This is what libraries are for

Ciaran Carson

I see myself, some time about 1955, carrying two pillow-slips stuffed with rags to the ragman’s yard at the corner of Cairns Street, off the Lower Falls Road in Belfast. I ‘see’ myself, that is, with the eye of memory, which seems to occupy, in a hovery, havering kind of way, both the inside of my present head (aged 52½) and that of the boy back then (7 plus a couple of weeks, maybe, for I sense a late-Octoberish, coming-up-to-Hallowe’en feeling in the air of 1955, an atmosphere of squibs and bonfires, and my birthday is October 9th). That being so, I cannot view the complete boy. This is not an out-of-body experience. I get glimpses of hands, shod feet, a short-flannel-trouser-clad leg (is there a scab on the knee?), yet when I try to concentrate on these features in order to determine their specific gravities and contours, their textures and their colours, they tend to blur, drifting out of focus, getting lost in the corner of the eye. This is only a manner of speaking. The eye has no corner, and the view has no straight edges like those of a photograph. The eye is not a camera, the eye of memory still less so. There is no fixed viewpoint. The eye flits and flickers around all over the place, taking in bits of this and that, weaving in and out, picking, choosing, shuffling, negotiating, building up a picture that is never static, for everything moves through time and space. In fact ordinary seeing is all memory, too.

At a certain point I felt I was beginning to exhaust the ideas which got me interested in photography in the first place. But before I abandoned the work, I wanted to try to deal with memory in a photograph, so you could see memory, as well as everything else that’s there. I made pictures of a walk in a Zen garden, and later on in a street in Kyoto, where I attempted to show the experience of walking, so that one might see the entire experience, in time. It means that you must look with your memory. Then it led me to believe that we’re always looking with our memory, as memory is always present. Memory is a part of vision – it’s inescapable. I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as objective vision. There never can be, because even the memory of the first instant of looking is then a part of the perception, and it adds up and it adds up. (David Hockney)

Now I find myself remembering the ragman’s premises, I visualize the brick floor of the covered yard, slightly tacky or greasy underfoot, scattered with wisps of lint and wool. Grey light seeps through the sooty glass roof. Bundles of rags are heaped against the sweating brick walls. The ragman himself has a looming, musty presence I can’t fully put a face or body to, but I think of him as robed in a long black overcoat belted with a piece of rope. The transaction must only occupy a minute or two, as he weighs the rags on a big cast-iron scales – one lot of woollens, the other linens and cottons – and pays me in heavy pre-decimal coin; yet I have remembered this occasion on many occasions in the past, for very many minutes, possibly for many hours altogether, not to mention the time I’m spending now writing about it, and re-reading it to make sure it corresponds to the truth of the matter, realizing as I do so that the matter is inevitably compromised by writing about it, and remembering it. And I don’t really know what made me remember this brief, dim encounter in the first place, beyond the context of this essay; but now that I imagine that the linen and cotton rags, for instance, were most likely collected for their value as papermaking materials, I am led to contemplate another memory, which is indissolubly linked to the smell of paper – or, more accurately, the smell of certain books.

I have only to stretch my hand up to the bookshelves above my desk and pick out a book, and open it, and plunge my nose between its pages, to retrieve that smell. The book is The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays, by Virginia Woolf, published in 1950, which I bought a couple of years ago at the Belfast Public Libraries’ annual sale. When I inhale, I am transported back to the 1950s and the Falls Road Library, where I get the allied aroma of polished linoleum and varnished shelving. I detect a gleam of brass here, too, coming from the handles of the big doors, but also from the little pulls of the filing-cabinet drawers, and I wonder if they are implicated in the overall smell. They would be polished, yes, but the brass itself … I remember a reference somewhere to a ‘Roman connoisseur’ who could distinguish among five kinds of patina on bronze by the smell, and, searching for it in a likely book, Roy Bedichek’s The Sense of Smell – it’s on the same shelf as the Woolf, which gives you some idea of the apparently random, but personally associative, organization of some areas of my library – I come across this quotation from Helen Keller:

The sense of smell has told me of a coming storm hours before there was any sign of it visible. I notice first a throb of expectancy, a slight quiver, a concentration in my nostrils. As the storm draws near my nostrils dilate, the better to receive the flood of earth odours which seem to multiply and extend, until I feel a splash of rain against my cheek. As the tempest departs, receding farther and farther, the odours fade, become fainter and fainter, and die away beyond the bar of space.

