Vol. 15 No. 16 · 19 August 1993

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The British Library will survive

John Sutherland (LRB, 22 July) presents a sustained attack, written with great wit and passion, on the British Library’s published statement of strategic objectives for the year 2000. The first quarter of his article is devoted to criticism of the BL publication’s presentational style. He dislikes the ‘fusillade of bullet-points’, the business-like phraseology, and the confident tone of the document’s predictions. Every key word, he says, ‘gives off the stench of top-management leadership weekends’. The prose and presentation of the BL document has been found impressive by some of its readers, and irritating by others. Sutherland’s article leaves us in no doubt that those readers who find it irritating find it very irritating indeed.

Sutherland is entitled to his opinion on the document’s style. He should not have allowed his irritation with it to lead him into a personal attack on the chief executive of the Library. He goes so far as to claim, in conclusion, that ‘the strategic objectives of Brian Lang’ are as potentially damaging to the Library as the Nazi bombers of the Second World War. It should be made clear at the outset that the strategic objectives set out in this document are not the objectives of Brian Lang: they are the objectives of the Library’s Board, which under the British Library Act of 1972 has the responsibility for ‘the control and management’ of the Library. The Board is fortunate to have such an enthusiastic, imaginative and energetic chief executive to carry out its policies. Moreover, the statement of objectives was widely circulated, in draft, to individuals and institutions who make use of the Library’s services. Its main thrust was very widely endorsed. Many suggestions were made for detailed improvement: these were taken account of in the final version now published.

The points of substance which are contained in Sutherland’s article are these. 1. The new library at St Pancras will have insufficient seats for readers. 2. The BL excludes, and will continue to exclude, student users. 3. The Board intends to charge readers for access to reading rooms. 4. The Library is investing too much in information technology. 5. The new library will have insufficient space for new acquisitions. 6. The Library is planning to sell off substantial parts of its collections. Three of these objections are swiftly dealt with, since they are sheer calumnies. First, student readers are already admitted to the Library, if they really need to use it; but it is not reasonable to expect the national library to be the library of first resort for those pursuing first degrees. One can imagine how outraged Sutherland would be if the HEFCE refused to fund libraries in London University on the grounds that the undergraduates could always use the BL instead. Second, the Board, despite what Sutherland says, has no intention of introducing charges for access to reading rooms. And it has not sold, and will not sell, any of its unique holdings.

Running through the various points of complaint, there is an underlying theme: the management of the Library is too interested in its non-academic customers, and is neglecting the needs of academics. The academic community is one of the most important constituencies served by the Library. But Sutherland does not seem to appreciate that the British Library is not identical to the British Museum Library of the pre-1972 era. In addition to the Bloomsbury reading rooms, which serve mainly academic readers in the humanities and social sciences, the Library is the heir to several other national institutions, including the old Patent Office Library and the National Science and Information Lending Library. One of the most important departments of the Library is the Document Supply Centre at Boston Spa which lends documents and provides photocopies to remote users from every section of the population.

Sutherland mocks the Library’s description of its function, summed up in the title of the document, as being to serve ‘scholarship, research and innovation’. The description seems to me admirably precise. Pride of place is given to scholarship: that is to say, original work in humane disciplines. The Library, unlike the Higher Education Funding Councils, has not devalued the word ‘scholarship’ to mean merely keeping abreast with the work of others, without any attempt to be creative oneself. Next comes ‘research’: original work in the social and natural sciences. The Library provides for a wide community of scientists and technologists. If their needs are listed second rather than first this is not because the sciences are inferior to the humanities, but because of the special character of humanistic endeavour: most humanists pursue their inquiries not in the field, not in the laboratory, but in the library. Finally, there is ‘innovation’, which is described in the body of the document also as ‘enterprise’. Sutherland regards this as a sinister piece of code: he fears it may mean ‘business’. Of course it does: but the service which the BL renders to business is not something to conceal, but something to celebrate. One might have thought that Sutherland would have been pleased to see the Library putting business in third place after research and scholarship. If he is not it is no doubt because he suspects – correctly – that the Library regards business as a third among equals.

