“The Strange Library”

The English translation of Haruki Murakami’s new book, The Strange Library, (村上春樹, ふしぎな図書館) is coming out soon. I learned about it from Steve Witt of UIUC, at a workshop of international and area studies librarians. Unfortunately I cannot read Japanese, but Steve tells me that Murakami’s young protagonist goes to a library to ask about Ottoman tax law, a reference question typical of “area studies” research. Then no doubt strange things happen, as they usually do in Murakami’s novels.

The Strange Library

I’m learning more about our so-called “strange” library collections in “strange” languages. Spoiler alert: my brain nearly popped when I realized that non-western, non-anglophone, international, global, trans-national, and area studies are essentially “hidden programs,” much like “hidden collections.”

As a stranger in this strange land, I was invited to facilitate a session in the workshop about area studies as the new special collections. We were working in the LLILAS Benson, a research center, library and special collections melded into one. The AUL, Charles Hale, is an academic. AJ Johnson, their dynamic head of public service, facilitates research across all formats and collections. Etc. They are all having a blast.


In the workshop I was frank: I wondered out loud if special collections librarians wouldn’t benefit more from such constructs than vice versa. Casting ourselves has “special” has backfired, as has describing ourselves as “collections.” I think that leadership in special collections can sometimes still be risk-averse, especially in hiring. Lacking language expertise, we often have no idea what we have (like the recent example of a unique Chinese manuscript from 1562 buried in the rare book stacks at the Huntington).

Workshop participants wrestled with how to reduced barriers to use, and how to remove the need for researchers to discern a “secret code” for entry to this treasure trove. Sounds familiar.

Trends I gleaned from the workshop include:

  • Area studies are the original collective collection. In North America, area studies librarians have been practicing intense collaboration (phrase from a job posting at Ohio State) from day one, intentionally building a national collective collection since shortly after WW1. That’s some 100 years of curating a collective collection. Nice.
  • Novel restructuring of research library organizations is ubiquitous. Area studies and special collections have been combined at the University of Florida, Tulane, Ohio State and the University of Kansas. They are all OCLC Research Library Partners, by the way. No two libraries have done it the same way. This is a work-in-progress, and the librarians love it:
    • it feels natural
    • diverse and heterogenous programs converge
    • social sciences and humanities intersect
    • synergies and divergences have instantly made the whole much greater than the sum of the parts
    • economics of scarcity and economics of scale are a challenge
    • everyone wants to transcend a reputation for hiding behind expertise
    • never mind some inevitable bumps along the way

At the end of the week I visited with friends and colleagues at the Ransom Center, a venerable independent special collections library across campus. In casual conversation, Steve Enniss, the new director, mentioned that he and “Charlie” agreed to let the Ransom Center “borrow a curator” from the Benson, who has deep expertise in Latin American languages and cultures, in order to examine a collection. Well, there you go.

This vision of an international collective collection that includes special collections is thrilling. I am taking home an assignment to investigate shared expertise and concerns of librarians who work with SHARES and these librarians with responsibilities for global collective collections.