Libraries as history: the importance of libraries beyond their texts by David Pearson

Pearson, D. (2007). Libraries as history: the importance of libraries beyond their texts. Paper presented at the Senate House Library Friends: Charles Holden Lecture.
Retrieved from

Let me reproduce the abstract here to establish context and background:

    In this edited version of a lecture given in October 2007, David Pearson (Director, University of London Research Library Services) discusses the importance of recognising that the history of libraries is a valid and worthwhile subject, that libraries are interesting things as integral parts of our cultural heritage, and that both they and the books they contain have historical and research value beyond the purposes for which they were originally designed.

I find this lecture highly readable perhaps because it isn’t scientific writing. 😛

I didn’t know much about the history of books and libraries in UK so the beginning part of the lecture was pretty informative for me. I wanted to highlight a few points raised in the rest of the lecture:

    1. The role of books as a material object in print culture as opposed to just focusing on the content apart from its medium. We know that a physical book is technically just the medium, the carrier for information. From rocks, bones, shells, skins, papyrus, paper to digital – a book, we were told, were just the carrier. This is not the first time I encountered this book-is-culture-object argument. In a previous post, I mentioned a New York Times article saying that a book is an object in everyday life. We use it, like other kinds of status symbols, to size people up.Here, Pearson is referring to the book as a physical artefact and a designed object that people interact with and not just the words on the page. This reminded me of some books in the Art, Design & Media Library which have very unique designs. The materials they were made from were also uncommon. Like the book below.

    1. The value of books that come with annotations and markings. Librarians actually hate it when people make markings on books but Pearson recognizes the value of an annotated book, especially one with 500-year old markings. Having said that, I feel that digitalization can reproduce the annotations and markings, they are not necessarily tied up with the physical book.
    2. The impact of the predominant neoliberal philosophy that “the ability to pay should be the major criterion on which to provide services, and that profitability should be the arbiter of availability” on public institutions like libraries. I think public libraries are the hardest hit as more and more are either closed or required to justify their existence in monetary terms. I feel that the problem isn’t that libraries can’t be profitable but that librarians, in general, loathed the idea and have never explored any business models that might have made them self-sufficient.


  • Pearson also mused about how much physical storage space the library of the future need. Perhaps not for physical book stacks but definitely for the servers and access devices (^_^).


In conclusion, Pearson argues that there is a need to promote the historical and research value of libraries and books beyond their textual content. That they are part of cultural heritage worth preserving and interpreting. I think that could be a big challenge in ever changing ever forward looking Singapore *tongue sticking out*.