The specialness of special collections

‘I have always imagined Paradise will be a kind of library’
– Jorge Luis Borges


It was in the early 1980s, when I was studying physiology, that I first learned about the sensory homunculus. It’s a diagram or map that can be discerned in the tissues of the brain when neurologists, using low electric currents, plot the areas where our sensory nerves end up, the somatosensory cortex. Admittedly, it’s not actually visible, even if you open up the skull and take a look, but it’s there even so – a grotesque figure (homunculus means little man) with oversized tongue, lips, face, hands, feet and genitals, reflecting the high sensitivity (the large number of sensory nerves) in those regions of the body.

The odd thing was that I recognised that little homunculus even though I’d never seen it before. Humans have been drawing it long before neurologists found it. It was scrawled on the walls of the toilets in prehistoric Orkney; it was scratched into the sides of medieval privies; we see it in the margins of kids’ schoolbooks.

It’s a bathroom graffito scrawled on the tissues of the brain by a disenfranchised evolution. Overall, it closely resembles the standard human caricature that appears through history. It’s how we burlesque the human form.

After that physiology class was over, I remember wondering if a similar representation might be made of a culture. I was in the science library, and thought about library catalogues, and what might happen if one was used to produce the representation I was thinking of. A ‘library homunculus’ arising from the more sensitive areas of the collection, generated by assigning certain call-numbers to certain parts of the body: lips and tongue to represent languages, say; engineering assigned to the hands – that sort of thing. Generating a figure proportioned according to the size of each section of the library…

If a library reflects the culture in which it sits, then the ‘library homunculus’ would embody the zeitgeist. It would be precisely as grotesque as the times in which we live.

Now, thirty years later, here I am, working in a library, at RMIT University. I’m quite proud to be here. When I’m asked what I do, I tell them where I work and allow them to think I’m a librarian. But I’m not; I’m an attendant. The job can be menial, and there are aggravations. The TAFE Nursing section of the collection is notoriously messy, for instance – but then, likely I’ll be leaving far worse messes for them when I’m older.

Once a supervisor told us we were essential to the functioning of the library – as are the toilets, I thought. Which wasn’t entirely fair. I find the work satisfying, and librarians are beautiful, and libraries are important. Recently, I learned the term ‘printed treasures’, and although it has a specific meaning in the library context, I find it to be more broadly applicable. It occurs to me often, when shelving a collection of Little Nemo comics, for instance, or a book by Richard Brautigan.

This year, I was seconded to the library’s communications department. I began interviewing staff for our newsletter. One assignment took me into the Special Collection, where I was shown about by two of the librarians, Guy Aron and Sam Gibbard, gracious, quietly enthusiastic men.

The books in their care are fantastic beasts.

If I abandon the homunculus metaphor for a moment (leaving the question open: where does the Special Collection sit in the ‘library homunculus’ of RMIT? It wasn’t until later that the answer came to me), the RMIT University Library Special Collection is the bibliographic equivalent of one of those abyssal habitats found at the bottom of the Pacific or Atlantic. It’s strangely lit, and quiet. It’s alive with flora and fauna divorced from the usual run of creation – the counterparts of the bioluminescent angler and the stoplight loosejaw.

Guy and Sam showed me some of the more notable beings. We looked at the Codex Seraphinianus, an illustrated encyclopaedia of an imaginary world, written in a cipher alphabet in an imaginary language, inspired, I believe, by ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, by librarian and author Jorge Luis Borges, about a conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine and devise a non-existent world.

We looked at Le Cannameliste Français, ou Nouvelle instruction pour ceux qui désirent d’apprendre l’office , rédigé en forme de dictionnaire [etc.] , by Sieur Gilliers – a dessert cookbook published in 1751. To a white Australian, this was a very ancient thing; an object that gentles you to see it, as very old things do.

We looked at Keep your eye on the wall: Palestinian landscapes, a bleak, beautiful, chastening book that folds out into metres-long photographic studies of the Israeli Westbank Wall/Barrier.

The phenomenon of deep sea gigantism was also evident. I learned the term ‘Elephant Folio’ (and ‘Double Elephant’, and ‘Royal Folio’) while heaving through a geography book called Earth, so huge it suggested another of Borges’ stories, ‘On Rigour in Science’, about a map drawn on a one-to-one scale.

By contrast, some books were tiny: handmade, a centimetre square. And there’s no reason not to think there were ones smaller still – microscopic, softcover plankton (invertebrates, but with bookbinders’ spines) swirling around us as we talked about the collection, and how e-books might affect it.

‘Look at these,’ Guy said. He reached into a low, dark bookcase as if under a shelf of coral, coaxing out a family of shy little books. They were made by typesetting enthusiasts: men and women with their own printing presses in their garages and sheds. They were collections of fleurons – stylised forms of flowers or leaves, used as typographic ornaments, and looking at them, I was reminded that the word anthology is from the Latin for field of flowers. Some plants flower most beautifully when they’re about to die, and in the last days of their trade, typesetters flowered also, in these little works of art.

Guy eased the books back into their home, saying, ‘These will never be available electronically.’

He was right, of course, they never would – but nor should they be. Their beauty is in their physicality. On the advent of any new medium, people worry it will crowd out the media that preceded it. TV was going to make cinema obsolete, for instance. Never happened. Cinema just redefined itself, and kept on. So too here. E-publishing doesn’t negate these books, but makes them more relevant than ever. The physical book is redefined, it’s craft, it’s art.

‘It’s always been a gathering of odds and ends here, condensed from a ragbag of legacy collections once scattered through the library,’ Guy told me. ‘Quite a few are books you wouldn’t normally associate with special collections, such as our osteopathy books.’ My favourite title among those was The Bigness of the Fellow Within.

‘I think the collection stands as a microcosm of RMIT itself,’ Guy continued. ‘In the nineteenth century, the university began as a trades college, then came the arts colleges, and so on, forever changing. If this collection lacks a philosophy, there’s at least this aspect, that it reflects the nature of its parent organisation.’

It was then that I understood where the Special Collection sits in the library homunculus – not an organ, not a gland or an extremity. Rather, it is itself a homunculus – a reflection of itself. It’s the sort of notion that will be familiar to readers of Jorge Luis Borges: a map that is sufficiently accurate will depict the room in which the map is contained, the table on which the map sits, the map itself …

And as such, the Special Collection at RMIT demonstrates the importance of the library it embodies. It’s a beautiful miscellany. There’s an element of the grotesque, yes, but so is there in the deep sea habitats the Special Collection resembles. As in such habitats, there’s an air of delicacy similar to the delicacy that belongs to the exquisite. This hints, I think, at the preciousness of the institution of libraries as a whole.


One more thing: the Swanston Library, where the Special Collection is housed, is undergoing a transformation. Shelves are being dismantled. Books and other items are being temporarily moved offsite. The renovations are beginning. From what I can see, it’ll be a metamorphosis. It’s like what we’re told about how organisms replace their complement of cells every few years; the same animal, but stretching its wings, more fit for its environment, the library-as-organism extending deeper online even while the Special Collection retains its physical form, the unchanged homunculus at the Library’s heart.


The RMIT University Special Collection is housed at the Swanston RMIT University Library, Building 8, Level 5, 360 Swanston St, Melbourne.

Image courtesy of The Jacaranda Atlas, edited by S Eales.

Adam Browne

Adam Browne is a library attendant and writer who lives in Melbourne.

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