Aubade: The Soul and Body of a Library

Remarks made at the Digital Public Library of America plenary meeting at the National Archives on October 21, 2011.

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

John Donne. “The Sun Rising.” Poems of John Donne. 2 vols. London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1896. p. 7. Accessed 20 October 2011. HathiTrust Digital Library <;

The aubade is a lyric about lovers parting at morning. Its opposite and counterpart is the serenade, an evening song in which one lover greets another. “Serenade” has somehow become a more common word in English than “aubade” (they used to rhyme), but we are familiar enough with the scene of the aubade, as when Romeo and Juliet argue over whether that’s a lark or a nightingale they hear at the close of their night together, or when John Donne berates the annoying dawn in “The Sun Rising.” The aubade is a slightly inverted genre: it recognizes that in the world of work, the sun’s rising is a beginning, while for lovers, the sun’s rising is an unwelcome ending.

Those of us who love books, reading, and the library (three separate ideas that are associated but not congruent, of course) are now somewhat in the position of a lover tangled up in someone’s warm limbs at dawn. The unruly sun of the digital text is rising, and it is calling us to strenuous work, to the daily ballet of bureaucracy, when I for one would far rather snuggle down under the covers with . . . a book, or with my beloved ideals about books, reading, and the library. My love song for the library as we have known it would praise, first of all, the fact that the library’s favors cost me nothing. As early modern poetry would be the first to admit, it is perfectly possible that love can exist in a, shall we say, commercial relationship, but I am speaking here of ideals. Secondly, I would praise a library’s infinite variety, from Robert Browning to Nora Roberts, a plenitude that custom cannot stale. Thirdly, I would praise a library that will support me in my moods of contemplative repose as well as in my moods of raucous communion.

All these might be called aspects of the soul of a library I could love, of libraries I have loved. But my love is not platonic. As Donne writes in another poem, “To our bodies turn we then, that so / Weak men on love revealed may look / Love’s mysteries in souls do grow / But yet the body is his book.” We need proof of love. Entire coffee table books have been compiled with nearly erotic photos of gorgeous library buildings, cathedrals of culture. How will the Digital Public Library of America be embodied?

I think the DPLA must manifest itself as more than just a website. There must also be many largely hidden, quiet services, generous services to the public, to developers, to existing libraries. These must be both technical and social, and might include linked open data and metadata, APIs, persistent URIs / DOIs, reference and literacy services, preservation services in the form of an independent reliable repository, continual attention to accessibility and discoverability, and even policy work at the highest levels of government. A site that merely aggregates existing content without providing such services would seem to me like a Galatea, a lovely statue with no humanity other than what we project upon it.

I fully agree that “if it’s not online it doesn’t exist,” but I think that if it’s only online, it only half exists.

And. (So.)

I want a building. A public building, not a data center, not a warehouse. I do not need a building, but I want it with the irrational desire of a lover. I know that it’s not on the radar of the DPLA project yet, but I wanted to plant the seed of that idea today. A monument to the ideal of an informed citizenry, a culturally, intellectually, and emotionally enriched citizenry.

One important note about the aubade: lovers who plan to reunite in the evening of the very same day whose morning saw a reluctant parting are allowed to figure in the aubade. (You can look it up in either Wikipedia or the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.) The aubade is not just for lovers who anticipate a long, painful, and perhaps permanent separation. I am confident that ours is one such aubade, that our workday will end in a gleeful rendezvous with the soul and body of a library.

3 thoughts on “Aubade: The Soul and Body of a Library

  1. I thought that the DLPA exists already–or really, that it’s been under construction since the mid-1990s, and before in various forms.

    We’ve all been a part of it. And most of us will continue to help build it until we draw our last breath.

    Regarding a building, isn’t it wonderful that today there are more than ever before, and many in some quite surprising places.

    Finally, about the monument “to the ideal of an informed citizenry, a culturally, intellectually, and emotionally enriched citizenry,” doesn’t this manifest itself not in physical monuments–buildings or otherwise–but in the never-ending progress of our communities, country, and world?

    Through the use of the Internet to transmit information, everyone who can reach a laptop, desktop, tablet, or smartphone has much greater access at a much lower cost than anyone in history. This opens up the world of reading, publishing, recommending, and commenting as never before.

    Let’s keep focused on the objective you’ve identified and realize that it’s not a building housing volumes and staff–and it never has been. Instead, the objective has been exactly as you state, an informed citizenry.

  2. This talk was the highlight of the entire DPLA program for me. Thanks for posting it here.

    I’m very much in agreement that we will need a physical footprint for the DPLA and that merely building a web platform, code, and APIs is not enough. That said, a centralized building feels like a mistake to me, and I’d suggest that some kind of distributed, networked architecture that is visible in, on or around library locations across the country would be more effective. We have a public library infrastructure, it’s amazing, and we should be proud to transition it into this new time. I don’t doubt that a centralized building will exist for the DPLA one day, it is almost instinctive to build monuments to great efforts. But any public librarian will tell you this: *it’s in the library branches where all the real action is*. That is where we need the physical manifestation of this thing, not in some mega-structure in Washington DC.

  3. I support Nate Hill’s comment to the effect that the physical “library” is there, already present in many, many local manifestations, and that DPA should reveal its self in and connect with the public when they step through these many portals (virtually or physically…and often simulataneously in both ways).

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