A Library By Any Other Name . . .

10446671_404563269739824_7915614652107686039_nAndrea/Cara here, I am under the gun today, so am invoking the occasionally used Wench Privilege of posting an oldies but goodie. As I've been thinking a lot about research and libraries, I've picked one that talks about what, exactly, IS a library's function these day:

11083650_374960399366778_3208701433575918220_nI recently attended a lecture on the role of a library in today’s world. The first slide was a big graphic that said, “Myth #1: Library = Books” The speaker—having gotten everyone’s attention—went on to explain how in our fast-changing (as in blink of an eye) society, how we preserve knowledge, and how we use the material that we save, is radically changing as well.

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We Need to Talk – The Art of Conversation

Abbie 3I read last week that the art of conversation is dead. This is the era of the text and the tweet where we give and receive information in small doses. We communicate more but we talk less. Digital communication also lets you plan what you want to say whereas in real time we don’t know where a conversation is going to lead, and that makes us nervous.

Such claims are nothing new. Technology has often been blamed for having a detrimental effect on face-to-face communication. In 1889 a newspaper article suggested that telephones should not be allowed in private houses for fear of the damage they could do to “real” conversations. Way back in the 4th century BC Socrates was complaining that writing ideas down was not as good as talking about them one to one because the way to learn was through debate.

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Lost in the Ether!

ComputerCara/Andrea here

As you know, we Wenches occasionally talking about the craft of writing here. The creative process has its highs and lows, as the Muse can be moody. And sometimes author must contend with more than Inner Demons—the distractions and challenges to the story come from the tools of the trade

For the modern scribe, it’s both a blessing and a curse. As you might have guessed, I had a Major Disaster yesterday. My desktop i-mac, the repository of all my data, files, book manuscripts, calendars, address books, etc. suddenly gave up the ghost. The hard drive just went kaput.
Stone readerPanicked, I called my IT friend, who was out of town but didn’t like the sound of what I was seeing on the screen when trying to reboot. I suggested I hoof it to the nearest Apple store and have it checked out. So up I trek to New Haven, when a very nice person at the Genius Bar confirmed that it was dead as a doornail. No hope of getting any data retrieved.

Well, thankfully, due to my tech guy’s constant warning that Bad Stuff happens without warning, I have most of the files backed up on CDs. A major pain to rebuild a new computer with them, but it could be worse.

Quill penSo, since I’m there in the store, I start to peruse the latest generation high tech desktop wonders with a twenty-some salesperson. As we’re looking, I start musing on how I will have to upload all my data manually from my storage CDs—which draws a bemused look. "Oh, these models aren't built with CD ports anymore. No one uses that technology these days." I take a deep breath as I'm told I will have to buy an external drive to hook up to the computer.

Then I mention my InDesign and Photoshop programs. Another pitying look. "Oh, those versions don't run on this operating system. You're going to have to buy all new versions. (Note: the programs are very expensive.)

At this point I ask him whether they sell quill pens and paper. That elicits a blank stare. At least he laughs when I ask whether the Genius Bar served double martinis.

JanusAs you can imagine, I left the store muttering a number of very unladylike words. I decided to think over my options before rushing into a purchase . . . but it also got me to thinking about a lecture I recently attended by Susan Gibbons, the Head Librarian of Yale University, which addressed just this topic of technology as both a blessing and a curse.

The talk was all about libraries needing to be “Janus”— that is, they must look both at the past and at the future, and what challenges have to be met in the mission to preserve original material, and therefore history.

BeineckeBooks, manuscripts, codices, scrolls—most of us are familiar with the need for vigilant conservation to preserve papyrus, paper, vellum, leather, old inks and the like for posterity. But it was fascinating—and a little frightening—to hear her talk about the challenges of looking ahead. Libraries are faced with some really tough tasks, she went on to explain. History, original thoughts, which once were passed on mostly as words written on paper, are now being collected in a myriad of different
Owlforms. For example, many oral accounts of genocide in Africa or ethnic cleasing in the balkans have been made on variety of tape recorders and video cameras that are totally obsolete.  Aside from the stability of those forms (who really knows how long floppy disks, CDs, digital USB drives will last) an ancillary worry is how one will “play” them back in the future because the machines that run them disappear so fast. Think about it—rapid obsolescence seems programmed into computers, CD drives, flash drives, televisions, etc.  It seems that every two years we are expected to throw away one technology and upgrade to another. And those obsolete machines get thrown in the trash.

