Thursday, June 25, 2020

That Old Book Smell (parody post)

Recent discussions of remote, online teaching of classes in Special Collections have brought attention to the thrill associated with getting an up-close close and tactile experience of old books and manuscripts. This is regrettably a lack that we will have to accept and find work-arounds for in this Brave New World of a global pandemic. And it's not just the books that we will miss handling, since our Special Collections has in recent years pushed also in the direction of adding craft related "text technologies" that speak to the various facets of meaning that can be derived from the manufacture and decoration of old media. In-person visits to Special Collections have become a sought after feast for the eyes, for touch, and also (we are frequently told) for the nose.

In an attempt to engage the sense of smell of remote students, Special Collections is now considering the creation of a distributable class set of scratch-and-sniff patches that will allow students an olfactory experience of accumulated centuries of reading. Fragrances include: oiled leather; pipe tobacco; charcoal brazier; incense; eau de toilette; oil lamp; musty garret, farm livestock, litter box, and basement flood.  
“This is one of those things that has been missing from the digital experience” said Special Collections Librarian Madam Pince. “We want students to be able to engage with our holdings directly and not through a screen. We need to allow students to encounter literature the way it was in past times. For example a recent class on Emily Dickinson was encourages to take notes on small pieces of paper taken from torn envelopes. For too long Special Collections has been held back by a public fear of petting, sniffing, licking, and chewing our holdings. And besides, everyone knows that what’s really driving interest in the History of the Book is nostalgia for that old book smell.”
A recent student essay on the secret scents within a cookbook concluded that the 19th-century owner either had an overwhelming preference for garlic, or poisoned her husband with arsenic. Although a class presentation demonstration did result in several hospitalizations, the project did manage to turn a few heads in the College's administration. “This acquisition takes the collection in an exciting new direction” claimed Professor Snape, a member of Oberlin College’s Potions Department. “We hope that – after spending some time with the various odors in the Rare Book vault, students will be inspired to create their own scents in the Potions Lab, perhaps bringing the impact of fragrance to term papers on the Great Fire of London, the Black Death, or vermiculture. The possibilities are really endless.”

Thursday, June 18, 2020

A More Eminent Captive: An Incidence of Collection Building Apartheid

Library Special Collections, ours included, would be empty indeed were it not for the vast gifts and pointed purchases bestowed on us by book collectors and library staff over generations.

The Miller Rare Book Room in the old Carnegie Library in the 1950s

Whether I have met these academic antiquarians in person, or simply greet them through their handwriting and bookplates, it often feels as though I've been granted access to their private study, and pried into their personal passions. Finding 200-year-old gift inscriptions, pressed flowers, and locks of hair in books can feel painfully intimate. I've also seen things I wish I hadn't. And even though I'm also aware of how problematic the impressions of privilege and gravity these lettered "gated communities" evoke, allow me to say "thank you" to our bibliophilic predecessors.

Before you take me for a book adoring romantic, I should tender my opinion that in the most notorious of circumstances, unchecked enthusiasm for books can grow into a (Herman not Dewey) Melvillean obsession where a personal library becomes an end in itself, an uptown form of hoarding. I frequently find this sloppy insatiability profligate and daunting. A cargo van full of dusty, brittle paper is not a welcome sight.

Discreet collections though are another matter, and whether pleasing like a bouquet* or as traumatic as the bagged evidence from a crime scene, the active human component is at the forefront of their meaning. Whether following the tracks of a cultural trend, or a personal obsession, discriminating book collectors bring selectivity and creativity to their devoted task. I would argue that interesting collections are a form of artifice that draw the reader's attention to something you might not have noticed had you looked at the titles in isolation. It's like how the concept of the "medieval" didn't gel until the nineteenth-century, and now we can't unthink it when we teach to our holdings and exhibits. A true collection - through the process of being inclusive and exclusive - conscripts, filters, and arranges information as a synthetic ensemble with a message that ultimately harkens back to the collector, and the perspective and values of that collector. At its best, a collection makes you see something new that emerges alluringly out of what is really a locally delineated Pride parade of books and pamphlets. At its worst it's a narcissistic exercise in disinformation. Collections can never be totally complete, flawless, or neutral, though we mistake our libraries - and even moreso Google - as such constantly.