‘In the same connection,’ writes Bedichek, ‘she tells of smelling from a distance the destruction of a grove of trees of which she was fond. “I know,” she continues, “the kind of house we enter. I have recognised an old-fashioned country house because it has several layers of odours, left by a succession of families, of plants, perfumes and draperies.”’

As for the Roman connoisseur, there is no more information about him beyond Bedichek’s noting that ‘it is the nose, not the substance, that is remarkable’; but in the next breath he mentions a H.T. Finck, whose ‘identification of books and newspapers by odour is an unusual achievement, although he declares that many people do’. Turning to the bibliography, I find that Henry T. Finck is the author of Food and Flavor (New York: The Century Company, 1913), Romantic Love and Personal Beauty (London: Macmillan, 1912), and ‘The Gastronomic Value of Odours’ (The Contemporary Review, Nov. 1886): could a blindfolded Finck, we wonder, identify those books, that article, by their specific aromas? How far did this olfactory classification extend? Could a library be organized along these lines? Opening and sniffing a number of books on my shelves at random, I find that it is possible to say that each has a more or less unique odour; but it is a different matter entirely to remember which odour belongs to which book, and I wonder if a specially gifted mnemonist could construct a system based on aromatic association. For example, a copy of Cary’s translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia, published in New York by Hurst & Co. (n.d., but it looks 1880s), has a slightly acrid sooty brownstone smell, which seems appropriate to the subject-matter of the Inferno, at least; but then the Jefferson Butler Fletcher translation of 1931, in a 1967 reprint by the Columbia University Press, reveals a pleasurable aroma of cedar wood, or the interior of certain American homes, whose construction is much more wood-based than ours; it also reminds me of American central heating, the sort where the hot air comes up through an iron grille in the wooden floor. A London edition (W.W. Gibbings, 18, Bury Street, W.C., 1891) of the Cary translation seems to have a faint tobacco incense emanating from its pages. The new translation (Doubleday, December 2000) by Robert and Jean Hollander, which I bought in a Borders bookstore in Brookline, Massachusetts, does have a definite smell – of what, I can’t think, but it leads me to the scent of the nearby underground trolley station: iron, rubber, electricity, a claustrophobic heat. Having said all that, I comprehensively failed to identify these books in a blind test (I shut my eyes while my wife, Deirdre, presented the open book to my nose).

I was, however, successful with the Woolf. Examining it again, I find that its aroma derives as much from its leatherette library binding as the paper of its pages. (I have other items from the same book sale on my shelves, and they smell more or less the same, so that I would have great difficulty in singling out the Woolf from this company.) And, as I sniff and sniff again, I am returned again to the Falls Road Library, or to the larger realm of the Belfast Central Library in Royal Avenue, some time in the late ’50s, when I first began to read Rider Haggard; and yesterday, in order to research this article you are reading, I had occasion to go the Central Library to find a copy of Haggard’s She. Regrettably, the copy I was loaned – the only one in the library’s possession – is nowhere near an appropriately Victorian edition, but a Penguin, re-bound by the library in laminated boards. But it contains the same story, and the passage I’d been looking for:

‘Thou wilt presently understand,’ said Ayesha, with a little laugh, when Leo asked her; and certainly we did. Scarcely were the words out of her mouth when from every point we saw dark forms rushing up, each bearing with him what we at first took to be an enormous flaming torch. Whatever they were, they were burning furiously, for the flames stood out a yard or more behind each bearer. On they came, fifty or more of them, carrying their blazing burdens and looking like so many devils from hell. Leo was the first to discover what these burdens were.

‘Great heaven!’ he said, ‘they are corpses on fire!’

I stared and stared again – he was perfectly right – the torches that were to light our entertainment were human mummies from the caves!

On rushed the bearers of the flaming corpses, and, meeting at a spot twenty paces in front of us, built their ghastly burdens crossways into a huge bonfire. Heavens! how they roared and flared! No tar barrel could have burnt as those mummies did. Nor was this all. Suddenly I saw one great fellow seize a flaming human arm that had fallen from its parent frame, and rush into the darkness. Presently he stopped, and a tall streak of fire shot up into the air, illumining the gloom, and also the lamp from which it sprang. The lamp was the mummy of a woman tied to a stout stake let into the rock, and he had fired her hair. On he went a few paces and touched a second, then a third, and a fourth, till at last we were surrounded on all three sides by a great ring of bodies flaring furiously, the material with which they were preserved having rendered them so inflammable that the flames would literally spout out of the ears and mouth in tongues of fire a foot or more in length.

