Saturday, November 29, 2008

book technologies

Digesting turkey hasn't been helping with my processing thoughts for this blog, so I'm going to do the classic blog thing of directing you to some other blog posts:

At Mercurius Politicus, Nick Poyntz has a great post on "Information technology and early modern readers", thinking about bookshelves and the ways in which the organization of books in physical space shapes their use. He looks at the libraries of Montaigne, Cotton, and Pepys, each of which were organized differently and suggests different ways in which those libraries were processed. Nice quotes from these early modern scholars and great links to more images.

A less scholarly approach but more visually lush take on libraries can be found at the reoccuring "bookporn" series at A Historian's Craft. Post #19 has some great shots of the library at St John's College, Cambridge, with its fabulous call number indexes. (Of course, I'm partial to the Folger, both the Old Reading Room and the New Reading Room.)

Over at d i a p s a l m a t a are some fabulous images from a couple of Renaissance anatomy books. They're not just any anatomy books, however, but flap books, the kind where you lift the flap to see what lies beneath the skin, or muscle, or skull. The images themselves are great. But they are also a prompt for some thoughts on the challenges on digitizing early modern books; an earlier post on vovelles touches on this thread as well.

[Corrected: Yes, for those of you who caught this post when it first went out, there was a typo in the post title; it's now corrected, thanks to blogging technologies!]

Friday, November 7, 2008

chains & ephemera

Two different and opposing examples of print today, both of which respond to some of my earlier thoughts about the material presence of books and their durability or lack thereof.

The first is what I think of as a book with a seriously material presence: Thomas a Kempis's Works printed in Nuremburg in 1494 and bound in a contemporaneous pigskin binding with beautiful blind tooling, heavy brass corner bosses, clasps, and an iron chain.
Now that's a book! And not one you could take with you on your travels, either. But, of course, that is one of the reasons it has survived: it is heavily armored. (More details in our catalogue.)

My other example is its opposite, something that I find amazing it has survived at all: a newspaper from September 1648 called The Moderate (although its user has renamed it as The Immoderate Rogue). It's just one sheet of paper, no binding, no protection, no nothing. And yet here we have it.

I like this, too, for what it shows about the early modern printing press. It's an uncut sheet, printed in a quarto imposition. There are four pages printed on this side of the sheet of paper; flip the sheet over, and the remaining four pages are printed. What you get, once you've folded the sheet in the right order, is a 4-leaf (or 8-page) pamphlet. Below is the numbering for the order of this newspaper, were you to fold and cut it.

Newspapers were not designed to last through the ages. They were meant to be read and used and perhaps passed on. As with other types of popular printed material, the more heavily they were read, the fewer of them survived for us to study today. The current exhibit at the Folger focuses on the history of newspapers. It's a hugely informative and interesting exhibit. You can see it at the Library itself through 31 January 2009; you can also check it out online and listen to the audio tour.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

almost as good as a book

I've now read Virginia Heffernan's column in today's New York Times Magazine multiple times, and I am no less confused by it than when I began. Her focus in "Pump Up the Volume" is the Kindle, Amazon's e-book reader. And her basic point seems to be that it is almost as good as a book. This is why I've had to read the column multiple times. That's her point? It's almost as good as a book? That's really what her description keeps coming back to. One of the great things about the Kindle, Heffernan insists, is that it is so un-electronic, so unlinked to the internet:
Unlike the other devices that clatter in my shoulder bag, the Kindle isn’t a big greedy magnet for the world’s signals. It doesn’t pulse with clocks, blaze with video or squall with incoming bulletins and demands. It’s almost dead, actually. Lifeless. Just a lump in my hands or my bag, exiled from the crisscrossing of infinite cybernetworks. It’s almost like a book.
And I thought, what?

A bit later, she continues this vein:
A sustained encounter with just about any good book on the Kindle is a rich, enormous, demanding, cerebral event. It’s like reading used to be — long ago before anyone had ever seen the brightly backlighted screens of laptops, cellphones and iPods that, when activated, turn everyone’s personal field of vision into layers of garish light and sound, personal Times Squares.
And again, I thought, hunh? Why don't you just read a book? But nowhere in the column does she really answer that question. She's thrilled to be on a plane flight with her new Kindle and is looking forward to being away from the beeping buzzing world of hyperconnectivity. So why doesn't she read a book on that flight instead of her Kindle? I realize, of course, that the entire premise of Heffernan's column is digital culture, and that reading a book perhaps wouldn't be the way to go in that context. But I am still surprised that it's not even a question that is addressed.

Okay, on one last delve into her column, I see one attempt at an explanation of what makes Kindle preferrable to a book:
As I said, the Kindle feels insular and remote from the wild world of commerce and buzzing data swarms. But the fact that it’s connected to the Web sort of — it has to be, right? Or how else could I download all these books? — makes the Kindle somehow better than a book. Because while I like a few hours on an airplane, I can’t say I want to move into a locked library carrel and never visit the Internet again.
So I guess that answers my question: the choice is between nearly lifeless electronica and locked into a library carrel.

I'll leave aside what that says about how we might feel about libraries, and the inability to simply turn off our PDAs. Instead, I'll use Heffernan's column as a jumping off point to thinking about books as technology.

There's a joke that has been circulating for a while about this fabulous new technology for reading--easy to operate, portable, compact. Have you heard about it? It's the Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device! (You can read the full, original joke by Marielle Cartier in the Abbey Newsletter.) I prefer Medieval Helpdesk version from the show "Øystein og jeg" on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in 2001. It's been circulating on YouTube for a while now, and still utterly on target, both for its spot-on satire of helpdesk agonies and for the ingenious way the codex did revolutionize the techonology of reading.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

the Holocaust and libraries

A friend shared a recent article with me from Der Spiegel that touches directly on the subject of books and owners and their emotional and historical connections. The piece, "Retracing the Nazi Book Theft," examines the legacy of the Holocaust for German libraries: thousands of books that were stolen from Jewish owners and that remain in the collections of German libraries.

This photo (from the article) is of Detlaf Bockenkamm, a curator at Berlin's Central and State Library who been tracing the former owners of books stolen by the Nazis. Here he is standing with some of those books, part of the Accession J section, consisting of more than 1000 books acquired by the Nazis "from the private libraries of evacuated Jews" and then integrated into the Library's collection.

Just as paintings were systematically taken and claimed by the Nazis, so too were books and other cultural and valuable items. The stolen books have gotten significantly less attention in the media, however, perhaps because they are less spectacularly valuable than some of the paintings, perhaps because we are less used to thinking of books as important objects. But the repatriation of such paintings and books is less about their material worth and more about their emotional and memorial resonances:
Nevertheless, Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann believes that museum employees and librarians have an obligation "to devote particular attention to the search for those cultural goods that were stolen or extorted from the victims of Nazi barbarism." Neumann points out that, more than just "material value," what is at issue here is "the invaluable emotional importance that these objects have when it comes to remembering the fates of individuals and families."
You can read the article for more information on how the search is going. It's painstaking, as you might imagine. Even aside from the reluctance of many libraries to focus on the task, there is the difficulty in going through the sheer volume of accession records, of looking through individual books for traces of their former owners, and then searching for those owners or their relatives today.

Given my recent posts on the social transactions of books, the timing of the Spiegel article reminds me that books bear witness to history in ways that are much larger than just a daughter's inheritance from her father, or a mother's gift to her son. And it opens up questions, too, of libraries and their obligations to books and owners. I've been doing a lot of thinking recently about libraries--what libraries do, about the tension for rare book collections between preserving the past and making it accessible. I'll post more about that in the future.