Monday, August 11, 2008

The Library

The day we arrived, we circled the library twice and found all doors closed. The sun was making eyes squint, and the whole place was very quiet. A small red brick villa - but was it really here? Finally we found the servants' entrance, and rang the bell (it is permanently locked; a librarian has to let you in and out). The door opened, and we descended into the scholarly basement. Our air-conditioned summer has begun.

Downstairs, in the big reading room, there are only a few windows and no direct day light. Continue down the corridor, to the scholars' carrels and the secondary books stacks, and you are underground, florescent lights, and squeaking floor. It feels like a military bunker, or a prison. At the end of this short walk is the lounge, room with Vanity Fair magazines, a fridge and microwave and free tea and coffee, even free pop corn. All the scholars have their lunches there. We smuggle ourselves outside to the garden - carrying our lentil salads, rice and plums - strip ourselves from the wooly jumpers (it is very cold inside) and cover our eyes for protection from the burning colours.

The green lawns are huge, and they stupidly water them in the middle of the day. There are also water features, and a heavy tree whose name I do not know, but I think of it as the baobab. It's thick arms and fingers run a long way from its stem, and the fruits are painfully heavy when they fall (no picnics underneath it then). The librarian has arranged a table for us on the terrace on the other side of the garden (they are very forthcoming here), and we sit, the three of us, and talk, on eighteenth century march songs, on families, on unemployment in France.

The whole place is deserted. Sometimes somebody ventures in from the street; a woman with her dog; even a whole kindergarten once. But usually there is no one, except for the mystery Hassidic man that is sitting on the fence with his back to us, very far away (sometimes I think I am imagining him, but then he moves to reassure me of his existence). And yes, there is the libray cat (his pet food paid by the University).

The library was built in a real-estate gamble in what was to be Los Angeles's better quarter; but history ruled otherwise, and the area sunk into poverty from which it is unlikely to ever recover. Perhaps this is the reason for the constant locking of the library doors; it feels more like an outpost than a welcoming public institution. I wonder what happens when the revolution comes; will the angry neighbours burn the early modern manuscripts, smash the Eric Gill sculptures, and have barbeque on the lawns?

The place has privilege written all over it; the story is typical. First, a ruthless man carves an empire of wealth from railroads, oil or mining. Then, his descendants ensure an honourable reputation for the family through Culture, (with a capital c: European culture), championing classical music and paintings, books and libraries, universities and concert halls. And from then on, generations of scholars and artists will bask in the benevolence of the great man. A three step plan from exploitation to finesse, from the hard realities of the world to the genteel pursuit of knowledge and art. But what role do we play – the scholars who come and enjoy this privilege for one summer? Apologists? Collaborators? Lucky winners (not only free coffee and internet; somehow we fooled the rich to support our cause)? I am not entirely sure. When I think about it, this bastion (or bunker) of knowledge, with its back to its poor neighbours, brings out the unease I feel about the prospects and meaning of scholarship. But then again, the red-brick building at the centre of a large empty park, a strange construction of eclectic qualities, usually feels more like a ruin than a palace.

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