When Terry Belanger taught his undergraduate course on the history of the book, he would often begin it by passing around a 19th century book: something totally common, in poor condition, but still something new to his students—a children’s novel in a series binding, for example. He would have all the students in the class look at it, hold it, try to notice unusual things about it. When everyone had examined it and learned a little bit about it, he would take it back and tear it up. Then, holding the fragments of the book up for his shocked class to see, he would say: “The history of the book is not for wimps.”
His aim was to prove that we have a far stronger sentimental attachment to books than we generally realize, and that we truly don’t want to see them destroyed. He wanted to inspire people to save something they didn’t know they cared about. (He also honestly wanted to say that the history of the book is not for wimps: books are being destroyed, deaccessioned, ignored, forgotten.)
Perhaps this sentimental attachment means that books are worth preserving; that’s certainly the argument some scholars and librarians will make. We care about these objects, even though we don’t always know it, so we should work to preserve them. But when a library is competing for funding with something immediately worthwhile—something like increasing the amount of financial aid available to students, or funding a science lab that’s working to cure cancer—is sentimentality going to win? Probably not, and maybe, in some cases it couldn’t.
There are a large number of other reasons to preserve these books, of course; a long, important list. These books preserve our cultural heritage, and we can’t know who we are without them—but that’s an awfully difficult argument to make, sometimes. It also leads to a particular trap: not every book in the Alderman stacks has something to say about the modern person, even if it has something very clear to say about Jane Slaughter. Even when people are won over by the stories of some of the marginalia Professor Stauffer has written about, they are still only enhancing their sentimental attachment to the books. It’s difficult to develop a real sense of the scholarly importance of the physical book, and the individual copy of the physical book, as we all know.
There are excellent reasons to move to digital books, too. Many people I know read more books now because they can read on their ipad or even on their phone; they don’t have to take the trouble of selecting a book and carrying it around with them all day. It’s much more important that people read and think than that they have books on their walls, being preserved.
I truly believe that rare books are important—but, at the same time, I know I’m subject to sentimentality, perhaps even more than anyone else. I honestly can’t tell why I want to save some books. Every time I see beautiful Victorian books rotting on the shelves of a library, it makes me sad—but is that because these books are great resources and we are throwing away our heritage, or because I just like old books? Sometimes I honestly can’t tell. Are we angry at the evolution of the academic publishing world because we’re going to lose important scholarship, or because we don’t want an established system to change?
I can’t tell the difference between what is truly important and what I care about. When I phrase it that way, of course, it seems like there is no difference. But what I care about isn’t necessarily what other people care about, and I want to work to save books partly because I want to help other people. So I end up reminding myself every day to be less sentimental. I debate with myself: why is this book important? Why does it deserve space on my bookshelf, or on Rare Book School’s shelf? I force myself to make a practical argument. If I have no argument better than “because it’s a book!” then I tell myself to let it go, and to save the shelf space for a book that truly speaks about the human race. Like Terry, I attack my sentimentality, because it means I focus on the arguments that aren’t based on emotions—the arguments that, perhaps, can be won. I force myself to be practical about the future of the book: it’s ok if people want to read digital books, and it’s ok if libraries need to shift some books off-site because they don’t have space. But at some point it is no longer ok—and I can’t tell where that point lies if I’m being sentimental. After all, if people develop an extremely emotional response to nineteenth-century books, they will never risk opening them.
In the end, I think the emotional argument may be the best one to convince the average person to care about the average Victorian book; but the sentimental viewpoint is the worst one for a librarian or a scholar to take.