care too!

      I know what you mean about not everything making it into papers. Thank God the internet is big enough for all my digressions and explorations– and everyone else’s, of course.

      -River (aka gowanstone)

    • gowanstone Said:

      Oh, also, thanks for the html info. I hadn’t realized it wasn’t strictly a WordPress issue, but a gap in my html knowledge!

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