It is a lecture that Eco has given in Milan in 1981 and as can be reasonably expected it is about the libraries.
Eco starts with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges The Library of Babel to set the tone. Reminding us of the concept of the library as a universe. The universe of all knowledge. He then considers how such a model of a library can help us in determining the truth about libraries and their purpose.
My favorite part is the 19 points model of the worst library, in which surely many will recognize traits of libraries they visited, especially if involved in academia. The long signatures, the obscure catalogs, the sheer impossibility of getting one’s hands on a book. Ahhh, memories…
Eco also introduces us to two of his favorite libraries: The Sterling Memorial Library in Yale and university library in Toronto. They are very different and yet similar in the way they make the books available. Long opening hours, free access to books, possibility to lend not only read on the spot, cafeterias. Things we may now consider obvious but back in the 1980’s they were not, actually they were not obvious even in the early 2000s in Polish academic libraries.
The question Eco asks in his short lecture is: what is the purpose of a library? Is it to provide access to books, with all the risks it implies? Or is it to protect the books at all cost, hence limiting access to them as much as possible?
As always with Eco his lecture is witty and a pleasure to read. I always enjoy interacting with his texts, because he does show off his vast knowledge but he does it with the lightness that makes it entertaining and not daunting.
I don’t think the text was ever translated into English if my Italian wasn’t rusty and I had more time maybe I’d take a stab, but given the reality of my life recently it probably won’t happen. Here you can find the original version. It is a lovely text.