Letter to a Future (Library) Lover

Marginalia from a 1704 printing of Newton’s Opticks now held at the Boston Public Library.

So, I’ve been reading around in Ander Monson’s challenging and beautifully designed book from Graywolf Press, Letter to a Future Lover. The book’s subtitle, Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, gives you some idea of Monson’s preoccupations. It’s a lyrical and dense read, a series of brief personal essays composed in the form of letters. Monson defines “library” broadly, finding inspiration in a video game archive, a seed library, a biosphere; likewise he’s interested not only in the collections of these libraries but the ephemera their users and custodians leave: love letters, scrawl, catalog cards, binding instruction sheets.

If you spend enough time in libraries, you recognize the phenomenon. Not only those stray artifacts that fall out of a book–a bus ticket, a sales receipt–but notes deliberately left within, for the edification of the future user. We have a patron who will take three or four books off the shelves, borrow a few sheets of scrap paper, and stack it all together in an odd pyramid: the books, a religious pamphlet or two, his cryptic but precisely drawn notes. Maybe he too is a librarian at heart, trying to make these materials speak. It is hard to say exactly what he wants to convey, but whatever it is, it’s directed toward the future reader.

In his essay “Dear Defacer,” Monson writes a letter to the troubled and erratic soul who has been scrawling angry notes in the margins of an encyclopedia from his college library: “I want to know your name, what makes you go, why you play this strange.” Puzzled and upset as he is by the contents of the marginalia — as any good librarian would be, please don’t do this! — he also respects the impulse behind it, the move toward feedback and conversation.

Which brings me to this: as Monson recognizes, the library is not a static thing, but a flexible structure for sharing information. While its traditional form, with its catalog cards and bound periodicals and stiffening codexes, is dearly beloved to us, what really defines the library is this sense of community and shared ownership, the conversation that can take place in the pages of a novel, or in a meeting room where people come together over a hobby or obsession, or via a digital connection to a database.

The St. Louis Public Library is asking for your feedback as we plan our course for the future, both near-term and long-term, because I’m sure we can all agree that a library is a beautiful thing that should be preserved and creatively nourished. This is your chance to bring your ideas, your crazy and improbable inspirations, your ragged grievances.

There will be a series of public meetings at Central Library and the regional branch libraries, from 6-8 pm on the following dates: Tuesday March 31 at Central Library,Wednesday April 1 at Schlafly Branch, Thursday April 2 at Julia Davis Branch, Tuesday April 7 at Carpenter, and Wednesday April 8 at Buder Branch.

Please register to attend one of these important events here.

I can’t guarantee that it will be as subversively thrilling as defacing a library book, but on the other hand you’ll have the pleasure of knowing that you’re helping to define the library of the future. Think of it as a letter to a future lover. Or marginalia for a future reader, who won’t be reading quite the same text, thanks to you. To quote Monson again:

You understand that this place breathes, expands, contracts with cold and breath, the infusion of new words: it yet shows signs of life in spite of what you’ve heard about the young and their reading habits. Treating a library as a crematorium for yesterday’s knowledge does no one any good. Instead let’s keep it live … so that when we leave its premises it still embraces us … so that we might think the world a library and by so thinking, and our feeling, and our stealing, and our starting something new here, make it so.


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