I say I was looking for this passage; more accurately, I was following up a brief reference in Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (the ostensible subject of this review, essay, or ramification). That mummies were indeed used as fuel is corroborated by the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica:

In Lower Egypt practically all the mummies have perished; but in Upper Egypt, as they were put out of reach of the inundation, the cemeteries, in spite of rifling and burning, yield immense numbers of preserved bodies and skeletons.

More specifically, as Baker notes,

Combustion this intense could generate steam. The railroad from Cairo to Alexandria, imposed on the Abbas Pasha by the English in the early 1850s, runs through several bustling necropolises; Egypt had no indigenous coal and very little wood. A small item in the September 27, 1859, edition of the Syracuse Daily Standard reads: ‘Egypt has 300 miles of railroad. On the first locomotive run, mummies were used for fuel, making a hot fire. The supply of mummies is said to be almost inexhaustible, and [they] are used by the cord.’

Mark Twain, visiting Egypt in 1867, recorded some of his impressions:

I shall not speak of the railway, for it is like any other railway – I shall only say that the fuel they use is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D—n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent – pass out a King’.

The English mummy is from mum, or mumia, the Persian/Arabic word for wax, bitumen, or pitch – highly inflammable materials. In late antiquity, bitumen was thought to be a powerful medicament, the Persian kind being specially prized as a panacea, and it was then further accepted that the pitch-like substances (not true bitumen, in fact, but resinous compounds) discovered in embalmed bodies were of similar virtue. By the eleventh century, certain Arab authorities had begun to ascribe the therapeutic values of mumia to the actual flesh of the embalmed. By the beginning of the sixteenth century ‘mummy’ was so highly regarded that François I of France was accustomed, says Belon, to carry a little packet containing ‘mummy’ mixed with powdered rhubarb, in case of accident. ‘Mummy is become merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams’, wrote Thomas Browne. There were different grades and flavours; the best was generally acknowledged to be that which was hard but easily pulverized, dark brown to black in colour, with a bitter taste and a strong smell. Roquefort alleges that the French found ‘fille vierge’ to be particularly desirable. In 1564 Guy de la Fontaine, physician to the King of Navarre, discovered that the Alexandrian mummy-traffickers were wont to eke out their supply with the bodies of executed criminals and the dead from hospitals, hastily prepared by stuffing with asphalt and then distressed by drying in the sun. In this context, it is worth noting that bitumen, dissolved in oil or turpentine, was used as a brown oil paint up until the nineteenth century; that it shows undesirable characteristics on ageing, as it never completely dries, and when applied in a thick film forms a network of broad cracks resembling an alligator’s skin; and that finely powdered ‘mummy’ itself was used as a pigment, a single corpse sufficing to supply one colourman’s customers for twenty years.

Such were some of the uses of the remains of the Ancient Egyptians. In 1855 a New York scientist, Dr Isaiah Deck, advanced the idea that the wrappings of Egyptian mummies could be used in making paper, which at that time was entirely manufactured from rags – linen and cotton castoffs. A sheet of rag paper might contain fibres from any number of garments: shirts, blouses, semmits, dresses, petticoats, unmentionables; used bandages were not exempt.

Arriving at a typical early-nineteenth-century paper mill, bales of rags were opened and thrashed to remove loose dust and dirt; rag-room attendants opened seams, and snipped off fasteners and decayed sections. They cut the rags into pieces about four inches square on scythe blades attached to posts. Then they sorted them according to type of material, colour, amount of wear, degree of cleanliness, and so on. Sometimes the sorted rags were stored for weeks to allow them to rot and soften before being broken down into individual fibres in a ‘Hollander’ beater, so called because it was invented, like so many other useful things, by the ingenious Dutch. The beater consisted of an oval wooden tub, in which revolved a solid wooden roll made from the trunk of a tree and fitted with about thirty metal knives. The rags circulated around the tub and were lacerated by the action of the knives revolving over a metal or stone bed-plate; the material was kept in constant motion given by a backfall and by the rotation of the roll. The resulting pulp was fed into a vat. Here the paper was made. Before mechanization, the process, as described by Judith A. McGaw, went as follows (I like to think that the protagonist is a remote ancestor of mine):

As vatman, Carson placed a narrow wooden frame, called a deckle, on the upper rim of the paper mold. Holding mold and deckle firmly together at each end, he dipped the mold perpendicularly into the vat, flattened it, and raised it covered with a smooth, even layer of macerated fiber. The slight suction created by the wedge-shaped ribs drew water out of the bottom of the mold, while the deckle kept the fiber from running over the edges. By tipping and flattening the mold at various intervals, Carson created paper of various thicknesses. By shaking the mold from side to side and back and forth, he caused the fibers to intertwine, making sheets with equal tearing strength in both directions. He then removed the deckle, set the mold on a rack, and quickly withdrew his hands so as to avoid spotting the newly formed sheet with water. Years of observation and practice gave his movements their necessary precision and rapidity.

