Sunday, July 08, 2007

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (19)

The new libraries of the earlier twentieth century, however, hid away the books. Rendering them accessible only staff employing the latest technology: telephones, conveyor belts, elevator. The cover of the May 27, 1911, issue of Scientific American showed a cutaway view of the stacks of the New York Public Library, then newly opened. The view shows the all-male staff bustling among the shelves below floor level, sending volumes to the delivery room via a complex network of shafts and booklifts. Beyond the delivery room windows sit the blissfully browsing readers, unaware of the machinery employed to bring them their reading material.

Page 202.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (18)

Over coffee one afternoon in the summer of 2001, András reminded me of another way to burn books, explained to him by a colleague who survived the siege of Sarajevo. In the winter, the scholar and his wife ran out of firewood, and so began to burn their books for heat and cooking. “This forces one to think critically,” András remembered his friend saying. “One must prioritize. First, you burn old college text books, which you haven’t read in thirty years. Then there are the duplicates. But eventually you’re forced to make tougher choices. Who burns today: Dostoevsky or Proust?” I asked András if his friend had any books left when the war was over. “Oh, yes,” he replied, his face lit by a flickering smile. “He still had many books. Sometimes, he told me, you look at the books and just choose to go hungry.”

Page 191

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (17)

Even at the height of Nazi censorship in the late thirties and beyond, the Reich’s lists of banned books were kept secret. Booksellers, teachers, and private citizens were left to glean the criteria for exclusion from Goebbels’s gnomic pronouncements on the maintenance of the people’s spirit. And so it was not only mobs that burned books. Fearing house searches, ordinary Germans burned their own books before the storm troopers could find them.

Page 168.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (16)

The Germans had other reasons to revile the Louvain’s library. Not only had a new library building risen risen from the city’s ashes, but a new collection as well – and after World War I, Belgian libraries had refilled their stacks with books confiscated from the defeated Germans. The library at Louvain once again held a rich collection, including incunabula and medieval manuscripts; many of these had been taken from the stacks of Germany’s own libraries.

Page 162.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (15)

Alleging that Belgian civilians had committed such atrocities as ambushing rearguard troops and gouging out the eyes of wounded soldiers in the field, the German government justified the burning of the Louvain on the grounds of military necessity. “The barbarous attitude of the Belgian population in all parts occupied by our troops has not only justified our severest measures,” the Germans declared, “but forced them on us for the sake of self-preservation.” The West, of course, saw it differently. “It is treason to civilization,” wrote the London Daily Chronicle on August 29. “War on non-combatants is bad enough, but this is war on posterity to the remotest generations.” Eight days after the Germans razed the town, a witness wrote that “even into the country, leaves of manuscripts and books fluttered about, half burned, at the mercy of the wind.” One manuscript was saved, though: a professor had withdrawn it for consultation and carried it with him when he fled the city before the German occupation. Trudging along in a refugee column, he stopped in a garden near Ghent and buried the book, “ enclosed in a little iron safe.” There is no record of this single manuscript’s return to the library or of its rediscovery. Perhaps the last book of Louvain’s great prewar library still rests in its iron casket, a hidden library of one.

Page 159.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (14)

In the same issue, William Frederick Poole (who ran the Chicago Public Library) also draws a parallel between the smoking and reading habbits. To Poole, however, the tobacco reference was not entirely negative. “I smoked tobacco and read Milton at the same time,” he declares, “and for the same motive: to find out what was the recondite charm in them that gave my father so much pleasure.” But too many people, Poole admits, are dissuaded by that first unpleasant impression of tobacco from any further consideration of its charms.

