memory and loss

Litera Scripta Manet (The Written Word Endures)

     -Motto in painting on ceiling at Library of Congress
I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

     -The Bodleian Declaration

Oxford University’s Bodleian Library gift shop sells a metal plaque declaring “Litera Scripta Manet,” accompanied by a card that explains the motto is featured at the LoC and that it “perhaps comes from Horace.”

Before you can get a reader’s card at the Bodleian, you must recite and then sign a printed version of the Bodleian Declaration.

The two quotes highlight a paradox in attitudes toward our Western cultural heritage. On the one hand, we believe in the lasting power of the ideas contained in the most valuable documents archived in our libraries. On the other hand, we know that we must remain vigilant to protect the often quite fragile objects upon which the written word is preserved; every time a reader handles a letter, a book, a pamphlet, a will, a map, the object is one (often quite tiny, but sometimes not) step closer to oblivion. Ask any physicist: entropy is unavoidable. Librarians know this, of course, and the special collections in libraries are an attempt to keep the inevitable at bay. They are the place where abstract ideas concerning such things as art, history, and philosophy collide with the reality of the material world.

Every contact leaves a trace, but every work is mortal.

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