Don Triplehorn, the late, great UAF professor emeritus and best friend of libraries and books, once gave me an interesting book: Henry Petroski’s “The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts – From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers – Came to Be as They Are.” Trip and I’d been discussing staplers, which led to the history of keeping related pieces of paper together. 

The ubiquitous paper clip emerged from pins, which are ancient devices originally made bones, thorns, and slivers of wood used to hold clothing together. Metal pins emerged in the Bronze Age and were eventually supplanted by steel. The downsides of pins quickly became evident when papers that were repeatedly unpinned and re-pinned resulted in raggedy corners and when they tended to prick fingers and snag other papers. 

According to the Early Office Museum, “the first patent for a bent wire paper clip was awarded in the United States to Samuel B. Fay in 1867. 

This clip was originally intended primarily for attaching tickets to fabric, although the patent recognized that it could be used to attach papers together.” Fay’s simple device was flat on top with two crossed legs pressed together, but it was awkward and inefficient. 

Petroski noted that the rounded paperclip we know today, the “Gem,” was produced by the Gem Manufacturing Company in Britain in the early 1870s but was never patented, and Americans promptly started manufacturing replicas and calling their clips Gems.

Thinking of Trip’s recent passing inspired me to haul out that Petroski book, which has much, much more to say about paperclips and pins, but delving into Petroski’s minutia reminded me of recent thoughts in the other, macro direction, and in particular Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel,” in which “Borges’ narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of adjacent hexagonal rooms. In each room, there is an entrance on one wall, the bare necessities for human survival on another wall, and four walls of bookshelves. 

Though the order and content of the books are random and apparently completely meaningless, the inhabitants believe that the books contain every possible ordering of just 25 basic characters (22 letters, the period, the comma, and space). 

Though the vast majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written … Despite—indeed, because of—this glut of information, all books are totally useless to the reader, leaving the librarians in a state of suicidal despair,” according to Wikipedia.

Borges, who was blind, was an internationally acclaimed author and a librarian at the Municipal Library in Buenos Aires who rose to head Argentina’s National Library for many years. He was a fearless champion of intellectual freedom and dedicated opponent of fascists, communism, and Juan Peron. 

I’m proud to have met this paragon of librarianship while in library school when he visited my professor of introductory reference services class (who was also a renowned Spanish language librarian at France’s Biblioteque Nationale). 

That class included a section on vertical files, or, as the device is better known, the filing cabinet. In those pre-Internet days, librarians maintained files of all sort of information – maps, histories, local businesses, etc. – for patrons to draw upon. For example, when I arrived in Fairbanks in 1990, popular items in our local library’s vertical file were listings of permanent fund payouts and the dates chosen by winners of the Nenana Ice Classic.

Why were we taught to call them “vertical files” instead of filing cabinets? Because that’s the name Melvil Dewey chose for the device, and librarians clung to the name for a century. 

Beside creating the Dewey Decimal Classification system, founding The Library Journal, the first magazine for professional librarians, and the American Library Association, in 1876 Dewey also began The Library Bureau, a business to provide supplies and equipment to libraries. 

Nonetheless, Dewey was no paragon of librarianship. He was a dedicated racist and serial sexual predator, and that’s why Dewey’s name was finally stripped from the American Library Association’s top library award in 2019.

The ALA’s John Catton Dana award commemorates a true hero of the American library traditions. Dana ran Denver’s public library from 1889-98 and he implemented some ground-breaking innovations that are taken for granted in libraries across our land.

Back then, public libraries were mainly for the use of the educated elite, but Dana believed that libraries should strive to educate the public about citizenship and so he reached out to all segments of society by making it easier to acquire library cards, lengthening the library’s hours of operation to allow working people to utilize the facility, opening a separate children’s room, increasing the number of books in the collection from 2,000 to 23,000 in four years, and, most importantly in my opinion, he opened up the shelves to public browsing. 

Suddenly, anyone could look at all the books on a particular subject and choose the best ones for themselves, and serendipity, finding just what you wanted to see but didn’t know it until you see it, came into play.

This set American libraries apart from the rest of the world, where most public libraries have “closed stacks” where patrons submit requests for books to librarians who fetch them. 

Dana revolutionized American libraries by actively advocating “open stacks,” saying “The worth of a book is in its use … Wisdom in half-morocco [bindings] locked on a shelf is trash.” That line put me in mind of the first of Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Libraries: “Books are for use.” Shiyali Ranganathan is considered the “father of Indian librarianship” (his birthday is India’s National Librarian’s Day), and when he became a librarian in the early 1900s, he knew that most Indian libraries still chained their books to the shelves to inhibit theft. His law, “books are for use,” meant that library books aren’t meant to be shut away from readers.

Today open stacks are taken for granted in America, but not as much before the covid pandemic made going into any public library, including our own, problematic until recently. 

In most other lands browsing through the shelves is unknown, and the words of Australian journalist Ramona Koval are mystifying: “True browsing means that we discover shelves and subjects that we could not have anticipated when we started. And the books we read introduce us to other books, as if we are at a magnificent party of the mind, being ever welcomed by new friends to join in the conversation.”

Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.