The Library can be proud that businessmen and women are coming to realise more and more how much the Library’s collections, and the expertise of its staff, have to offer in support of enterprise and innovation. It is, of course, very important that the Library’s support of business activity should not weaken its commitment to scholarship and research. But business people might be forgiven for thinking that any bias was in the other direction. After all, most businesses pay for the Library’s services (since they prefer remote document supply), while most academics receive the Library’s services free (since they prefer to read in the reading rooms). In my view, this is entirely right and proper, given the parlous state of academic funding. But it hardly becomes academics like Sutherland and myself to make the current arrangements a matter for complaint.

The Library’s Board shares Sutherland’s disappointment that the new St Pancras library will provide only 1176 readers’ seats – an increase of only 6.5 per cent over the existing places on the Library’s many sites. But it is difficult to make an overwhelming case for funds for extending the reading rooms in the new building when the present average seat occupancy is only 66 per cent. No doubt the attractive new environment to be provided in St Pancras will increase the number of readers. Accordingly, the Library expects seat occupancy to rise by 30 per cent. Sutherland interprets this as meaning that the BL intends to have a 96 per cent average seat occupancy in St Pancras. He rightly points out that this would be a nightmare which would present the reader with ‘ulcerating levels of frustration and delay’. Fortunately, however, the fault here lies not with the Library’s target, but with Sutherland’s arithmetic. The Library’s aim, clearly stated on page 37 of the document, is to achieve 85 per cent seat occupancy. Sutherland must have misread ‘an increase of 30 per cent’ as ‘an increase of thirty percentage points’. The Library also intends to reduce pressure on reading rooms by offering those readers who prefer it the alternative of consulting documents in photocopy, or online, in their own homes. Sutherland mocks the BL’s target of delivering six million documents in the year 2000. But the target is not unreasonable, when current annual delivery of photocopies alone is over three million.

It would be good to know to what extent readers in this country in the year 2000 will prefer to gain their information electronically rather than from books in hard copy. Unfortunately, no one knows: authors do not know, publishers do not know, booksellers do not know, and librarians do not know. The best attempt to make a projection of future demand is the book Information UK2000 published by the BL’s own research department: a study which, among other things, showed how premature are all those reports of the death of the book. We do know, however, that the demand for information in electronic form is on the increase, among scholars and researchers no less than in business. In present circumstances, the Library would be most ill-advised to neglect the investment in IT which Sutherland so dislikes. He himself states confidently that ‘as technology marches on, more and more material will be electronically published.’ But this is when he is pursuing a different complaint – namely, that the BL is insufficiently active in trying to extend legal deposit to non-book material.

The BL document states: ‘The Library will continue to urge the Government to extend legal deposit provisions to cover electronic documents and audio-visual and multi-media materials.’ This statement he calls ‘pathetic’. But if what is needed is a change in the law, what can the Library do other than urge the Government to change the law? What does Sutherland want the BL to do? Search through the patents in SRIS for the most efficient explosive to blow up the Palace of Westminster? Or ceremonially burn the Lindisfarne Gospels in front of the Department of National Heritage to draw attention to the narrow limits of legal deposit?

Finally, there is the question of storage. Here, Sutherland says, the Library has no strategy at all for the year 2000 because all its storage will be used by 1999. Naturally, the BL would welcome, at St Pancras, larger buildings and more space, if some fairy godmother were to provide them. But one cannot help noticing that Sutherland writes throughout as if the British Library Board were an omnipotent body with infinite resources, responsible to nobody and under no constraints.

