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March 2, 2018

A collection of unreliable truths

Monuments as much to mistakes as they are to memory, books tell a greater story than that contained within their pages.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Picture: Tyrone Ormsby

Descended of cave markings, wood carvings, stone tablets, and scrolls, the book differentiated itself through a simple evolution.

“It is really nothing more complicated than pages collected together,” says Mark Gilbert, content librarian at the State Library of South Australia.

In the rare book archives of the Library, the truth is as variable as the forms taken to satisfy this lone requirement.

One page in one volume carries a purportedly-accurate drawing of early post-colonisation Australia in which people ride (entirely imagined) elephants through the landscape, while a different tome of the same era offers eloquent, minutely detailed illustrations of real fauna.

These variable truths could be rendered on palm leaves, pressed between two sections of carved ivory, and wrapped in the discarded robes of monks. Or they can be found unceremoniously packed into the crowded typeface of a crumbling airport paperback from the ’80s.

The form tells as much of a story as the information contained within the book – the materials offering hints as to the relative wealth, ability, and access of the person or community that produced it.

But regardless of accuracy, morals, or materiality, every example contains a specific and deliberate collection of ideas. They are books.   

Single books of any kind can tell mistruths or misrepresent whole swathes of society, but the power of the medium crystallises when it is gathered together.

“You look at the storytelling of the whole library, rather than the specific antiquities,” says Peter Zajichek, the Library’s senior conservator.

A collection of books is a collection of errors and achievements, a catalogue of ego and humility. It is varied, incomplete, and highly flawed.

In telling us so much, it also suggests a shadow world of knowledge and thinking and being that we will never retrieve. In helping us understand the depth of knowledge we have captured; a collection of books simultaneously reveals that there is a great deal we have lost.

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