I recently read an article about some matter connected with a university library, I forget which, and I noticed, to my surprise, that readers’ comments mostly supported the idea that students need not buy books for study. Any decent college library, a reader stressed, should supply all students’ needs. I was flabbergasted, for, no matter how good the library may be, you can hardly expect it to have, say, seventy copies of Pride and Prejudice (the number of students enrolled in my second-year course). I would expect the library to have one copy of Austen’s novel, perhaps two or three, no more. And I would expect each student to buy their own copy, as I did and still do. This is the reason why my own use of our Humanities library is so erratic: whenever I borrow a book I need for study, I end up returning it in a short time to buy my own and feel free to underline text and add notes. I tend to borrow, therefore, only those books I can read more superficially: the essays usually in search of quotations for my own research, the literary works for pleasure.

I must clarify that in my university the usual practice is to buy the books which teachers ask for, though the library treats them as any other publicly available volume. Research groups are often allowed to keep the books they pay for in their own seminar office but anyone with a library card can borrow them as well. In practice this means that I order for the library the books that I believe the institution should have but not really the books I personally need for my job. These come out of my pocket, whether they are academic or literary. When once I expressed my frustration about this, a colleague in the Language area of my Department guffawed that I could hardly expect public money to go into buying me novels. I should say that it should certainly go into buying the books we teach in our Literature subjects but this is, as I know, a lost battle.

This state of matters means that, in practice, we teachers, pay for own job as we invest part of our salary into our professional library. This usually runs to thousands of books, requires plenty of space at home and, thus, further decreases our income since we need to buy expensive properties to place our books in (and when a square metre is on average 4400 euros, enlarging one’s personal library is just too costly). My own solution to this problem has been demanding more office space (as a reward for being Head of Department), giving away plenty of books, and downsizing my purchases. I have the advantage of loving books but not being a bibliophile, which means that I feel no compunction to regularly cull a number of volumes from my not too big collection and give them away. Mind you, this has become harder and harder for no public library, university or otherwise, accepts books as they used to do. So, now and then, I carry books to class for my students to take or place them in the bookcrossing space I myself opened in my Department (but that nobody else seems to use).

I must confess that whereas some people are in love with the smell of old books, I dislike it almost as much as I dislike the smell of popcorn in cinemas. I love bookshops, where every book is new, of course; and as you may imagine, my oldest paperbacks are the first to abandon my library every time I go through it with murder in mind. I would never go as far as Marie Kondo and keep just a dozen books (or is it six?) but I agree with her that you should only keep the books that are useful and/or that provide you with some emotional connection. Even in that case, though, I might consider buying new editions when the ones I have start yellowing and generally falling apart. Paperbacks have, as we know, a shortish shelf-life.

I don’t know if this also happens to you but I find myself going to the campus library only when I need a specific book, and never with enough time to browse. A few days ago, I found myself with one hour to spare between activities (that was a miscalculation!) and off I went to the library. This is why I’m writing this post. I first enrolled in my university back in 1986, and I have seen the library move to two newer buildings, progressively growing all the time. One of these buildings is now the journal library and I must say that this is the one slowly dying for, thank God or the stars, journals are now digitalized. I marvel at the beautiful change this has introduced: I collected for my MA and PhD dissertation masses of photocopied articles, which I hated having around, and now all I have are neat folders of digitalized texts in my computer. Not only the journals have gone that way, of course. Also the magazines: I am writing an article on Isaac Asimov and I almost cried with pleasure when I saw that you can check all the scanned copies of the magazine Amazing Stories. It took me just a few clicks to download the 1951 issue where a story by Asimov I very much wanted to read was printed. Pre-internet, this would have been slow and expensive.

