Off to Boston Spa

A small package of hardback copies of Gödel Without (Too Many) Tears has just arrived. One copy I’ll give to the Moore Library here (the university’s main library for the mathematical sciences); another will go to my long-ago college (once a Trinity mathmo, always a Trinity mathmo). A third will be sent off to Boston Spa, because you are legally required to deliver a copy of any book you publish to the British Library.

I suppose it quite likely that this third copy will disappear into the “Additional Storage Building” there, soon never to be seen again. In his strangely rambling but sporadically gripping Bibliophobia, Brian Cummings sets the scene:

From high in the roof, the book robot swings down in an arc in a vertical plane, 10 m or more in a single movement, between stacks ranking 20 m high. It pauses, chooses a stack, then hovers, humming all the time, hunting for the book that it is programmed to find. The scale of the building is difficult for a human to take in. The void is 24 m high by 24 m wide by 64 m long. In any case, the room is not designed for humans. Oxygen levels are kept at 14–15 per cent, which is similar to trying to breathe at the top of a Himalayan mountain. Visitors watch from a special cage, advised to leave after fifteen minutes for their own safety. This library is not a human environment, for it is designed for habitation by books and robots alone.

This is a library for the twenty-first century. … Since space at the main site [of the British Library] at St Pancras in London is at a premium, it is proposed to house books 262 km away and transport them between the Reading Rooms in both locations. Eventually, it is planned that seven million items will be held at the Additional Storage Building in Boston Spa. All of this makes logical sense …

The robotic crane adds a volume to a pile that it is assorting in a plastic bucket. In time, it delivers this to an airlock at the end of the room. There are 140,000 bar-coded containers. It is only at this moment that human intervention takes over, as staff retrieve items from the airlock to send to Reading Rooms, a maximum of 48 hours from ordering to arrival at a London desk. Yet if a human librarian wanted to enter the vault to retrieve a book, using either gigantic ladders or high-wire trapeze artists, it would not be feasible. The books are no longer on fixed shelves ear-marked for their location. Only the crane knows where the books are. It never puts a book back as it found it, absorbing the used item back into the system in the order in which it comes, then remembering where it was. The books are engaged in an eternal game of musical buckets, finding new neighbours, and slotting in accordingly. Only humans need shelf marks any longer: the shelves have gone. The retrieval system is fully automated …

Logical, but the stuff of Borgesian nightmare, squirrelling away everything in a limitless library, including the unread and the unreadable, published in their tens of thousands a year. Libraries, you feel (well, I feel), should be places of more homely comfort — whether in a private room or two with friendly familiars on the walls, or in a congenial public space for browsing along the shelves and reading and working with others similarly occupied.

I’m sure no one would notice if GWT2 never arrived at Boston Spa. But duty calls.

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