The Need for Physical Books

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Earlier this week I made a trip to Sheffield, where I had lived for nine years and did both my undergraduate degree and doctorate. I managed to combine many things into the visit, including meeting up with friends and colleagues to discuss a wide range of things.

One of the reasons for going up related to a project that I have funding for this summer (postponed from 2020) for a student to support some of my research in relation to Roland Barthes and Empire of Signs – which ties in with my work on Visual Packaging Culture. To get the most out of this, there is preparatory work that needs doing by me. One part of this could be done in Sheffield. The other needs to be done in Paris (where I was due to go in April 2020 to give a talk and would have used the time there to do the preparatory work, but the trip was cancelled due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic). I will slot in the visit to Paris in the next few weeks having now done the Sheffield one.

The chats with colleagues, such as Graham Healey, who was my first Japanese language lecturer back in 1989 and has such amazing knowledge, were very useful, but in this post I want to particularly reflect on my visit to the library.

More and more the world is moving to eBooks. EBooks are great. They tend to be cheaper than physical books and it can be easy to make notes on them. But there are many limitations too. One of the problems is not so much with the eBooks themselves, but that they are part of the logic of making everything electronic. Browsing through an electronic catalogue of books in a library collection is just not as effective as looking at the spines of physical books. The environment also makes a difference – seeing all the books, I find, is just more intellectually stimulating than looking at a computer screen.

At Cardiff, we have many, many books on Japan and the collection continues to grow. Whenever I ask for a book, it is ordered almost instantly. But the focus is on eBooks. And, when we do have physical ones, they are split across different libraries due to the University having subject libraries. That Japanese programmes were established in Cardiff at the end of the 80s, means that, naturally, the collection is smaller than somewhere like Sheffield which had been established nearly 30 years earlier. Cardiff probably has all the books that an undergraduate would need and I’m sure the library will be able to get hold of others needed by them or those doing a PhD on a specialist topic. But, when you’re not 100% sure what it is what you’re looking for, you can’t beat browsing a physical library. That in Sheffield these books are all in one location is a huge advantage too.

The Sheffield Japanese collection is now on Level 4 – this used to be Stack 2 in my day – of the main library. It’s much brighter and more welcoming than it used to be when I spent many hours there as both an undergraduate and PG (you had to sign in to say you were going there in those days) – although some of the lights still don’t work. I came across so many interesting books. The first book that actually caught my eye was Minamata by Eugene Smith. At first I thought I would have a look at it just because I could and because I recently watched the movie (see my review here). But looking through it made me realise that even this book, and what it represents, may have relevance to my own work on Visual Packaging Culture in a way that I hadn’t appreciated up to that point.

One of the things that amused me was how it was possible to see the main interests of those who’d worked at Sheffield based on the books in the collection. This did mean that at times – when I got to sections that weren’t relevant to my work – I could skip by several shelves relatively quickly, it also made me realise that I need to visit some other collections where the interests may be more closely aligned to mine and which aren’t as well represented at Sheffield.

After browsing the collection for about an hour, I came across one of my own books, Shinkansen. I hadn’t even thought about the possibility before I started. Of course it makes sense for them to be a part of the collection, but it still feels strange seeing your own work out there. I still remember the first time that I saw a copy of Japanese Education Reform in Kinokuniya in Shinjuku – my reaction was “That’s my book” – not so much in the sense “I wrote that”, but more “who took that from my bookshelf and put it here?”. When I was first visiting the library at Sheffield – either when the main collection was in the Arts Tower – or the Stacks, I could never have imagined that I would be back around 30 years later and seeing books written by me in the collection.

The Sheffield collection and the approximately two hours I spent there was really helpful for developing my research ideas. Other than not getting a good night’s sleep, the trip (which also included a trip to Beautiful Down Town Bramall Lane (home of Sheffield United) and stocking up some Henderson’s Relish (which can be bought in Cardiff now, but it doesn’t feel right not to buy some in Sheffield when visiting)) was very successful and a timely reminder about the need for physical libraries and books.

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