Alberto Manguel

The Library in Daylight

I’ve been writing about reading, libraries and books for quite a few decades now, and I’ve lived among books ever since I was a child. Within the boundaries of the Argentinian embassy in Israel (my father was in the diplomatic service), very little happened, or at least very little compared to the fabulous adventures of my favourite literary characters. Ever since I learned to read, the complicated experience of the world presented itself to me first in words, so that later, when I came across the real thing, I had stories through which to name it. Everything that has happened to me happened first in a book.

In every place I’ve lived (and there have been many), I’ve set up a library, but in spite of this I’d never been a librarian in the true sense of the word. My libraries lacked catalogues, the sections were madly idiosyncratic, the order haphazard, partly alphabetical and partly the outcome of secret reasons often forgotten. And yet I always knew how to find a book because the only user was myself.

Then, in November of last year, everything changed. I received a message from the newly appointed national culture minister of Argentina offering me the position of director of the National Library. I had left Argentina in 1979 as a 21-year-old eager to travel. I had been back on a few occasions but I hadn’t spent any significant length of time living there. My partner and I had recently settled in New York, where I was teaching; now I was being asked to leave everything and return to Buenos Aires after almost forty years’ absence.

The city, of course, was different. I found it difficult to look at the actual streets and houses without remembering the ghosts of what had been there before, or what I imagined had been there before. Buenos Aires felt now like one of those places seen in dreams, the geography of which you think you know but which keeps changing or drifting away as you try to make your way through it.

The National Library I had known during my adolescence was a different one. It stood on Mexico Street in the colonial neighbourhood of Montserrat. The building was an elegant 19th-century palazzo originally built to house the state lottery but almost immediately converted into a library. Borges had kept his office there when he was appointed director in 1955, when ‘God’s irony’, he said, had granted him in a single stroke ‘the books and the night’. Borges was the fourth blind director of the library, a curse I’m intent on avoiding. It was to this building, during the 1960s, that I used to go to meet Borges after school and walk him back to his flat, where I would read stories by Kipling, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson to him. After he became blind, Borges decided not to write anything except verse, which he could compose in his head and then dictate. But some ten years later he went back on his resolution and decided to try his hand again at a few new stories. Before starting, Borges wanted to study how the great masters had gone about writing their own. The result was two of his best collections, Doctor Brodie’s Report and The Book of Sand.

The library I discovered half a century later was lodged in a gigantic tower designed in the brutalist style of the 1960s. Borges, passing his hands over the architect’s model, dismissed it as ‘a hideous sewing machine’. The building is supposed to represent a book lying on a tall cement table, but people call it the UFO, an alien thing landed among pretty gardens and blue jacaranda trees.

Up to the year 2005, the library employed three hundred members of staff. The previous library administration brought in seven hundred more, some two hundred of whom were appointed in the last weeks of its tenure, because it was deemed more important to create jobs than to provide meaningful work for the employees. A small percentage were librarians; the rest were employed in tasks only vaguely defined. The recently elected government’s declared intention was to ‘rationalise’ state institutions (the National Library is one of these). One of its first acts was to cut the number of employees, but among these were many of the professional librarians without whom the library would not have been able to function and whom I quickly reinstated. At present, there are about nine hundred people working in the library.

The previous library administration had concentrated its efforts on political and popular cultural events, and had paid less attention to the technical aspects of the library, such as the cataloguing and digitising programmes. As a result, when I took up my position I was not able to tell with any accuracy how many books the library held in its stacks. Between three and five million documents was the closest guess that could be made.

I’ve made it my priority to reorganise the different departments so that the library administration can be more efficient and coherent. Above all, I’m insisting that the catalogue be brought up to date and a programme of digitisation be embarked on that will allow us to share our resources with provincial libraries. The National Library is supposed to be, of course, the library of all Argentinians, but up to now it has served mostly the public of Buenos Aires. Shortly after my arrival, I started travelling around the country in order to get to know provincial librarians and find out what their needs are. Borges imagined every library as universal. With this in mind, I have also been trying to sign agreements with various national libraries and university libraries around the world, among them the British Library and the university library of Cambridge.

In my adolescence, I tried to write, no doubt under the influence of Borges, a few fantastical stories, now fortunately lost. One of them was about an unbearable know-it-all to whom the devil, in exchange for I don’t recall what, entrusted the overseeing of the world. Suddenly, this oaf realises that he has to deal with everything at once, from the rising of the sun to the turning of every page of every book, and the falling of every leaf, and the coursing of every drop of blood in every vein, and he is crushed by the inconceivable immensity of the task.

I had wanted to try to put my ideas about reading and libraries into action ever since I received my first books. Now I have got my wish with a vengeance. I have never in my life done anything as demanding and overwhelming as directing the National Library of Argentina. I have become, from one day to the next, an accountant, technician, lawyer, architect, electrician, psychologist, diplomat, sociologist, specialist on union politics, technocrat, cultural programmer and, of course, librarian. I hope that, time and Argentinian politics permitting, I’ll be able to start a few things that may allow us to have, in the not too distant future, a national library we can be proud of.                        

Royal Shakespeare Company

Donmar Warehouse

Follow Literary Review on Twitter