"Beg forgiveness, lazy reader!"

Imagine only being able to check out one book a year from the library… and when returning that book, if you hadn’t finished reading it, having to ‘fall on your face’ and beg the librarian to forgive you? “Beg forgiveness, lazy reader!” Sounds like a Monty Python skit, no? But that was life in the eleventh-century, if you were in an English monastery:

On the Monday after the first Sunday in Lent, before brethren come into the Chapter House, the librarian shall have had a carpet laid down, and all the books got together upon it, except those which a year previously had been assigned reading. These brethren are to bring with them, when they come into the Chapter House, each his book in his hand… then the librarian shall read a statement as to the manner in which brethren have had books in the past year. As each brother hears his name pronounced he is to give back the book which as been entrusted to him for reading; and he whose conscience accuses him of not having read the book through which he had received, is to fall on his face, confess his fault, and entreat forgiveness. The librarian shall then make a fresh distribution of books, namely, a different volume to each brother for his reading.

Quote excerpted from Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf (previous post here), a book which, if skimmed briefly in a bookstore, might seem possibly one of the dullest books ever written (a book about how books are placed on bookshelves?). Polysyllabic academic writing style aside, this sort-of-meta book makes for a fascinating read, as it traces the history of how books are stored from the times of painstakingly scribed single-edition manuscripts locked up in monks’ armoires all the way up to modern libraries with moving bookshelves. Interesting stuff for anyone interested in information science.