When you are researching a book, the internet is invaluable because a search can point you to specific sources. But that’s when a good library comes into its own. Every book found in this way has something to say that I already know about. But in a library it is surrounded by books on a similar subject – books that I didn’t know about. You pick them up, flick through them, and find treasures – and wisdom – you would never otherwise have found.
For the last few weeks I have been putting together notes and sources for Free Radicals, which has involved trips to a university library that I regularly use. When I’ve been checking the quotes I have pulled out, I’ve also “wasted” time looking up and down the surrounding shelves, pulling out things that look interesting, and skimming through them.
As a result, I have been distracted by utterly joy-inducing vignettes on science (and on humanity), written decades ago but all too relevant to today. It’s too late for most of them to be a part of Free Radicals, but I plan to blog on some of them – and my notes and sources material – over the next few months (the book comes out in July).
There is so much stuff in libraries that deserves an airing. Which is what, for me at least, is so appalling about the UK government’s suggestion that local councils save money by cutting library services. That isn’t about university libraries, of course, and the main concern has to be its effect upon reading by those who can’t afford to buy books, as Philip Pullman has so ably said.
I do, however, think it’s worth pointing out the joy and value of discovering a book that you could only have come across by being in the same physical space. So let me leave you with one of last week’s discoveries. This is from ‘Possible Worlds’, a book JBS Haldane wrote in 1927:
“Scientific ability is not the perquisite of any one race, but it can only show itself under conditions when thought is free, and there are many different ways of suppressing it. One way is to refuse research facilities to people without academic qualifications. If Faraday lived to-day he would not find his career much, if at all, easier in England; and in many countries he would have to remain a bookbinder. Scientific genius is so rare that no single system, however well thought out, will avail for its discovery and encouragement.”
And while you discuss that, I’m heading back to the library…