Sutherland does not like the Library’s strategy. But what strategy does he propose in its stead? The Library must acquire more land for building, build more storage for books, and install more seats for readers. It must cut back on investment in any technology which may reduce the demand for seats and the requirement for space. It must not make any charge at all to readers, nor any increase in charges to other users. It must not expect to get any more money from the Government, and it should not waste its time urging Government to enable it to obtain non-book material free on legal deposit. All this adds up to a policy of more bricks, less straw.

Sutherland does not like the oblique angle at which Brian Lang is photographed in For Scholarship, Research and Innovation. It is hard to know at what angle one could photograph the officer capable of carrying out the policies recommended in his own article.

Anthony Kenny
Chairman, British Library Board

As a mere rank-and-file researcher and frequent user of the British Library I do find John Sutherland’s critique a little on the apocalyptic side. While it is certainly very possible that, left to their own devices, the Library’s senior management, and the Tory ministers who stand directly behind them, will wreck the Library, this is by no means certain. In their way stand the underpaid and overworked staff who actually have to fetch the books and who will still have to at St Pancras. Fortunately, they have a well-organised union branch. In their way, too, stand regular readers in so far as they are organised. At the moment the operation of this countervailing power to the men and occasional woman in suits means that the Library is still a pleasant place to study and far quicker than other libraries in getting new books on its catalogue.

In due course, as is often the way with macho managements, it will dawn on the BL that the only way to make St Pancras work is to pay the staff who do the work a lot more money and to keep the Round Reading Room open to ensure adequate seating capacity.

Keith Flett
London N17

Cold Feet

I much admired the poise and reasonableness of Professor Frank Kermode’s review of books by and about William Empson (LRB, 22 July). These gifts, though, can bring with them special assumptions. Kermode is generous, speaking of Empson as a great critic, if with strong reservations, and I happen to agree with this estimate. But the discussion involves terms that worry me.

Empson’s general theory of Donne Kermode calls ‘eccentric’. He wouldn’t want to say ‘wrong’, because he defines as one of Empson’s leading failings the wish to be ‘right’. What it can in his view lead to is described in a local point concerning the long debate about a reading in Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of weeping’: ‘Empson sometimes gets himself into cantankerous fights without necessity; here his argument is as obscure as it is contemptuous.’ ‘Gets himself’ and ‘cantankerous’ and ‘fights’ and ‘without necessity’ and ‘obscure’ are like ‘eccentric’: these words strike me as loaded and tendentious. They minimise the relevance of truth and feeling to the intellectual life.

To be more precise, there is more room than these terms suggest for difference of judgment as to the reading in question. I have to say that I agree with the first edition of the poem, made by Donne’s son just after the poet died, and with Grierson and with Empson. I am interested that Professor Kermode agrees with Dame Helen Gardner, a scholar with many unlike opinions to his, and think that a reading espoused by both needs disproving as it is likely to be either general or influential. But more importantly, I am disturbed that Kermode sees such differences as somehow (as he would say) ‘eccentric’ to the real stuff of poetry, ‘without necessity’: for he calls them ‘textual quibbling’. Because I believe that literary-critical and scholarly matters may still turn on intellectual issues of real weight, I’d like to ask for space to argue out a question that some of your readers may perhaps, like Professor Kermode, find trivial.

Kermode’s quotation of the first stanza of ‘A Valediction’ in a modernised form is – quite accidentally – tendentious as well (modernised versions of poets are often highly desirable, but not in textual discussions). I will quote the verse in Grierson’s unmodernised edition, on which in any case Gardner’s version is based:

Let me powre forth
My teares before thy face, whil’st I stay here,
For thy face coines them, and thy stampe they beare,
And by this Mintage they are something worth,
For thus they bee
Pregnant of thee;
Fruites of much griefe they are, emblemes of more,
When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.

The debated phrase is the penultimate line’s ‘that thou falst’. Unpublished in Donne’s life time, the poem was passed in manuscript from hand to hand, and clearly much copied; and some surviving copies read not ‘falst’ but ‘falls’. It seems possible that this was mere colloquial modernising. But on it Helen Gardner based a confident new reading in her 1965 Oxford Donne. Adopting the manuscript ‘falls’, she read it as a third-person singular verb; she made its subject ‘that thou’; she took ‘that’ as a demonstrative, not a conjunction; and ‘thou’ as not a pronoun but an irregular noun, meaning ‘the-image-or-concept-of-you-reflected-in-my-tear; the real you’.

Professor Kermode’s ‘All will agree that it is a superb poem’ is pacific and intended to enlarge the area of debate by conciliation. The trouble is that in the process a steady look at the text is demoted to ‘quibbling’. And yet scholars and critics exist, one would have thought – and Kermode’s own excellent work helps support the belief – to show just how superbness depends on what the writer wrote. Though ‘A Valediction; of weeping’ is not my favourite Donne poem, brilliance and magnificence it certainly has. These derive from a peculiarly Donnian or Metaphysical fusing of contrasts. A lover says goodbye, and weeps to say it, and weeps more to realise what the grief of separation may humanly mean. In that process of discovering meaning, something simple becomes complicated – the simplicity and the complexity go on together. Saying goodbye (even for a while) involves some vast, essential human loss, as in the infinite void of pre-Creation: ‘Thou and I are nothing then.’ But, oddly enough, this very grand abstract ending is achieved through an all too concrete argument of images, weirdly precise concepts of tears-like-coins that clatter and jangle through the lines, finally softening through pregnancy and fruits to emblems then mere, sheer tears.

There is perhaps something here marvellously mimetic of real, problematic human partings, the combination of (say) plumbed souls and red noses. This couldn’t have been done by a lesser poet, and couldn’t be done by Donne himself except by the exercise of certain laws. There has to be in the writer an equality of energy and control, each vital, each contradictory to the other. If the poem is ‘superb’ this is because hard conditions are sustained; for instance, the undoubting pace with which Donne drives his difficult stanza through its mind-boggling logic of images to the incomparable abyss of the last line.

This requires unique economy and naturalness. The first edition’s ‘falst’ is already a contraction of ‘fallest’; comparably, the conjunction ‘that’, in ‘that thou falst’, needs to slip in the reading into ‘tht’ as the English always say it colloquially. Keeping the word unstressed lets it perform more than one syntactical function at once. It means ‘in that’ (‘weeping is unavoidable but ominous because it brings about what it grieves for, so we grieve more’) and also ‘lest that’ (‘we weep in fear that we lose the other’). The lover weeps from knowledge of more kinds of loss than mere separation: loss by distance and death, but also loss of love itself, of trust and belief in the other, of trust and belief in the self.

Helen Gardner’s new reading ruins the rhythm and thereby the meaning without (to my mind) any concomitant advantages. By turning the conjunction ‘that’ into a demonstrative, and the pronoun ‘thou’ into a new and difficult noun, she slows down the line as if dropping an anvil in the middle of it. What should be an unstressed and breathless colloquial iamb at the centre of the line becomes an obstructive distracting spondee; ‘When a teare falls, THAT THOU FALLS.’ The line rocks and changes direction under the difficulty of the phrase, and the wonderful desolate climax of the last line disintegrates.

Professor Kermode has implied in his An Appetite for Poetry that literary academics may be doing actual damage to literature. But perhaps they always have; or perhaps some of us sometimes have. This must be a matter of more than ‘textual quibbling’. And, if Empson is the ‘great’ critic that Kermode cautiously calls him this depends on more than a very brilliant mind (in any case, one always variable in its success). As a very good poet himself Empson cared enough about what is done to the living poetry of others to get into ‘fights’ about it, sometimes despairingly trying to prove his highly distinguished instincts ‘right’ by falling back on wrong arguments.

