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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there are archives, and then there are archives

I’ve been thinking about writing a post on digital archives, commercialization, scholarship, teaching, and access, but Ray Rosenzweig, in “Digital Archives Are a Gift of Wisdom to Be Used Wisely” (Chronicle, sub req’d) has pretty much beaten me to it. Although Rosenzweig’s focus is on teaching, he brings up a central concern of mine, namely the cost of commercial offerings of digitized cultural heritage resources: if my university cannot afford to subscribe, then my scholarship and my teaching (i.e. my students’ education) are going to suffer.

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busy few days

Friday and Saturday were awesome research days at the British Library. I found some really juicy stuff that’s going to be very useful. I was there yesterday from 9:30 until closing at 5:00 yesterday, and I was so excited by what I was finding that I didn’t want to leave.

My time has not been filled only with work, however. Friday night I saw a very good production of Henry IV Part 1 with Laurie and her friend Jessica at the National Theatre. Tuesday night we’ll catch the second part. Jessica totally kicks ass for landing tickets to supposedly sold-out shows.

Last night my friend Nancy and I headed out to the hip joint of the moment, which goes by the name of the Boogaloo. It’s supposed to be the place to see and be seen, but it seemed just like any other pub I’ve been to in London. Well, there was one difference: the beer was about twice as expensive. Still, it was fun to hang out there, and the way the juke box works is pretty cool. The rumor is that Coldplay went there once to take in (or contribute to) the vibe and got angry when no one recognized them.

Today was an eighteenth-century geek’s idea of paradise. Nancy and I shared a delicious lunch at a Thai restaurant, then visited Dennis Severs’ House (see photo below), which is one part living history site and two parts happening.

Subsequently, we walked up City Road to John Wesley’s chapel, built in the 1760s, and to Bunhill Fields, the Nonconformists’ cemetery right across the street.

The Museum of London was our next stop, and coincidentally enough, there is a sculpture next to the entrance that marks the site of John Wesley’s conversion experience; Wesley described feeling a “strange warming of the heart” while walking along Aldersgate Street. Not exactly the most dramatic of descriptions given that some of Wesley’s evangelical peers were passing out and speaking in tongues.

The Museum of London is a well-done presentation of the history of the city, with artifacts from the last several hundred years. We each bought a reproduction of a 1745 London map, and then headed straight for the Restoration and eighteenth-century sections, which has an exhibit on the Great Fire of 1666, and then several other exhibits organized thematically around themes like “printing” or “prison.” Perhaps I’m making it sound too dry, but it really is well done. I especially like this “sermon glass”.

Next on the agenda: more walking! We ended up at a pub for a couple of pints of John Courage (produced by a brewery founded in 1787), and capped off the day with dinner at an Indian restaurant of my favorite kind.

Now I’m going to bed…

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letter writing in renaissance england

Those of you in the D.C. area might want to stop by this exhibit at the Folger:

This exhibition devotes itself to the myriad processes of letterwriting: the penning, sending, receiving, reading, circulating, copying, and saving of letters. The text of a letter provides one part of the story, while its very tangibility –the ancient folds, the grime and fingerprints deposited by the writer, deliverer, and readers, the broken seals, the ink blots, the idiosyncratic spelling, the location of a signature–tells another. An understanding of a letter’s written and unwritten social signals brings into focus a fuller, grittier, and ultimately more convincing picture of everyday life in early modern England.

(Via WaPo.)

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summer institute on franklin

This 2005 summer institute at the National Humanities Research Center looks interesting:

Benjamin Franklin: Reader, Writer, Printer
Led by Peter Stallybrass (University of Pennsylvania)
July 10-15
This seminar will focus upon Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, and in particular upon his detailed descriptions of what and how he read from when he was a child, on his material practices as a writer, on his fascination with authorship and anonymity, and on his work in every aspect of the book trade.

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