Page 147

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (13)

Dewey’s attitude toward women provides another example of his mixed impact on the library world.The Boston Athenaeum had been the first library to employ women in 1857; this was yet another innovation Dewey seized upon and made his own. The school he founded at Columbia, the School of Library Economy, admitted women to its first class. Dewey took this step without consulting the university trustees, and it was the single most important factor in their decision to close the school just two years later (Dewey moved the school to the state university at Albany). In superficial retrospect, the decision looks like a pioneer move in women’s rights. But as his biographer Wiegland points out, Dewey actually used the admittance of women to the college to the same end he used their hiring in the library: to define the profession down. Women were already socially subordinate to the men who filled faculty roles; for Dewey, this subordination nicely mirrored the professional subordination of librarians to professors and other experts – a subordination he deemed necessary to the efficient workings of the library. While his colleagues in the ALA cultivated the authority to direct the reading of their patrons, Dewey eschewed this mandate. Library workers, after all, were far too busy cataloging books and putting them in patrons’ hands to trouble themselves with the choosing of books. As Weigand put it, Dewey didn’t realize that he effectively “robbed librarianship of a direct claim to the ‘authority’ to determine ‘best reading,’ thus significantly limiting its power in the world of professions.”

Page 144.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (12)

Despite his distaste for the vulgar curiosities that seemed to pass for modern thinking, Swift found cause for hope in the early numbers of the Mercury. His mentor [Sir William] Temple was among those who offered questions for the learned members of the Athenian Society to ponder. Evidently, he encouraged swift to take the paper’s use of the Athenian moniker seriously, and to expect that the “Society” would offer sober and learned guidance to England’s burgeoning reading public. Swift’s first published poem, in fact, is his “Ode to the Athenian Society,” in which he extolled the “the great Unknown, and far-exalted Men” whose wisdom filled both sides of the Mercury’s sheet twice weekly. Later Swift learned that this “Society” was actually composed of just three Grub Street hacks. Its publisher and guiding spirit, a bookseller by the name of John Dunton, was a product of the dissenting academies who flourished in the book trade of London’s coffeehouse demimonde. He had even travelled to New England, where he met with Cotton Mather, visited a lecture given to Christianized Indians at Natick, and sold books at Harvard (some of which may have ended up in the library). Dunton championed precisely the new kind of book that, in Swift’s estimation, was cluttering the Royal Library. Indeed, he seems never to have had an experience in life that he didn’t deem fit to publish in book form. He memorialized his New England trip in an autobiography he called The Life and Errors of John Dunton, which he brought out, doggedly in some thirty editions. When his second wife’s promised generous dowry failed to materialize, he initiated a pamphlet campaign against his mother-in-law.

Page 100

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (11)

Swift’s executors started a list of his books during his long, last illness, and it gives a fair picture of the disposition of volumes in his study. The catalogue follows the shelves from left to right around the room, through folios (the largest books, each pages consisting of a full sheet of paper, the size of a modern atlas) and quartos (the size of a typical encyclopedia) to two shelves of duodecimos (one of the smallest book formats, in which the paper had been folded twelve times to fashion the page), all arranged by size. The sale catalogue of Swift’s books, drawn up after they had been removed from the deanery upon his death, similarly lists books by size. This is reminiscent of Harvard’s library, and other contemporary catalogues as well. Even the largest libraries were still modest enough to allow librarians to keep track of all the books without resort to complex cataloguing techniques.

Page 106

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (10)

[Francis Bacon’s} parsing of all human knowledge into three categories – memory, wisdom, and imagination – became an organizing principle of empirical thought. In his system, Bacon eschewed the division of sacred and secular, harking back to the classical epistemologies that emphasized relations among disciplines of the mind. His taxonomy enjoyed a lasting influence: Diderot adopted the scheme in Volume I of his 1751 Encyclopedie, and it has been the forerunner of modern library classifications.

Page 83-84

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (09)

But even if the last few charred characters offer up nothing new, once thing is certain: the most complete ancient library accessible to us today survived because it burned.

Page 55

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (08)

When the future emperor Liu Ji’s father was kidnapped by a rival who threatened to boil him alive, the leader showed his coarse mettle by requesting a bowl of soup made from the resulting stock.

Page 38

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (07)

The centralization and consolidation of libraries serves the convenience of scholars and princes alike. But great libraries are problematic in times of war, disaster, or decay, for their fate becomes the fate of the literatures they contain. Much of what comes down to us from the antiquity survived because it was held in small private libraries tucked away in obscure backwaters of the ancient world, where it was more likely to escape the notice of zealots as well as princes.