Rags, increasingly, were in short supply. Bamboo waste, old rope, corncobs, grass and straw were important American pulp additives; European research had roamed farther afield. In the 1770s Jacob Christian Schäffer, an authority on the fungi of Bavaria, printed a series of pamphlets on papermaking which included sheets of paper made from such diverse materials as wasps’ nests, moss, vines, hemp, bark, cabbage stalks, asbestos, thistles, mallow, St John’s Wort, pinecones, tulip leaves, turf, and potatoes (both the skin and the flesh). In 1854 an Englishman named Hill produced a paper made from horseradish; also one from manure, ‘bleached and reduced to pulp by the usual modes’. Everything, it appeared, was grist to the mill. During the American Civil War the papermaker I. Augustus Stanford, possibly acting on Dr Deck’s suggestions, imported mummies from Egypt to his mill in Gardiner, Maine, where he pulped their bandages as well as their papyrus fillings, and made them into wrapping paper, thus destroying an unknowable number of ancient texts. As C.H. Robert notes,

… the great mass of our papyri (for example those from Oxyrhynchus and Arsinoë) were thrown away as so much waste paper. The oddest transformation has been suffered by those papyri which were converted into a kind of papier mâché, and used to form the covering or stuffing of mummies, whether of men or crocodiles; from one such emerged the earliest fragments of any manuscript of the Bible – the Manchester papyrus of Deuteronomy – which were found covered with glue and wrapped in some pieces of the first book of the Iliad

Another enthusiastic manufacturer, M. Szelelmey, about the same time as Stanford was turning mummies into paper, was making coffins from paper: his so-called ‘Zopissa’ casket of the late 1860s, made of compressed and laminated paper, closely resembled an Ancient Egyptian mummy case.

The coffin remembers the person it contains, and books are a monument to human thought: yet all will decay and putrefy. In the long run, everything will be carbonized, and turn into star-dust. Under the microscope, the interwoven tendrils, tangles, and filaments of paper look like galaxies, or a synaptic map of the brain, replete with the threadlike extensions of the nerve cells known as dendrons, from the Greek for ‘tree’. Trees, mashed and macerated into wood-pulp, provide the material for most papers nowadays; and wood-pulp paper is apt to decay sooner than that made from rags. ‘Sooner’ is a flexible word: for generations, librarians have been arguing that material printed on wood-pulp paper is liable to crumble into dust any minute – any day – soon – in a couple of years; and since the 1950s, as argued by Nicholson Baker in Double Fold,1 the librarians of the USA, following a policy of ‘destroying to preserve’, have methodically dismantled their collections of original bound newspapers, cut up thousands of so-called brittle books, and replaced them with microfilmed copies – bad photographs that are difficult to read, lack all the colour and quality of the original paper and illustrations, and deteriorate with age. Yet, as Baker demonstrates,

… the originals didn’t crumble into dust. Keyes Metcalf, a microfilm pioneer and the director of the libraries at Harvard, in 1941 predicted that the ‘total space requirements’ of research libraries ‘will be reduced by paper disintegration’. Then five, ten, twenty years went by, and the paper – even the supposedly ephemeral newsprint – was still there. So librarians began getting rid of it anyway. If you destroy the physical evidence, nobody will know how skewed your predictions are.

Space, or lack of it, is the enemy of the librarian, since, in the jargon, ‘every time you buy a book, you buy a space cost’. In the USA, tons of books were used as landfill, or as fuel for incinerators. The policy of the Belfast Public Libraries, in selling off what it perceives as surplus stock, has been somewhat more benign; but it has resulted in unique copies of books being lost to the public domain. At the book sale where I got The Captain’s Death Bed I also bought the following: Woolf’s The Death of the Moth and Other Essays; Stars and Atoms, by A.S. Eddington (Oxford, 1928); Modern Prose Style, by Bonamy Dobrée (Oxford, 1934); Textile Fibers and their Use, by Katherine Paddock Hess, M.S., Associate Professor of Clothing and Textiles, Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (J.B. Lippincott, Chicago & Philadelphia, 1931); and Crooks are Human Too, by Daniel J. Campion with Myron M. Stearns, the memoirs of a New York cop (Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1957). When I was borrowing She, I thought I’d look up these books in the Central Library’s computerized catalogue. With the exception of the two Woolf titles, there are now no longer any copies of these books in the entire Belfast Public Library system. There is nothing by Sir Arthur Eddington, the foremost British theoretical astronomer of his generation (and a pioneer of popular-science writing, quoted as an example of an expository prose style by Dobrée). Perhaps Eddington’s science is out of date; perhaps the extract from James Joyce’s Work in Progress that concludes Dobrée’s survey is no longer the last word in ‘experiment’, or maybe it still is; perhaps fibre technology has moved on since Katherine Hess’s day; perhaps criminal activity has become more sophisticated since Danny Campion walked the streets of the Gas House District. Certainly, these books are old-fashioned; and that is precisely why they should be in a library, for you’ll get them nowhere else. This is what libraries are for: to provide us with a window to the past.

