Books & Bibliophiles, Revisited

Cara/Andrea here,
I hope all of you in the path of monster storm Sandy make it through safely. Here in my town we are still without power and likely to be in the dark until next week. Luckily I have a small generator to keep some basic appliances running, but there's no Internet– just my trusty I-phone which is keeping me in touch with the world. So I am invoking the Wench Emergency Rule and posting an old blog from several years ago. Seeing that I am doing a lot of reading by the fire with my kerosene lamps providing a mellow glow (made even more mellow by copious glasses of scotch) I thought it fitting to choose one on the history of the library. And hey, it's even more fitting as I have a new book releasing on November 20!

So without further ado, please read on!

Cara/Andrea here, just back from a fabulous research trip to London. Alas, timing was such that I missed meeting up with Jo and Nicola for a Wench Tea Party, but it was still an amazing experience—but more on my travels in my next blog!

Radclifffe-camera Today I’m talking about libraries—I made a stop at my local branch the other day, intending to pick up a Harry Potter DVD and a biography on Casanova that I had read about. But as often happens when I walk by the display of new acquisitions, my gaze strayed and I found myself drawn to a lovely book entitled “The Library: An illustrated History.” How could I resist! (That’s a pic I took of the Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, not my local branch!)

Tucking it under my arm, I hurried to the check-out, grinning like a Bedlamite. One of the things I love about libraries (and bookstores, though they are a more expensive delight) is that serendipitous discovery, that unlooked-for treasure that sends a happy little thrill coursing down my spine. Now some of my friends find that shopping for clothes or shoes lifts their spirits. But me, I’d much rather have a good book than a pair of bargain Manolo Blanicks (okay, maybe I’d like the book  AND the Blanicks.)

Oldest na book276 That said, “The Library: An Illustrated History,” by Stuart A. P. Murray and co-published by the American Library Association, proved to be a fun journey through the centuries, with plenty of offbeat digressions on the development of printing, paper, and the notable bibliophiles in history who were passionate about the written word.

According to the  ALA, Americans made 1.3 billion visits to libraries in 2008, and borrowed over 2 billion items. Now, I happen to love little tidbits of information like this. But I have to confess, though there were many modern fact and figures, the most interesting part of the book for me were the anecdotes from history. So, without further ado, here are some of the things I learned . . . 

“Library” derives from liber, the Latin word for book. The earliest known library was discovered during the 1970s in the ancient city Ebla, in modern-day Syria. Dating back to around 2500 BCE, it contained close to 20,000 clay tablets written in cuneiform, the earliest form of written language.

Library alex273 The Egyptians developed the first paper-like material (papyrus), which was used for elaborate scrolls. (The Greeks called papyrus rolls biblion, and the clay pots where they were stored bibliotheke—a place to keep books.) Using this new “technology” as well as clay tablets, they compiled the renowned ancient library at Alexandria. It is said that the library at Pergamum, in Asia Minor, began to rival Alexandria and so the Egyptians refused to export papyrus to them. Undaunted, Pergamum began to use calf, sheep and goat skin to write on—and so the Latin word for such material became pergamenum. Which explains our word “parchment.”

The Romans came up with the ‘codex’ form of book, in which scrolls were folded into “pages”. (Julius Caesar is credited with being the first to do so with his dispatches to Gaul.) This form evolved into cutting the folds, allowing for writing on both sides of the sheet. Stiff covers, usually of wood, were used to protect the pages, and thus we have the origins of our modern book. (Today, a codex refers to a manuscript from the Middle Ages or earlier.)

DukeHumfreyslibrary Theft of books has been a problem throughout the ages. In the Middle Ages, the monastic libraries took to chaining the most popular books to desks and lecterns. On my recent trip to Oxford, I visited the Bodleian Library and actually saw this in Duke Humfrey’s medieval library, a section that is still open to scholars today. (Nicola informed me that people who apply for research privileges must sign a pledge that includes a promises not to burn the books—the danger from candles were a huge threat in medieval times.) Because of the chains, the books must be shelved with the pages facing outward.

Book curses have also been employed (with questionable results.) One of my favorites is a Medieval Spanish warning: Him that stealeth or borroweth and returneth not this book, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck by palsy and all his members blasted. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails and let the flames of hell consume him forever. (Uhhh, the nickel a day fine for overdue books at my local library seems quite mild in comparison.)

RB Cotton For me, one of the most interesting early bibliophiles was Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. A scholar and politician, he compiled a spectacular collection of books, coins and antiquities during the mid-1500s, including the original manuscript of Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels, a seventh century illuminated manuscript from northern England.

180px-LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt The Cottonian Library used  a unique system of cataloguing its books. Fourteen busts of famous Romans were placed atop the various bookshelves and cabinets, and each item of the collection was listed with the letter of its Roman (N for Nero, etc.) a letter for the shelf, and then a Roman numeral for where on the shelf it sat. In 1702, Cotton’s grandson bequeathed the collection to the state, and in the 1750s, the British Museum and Library took charge of it. I find it endearing that the British Library still keeps Cotton’s original books organized by his “Roman” system. (The Dewey Decimal Classification didn’t come into being until 1876.)

Library of congress277 Our Library of Congress was established in 1800, in the same act that authorized the transfer of government to Washington, DC. At first, it was, as the name implies, only for members of Congress. Thomas Jefferson, an avid bibliophile took a great interest in recommending acquisitions. When the nascent collection was burned to a crisp during the War of 1812, (Nicola, we forgive you Brits) Jefferson offered to sell Congress his private collection of 6,487 books (appraised at $23,950) to begin anew. Now, that’s one government expenditure that I heartily agree with!

230px-British_library_london One of the things that struck me as I read the book was the incredibly wide range of libraries there are around the world—from a traveling burro with a book sack slung over its back in rural Columbia to the dazzling splendor of the Vatican galleries, they come in all sizes and shapes. And some are artistic treasures in their own right. The contents are mind-boggling as well, from the broad scope of the New York Public Library to the innumerable arcane and eclectic specialized collections. Books, books, books—what a source of constant awe and delight! (here's my library . . . not quite as impressive as the sleek, modern new British Library shown above.) My-library

Now that you heard my “show and tell”, have you made any fun “finds” at the library recently? And have you visited a library, famous or otherwise, that simply awed you? I’ll never forget my first visit to the old British Library, where I saw the original manuscript for Jane Eyre on display.

30 thoughts on “Books & Bibliophiles, Revisited”

  1. I’m in awe of the towering remains of the library in Ephesus. All they had were papyrus documents back then, so the pain-staking work that must have gone into creating those books had to have been dedication, indeed.
    Hope you have electricity soon, Andrea!

    Reply
  2. I’m in awe of the towering remains of the library in Ephesus. All they had were papyrus documents back then, so the pain-staking work that must have gone into creating those books had to have been dedication, indeed.
    Hope you have electricity soon, Andrea!

    Reply
  3. I’m in awe of the towering remains of the library in Ephesus. All they had were papyrus documents back then, so the pain-staking work that must have gone into creating those books had to have been dedication, indeed.
    Hope you have electricity soon, Andrea!

    Reply
  4. I’m in awe of the towering remains of the library in Ephesus. All they had were papyrus documents back then, so the pain-staking work that must have gone into creating those books had to have been dedication, indeed.
    Hope you have electricity soon, Andrea!

    Reply
  5. I’m in awe of the towering remains of the library in Ephesus. All they had were papyrus documents back then, so the pain-staking work that must have gone into creating those books had to have been dedication, indeed.
    Hope you have electricity soon, Andrea!

    Reply
  6. Sherrie, here.
    I do believe I must put The Library: An illustrated History on my must-have list! Perhaps Santa will be good to me this Christmas!
    My former employer had the foresight to get a company library card that any employee could use. I’ve never heard of another company that did that for its employees. For those of us who lived in a different county than where we worked, this was a godsend, as it allowed us to use the company card instead of having to pay a large fee for a library card on your own if you lived outside the library’s county.
    For many years I attended our library’s thrice-annual book sales. These sales were held at the main book facility and they were huge, drawing buyers from 3 states. Hardbacks were $1 and softcovers were 10 cents. I went hog wild at these sales, and over the years purchased over 5,000 books, most of them hardbacks, many of them research books, and because they were so cheap, I was also able to purchase books on the most frivolous arcane subjects that have provided me many hours of entertainment. Thanks to these library sales, I now have my own personal home library!

    Reply
  7. Sherrie, here.
    I do believe I must put The Library: An illustrated History on my must-have list! Perhaps Santa will be good to me this Christmas!
    My former employer had the foresight to get a company library card that any employee could use. I’ve never heard of another company that did that for its employees. For those of us who lived in a different county than where we worked, this was a godsend, as it allowed us to use the company card instead of having to pay a large fee for a library card on your own if you lived outside the library’s county.
    For many years I attended our library’s thrice-annual book sales. These sales were held at the main book facility and they were huge, drawing buyers from 3 states. Hardbacks were $1 and softcovers were 10 cents. I went hog wild at these sales, and over the years purchased over 5,000 books, most of them hardbacks, many of them research books, and because they were so cheap, I was also able to purchase books on the most frivolous arcane subjects that have provided me many hours of entertainment. Thanks to these library sales, I now have my own personal home library!

    Reply
  8. Sherrie, here.
    I do believe I must put The Library: An illustrated History on my must-have list! Perhaps Santa will be good to me this Christmas!
    My former employer had the foresight to get a company library card that any employee could use. I’ve never heard of another company that did that for its employees. For those of us who lived in a different county than where we worked, this was a godsend, as it allowed us to use the company card instead of having to pay a large fee for a library card on your own if you lived outside the library’s county.
    For many years I attended our library’s thrice-annual book sales. These sales were held at the main book facility and they were huge, drawing buyers from 3 states. Hardbacks were $1 and softcovers were 10 cents. I went hog wild at these sales, and over the years purchased over 5,000 books, most of them hardbacks, many of them research books, and because they were so cheap, I was also able to purchase books on the most frivolous arcane subjects that have provided me many hours of entertainment. Thanks to these library sales, I now have my own personal home library!

    Reply
  9. Sherrie, here.
    I do believe I must put The Library: An illustrated History on my must-have list! Perhaps Santa will be good to me this Christmas!
    My former employer had the foresight to get a company library card that any employee could use. I’ve never heard of another company that did that for its employees. For those of us who lived in a different county than where we worked, this was a godsend, as it allowed us to use the company card instead of having to pay a large fee for a library card on your own if you lived outside the library’s county.
    For many years I attended our library’s thrice-annual book sales. These sales were held at the main book facility and they were huge, drawing buyers from 3 states. Hardbacks were $1 and softcovers were 10 cents. I went hog wild at these sales, and over the years purchased over 5,000 books, most of them hardbacks, many of them research books, and because they were so cheap, I was also able to purchase books on the most frivolous arcane subjects that have provided me many hours of entertainment. Thanks to these library sales, I now have my own personal home library!

    Reply
  10. Sherrie, here.
    I do believe I must put The Library: An illustrated History on my must-have list! Perhaps Santa will be good to me this Christmas!
    My former employer had the foresight to get a company library card that any employee could use. I’ve never heard of another company that did that for its employees. For those of us who lived in a different county than where we worked, this was a godsend, as it allowed us to use the company card instead of having to pay a large fee for a library card on your own if you lived outside the library’s county.
    For many years I attended our library’s thrice-annual book sales. These sales were held at the main book facility and they were huge, drawing buyers from 3 states. Hardbacks were $1 and softcovers were 10 cents. I went hog wild at these sales, and over the years purchased over 5,000 books, most of them hardbacks, many of them research books, and because they were so cheap, I was also able to purchase books on the most frivolous arcane subjects that have provided me many hours of entertainment. Thanks to these library sales, I now have my own personal home library!

    Reply
  11. I visited the Library of Congress as a young sailor in WWII. It is mind boggling how much has been added to it since then.
    Haven’t been to a library in years, but I do have an expired library card. I like to have my own copy of the books that I read.
    Here is to having electricity back soon.

    Reply
  12. I visited the Library of Congress as a young sailor in WWII. It is mind boggling how much has been added to it since then.
    Haven’t been to a library in years, but I do have an expired library card. I like to have my own copy of the books that I read.
    Here is to having electricity back soon.

    Reply
  13. I visited the Library of Congress as a young sailor in WWII. It is mind boggling how much has been added to it since then.
    Haven’t been to a library in years, but I do have an expired library card. I like to have my own copy of the books that I read.
    Here is to having electricity back soon.

    Reply
  14. I visited the Library of Congress as a young sailor in WWII. It is mind boggling how much has been added to it since then.
    Haven’t been to a library in years, but I do have an expired library card. I like to have my own copy of the books that I read.
    Here is to having electricity back soon.

    Reply
  15. I visited the Library of Congress as a young sailor in WWII. It is mind boggling how much has been added to it since then.
    Haven’t been to a library in years, but I do have an expired library card. I like to have my own copy of the books that I read.
    Here is to having electricity back soon.

    Reply
  16. Telling readers about great libraries is like dealing crack cocaine. *G* Whenever I’ve moved, one of the first things I’ve done in the new home is check out the nearest library. Maryland has a great system–with my Baltimore County card, I check out books from any public library in the state, and return them to any library, including one closer to home. Bliss! I love the way library system around here are keeping up with the technology so well. They are my favorite use of tax dollars.

    Reply
  17. Telling readers about great libraries is like dealing crack cocaine. *G* Whenever I’ve moved, one of the first things I’ve done in the new home is check out the nearest library. Maryland has a great system–with my Baltimore County card, I check out books from any public library in the state, and return them to any library, including one closer to home. Bliss! I love the way library system around here are keeping up with the technology so well. They are my favorite use of tax dollars.

    Reply
  18. Telling readers about great libraries is like dealing crack cocaine. *G* Whenever I’ve moved, one of the first things I’ve done in the new home is check out the nearest library. Maryland has a great system–with my Baltimore County card, I check out books from any public library in the state, and return them to any library, including one closer to home. Bliss! I love the way library system around here are keeping up with the technology so well. They are my favorite use of tax dollars.

    Reply
  19. Telling readers about great libraries is like dealing crack cocaine. *G* Whenever I’ve moved, one of the first things I’ve done in the new home is check out the nearest library. Maryland has a great system–with my Baltimore County card, I check out books from any public library in the state, and return them to any library, including one closer to home. Bliss! I love the way library system around here are keeping up with the technology so well. They are my favorite use of tax dollars.

    Reply
  20. Telling readers about great libraries is like dealing crack cocaine. *G* Whenever I’ve moved, one of the first things I’ve done in the new home is check out the nearest library. Maryland has a great system–with my Baltimore County card, I check out books from any public library in the state, and return them to any library, including one closer to home. Bliss! I love the way library system around here are keeping up with the technology so well. They are my favorite use of tax dollars.

    Reply
  21. Andrea, hugs for the difficulties you’ve been experiencing. Hope your power is back on soon.
    I adore libraries. As a child, when we moved from place to place, libraries kept my imagination fed, and I’ve always felt a huge debt of gratitude. These days I’m like Louis — I like to have my own copy — but I often write in libraries and while I’m there I’ll browse, and often borrow.

    Reply
  22. Andrea, hugs for the difficulties you’ve been experiencing. Hope your power is back on soon.
    I adore libraries. As a child, when we moved from place to place, libraries kept my imagination fed, and I’ve always felt a huge debt of gratitude. These days I’m like Louis — I like to have my own copy — but I often write in libraries and while I’m there I’ll browse, and often borrow.

    Reply
  23. Andrea, hugs for the difficulties you’ve been experiencing. Hope your power is back on soon.
    I adore libraries. As a child, when we moved from place to place, libraries kept my imagination fed, and I’ve always felt a huge debt of gratitude. These days I’m like Louis — I like to have my own copy — but I often write in libraries and while I’m there I’ll browse, and often borrow.

    Reply
  24. Andrea, hugs for the difficulties you’ve been experiencing. Hope your power is back on soon.
    I adore libraries. As a child, when we moved from place to place, libraries kept my imagination fed, and I’ve always felt a huge debt of gratitude. These days I’m like Louis — I like to have my own copy — but I often write in libraries and while I’m there I’ll browse, and often borrow.

    Reply
  25. Andrea, hugs for the difficulties you’ve been experiencing. Hope your power is back on soon.
    I adore libraries. As a child, when we moved from place to place, libraries kept my imagination fed, and I’ve always felt a huge debt of gratitude. These days I’m like Louis — I like to have my own copy — but I often write in libraries and while I’m there I’ll browse, and often borrow.

    Reply
  26. I can’t live without a library nearby. My mom took me to our local library when I was barely able to read, and she had gone there as a girl. The librarian (and it might have been the same woman!) used to hold new books for her when they came in. My local library is small but vivid, and via Polaris can connect countywide. I think e-libraries are a boon for rural and semi-rural communities, especially for young people and students.

    Reply
  27. I can’t live without a library nearby. My mom took me to our local library when I was barely able to read, and she had gone there as a girl. The librarian (and it might have been the same woman!) used to hold new books for her when they came in. My local library is small but vivid, and via Polaris can connect countywide. I think e-libraries are a boon for rural and semi-rural communities, especially for young people and students.

    Reply
  28. I can’t live without a library nearby. My mom took me to our local library when I was barely able to read, and she had gone there as a girl. The librarian (and it might have been the same woman!) used to hold new books for her when they came in. My local library is small but vivid, and via Polaris can connect countywide. I think e-libraries are a boon for rural and semi-rural communities, especially for young people and students.

    Reply
  29. I can’t live without a library nearby. My mom took me to our local library when I was barely able to read, and she had gone there as a girl. The librarian (and it might have been the same woman!) used to hold new books for her when they came in. My local library is small but vivid, and via Polaris can connect countywide. I think e-libraries are a boon for rural and semi-rural communities, especially for young people and students.

    Reply
  30. I can’t live without a library nearby. My mom took me to our local library when I was barely able to read, and she had gone there as a girl. The librarian (and it might have been the same woman!) used to hold new books for her when they came in. My local library is small but vivid, and via Polaris can connect countywide. I think e-libraries are a boon for rural and semi-rural communities, especially for young people and students.

    Reply

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