There can never be enough books

Dr Simmonds has worked at the Cambridge University Library for thirty years, and you get the sense that for all of those thirty years there have been builders in, trying to create more space.  The library’s legal deposit status requires that a single copy of every book published, 184,000 in 2013 alone, is housed on its shelves.

There is no basement in the Giles Gilbert Scott building.  Instead the original courtyards have been raised, so that the ground floor can be filled by a warren of rolling shelves.  It is here where hoards of fiction are stacked and where ‘fetchers’ hunt down requests for titles made by readers upstairs.

In Dr Simmond’s office there are a pile of ten to twelve battered red plastic crates.  Deliveries reach his office from the legal deposit agent in Glasgow each Thursday. 

‘So,’ I ask him, ‘how many books do you receive a week?’

‘About a thousand.’

Which makes me a feel a little sick.

‘A thousand? Where do they all go?

The University is looking into off site storage in Ely.  Apparently the Bodleian in Oxford has four deliveries a day, shuttling between its warehouse and the front desk.  But for now there’s a bit of a crisis.  Up on the library wings there are overflow areas and snakes of books, spine up running along the floors.

‘Have you thought about e-copies?’  I ask.

‘For e-copies we need to negotiate who will fund the security.  Publishers,’ and Amazon I’m thinking, ‘are worried about hackers.’

He opens one of the crates, and plucks out the first title: Crime at Christmas.  The author is C.H.B. Kitchin, who read classics at Oxford and served in the first world war.

It’s a very unprepossessing little paperback book with a lot of navy blue on the cover, which gives the impression of night.  It is being reprinted this year by Faber, following a previous edition in 2009.  The same title was reissued by Hogarth in 1988, and again by Hamish Hamilton in 1968, with the original published by Harcourt, Brace & Company in 1934.  From the catalogue, it looks as though only the Hogarth publication is already on the University Library’s shelves.  However it is there.  They do not need another (not that I say this of course).

Crime at Christmas is a book which is rated with only three stars on both Goodreads and Amazon. The quote on the back cover reads: ‘There we were, all gathered together for a Christmas party, and plunged suddenly into a gloom.’  Perhaps the book is this popular with publishing houses, because it has Christmas in the title.  (Authors take note).   After all we are already sliding into October, when that time of year looms.   Or perhaps it is simply that once a book falls out of copyright, even negligible sales make it one worth producing. 

Vanity has been re-branded

I book a place on the Society of Author’s Self Publishing Event.  I am desperate.  Walking up Park Place towards the Royal Overseas Club, there is an elderly couple in front of me, and then another two dribble down from a cut through on Arlington Street, one leaning heavily on a stick. I imagine they are attending a reunion, or an Age Concern fundraiser, at another address.  But when I get into the building there are hoards of infirm on the staircase, some of them finding it difficult to scale. 

I disappear off to the lavatory, thinking that the OAP gathering will have gathered by the time I’ve finished, so that I can make my way freely up the stairs.  But when I return the situation has grown worse. 

The handwritten sign states that the Self-Publishing Event will be on the second floor, and as I overtake the hoards of pensioners clinging to the bannister railing, I begin to wonder whether there’s been some kind of mistake.

The room, when I find it, is full. There must be more than a hundred people, and less than ten are under the age of sixty. For the affordable booking fee there is one biscuit, and a cup of stewed tea.