Page 31

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (06)

The scholars of the Mouseion ate together in a dining hall and held their property in common, much as medieval scholar did in the early universities of Europe. By all account, the scholars enjoyed an extraordinary degree of academic freedom; the Ptolemies seem to have understood that they would produce the most useful work only if given free rein. This privilege apparently extended even to dealing with the royal house; when Ptolemy I Soter, impatient with his own slow progress in mathematics, asked Euclid for a shortcut, the geometer had the temerity to reply, “there is no royal road to Geometry.” The perks of a posting at Alexandria didn’t fail to raise the ire of excluded scholars; one Timon of Philius wrote derisively of the “cloistered bookworms” fed and cared for in Alexandria’s “chicken coop of the muses” (I like to think it was Timon’s mixed metaphors that tool him our of the running for an Alexandrian tenure). By bringing scholars to Alexandria and inviting them to live and work, at royal expense, among an enormous store of books, the Ptolemies made the library into a think tank under the control of the royal house. The strategic implications of a monopoly on knowledge – especially in medicine, engineering, and theology, all among Alexandria’s strengths – were not lost on the Ptolemies. They ordered the confiscation of the books of visitors to the city, which were copied for the libraries (though sometimes the originals were kept, too), adorned with a tad that read “from the ships.” In an effort to stop the growth of the libraries at Rhodes and Pergamum, both of which threatened Alexandria’s preeminence, the city’s rulers banned the export of papyrus. The move backfired, however, spurring the Pergamenes to invent parchment (charta pergamenum), which for its strength and reusability would prove to be the preferred writing medium in Europe for more than a thousand years.

Page 28-29

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (05)

Still more Mesopotamian libraries must lie buried in the great tells, or mounds of ruined cities, that dot the landscape of the Assyrian homeland; precision bombs may now be destroying libraries we don’t even know exist.

Page 26

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (04)

I am looking for the library where it lives. Of course, a complete history of the library – a documentary account of libraries wherever they have existed, in whatever form they take – would run to many volumes. What I’m looking for are points of transformation, those moments where readers, authors, and librarians question the meaning of the library itself.

Page 21

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (03)

Reading the library, we quickly come to an obvious conclusion: most books are bad, very bad in fact. Worst of all, they’re normal: the fail to rise above the contradictions and confusions of their times (in this respect, I’m sure this book will be no exception). It’s understandable, then, that we spend so much energy ferreting out the exceptional books, the ones that shatter paradigms. But we shouldn’t forget that the unremarkable books have much to teach us about cultural history – ultimately more, perhaps, than our cherished Great Books.

Page 16-17

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (02)

Like other natural philosophers of the Latin Middle Ages, Roger Bacon held that three classes of substance were capable of magic: the herbal, the mineral, and the verbal. With their leaves of fiber, their inks of copperas and soot, and their words, books are an amalgam of the three. The notion that words, like plants and stones have existences independent of our uttering them – that they have power and do things in the world – is a commonplace in many traditions. Brought together in multitudes, heaped up and pared down, read and forgotten, library books take on lives and histories of their own, not as texts but as physical objects in the world.

Page 10

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (01)

Endowed by the grieving mother of Harry Elkins Widner, a Harvard graduate and bibliophile who went down with the Titanic, Widener is the Great Unsinkable Library. Its ten levels contain fifty-seven miles of shelves, enough to hold some 4.6 million bound volumes, giver or take a few. The shelves are great armatures of forged iron that carry the weight of the building; the library quite literally is supported by its books.

Page 4

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Road Trip

Any road trip is going to feel longer than you think it will. And you'll be tired and you won't get a meal exactly when you're hungry. You never find a bed exactly when you want to go to sleep.

And you're probably not going to find out what it is you got on the road to find out in the first place.

And you know all that. You know all that going into it. And you still -- we all still -- buy into the cliche about road trips.

That what a road trip stands for is hope.


That somewhere -- anywhere -- is better than here.

That somewhere on the road I will turn into the person I want to be. I'll turn into the person I believe I could be. That I am.

And we hit the road. You and me and our whole great nation. With high hopes and no expectations for the future.

Ira Glass

This American Life