These are strange thoughts to be running through my mind on the eve of Juneteenth 2020, in Oberlin, Ohio, a town celebrated (and once reviled) for its progressive anti-slavery past. Before the Civil War the townsfolk used to mark August 1st (instead of July 4th) as the appropriate date to celebrate independence, since it was on August 1st that the British government emancipated its slaves in the West Indies beginning in 1834 and again in 1838. That same commemorative spirit is still alive within Oberlin's Juneteenth celebration, and perhaps this year more than most as we have all witnessed again the systemic and overt racism that continues to both ruin lives and excite protest in the United States and globally. There is indeed good reason to adopt Juneteenth as a second expression of the American insistence on individual freedom. Perhaps we should feel the same about the Nineteenth Amendment. So the timing of this post is no accident, as I reflect on the explicit and intentional nature with which the community of Oberlin went about building the Anti-slavery Collection (America's oldest?) housed within the College's Library.

Original Call to the Community, "Oberlin Weekly News" Feb. 29, 1884

Within a cultural and academic nineteenth-century book collecting tradition that celebrates exquisite typography, craft bindings, and canonical subjects, the Anti-slavery Collection is an astonishingly plebeian and prescient achievement. It was not only our founding collection, it also remains quite unlike the bulk of our holdings. The Anti-slavery Collection is characterized by heavily downmarket mass-production pamphlet printing, newspapers, scrapbooks etc. with very little that suggests the usual expensive book finery. Few book connoisseurs in the mid-nineteenth-century would have looked at this cheap propaganda - as it was then designated without the pejorative connotation - more crooked chapbook than mottled calf, and deemed it either beautiful or library-worthy. The Anti-slavery Collection stands defiantly like a segregated "book barrio" alongside illuminated manuscripts, creamy paper folios, and rare Renaissance Aldines. Yet it is more vast, more historically important, better used, and as aggressively political as the best of the rest.

Like collections generally, the Anti-slavery books and pamphlets too were the product of generations of scholarly winnowing and whimsey, and are not intended to be a reflection of everyone and everything from the past. As I look, I see the signs of exclusion, and discernment along the shelves. I am acutely conscious of what's not present. Absent because it wasn't created in the first place, wasn't valued and preserved, or perhaps because our bibliographic records under-describe, or categorize it as something else. Recall, collections (like individual books) are voiced from a particular perspective, and there are not enough African American voices in this choir, despite the subject matter. With classes I frequently talk about how to search for what's not there, of how to "read" omissions like we read inclusion.

I also like to point to the power of naming, of arrangement and description to alter the meaning of holdings. Perhaps there are items in the collection that shouldn't be. A couple of years ago we were following the auction of an 1827 cookbook by an African American man named Robert Roberts, called The House Servant's Directory. We didn't buy it, but I wondered at the time whether this should end up in the Anti-slavery Collection . . . or would this be reductive? Can the opposite problem also be true?

Case in point: a couple of years ago I read about an early nineteenth-century account of enslavement by a man named James Riley. It is called Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce in the American edition, and was published in 1817. According to Ohio State University history professor  Robert Davis, the book was an "immediate hit" that "outsold all the rest of these narratives combined." This appears at least plausible as I note how many editions this book went through in the nineteenth-century, although conflicting scholarship by Donald Ratcliffe concluded these claims are likely overstated by booksellers eager to lure readers. Ratcliffe admits however that Riley was certainly known in popular culture, but: "It is likely that most people knew his account through his original letter in the press and through newspaper excerpts, anthologies, and the children's edition." However, back in 1934, another historian Gerald McMurtry noted that "Riley's Narrative" was one of the books that most shaped the moral outlook of Abraham Lincoln. This is perhaps to be expected if: "This book is said to have made a striking and permanent impression on the minds of the early American youths who read it." This strikes me as very important claim in the years before Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. While this can't be definitively proven, Lincoln did himself approve the comment on the influence of "Riley's Narrative" on him for his official biography.

The Oberlin College Library copy of "Riley's Narrative" is the wide-margined 1817 British edition that was published to coincide with the release of the same book in the United States. Unfortunately this John Murray edition lacks the engravings that accompanied the US version. After reading the McMurtry claims I was very surprised that this book was not part of our Anti-slavery Collection. Was it perhaps a late acquisition, arriving long after the collection was formed? Greasy fingerprints mark the paper edges and the bottoms of the boards have worn away due to shelf wear, all attesting to frequent use. I looked further at the text which shows significant wear in a missing spine, detached cover, and multiple clumsy page repairs in the interior. Some of these repairs may have been the result of the work of a mid-nineteenth-century Oberlin binder named J. Gillanders who left his small binder's ticket neatly in the top left corner of the front pastedown.

This text has clearly been a part of the Oberlin Library Collection since the institution's earliest days as a series of library book plates attest.

The most recent plate (red number 1) is seen only only from the blank back and has the accession number 1571 (not shown), marking it as one of the very first books accessioned and classed by librarian Azariah Smith Root in 1884 when this new accessioning system was instituted on the books that were already here at that time. It's one of the lowest accession numbers I've yet come across. Now stuck to the back of this label and visible only as bleed through is an earlier library plate (red number 2). Clearly Root placed a new label over top of the old. How much longer the book was in Oberlin is attested by another previous label (number 3) still intact with the library rules, and a now almost completely abraded early fragment (number 4), that would have recorded the book's location in terms of "Press" and "Shelf" indicating where it should live within the library when it was still small enough to consist of a few bookcases. These oldest labels in our books can be dated before 1850 by the use of the institutional name "Oberlin Collegiate Institute" but beyond that it's not possible to know precisely how long this book has been in Oberlin. Safe to say it's early.

The reason why this book was never a part of Anti-slavery, as you may have guessed, is that Captain James Riley was a white American from Connecticut (later Ohio) and he was captured and enslaved in North Africa, as were many who fell into the hands of Barbary Corsairs, Ottoman traders, Berbers or other indigenous Western Sahara desert peoples through accidents of shipwreck, or deliberate piracy. The phenomenon was well attested and severe enough to force the United States to act in two Barbary Wars that took place between 1801 and 1815. Ratcliffe notes an extensive sensationalist literature that took place around these accounts of enslavement, torture, death, and (in some cases) ransoming that Davis refers to as a "genre" comparable to the "captivity narratives" involving white settlers taken by Native Americans. An active choice was made by library staff not to include "Riley's Narrative" within the boundaries of Anti-slavery for reasons that we can only guess at today. They may not have known of its influence on Lincoln, although we have also in our possession the Lincolniana collections of two individuals, one of them a major Lincoln biographer and Oberlin College graduate named William E. Barton.

I read into this apartheid of slavery narratives an implicit segregation of humanity by race such that enslavement stories by capable authors such as Solomon Northrup and Frederick Douglass belong as part of the American Anti-slavery Collection, but the tale of a (far less literate) enslaved white American does not because his tale is considered a "captivity narrative" and thus not the subject of slavery proper. This embargo is further complicated by the strong Anti-slavery appeal with which "Riley's Narrative" closes, as well as Capt. Riley's subsequent dedication to the anti-slavery cause (he was a supporter of colonization). So I was puzzled: surely Riley is not so different in kind - at least in terms of affective impact - as Harriet Beecher Stowe who is a represented very well in the Anti-slavery Collection.

The implication is that people of European descent can never properly be considered bonafide slaves, even though white slavery was not unusual, and a great many were not so fortunate as Capt. Riley to be ransomed (as Davis points out in a 2004 book). Was "Riley's Narrative" not added to Anti-slavery through oversight? or was there an assumption of an inherent dignity and set of rights for whites that African Americans lacked? While there are significant differences between the American system of chattel slavery and other historic examples of slavery, I am still troubled by this distancing and the message it sends. What a missed opportunity, I thought, for anti-bellum white Americans, some of whom in the North may have never seen a slave, to have their emotions touched by empathy, and thereby connect to the humanity of all enslaved and exploited people. Or maybe that happened? Charles Sumner wrote an essay called "White Slavery in the Barbary States" that was first delivered as a talk in Boston in 1847. This is a scholarly recounting of the long history and significant literature relating to white slavery in North Africa, and makes explicit comparisons with the situation in the United States. It was included in Sumner's Orations and Speeches published in 1850.

I moved "Riley's Narrative" and Sumner's book into Anti-slavery Collection on the basis of their potential impact on Abraham Lincoln, as well as the American Anti-slavery movement. Capt. Riley was himself a small part of the movement, if a less than model one. Charles Sumner, remembered most often these days as the politician beaten almost to death on the Senate floor in Washington while delivering an anti-slavery speech, was a significant person in the American Anti-slavery movement. I am aware that I can mess with our mental subject divisions through my arrangement, through the decisions about whether to move items within existing collections (or not). I know that by doing so, I place "Riley's Narrative" and Orations and Speeches into relation with other books, and thereby subtly spin their meaning and value.

This is not an "All Lives Matter" reaction, and I am not currently seeking other white slave narratives out. I am very bothered to read that the Alt-right has picked up on Davis' 2004 book on white slavery and is abusing it to justify their own excusing or dismissing of the history of American slavery. There are no unproblematic solutions to Capt. Riley's book in particular, and I'm made uncomfortable by that. But problems can actually be useful in a safe academic setting, and - at the risk of being wrong - I always want to do the thing that starts a classroom conversation and forces students to consider their assumptions.

Collections building is a slow and fraught process. As a Special Collections curator, I am consciously aware that through my decisions about the gifts and purchases we choose to acquire, I am imposing my personality and those of current faculty onto a body of records that the future might innocently read as incidental scraps of "history." Not so; as I've argued, most of history didn't get a spot in the lifeboat. I have to make decisions, and I have a lot more discretion than an archivist in these matters. By deciding what records and stories are worth working on and keeping - and which to pass up - I am in fact curating the past, and predetermining which stories the future will have access to. We are both arbiters as well as custodians of the past, as much as any collector/donor.

Admittedly, collection designations can add to an item, or mislead, and there is an artificiality about them. They can be viewed as the exclusive private clubs of the literary world, or prisons for authors, depending on your perspective. But I still consider them a necessary building block and shortcut to understanding our holdings. Short of extensive reclassing, exhaustive notes and pedantic subject analysis, collections provide a useful frame of reference for orphaned books that are either missing from the online catalog, woefully under analyzed, or otherwise extremely unlikely to be stumbled on and seen as potentially interesting. All the more reason to collaborate, to educate, to hire diverse staff, and ally with collectors. The collectors are a vital link because they will always be more nimble than libraries.

Apologies, I know this is a lot of text. This blog post is a "think piece." By design.  I hope that the Internet is not dulling our ability to write (and read) prose in a sustained manner. I guess I'm testing that. Language and writing are the cognitive workbench of inspiration. But given how difficult I am personally finding this process . . . I probably shouldn't hope.

*There is a genre of mid-nineteenth-century anthologies collectively known as "Gift Books" that are frequently named in relation to flowers.

Friday, April 17, 2020

I'm Still Standing

Hello book blog readers. Bored much? Like you and everyone else, I’m concerned about the world, but I do personally feel pretty safe at the moment. My employer took the responsible (and State mandated) decision to order social distancing and the possibility to carry on our work from home. Like a lot of people in academia, I’m flattening the curve and slouching at the same time, and that’s what this blog post is about really.

Here I am, back to the camera, at my standing desk placed on an old table, music on, in my loose comfy clothes, working on this blog post. It’s coming together strangely, connecting my situation and ideas from all over.

Don’t you know I'm still standing better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid

My livelihood (at the moment) consists of books and computer screens, and not interacting with the public. I recognize that this puts me in a privileged position. I also live in a small, mid-western town and can walk a couple of blocks on an empty sidewalk to the grocery store, which itself is not busy even in normal times.

I’m hoping that I’m not an especially high risk for a lethal brush with COVID-19. And yet the statistics, and the demographics about the North American and European experience with this novel corona virus make it clear that I can’t be sure about that. It’s early days, but the patterns for severity of individual reactions are all over the place, and doctors can’t really say why some are much more severely impacted than others.

Everyone’s heard that expression: “sitting is the new smoking” right?  For myself, I can’t help but worry that an “underlying health condition” might be hiding out in my sedentary, close work habits. I sure spend a lot of my time sitting, hunched forward. Perhaps most of us do. In a recent issue of Psychology Today, Judy Foreman posted an article entitled: “Don't Take This Pandemic Sitting Down: Sitting can be bad for you, and here's why.” In this article Foreman points out “the average American sits for 13 hours a day.” 

That can’t be good, even without a new virus that attacks the respiratory system.

Ever seen this graphic or a variation like it? Makes you wonder if evolution is giving up on this whole walking upright experiment. Ms. Book meet Mr. Chair. Judging by the sciatica bothering me, I know that archaeologists are going to be puzzled by the peculiar mechanical wear on my hips someday.

I'm still standing after all this time
Picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind

I speculate that interacting with texts through keyboarded machines has accelerated the move to working on flat, level surfaces. Not so much thought seems to have gone into the posture of the unfortunate operators though. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a 1950 article in The Lancet used the newly coined term “ergonomic” for the first time. That sounds about right to me; I had probably never heard the term myself until the late 1980s.

I’ve been trained in sitting and terrible posture since elementary school. I can remember sliding so far down in my desk by the end of the day that I used the chair back to support my head. My body knows very well that sitting increases stress in my neck, back, shoulders, arms, and legs. I have a personal years long battle with crushed ribs and sore shoulders. No doubt a lifetime of sitting, reading, and using a computer has done more than give me myopia; the muscles, ligaments and discs surrounding the spine are now probably stretched and damaged beyond mending, so that I find it hard to be comfortable in most situations and pillows are now essential work equipment.

Years ago I bought an inversion table to reverse the stress on my spine and help me slough off the weight of book culture. But the discomfort of desk work and reading has only grown worse over time, to the point where I daydream about zero-gravity desks . . . and look with envy at the weightless astronauts on the international space station.

May I recommend a built-in massage feature?

I know I’m not alone. People have been searching for body friendly ways to engage with texts for a long time. When I visited the book-lovers safe space that is the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia recently I saw two older chairs cleverly adapted for reading.

I'm quite envious really.

The oddly shaped leather chair is designed for the sitter to face the “back;” arms supported on cushioned rests, so facing away from the camera. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to try it out!  

One floor up in The Rosenbach, the reconstructed office of the American poet Marianne Moore . . .

. . . where you can spy a closet door hanging bar that she used to relieve the stress on her poor spine, trampled by a stampede of literature.

I'm confidant that it didn’t used to be this way in the western book world. A few years ago I took up calligraphy and immediately found it more comfortable, and controlled to work on a slanted surface as I had when I studied drafting in high school. This put me in mind of the images of upright medieval scribes at their work.

Likewise I notice that all of the work heights in our library’s Letterpress Studio are designed to accommodate people standing while they work, and I can go all day on my feet in this space.

But what does any of this have to do with the current pandemic? The Foreman article connected the dots for me:

“sitting increases visceral fat. Visceral fat is not an inert blob of tissue, as once thought, but an active organ that pumps out chemicals called cytokines (adipokines) that lead to chronic, systemic inflammation. Chronic inflammation, in turn, leads to insulin resistance (a precursor of diabetes), atherosclerosis, and neurological degeneration, among other things . . . It gets worse. A sedentary lifestyle is also linked to high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, gallstones, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, some cancers, cognitive dysfunction, dementia, osteoarthritis, low back pain, frailty, decreased functional independence, constipation, muscle weakness, depression…”

Yikes!!  It sounds to me like simply sitting too much could be a co-conspirator in raising the mortality of this epidemic among the more sedentary population. Really makes me question the wisdom of my life choices. And yet another motivation - if I needed one - to put down the computer and get moving! Big battles start at the personal level.

I'm still standing yeah yeah yeah

I'm still standing yeah yeah yeah

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Quill and Quire

Manuscript culture had a close relationship with pen and ink.  How then to connect current students with little affinity for handwriting to the painstaking craft of lettering by hand? In October 2018 Special Collections hosted a visit from Farshid Emami's Art History class: "Paintings, Portraits, and Prints: Arabic and Persian Book Arts" where we discussed the work of Islamic scribes, the geometric design principles behind Islamic decoration, and the structure of the Islamic book.  Given the students' lack of familiarity with the scribal arts, we also arranged for students to scribe in Arabic on papyrus using authentic reed pens and carbon black ink that was mixed for dipping.

The students were able to experience for themselves the process of writing out Arabic letters in the traditional manner working from right to left across the page, learning the calligrapher's way of measuring distances by pen strokes.

This class was followed in November 2018 by a set of three smaller workshops where the students tried their hands at gilding with gold leaf and painting a copy of a marginal ornament taken from our 16th century Qur'an. 

Original scan on the left, reproduction on the right.

Students were also able to try Turkish marbling to decorate sheets of paper.  Not only are they receiving a kinesthetic learning experience that they'll remember, they were also having a lot of fun.  The "lab" approach to learning in Special Collection has proven so welcome to both faculty and students that calligraphy may somehow need to be added to the hands-on instruction in making papyrus sheets, print identification, letterpress printing, papermaking and binding.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Visit from the Oberlin Heritage Center

It's spring break here at Oberlin, but that doesn't mean we are taking a break from classes.  Our student population has just become a lot shorter in stature. 
On Monday afternoon, the Oberlin Heritage Center brought their Pony Express and Printing Press campers over for a visit in Special Collections and the Letterpress Studio.  The 8 to 12 years old joined us first in the Forsythe Classroom to look at ancient artifacts, both facsimile and real, that explained how communication developed over the millennia.

We then moved on to the Letterpress Studio, where each student had the opportunity to set his or her name by hand and everyone took turns pulling two prints from our Challenge Gordon press.  Campers also learned the values of patience, as printing your name with moveable type takes a whole lot longer than it does with a computer!

It looks like Oberlin has a new generation of printer's devils on our hands!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Winter Term 2013

Another productive and instructing Winter Term in letterpress printing was held in January 2013.

Ten students had the opportunity to form a new relationship with paper, typography, design, and the painstaking process of printing using moveable type.

Once again, we employed the services of Bob Keleman, who teaches letterpress printing and graphic design for Kent State University and the Cleveland Institute of Art.

The class also visited the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory in Cleveland and Madison Press in Lakewood.

A new opportunity to make our own wood type using a pantograph machine came with a visit from Scott Moore

Students selected templates and cut their own pieces of wood type to keep.

This year's final project was a collaboration with Oberlin College Press and poet, Mary Ann Samyn, to interpret one of her poems as a broadside.  We also made broadsides for faculty member, Nick Jones, who is translating the poetry of Giovanni Battista Guarina, a 16th century Italian poet.

Sarah Jick

Yvette Chen

Una Creedon-Carey

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Other Features We Love

Some more features of the newly renovated Goodrich Room include additional flat files and a display area for our friends in the Archives.  The cabinets include a slanted work surface for large maps, with bright, task lighting overhead.

The new classroom now has an attractive plaque, honoring former Obie, Margaret Forsythe (Class of 1946).  We have Margaret and her family to thank for this amazing space, complete with its fancy gadgets.  The classroom has already been put to good use and we're only a month into the semester!

The temporary tables in the classroom have been replaced with ones that have adjustable bases.  Now they can be used at a standing, as well as a sitting, height.  This should prove especially helpful when a large class visits Special Collections or Archives.

 The drinking fountain was converted into a sink for hand-washing.  It is conveniently located next to the classroom, so students can access it without disturbing the other patrons who are working in the open reading area.

Patrons have reported that the new furniture and arrangement of the space is much more to their liking.  The new chairs have definitely been a comfortable upgrade!

 To control clutter, improve security, and prevent extra water and contamination from entering the Goodrich Room, lockers and a coat rack have been installed in the corridor outside of the reading space.