The Gift of Words

In which The Author makes a charitable donation

I was in Aberdare Library yesterday afternoon when an elderly chap came in and asked to see ‘their most up-to-date dictionary.’ At first, Steven G. seemed a bit nonplussed, but he accompanied the visitor to the shelves anyway. After scanning them for a few moments, he took down a copy of the Bloomsbury Encarta World English Dictionary.
I remember when this came out, because Bloomsbury Publishing were very enthusiastic about it. Microsoft had produced the Encarta CD-ROM, which was a very expensive interactive dictionary-cum-encyclopedia-cum-atlas. Bloomsbury had acquired the UK rights to put a similar reference work into print. They thought it was going to put them into the big league of British publishers. It didn’t work. Their big break happened a few years later, when they signed up an unknown writer who’d come up with a tale about a boy wizard and his chums.
The book I’m talking about was published in 1993. That, as far as Aberdare Library is concerned, counts as a ‘recent’ book.
I found another book in the ‘reference’ section a couple of months ago, called something like ‘Political Geography of the European Community.’ That rang alarm bells in my head straight away, because it hasn’t been called ‘the European Community’ for some years now. I decided to pick it up and had a quick glance at it; at the time of its publication, there were fifteen member states. As of July last year, there are twenty-eight.
That particular book seems to have vanished from the shelves now. One would imagine that it went into Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC’s Library Service Closing Down Sale; then again, it might have been pinched by someone who wanted to sell a valuable antique on Ebay. However, I’ve just found the Oxford Atlas of Modern World History, which was published in 1989. The Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen and the USSR was still in existence. Nelson Mandela was still in prison. The first Gulf War had yet to erupt. The European Economic Community (see, that‘s how old this book is) had only twelve member states. The world was a very different place a quarter of a century ago, after all. For a contemporary student, that book is about as relevant as useful as the first edition of the Observer. Come to think of it, if it’s still here on December 4th (the 25th anniversary of its arrival in stock) I’ll buy it a birthday cake.
In A Turn-out For the Books (and elsewhere) I’ve bemoaned the way in which Aberdare Library has ruthlessly cut back both its lending and reference stock in the past few years. Local historians are spoiled for choice, fortunately for me, as I’m embarking on a project which will probably take me the rest of my natural life and involve just about every book they’ve got. Their Welsh history resources are superb. However, for people wanting to read up on any other subject, it’s little short of a laughing stock.
It’s not just the books which have vanished from the shelves. Martin H. and I were leaving one day a few months ago. We spotted several tables full of CDs and DVDs, which were being sold off at knock-down prices. It occurred to us then that we must be the first generation to see an entire technology go right through from its inception to its obsolescence. (Have a look at my entry OMNIscience and reflect on the fact that nearly every gadget advertised in those magazines, a little over thirty years ago, relied on analogue technology.) Surely, though, it’s a little premature to get rid of everything simply because downloads are knocking the sales of hard copies. When it comes to books, there’s a vast amount of information which isn’t online, or which you need to pay to access, or which is simply wrong (see For the Fallen for just one example.) Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who don’t, or can’t, (or won’t) use computers. How the hell are they expected to manage in this brave new virtual world?
This morning I made Aberdare Library an offer they couldn’t refuse (not if they wanted to maintain some sort of reputation, anyway.) I’ve got the current edition of The Chambers Dictionary at home, after winning a copy in a competition a while back. I also had the previous edition, published in 2008, on the shelves. I don’t think I’ve consulted it for ages. Once in a while, the estimable Azed (see There’s Always a Cross Word) states that a particular word ‘appears in previous editions [of Chambers]’, but on the whole it was just taking up valuable space. It was also published fifteen years after Aberdare Library’s most recent specimen.
So, this morning, I pulled the trusty volume off the shelf, shoved it into my bag, and brought it to town. I showed it to Steven, who seemed quite surprised when I told him he could take it off my hands if he wanted it. I explained my situation, and said, ‘As long as I know where I can find the previous edition, I’m sorted.’
I know people often donate old books or photos to Aberdare Library, but I shouldn’t think many people donate nearly new books to them. It speaks volumes (slight pun intended) that RCTCBC is now reliant on the general public to supply them with what should be ‘bread-and-butter books’ (to borrow my old friend Chris Hossack’s catchphrase, meaning essential stock items.)
Mind you, it’s a two-way street. I’ve got the 2012 editions of Whitaker’s Almanac and Who’s Who in my own personal reference library. They cost me a mere pound each in the RCT Libraries Closing Down Sale. I’d have paid over £200 if I’d bought them new. Now you can see why I needed the space at home.

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