Petroski, Henry Entries

Put the book back on the shelf


If there's one thing I'm taking away from Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf, it's the fact that no technology is so basic as to be self-evident. I always thought of the humble bookshelf as a foregone conclusion: faced with a bunch of narrow rectangular solids, it only makes sense to place them vertically, front-to-back along a horizontal surface, with some kind of identifying label along their edges, yes? Petroski's book, a history of the development of book storage technology in the West, entertainingly disproves this assumption.

Petroski points out that, given the high value of early books, which were each hand-lettered and often bound between jewel-encrusted covers, a very secure storage technique was needed. In pre- and early medieval monasteries and universities, the few books available were kept in steamer-type trunks with multiple (often three) locks, each with a different key. The librarian would keep one key, and two other responsible persons would have the other two, so that all three key-keepers would need to congregate at the book trunk anytime someone wanted to withdraw a book. In this way, accountability would also be maintained: at least three people would witness each book withdrawal, which would minimize lost volumes. Not only that, but the ritual of book return is enough to chill the blood of a person like me, who nearly always returns her library books shockingly late, often without having read them:

The librarian shall read a statement as to the manner in which brethren have had books during the past year. As each brother hears his name pronounced he is to give back the book which had been entrusted to him for reading; and he whose conscience accuses him of not having read the book through which he had received, is to fall on his face, confess his fault, and entreat forgiveness.

Of course, I might be more motivated to finish my library books if I knew I would have to fall on my face and beg to be pardoned.

As more books accumulated, and architecture changed, the locked chest evolved into a system of tilted lecterns, with or without seats, to which individual books were attached with iron chains. The tradition of chained libraries was apparently preserved for a shockingly long time in some places; the last college in Oxford to remove the chains from their books did so in 1799. At first the books were left open or closed on their designated lecterns, but as library collections grew, each lectern began to have multiple books. This necessitated shelves added above the lecterns themselves, where chained books could be lain when not being consulted. These shelves are the ancestors of the modern bookshelf.

But lots of things still had yet to evolve about book shelving before it would be recognizably "modern." Books were usually shelved horizontally in piles, for example, and even when space considerations forced people to start shelving them vertically, the chains attached to their covers dictated that they be placed with their fore-edges, rather than their spines, facing outward. Based on an informal sampling of my friends and acquaintances, this is the single most disturbing part of Petroski's book. People react strongly to the idea of shelving books spine-inward; comments like "that's just wrong" and "I don't like to think about it" kept cropping up when I mentioned the practice. But in addition to the chains, which would have scraped the covers of the neighboring books if the spines had been faced out, there are other reasons that a fore-edge first shelving technique makes sense. There was no identifying information on the spines of books, for example, until well into the seventeenth century. For a long time, they were completely unadorned, in stark contrast to the elaborate front and back covers. In addition, Petroski brings up the fascinating point that, even when they began to be decorated,

The exoskeletal spine, which holds up the innards of the book structurally...was still the machinery of a book...and so it continued to be the part that was hidden as much as possible, pushed into the dark recesses of bookshelves, out of sight. Shelving books with their spines inward must have seemed as natural and appropriate a thing to do as to put the winding machinery of a clock toward the wall or behind a door, or both.

This is so interesting to me. I would, of course, never think of positioning a computer or desk lamp so that its electrical cords were on conspicuous display, and medieval and Renaissance folks apparently felt the same way about book spines. I wonder what this reaction, so seemingly universal, is about. Why do we find unattractive the parts of our technology that make it work? Do we only stop feeling put off by the functional/structural elements of a thing when we no longer perceive it as "technology"? The idea that book spines, so infinitely appealing to me now, once seemed distasteful bits of mechanics, makes me wonder how future generations will perceive our messes of wires and cords. Maybe my great-great-grandchildren will, like J.K. Rowling's Arthur Weasley, take to collecting plugs.

I found the last third or so of Petroski's book less interesting than the first two-thirds. Once the bookshelf assumed more or less its modern form, it was just a matter of optimizing space and usability in libraries, and I don't have the engineer's soul to enjoy such conversations as much as some people. Nevertheless, the book as a whole was highly enjoyable - the kind of thing from which I tend to read out tidbits as I find them to whomever is around to listen (usually David, who is a good sport). It was a great way to kick off the Dewey Decimal Challenge (000 century), and I'm looking forward to picking out an equally thought-provoking choice for next month.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography