Monday, June 30, 2008

Inside the Surviving Record

From a review of John Hatcher’s book The Black Death:

“In the flood of histories of institutions, major events and long-term processes, life as it was lived for most of the time frequently gets left out of the picture.” This is an essential recitation of his method in "The Black Death" (Da Capo Press, 318 pages, $27.50) — to draw patiently from the available documents any clues, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant, as to just how life was lived at the time by ordinary people — and so to write medieval history "from the inside," from the point of view of the peasant and the parson, rather than from the traditional perspective of the prince or the panjandrum.

Link to the review:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Right Now and Prehistory

Right now, I am sitting in the airport waiting for the departure of a flight (not the one I booked initially).

One of the things I did today, during my long stay here (in addition to paying for a wireless internet connection), was read a piece in the New Yorker on cave paintings from the Old Stone Age. Some 30,000 years ago, the first artists etched or painted on the walls of caves in southern France and northern Spain. This art has “endured four times as long as recorded history,” but the author of the article adds:

As at many sites, the scratches made by a standing bear have been overlaid with a palimpsest of signs or drawings, and one has to wonder if cave art didn’t begin with a recognition that bear claws were an expressive tool for engraving a record—poignant and indelible—of a stressed creature’s passage through the dark.

Many scholars believe this art is, in some way, religious; some think it represents an attempt to connect with the spiritual world. (“Homo sapiens is Homo spiritualis,” one scholar observes.) Some scholars believe the caves may have functioned as a kind of sanctuary. In such underground places, the art seems to say “We’re sanctifying a finite space in an infinite universe” and “time loses its contours.”

The author concludes that these places seem to direct one toward protology and eschatology:

Whatever the art means, you understand … that its vessel is both a womb and a sepulcher.

Link to “Letter from France: First Impressions” (abstract):

Post scriptum: I am on my way here.

Update: Nothing like cave art here:

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Mundaneum

A piece in the Times, “The Web Time Forgot,” focuses on Paul Otlet, “one of technology’s lost pioneers.”
When he finally entered secondary school, he made straight for the library. “I could lock myself into the library and peruse the catalog, which for me was a miracle,” he later wrote. Soon after entering school, Otlet took on the role of school librarian.
In the years that followed, Otlet never really left the library. Though his father pushed him into law school, he soon left the bar to return to his first love, books. In 1895, he met a kindred spirit in the future Nobel Prize winner Henri La Fontaine, who joined him in planning to create a master bibliography of all the world’s published knowledge.
Otlet’s bibliographical project led to the establishment of the Mundaneum, an unmanageable paper “city of knowledge,” which inspired an early conception of a global information network.

Link to “The Web Time Forgot”:

Monday, June 16, 2008

For the (Personal) Record

The photographs above were taken on June 14, 2007; those below were taken on June 10, 2008. (I checked the metadata from my digital camera against my paper journal—the dates were correct but the hours were not.)

Same conference, different venues. As the pictures may suggest, the second was better.

Marketing a Manuscript

The recent discovery of an ancient manuscript, “The Gospel of Judas,” became a media event. But was the thesis of the National Geographic “dream team” of translators—that Judas was a good guy—correct? See “The Betrayal of Judas,” available from:

Image: “The Death of Judas and Crucifixion of Christ,” early 5th century CE, British Museum, London

Friday, June 13, 2008

Keeping the Key

According to Charles Williams, a turning point came in the life of James Stuart when he himself began “keeping the key of the coffer wherein his papers lay” (James I, 50).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Reading Today

Technology changes the way we think. Consider what happened after the invention of writing, the mechanical clock, the printing press, or after Nietzsche bought a typewriter.

But kids still like to read books.

Also, you can sell a printed book and give it away online.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Information and Libraries across the Ages

In a recent New York Review of Books essay, “The Library in the New Age,” Robert Darnton considers change and continuity in our newest information age and the continuing role of research libraries.

In the first section, Darnton looks at the nature of information in the context of the history of communication. Looked at one way, this history can be seen as an accelerating series of fundamental changes—from oral to written communication (which began about 6,000 years ago), from the scroll to the codex (which began about 2,000 years ago), from the scriptorium to the printing press (which began about 500 years ago), and from print to electronic communication (which began about 50 years ago). Looked at another way, this history can be seen as a series of information ages, each of which is characterized by “the inherent instability of texts.” “Instead of firmly fixed documents,” Darnton writes, “we must deal with multiple, mutable texts.” This is true of blogs, newspapers, printed books, and manuscripts.

In the second section, Darnton considers what this means for the role of research libraries. To explore the question, Darnton presents two views—or illusions—relating to the library: the library as a citadel of knowledge, which contains all of it, and the internet as an open space, which provides access to all information. No library has succeeded in becoming a universal repository for all knowledge and, even given the great ambitions of Google Book Search, not everything can or will become available online. Moreover, who will ensure the quality of what is online and preserve it? Research libraries attend to subtle distinctions between manifestations of texts and, unlike technology companies, they last for centuries (and they will continue to preserve their pre-digital collections, which contain information that cannot be represented digitally).

Libraries, therefore, still have a role to collect, provide access to, and preserve information—especially information that is accessible though more complex forms (e.g., manuscript material, rare books, and digital objects). The internet can provide a certain kind of access to information on a broad scale; but it cannot provide access to everything, and this access may be only for the time being. As Anthony Grafton recently argued in a New Yorker essay, there remain two roads to knowledge: “the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen,” and the “narrower path” that leads to reading rooms where “knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.”

Link to “The Library in the New Age”:

Image credit: “Books, the Delight of the Soul,” The Librarian's Room, Library of Congress, available from:

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Promise of the Infinite

Last week I was at the Consortium Library in Anchorage. Inside, there is a Foucault pendulum. Why is a library the perfect place for such a thing? Consider this:

Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it. … It promises the infinite, but where to put the infinite is left to me. So it isn’t enough to worship to Pendulum; you still have to make a decision, you have to find the best point for it.
—from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum