Of Place and Memory in the Library

Yesterday, I had an interview for a school media position at a local high school. Throughout it, I was repeatedly put in mind of the conversations I have had with my good friend Christopher Cocchiarella, who writes over at Mindful Media Musing on how media technologies impact our experiences with information. He has many times shared with me interesting research on the ways in which paper books outperform electronic copy in reader engagement and retention of information, and I knew he would have smiled when the media secretary, present at the interview, began to tell me how the school had invested a great deal of money in configuring itself to provide students with ebooks, only to find that, almost uniformly, they eschewed them in favor of paper.

What ended up giving me the most food for thought, however, was not her wry reflections on ebooks, but the implications of her job title. The school found itself without a media specialist many years ago, and instead began staffing the media center with office specialists classed as clerical/administrative employees, working under the direct supervision of the principal. Hence, I found myself chatting with the “media secretary”. It is an arrangement I have never encountered before and which, as far as they knew also, is unique to them.

So I took the opportunity to ask what they felt the strengths and challenges of that arrangement had been. In perfect accord, both the media secretary and the principal said that the greatest advantage had been the ability to shelter themselves from the district’s efforts to reconfigure media centers as community areas and “makerspaces” (a tug of war familiar to public librarians as well).

The media secretary pointed out, very cogently, that a high school is already replete with such spaces—workshops, student support centers, etc. More importantly, however, she told me that, just as with the ebooks, student preference dictated resistance to the trend. While a portion of the media center was set aside for collaborative group work, students continued to come primarily for quiet and solitude. Again and again, the feedback they received was that students prized the little corners in which they were able to sit with a book or just with their own thoughts without distraction.

To hear this touched my heart in a way that surprised me, as I was suddenly cast back to my own days as a theology student in the particular nook of the library that I regarded as mine. It was a stand-alone little desk with a hood, tucked into a back corner of the third floor right against a pillar and a window overhung with the branches of two sweeping elm trees. It was a little island on the edge of the sea of shelves, which was only infrequently plied by any other vessel. There I had my first introductions to Koine Greek and learned carefully to sound and shape the letters. There I read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which did much to shape me as a young man.

And in that moment of remembrance, with Chris’ thoughts on the relationship of media forms to experience in the back of my mind, that I realized how profoundly the space itself had imprinted the readings on my mind. All the words I had grazed upon in that little patch of pasture came back to me alongside the memory of the light through the elm leaves, the grain of the desk’s wood, the distant squeak of the squat little rolling stool that someone seemed always to be using on the other side of the third floor, amidst the more popular subjects. Suddenly I remembered the edges of the pages in that particular copy of Institutes rough against my fingertips, the font of the Greek text spilling languidly across unhurried pages, and with all of that, passages of text that I did not know I still knew.

Amidst all our psychological research on state-dependent memory and similar effects, I wonder if we have nonetheless forgotten something very basic about memory. In the medieval ars memoria, information was retained by linking it to places (and artifacts in those places) held in the mind. Masters like Peter of Ravenna were able to hold thousands of verses of scripture or reams of canon law in their heads by mentally furnishing a familiar house with reminders of them, or imagining a walking path that contained symbols of all the information to be recalled along its way. Without even meaning to (and long before I read of Peter of Ravenna), I had done something very similar with this small corner of the library and my utter, attentive presence to its idyllicism.

Community commons and makerspaces are wonderful resources, and libraries certainly add value in making them available, but if we allow them, as sometimes happens, to crowd out those little corners—if we allow them to sweep aside and assimilate all of those little nooks into the sterile, open floorplans of makerspaces whose stacks have been transmuted into ebook respositories—I fear we will lose something not just of the aesthetic and romance of the library, but something of its efficacy as a space for learning, and something of the means by which it helps us to build lasting relationships with the words that shape our lives.

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