Barbara Everett
Somerville College. Oxford

In his review of William Empson: The Critical Achievement, Frank Kermode remarks that Empson would have liked one of the contributors to this volume of essays to know that the ‘she’ in the poem ‘Camping Out’ was not a girlfriend but a sister. In the poem ‘Aubade’ there is a ‘he’ who can easily be taken for a husband. The poet’s female companion explains that she must take a taxi and leave his bed when they are disturbed by an earthquake, because it will have woken someone who will ‘bawl’, and finding her not there, ‘would know’. This person, referred to as ‘he’, was not a husband but a small boy in the charge of the nursemaid who was the poet’s companion – as Empson explained when I wrote something which assumed a husband was involved.

S.F. Bolt


I thank C.J.H. O’Brien (Letters, 8 July) for explaining the Australian electoral system to readers who didn’t know that in this country voting is compulsory. I didn’t use the space of my Sydney Diary for that information; I needed it to communicate the crucial issues of the March federal election to an audience which had been misled by sections of the British press into believing that Republicanism was a real voting issue. It was not.

O’Brien thinks this was because the devious Keating kept his dastardly republican schemes ‘carefully muted’ during the campaign. I think it was because Labour was flat out attacking the conservatives’ plans on social, industrial and taxation issues – and also because neither Keating nor most others really believed Labour would win. At that rate, they weren’t about to put the republican extravagance on the election agenda.

O’Brien says that I ‘rejoiced’ in the Labour victory: if anything should have been clear it was that the rejoicing I recorded was for the conservatives’ defeat. As I noted, Keating got a negative mandate. I went on, as O’Brien evidently didn’t notice, to criticise Labour’s record on several counts, and to suggest that republicanism was rather grotesquely diversionary. If another election were to be held tomorrow the Government would probably lose, mainly because it hasn’t found an instant cure for unemployment. The republican issue might be a small part of it. There are signs in the polls of majority support, and some chance of eventual bipartisan agreement. Despite O’Brien’s fears, there’s no chance what ever that Australia would opt for an American-style republic with an executive head of state. The people who think the change would ruin the country are only a little sillier than the ones who think it would fix everything.

Before the end of the century there should be a democratically constituted convention on the matter, then a referendum. The debate has at least alerted the population to the oddities of the federal constitution, and to the possibility of improving it. The technical adjustments involved would matter only as shifts towards more important reforms. We might finally get a Bill of Rights. We might even start setting our own house in order and work out a valid treaty with the Aborigines; and that is far more important for us now than the republic per se.

Within the last year, because of a single land claim, Australia has been forced to get to grips with the race relations issue. In mid-1992 the High Court settled a long-running claim brought by the late Eddie Mabo, a Murray Islander of the Torres Strait. The Court’s judgment in Mabo v. Queensland not only granted the claim but validated the concept of native title, and overturned, finally and for ever, the fiction that the Australian lands had been terra nullius at the time of the first European settlement. The Court’s ruling was that native title obtains where a. the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people concerned in the claim have sustained their links to the land in question, and b. the title has not been extinguished in consequence of valid government action.

In December, Keating told an Aboriginal audience that the decision was a turning-point, giving indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians a chance for significant reconciliation. He said: ‘There is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth.’ That’s what Mabo really amounts to, the highest court in the land now affirms what has been strongly suspected for a couple of centuries – namely, that there were people about before 1788. Mabo doesn’t mean that Aborigines can claim anybody’s private land, doesn’t allow them to challenge the sovereignty of existing governments, and doesn’t mean they can lock up the country’s mineral wealth. It opens the way to a limited number of claims, but doesn’t promise Aborigines much more land than they’ve got already. A young Aboriginal lawyer, Noel Pearson, headed his recent essay on the subject ‘204 Years of Invisible Title: From the Most Vehement Denial of a People’s Rights to Land to a Most Cautious and Belated Recognition’; and that just about says it. In land-rights legislation Australia still lags behind Canada New Zealand and parts of the United States.