I keep on writing and I still haven’t got inside the library… Since, as I have noted, the library buys the books which teachers order, the English Literature section is a palimpsest. As happens in that kind of manuscript, there are layers and layers, each corresponding to the different teachers’ interests (all those books by Anita Brookner…). The UAB was founded in 1968, which means that pre-1970s books are rare (for this you need to visit the library of the Universitat de Barcelona). The problem is that since we are chronically underfunded and tend to stretch our budget by buying paperbacks, now we have mostly that type of yellowing book that is asking for a replacement. What I like about the old books, though, is that they appear to have been read frequently, which is not at all the case for the 21st century purchases. This means, clearly, that up to the 1990s many students read many books in our collection but since then few students read any books, not even the newer books. As much as I like new books, it hurts my heart to see books bought five or six years ago (by me or others) glaringly untouched, never taken off the shelf.

Something that always makes me smile is how the library purchases clash with our own selections. What I mean is that the librarians also buy books for our English Literature collection but just a few and with a very different criterion. For instance, we never buy translations but the library does, on the grounds that not everyone interested in English Literature can read English. The funny thing is that these translations are often of best-selling fiction either from the past or the present. We have a copy, in Spanish, of Howard Fast’s Spartacus (1951), a handful of translated novels by Donna Leon, and so on. I notice this because I am the one buying fantasy and science fiction, and I always wonder who bought the other popular texts (or donated them). I was happy to see that someone is reading volume one of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which I ordered, but quite dismayed to see the seven volumes of Harry Potter (adult edition) on the shelf –perhaps, I comforted myself, most students have already read Harry Potter, and those who haven’t would never think of our library having a copy, for this is not Literature… right?

I have no idea how students use the library but I would say that very little. I know our collection quite well because years ago I took a good look at it and made a list of what was missing (which we tried to correct, at least regarding the classics). My impression in this recent visit was that 90% of the collection is on the shelves. Looking at some of the classics, I wondered when they had been borrowed last. Supposing that, for instance, nobody borrows Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) for fifteen years, which might happen (or has already happened), should the library retire it to the depot where the less wanted books are stored? Only the librarians truly know how many readers each book has and, though we were once tempted to ask, we decided not to do so in case we get too depressed. How different this is from local public libraries, with their constant stream of older readers and having to wait two-months to borrow a popular volume!!

I used to order books for the library on the basis of what our collection should have to awaken interest in some research areas. I bought, for instance, many contemporary plays and academic studies of drama in case somebody wanted to write a paper or a dissertation on this genre. Then I stopped. Our budget was drastically diminished and we were told to purchase mostly what was required for our subjects and our research (I go back in this way to my first paragraphs). I keep a wish list but I must say than in the last two rounds I have ordered no books. I felt that nothing I wanted for the library would attract more than five readers at the most, and it suddenly seemed to me that this was a waste of public money and of shelf space. I must also say that some of these books are overpriced volumes at almost one hundred euros a piece. That is another lost battle: academic publishers have raised the price of books to absurd heights, so that neither researchers nor libraries can afford them. If for the price of one academic hardback I can have ten paperback novels, I will buy the novels. And this is in the end what we have: ten yellowing paperbacks for each better-preserved hardback. Well, except in the Postcolonial section, started relatively recently. From my biased point of view, I wish the whole library looked that crisp and enticing.

I read recently that videotapes are dying, particularly those used for domestic movies. Many people who never bothered to have the videos of important family events transferred to a digital file may find themselves with nothing. The Spanish National Library has warned that the tapes are so frail that they often break when they’re played to be digitalized. The beauty of the ageing paperback is that, unlike the videotape, it can be replaced (I’m not talking about unique old volumes) but if this is not done in time many university libraries with limited income and few hardbacks might find soon find themselves with literally crumbling collections in their hands. Limited shelf-life is here the key problem. I don’t know whether the solution is, as for the videotapes, digitalization; it might be. What I feel is that a library full of fast ageing books is not a place our young students enjoy visiting; that could be a factor in the decreasing numbers of borrowings. I myself will borrow a dying book if I have to, but I find the sight of any strips of cellotape quite dispiriting. Ah, for the smell of new books… how pleasing.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/