The 1/30 of the Library’s History

2018-10-25 09:18:21

Peking University, Oct. 24, 2018: Any serious reader of Jorge Luis Borges would dream of a world of libraries at least once in their lifetime. For Borges, the world is an infinite labyrinth of bookshelves. It is knowledge, fractal and endless, that make up the universe.

I have never dreamt of a Borgesian library. I blame that on my brain’s laziness. But the closest encounter I ever had with such a thing, so far in my life, is the main Library at Peking University. On a campus where building heights are strictly regulated, the library is a giant. It is one thing that you need not tell a tourist that it is significant in the grand narrative of the University, or in the micro narrative of every individual who has ever become associated with the University in any way. Tourists involuntarily stop, gasp in awe, and pose for pictures. I have been too familiar with those routines having spent four years as an undergraduate at the University.

I know this is just an ephemeral moment in the long history of the Library. It is only 1/30 of the 120 years the Library has been in existence. From the stained checkout records in old volumes where you may catch a glimpse of the signature of a great academic, to the rows of card catalogs now sit quietly behind a set of computers, you know this is a “thick” library. Many layers of history, of meanings, of stories have been buried in the volumes, folios, microfilms and archives. Every now and then, we wake up a piece of material, and bring all those layers back to life. Meanwhile, you may also tell your friend the timeless anecdote that one of the greatest figures in Chinese history used to be a librarian here.

I can still recall those moments which people label as “serendipitous”. Cruising the stacks and materials just to make one unexpected discovery is the best experience I had on this campus. Trust me, you will find a book on every subject you can ever think of in this Library. 120 years of accumulation of material has made sure that no single individual will exceed the knowledge pooled in this building. To me, it is the embodiment of human civilization – bringing together spatial and temporal elements of the entire world all under one glass dome that shelters the “Sunshine Hall”.

It has also become part of life for students here. The many days and nights I spent frantically reading, calculating, thinking, reflecting, and playing with our phones still remain vividly in my mind. Then there are other libraries, the “departmental libraries” which host books on particular disciplines. My department’s library is a true hideaway: deep down the corridors of the Department of Sociology, heavy doors open into a world of knowledge. Walking into the library is like retreating from the noisy fanfare that constantly goes on at the South East Gate into a place where I can call on ideas from all places and time and re-live their experiences and thoughts. For sure, it is 1/30 of the history of the library. It definitely makes up much more than 1/30 of my life at the University.

At 120, the Library saw fit to call a conference to talk about the future of libraries, a topic I regard as one of the most urgent for a proper academic life at the University. It has come too late, when we have already done a fair share of damage, physically and metaphorically speaking. For all the pride we have in the Library, we are quietly in danger of losing it. We already know for certain that physical conditions of the Library have been deteriorating. Then, there is the constant battle for study space that have obviously placed too much burden on the Library. If the Library were a giant, then it is surely an old and rickety one now. The demands of modern users have far gotten ahead of the physical capacity of the Library.

But more seriously, the functions of the Library as a place where people could evoke knowledge from various time and space have become less attractive. To be sure, it is well used in terms of being a study space. However, it has also slowly become a book storage instead of a library. We are in the great era of the democratization of knowledge: we no longer have any holistic view beyond a particular item we know exactly we need. When we do not know what to fish for, we place all our faith in a computer algorithm that generates a relevance ranking. At this point, we no longer need libraries: we will let relevance rankings find everything for us.

Is this going to be the future of libraries? And is this the direction we should be going? I cannot answer such questions. The one thing for sure is, the labyrinth of bookshelves has gone into hibernation. Who will dream of a Borgesian library again?

I wrap up my writing in another great library of this world, one that I have quickly fallen in love with. But the library with which I shared 1/30 of its history cannot be easily erased from my memory. So it is time to leave the core message: Happy 120th birthday to our Library. 

Xu Liangdi, the author, studied sociology as an undergraduate student between 2014 and 2018. During his time here at PKU, he benefited greatly from the resources and assistance provided by the various libraries on campus. Currently, he is continuing his training in sociology across the Pacific Ocean. In his spare time, he likes to check other people’s spelling and grammar, but not his own.

Written by: Xu Liangdi
Edited by: Zhang Jiang