James A. Johnson, the first warden of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, was a strict disciplinarian. His solution to prison violence was rigid adherence to Golden Rules, including one which dictated, to the inch, the location of shaving brushes within each cell. “Old Saltwater”, as he was known, was popular with the inmates. He ate with them, unguarded.

Alcatraz inherited the library of the military citadel which had formerly stood on the island. In 1937, at Johnson’s instigation, new books were purchased, and a printed catalogue compiled. Each new prisoner received a copy of the catalogue on arrival.

Inmates were not allowed to enter the library. They ordered reading material using request slips placed, at breakfast time, in a box near the dining hall. Three standard books, and up to twelve textbooks, could be borrowed. The library was popular – the average monthly circulation in 1937 was 8.2 books per prisoner. The prison chaplain excised all references to sex, crime, and violence.

Did personal ownership of a catalogue, or selection solely by means of it, make the prisoners keener readers? It’s a quaint idea. A Federal Bureau of Prisons booklet, published in 1960, noted that “these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community. Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel, etc. are especially popular.”

That’s the same Hegel who characterized history as a “butcher’s block”. The Schopenhauer who wrote, in detail, about crime and punishment in The World as Will and Idea. And the Kant whose Lectures on Ethics and his Metaphysics of Morals contain discussions of what the philosopher calls “unnatural and unmentionable vices”. Perhaps the chaplain wasn’t too hot on philosophy. Good cataloguing or botched censorship? Or a bit of both? Take your pick.



Underused library word no. 243.

The Oxford English dictionary defines “Alveary” as “1a: ‘A repository, esp. of knowledge or information. Originally as the name of a dictionary encompassing several languages… It may be used Metaphorically for… a Library full of Books.’ 1b. ‘A beehive. Also: the location where a beehive stands; an apiary. Now rare.'”

In mythology and heraldry, beehives stand for industry and co-operation. In Freemasonary, and in the Mormon Church, they are used as a symbolic caution against intellectual laziness. Richard FoxeLouis McNeice, and Sarah Thomas, among others, have deployed them as metaphors for libraries. It is no accident that the hexagonal galleries, walls, and bookshelves of Borges’ Library of Babel reflect a beehive’s internal architecture.

Natural beehives are quite different from the artificial kind. But they too have a certain structure. Honey is stored in the upper part of the comb. Then come rows of pollen-storage cells, then worker-brood cells, then drone-brood cells. Queen cells are usually located on the lower edge of the comb.

Artificial beehives seek to bring greater order and efficiency to honey production and storage by disturbing this verticality. Humans have been building artificial beehives since antiquity, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that recognizably modern designs were used. Today there are two main types – the Langstroth hive and the top-bar hive.

Two main systems, both developed in the nineteenth century? Attempts to bring order to the quiet chaos of the natural world? Sounds a lot like library classification. It seems that the metaphor can be pushed further still.