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Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

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Chronopaths: Feelings in Libraries #1


 “Like all men of the Library … I have wandered in search of a book.” (Borges, Library of Babel)


One of my fondest memories of my years at the University of Chicago as a student is the feeling I had exploring through the book stacks in the old libraries on campus.

There was a feeling of mystery and adventure, of whole new worlds of knowledge to explore. I came across volumes hundreds of years old that should probably have been under lock and key. I found myself among books written in languages and alphabets that were totally new to me. And above all there was the quiet and comfort I felt alone in the library, just me and the books, never knowing what treasure I might pull from the next shelf, what new horizon of ideas and questions I might find.

The first picture here approximates that experience in so far as it was taken in the newer library at the University but with many of the same books in the same order of arrangement. In the old libraries light was not so bright, the floor was not so polished, and the bookshelves themselves showed the patina of age. But they were also narrowly spaced apart and rose to about the same height, giving the same feeling of being enclosed and protected and so near to all the books that you could hardly resist touching them or pulling them off the shelf for a quick look at what they contained.


The second picture from a much older library approximates a little more closely the mood and feeling of the older libraries on campus in my day. But they did not have this open plan with stacks of books rising up to a very high ceiling and accessed along walkways that might just feel a bit precarious.

But the light is more like the light I remember, the old metal of the book stacks more what echoes in my memory. And the books surely look old, and what after all is the difference in feeling between a library and a bookstore except for the fact that in a library most of the books are older than you are. In a library especially an old library history becomes physically tangible. In my time I touched books more than 300 years old, books that might have been held by the famous people who wrote them or by their friends. There is also a unique smell of old books, partly from leather, partly from old paper, and partly from dust. All these things contribute to the unique and special feeling you get in the book stacks of a great old library.


Like everything, libraries also evolve and change and come to evoke new feelings as well as echo old ones. In the third image we see the book stacks of a very new library in China. The library is filled with light, although slightly subdued light. The books are arranged on shelves, but there are no dividers and no separate book stacks or bookcases, all the books appear one after the other in an almost unending shelf that wraps around the whole enormous space of the library. The stairways to access the books seem almost to float and disappear so that the total experience is one of being on the loose in the Valley of the Books.

To some it may feel as if the books rise so high as to be out of reach. Or perhaps we may feel drawn up to explore them and see what lies on the very top shelves. Historically, for long periods in many libraries the books were hidden in so-called closed stacks and only the librarians could actually wander in them. In many ways this new library is a return to much earlier models of libraries in which the books were out front and on exhibition perhaps as status symbols of the library's owners as much as for easy access.

In which of these Libraries would you most like to wander in search of your Book?



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