As for the two Woolf titles – saved, I suppose, from total oblivion by their status as ‘literature’ – there is one of each, reprinted by Hogarth of London in 1981. These are nice copies, but they are not the true originals, the first editions now owned by me – The Captain’s Death Bed published in 1950, The Death of the Moth in 1942, the latter printed on wartime recycled paper, but perfectly serviceable, beautiful even in its austerity, with its little oatmeal flecks. What must it have been like to read the following, in London, in wartime?

How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all around them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light – windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars – lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondences; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs, its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which— She looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking, is she in?

But here we must stop peremptorily …

More to the point, what is it like to read this now? I can tell you what it’s like: it’s like Helen Keller’s breathing in the layered odours of a country house; it’s like sensing, as one reads, the breathing of others who bent over these pages before you. The paper is grainy, textured, its microscopic bumps and hollows saturated with the weight of others’ DNA, with the odour of Belfast libraries, the smell of the Blitz and broken brick, coal-dust, smog, the perfume of fingertips; it holds a residue of ropeworks dust and lint, horse-dung, peat. As I concentrate on Virginia Woolf’s essay, these impressions fade into the background, and I enter another realm. ‘Street Haunting: a London Adventure’ is a description of her going out to buy a pencil – a beautiful ramble through various spaces and times. This is the beauty of a text. It is a textile thing, a weave. And I, as reader, weave myself through space and time; I am both here and there:

Passing, glimpsing … Standing out on the street, one may build up all the chambers of an imaginary house and furnish them at one’s will with sofa, table, carpet. That rug will do for the hall. That alabaster bowl shall stand in a carved table in the window. Our merrymaking shall be reflected in that thick round mirror. But, having built and furnished the house, one is happily under no obligation to possess it; one can dismantle it in the twinkling of an eye, and build and furnish another house with other chairs and other glasses.


The week before I sat down to write this piece I had to travel to Aberdeen on some literature business. I was met at the airport by a man who identified himself as a librarian. He had just been on a course, he told me, in which he and his fellow librarians were told that in the future everyone would have only one book. But this book was a magic book, for it would contain every book. The book would have a little screen, and some buttons. The reader would punch in a code, a title, and thereby summon up, Aladdin-like, any book, from any one of all the libraries in the world.

But what, I asked him, will happen to the smells?

He looked at me as if I was quite mad.

1. For an explanation of the title, see pp. 152–7, e.g., ‘Anyone can do it. Open a book at random and fold its lower right corner in toward you, forming a triangle against the paper, until you feel it crease under your thumb. Then fold it back in the opposite direction until it folds against the far side of the page. That is one double fold. Do that until the paper breaks, or until you reach some stopping point, as specified by your library’s preservation department – one double fold, two, four, five. Double folding may seem oddly familiar to some, for it is how kindergarteners are taught to divide a piece of paper without scissors. Now, however, it is used to survey research collections in order to determine their “usability” and hence their fate.’

David Hockney, On Photography: a lecture at the Victoria & Albert Museum, November 1983; National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

Roy Bedichek, The Sense of Smell, Michael Joseph, London, 1960.

Nicholson Baker, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, Random House, New York, 2001.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869.

J.R. Harris, ‘Medicine’, in The Legacy of Egypt, ed. Harris, Oxford, 1987. (The paragraph beginning ‘The English mummy …’ is taken almost verbatim from this source.)

Judith A. McGaw, Most Wonderful Machine: Mechanization and Social Change in Berk-shire Paper Making, 1801–1855, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1987.

Dard Hunter, Papermaking, The Cresset Press, London, 1957. (See this source for Jacob Christian Schäffer.)

C.H. Robert, ‘The Greek Papyri’, in The Legacy of Egypt, op. cit.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 4 Autumn 2001