I ought to warn that this post will be a lot of pictures, and that some of them will contain ladies and some gentlemen not wearing very many clothes at all. Not real ladies and gentlemen, though, arty, book cover ladies and gentlemen. So that should be okay. You have been warned!
Over the past week I have been working in three separate libraries for about four separate reasons: the usual studying and shelving which I do in the Sackler, in addition to which I have been working as a part of the “weeding” team at the Taylor Institute/Modern Foreign Languages library. I have also been helping to catalogue and sort out the library of the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group, or “OUSFG” as it prefers to be known.* This also may undergo a kind of weeding. Or, as we have been calling it at OUSFG, a “cull”.
The difficulty of working in a library is that you discover, to your dismay, the complete and total non-existence of L-Space.** It transpires that, like museums, libraries actually never have enough space in them, being built for collections which are already too big and only ever expand. Therefore periodically the libraries must be “weeded”of books which take up space and are never used, of which there are duplicates, and on which the precious library space cannot be wasted.
Suddenly, your value system has to change. I have recently read Fahrenheit 451, although I haven’t mentioned it on here I don’t think. The value of the individual book there is outstanding, although really the value is placed on reading rather than the physical object. How valuable are the many volumes of bibliography which fill the corridors at the Taylor Institute now that we have an online catalogue? The dust on some of the volumes suggests that they may never have been used at all. Ray Bradbury was said to have hated the internet, calling it a distraction. But for an academic, having that much easy access to certain kinds of information, is refreshing, and frees up considerable amounts of time for other things, like research. Furthermore, scientific journals go out of date within years, if not months. So when libraries like the Taylor and the Sackler have journals going back to the mid-19th century on their open shelves, it does seem to be a little out of date.
With the OUSFG library the value judgements are different, and much more difficult. The part which we have been sorting and cataloguing is the “open stacks”, from which, theoretically, if you knew what was in there, you could request a book and get it fairly easily. The open shelves are where the library meetings take place every week (usually, if they’re available), while the closed stacks are hidden at the back of someone’s garage, and have not been seen in many years (at least as long as I’ve been an OUSFG member… which is slightly less than two years). Given this state, one must wonder whether these books are being valued as objects at all given that they are difficult to access, have no permanent home, and hardly ever get read.
There was a tiny cull last year, and when I say “cull” I mean some duplicates were donated to OXFAM. This also resulted in the creation of the open stacks. This year it looks likely to be bigger, if we can decide what we need to get rid of. The books are old, some are in terrible condition, many are works of which I have never heard. Several are classics. It includes an old Penguin classics version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which, being out of copyright, is freely available on Project Gutenberg and will probably go. But when we don’t know anything about some of these books, how can we judge them? By their covers?
Of course, it is usually terrible to judge a book by its cover, unless you’re six and your mother has bribed you or something. But I am sure I used to know a blog which would post terrible fantasy and science fiction covers call “Covers of Doom”, even if I can’t find it on the internet. I present here some of the most striking covers from the sorting of the OUSFG library. WARNING, some of them are terrible.
* As China Miéville is said to have said, we say it “as though it was some kind of word”.
** With reflection, I should have realised this when I worked in an OXFAM bookshop, which was also limited in space. But that is an afterthought.
– No judgement is being made about the quality of these books by their covers, of course! They could be brilliant. But… wow.