Nevertheless racism and ignorance have been furiously active in the media; Mabo has been made a scare-word for tabloid headlines. The Government is now treading a rocky path to consensus, and seeking acceptance for a system of state and national tribunals. Aboriginal interests, those of the mining and pastoral industries, and recalcitrant state governments exert strong conflicting pressures. But unless we can sort this one out, we can’t build a republic worth belonging to; we can’t assent to prolonging a murderous fiction already two centuries old.

Sylvia Lawson

Most Australians, of all political colours, simply no longer want to have a foreigner who lives at the other side of the world as head of state. O’Brien’s scare tactics of a reluctant Australia being manoeuvred towards a republic are ludicrous. And whoever said that an Australian republican head of state would be ‘involved in party politics’? This is as likely as a kangaroo turning into a carnivore.

Geoffrey Dutton
Glasshouse Mountains, Australia

Greater Croatia

Mark Thompson’s letter (Letters, 8 July) was full of inaccuracies. We at Living Marxism never believed that Yugoslavia was socialist, nor that it was ‘untainted by Stalinism’. Living Marxism is neither pro-Serb nor anti-Croat. We have no brief for Slobodan Milosevic any more than for Franjo Tudjman, two former Stalinist bureaucrats who have embraced nationalism to save their own skins. We take no satisfaction from the suffering of any of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, who are all victims of the cynical power-games being played by the great powers as well as by their own leaders.

Contrary to what Thompson implies, most of those who were once part of the Left in this country, far from being pro-Serb, have been demanding Western military intervention against the Serbs. They would do well to recall that there was no war in Yugoslavia until the West interfered.

Joan Phillips
Living Marxism


I was delighted to read the funny and touching Diary column in the Independent on 23 July. Apparently David Townsend (Letters, 10 June) has been obtaining quotations from Croydon bakers for the supply of dough and marzipan simulacra of the 38 William books against the possibility that I was right. Now, to slink around town searching out counterfeiters who may be able to facilitate the dishonest discharge of a debt of honour is bad enough. But to admit you’re doing so in the press, thus labelling your creditors as dupes before you’ve even duped them, is worse yet. Of course, David Townsend could have been forgiven all had he not been so smug as to call the late Richmal Crompton second-rate before he proceeded to make two fundamental errors about her work. (William shot the cat in the book William the Bold, incidentally).

I think that payment must now be made in the true coin of mashed paper and ink. Eating cake would be more of a treat than a forfeit.

Adrian Bowyer
University of Bath


I was amused to find myself appearing in Elisa Segrave’s Diary (LRB, 22 July) but wish to make three points:1. It was not I who took a copy of Viz to her in hospital. She is probably confusing me with her priest. 2. Her misspelling of the Aztec word chocolatl is ascribed to me. This correction is made also on behalf of the Aztecs themselves who aren’t around to do it. 3. She misleadingly glosses my remarks on transsexual research at Johns Hopkins University. In fact the reason fewer sex-change operations are performed now than in the Sixties and Seventies is because it has been observed that there is little change in the incidence of suicide which (along with that of self-mutilation) the operation was designed to allay.

Duncan Fallowell
Rhiw, Gwynedd


Terry Eagleton (LRB, 8 July) is slightly wrong about Patrick Prunty (thus, and not Brunty, in the DNB). He did not ‘Frenchify’ his surname to Brontë, a name he had probably never heard until the King of Sicily conferred the Dukedom of Bronte (no dieresis in Italian, but Patrick didn’t want to be called Bront) in 1801. Bronte is a small town on the western slopes of Etna, about which there is nothing French at all.

Freddy Hurdis-Jones

The Best

One of the great rewards of visiting Western Europe is access to the World Service of the BBC on AM and FM bands. The BBC World Service is the best English-language radio anywhere. I want to thank Owen Bennett Jones (LRB, 8 July) and all his co-workers at the BBC for my continuing education. God save us from the present director.

Carl Andre
New York

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