Unpacking Our Library

“I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood — it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation — which these books arouse in a genuine collector.”

-Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

As Evan Thompson pointed out in a previous post, many of the books in the St. Ignatius College library collection bear a history of ownership that predates the 1870 founding of the college. They have been through several owners, each who has left her or his own mark on the material text in some way, each adding to the book’s story.

This was a relatable concept for me. I have a growing personal library, and many of my books are bought second hand from several incredible book stores located throughout Chicago. Often I’m intrigued by the simple scribbling in the margins; other times an airline ticket left as a bookmark, or a handwritten dedication on the title page excites my sense of mystery.

And, like most people in their early twenties, I often find myself picking up and moving apartments year after year. My own books go through a lot of packing and unpacking. It always takes longer than packing my other things. After all, these books contain memories: my experiences and the ghosts of previous owners. Some books were bought for class, others received as gifts, and others come from my childhood.

Walter Benjamin, the great twentieth-century philosopher, literary critic, and intellectual giant of the Frankfurt School, knew this intimately.  His essay, “Unpacking My Library,” found in his collection, Illuminations (English edition, 1968), reflected on his experience of reconnecting with his private library collection.

But what about a library collection?

Benjamin remarks, “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects [books] get their due only in the latter.”

The Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project looks to recover a private collection, limited to the use of the Jesuits and their students at St Ignatius, but it is far more ‘public’ than an individual owner. Through our own ‘unpacking’ of this collection nearly one hundred and fifty years later, we are able to learn more about the book’s previous unpackings, and more about the individuals who have opened, read, stamped, torn, and written in the books. A university library, after all, is simply made up of individuals, isn’t it? Benjamin is correct in pointing out that our access to these individuals becomes blurred and dispersed the more communal a work becomes.

Benjamin continues, “The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone…Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings, and the like: all these details must tell him something – not as dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole.” At first thought, this ‘harmonious whole,’ that Benjamin speaks of seems like an impossible utopian goal. But maybe it’s closer than we think.

The digital nature of the Provenance Project further complicates Benjamin’s public/private dichotomy. Benjamin was certainly keen on the effect that technology would have on collecting and art, but perhaps even he could not have imagined photographing a library and putting it on the Internet, giving billions of people access. By crowdsourcing parts of the project, we’re able to share what used to be held by only one individual at a time, with people all over the world. Already we’ve seen incredible results and stories.

Benjamin wrote, “For inside him [the book] are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector – and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can give to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”

Benjamin argues that ownership over an object, in this instance a book, produces an aura, or ‘little genni,’ around it. The Provenance Project has shown that it isn’t necessarily ownership alone that generates this aura; perhaps it’s also the book’s usage.

A book is like a home, filled with locked rooms containing the life of each of its previous owners. The Provenance Project, while it may never find the ‘harmonious whole,’ of the history of the collection, or even of one book, it hopes to unlock these rooms, and let the lives and stories of individuals and their time using a book meet each other.

Zac unpacking our library.

Zac unpacking our library.

– Zachary Davis, Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project Intern


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