For libraries it’s a huge worry because they can’t plan for how to preserve, because forms of data seem ever changing, and the ways to access them are even more unstable. This, said Gibbons, is a huge issue. And as less and less material is being put on paper, we run the risk that future generations may lose decades—or centuries—of information and knowledge. It’s really quite sobering, isn’t it?

JA's desk 1In the next few days, I will probably upgrade to the latest i-mac . . . which will be ancient history in a year or two. Truly, I am thinking twice about quill and paper.

So what about you? Has technology taken over your life? Have you had any disasters? And are you as worried as I am about the preservation of knowledge and ideas—and books!—in this digital age?

Looking at the World Through Regency Glasses

Joanna here, talking about eyeglasses in the Regency period. Franklin6

The idea of eyeglasses isn't new.  Dipping into wayback history, folks were getting a close look at small stuff with a clear, curving crystal in ancient times.

Nimrud_2lens_British_MuseumHere's the Nimrud Stone, a piece of ground, polished rock crystal found in the excavation of a 3000-year-old Assyrian palace.  Lenses like this have turned up in Greek burial sites that are even older. 

These first magnifying glasses gave the users up to 10X enlargement, which is to say they compare favorably with the magnifying glass you have in your desk right now and use for reading the print in your OED or threading needles or staring in bemused enjoyment at the whorls and ridges of your thumbprint. 

Scholars figure these very early lenses were used by Greek and Sumerian craftsmen to produce the unbelievably fine detail in some of their art work.  Or gazing at the rings of Saturn.  Or, y'know, looking at their thumb.

What limited the number and quality of these first lenses — the reason Cleopatra didn't wear eyeglasses — Pectoral_of_Senusret_II_cc attrib John_Campanawas they hadn't got around to making cheap and clear glass yet.  High quality glass was precious. That's why Tutankhamun's hoard of jewels is made of gold, ivory, lapis lazuli, carnelian, turquoise, and . . . glass.  This must have come as a disappointment to the Victorian treasure-seekers in the Nile valley.  They'd open a tomb and pull out a fancy pectoral or amulet and it was brilliant, colorful glass, instead of, say, brilliant colorful emeralds.

Folks finally made reliably clear glass on a large scale in Italy. 

Thirteenth Century Italy was the hotbed of glass technHugh_specsology for its day.  Venice — the Medieval Silicon Valley of glasswork — turned out round, hand-held magnifiers on a regular basis.  About 1280 some bright lad, his name forever lost to history, mounted two of these glass disks in round frames and joined them together.  Presto.  Eyeglasses. 

And, lickety-split, as historical innovation goes, we get portraits of people with spectacles.  This 1352 portrait to the left may be the earliest representation of eyeglasses.

Spectacle and spectacle case c mother or pearl painted totoiseshell silver glass 1700 vandAThere were two kinds.  Perch-on-the-nose glasses, for one.  Pince-nez we'd call them now.  That's a circa 1700 example on the left.  This picture to the right is from 1466.

Lorgnette the met We also get a scissors-type eyeglasses that joined together at a hinge and could be adjusted to fit.  This kind of glasses could be held up as we see to the left, or held up from below.  The scissors glasses seem awkward, but they appear in portraits right along to the Regency so they must have had hidden charm and utility.

You can see the difficulty with both kinds.  They were always ready to fall off.  You had to tie a ribbon around your head or keep one hand on your glasses.  Tedious, to say the least. They'd be for reading and close work only.

In the early 1700s a London spectacles maker, Edward Scarlett, advertised a clever solution.  His glasses had folding hinged struts on the sides and two arms to hold the optics onto the head.  There were even loops, sometimes, to tie the glasses on.  Made in china before 1846 after C17 3rd quart british museum attribNow your spectacles didn't fall off every time you incautiously reached for a new sheet of paper. 

It became practical to walk around wearing the things.  All this improvement in eyeglass technology meant people could pay intelligent attention to where they were going. This lasted till the invention of the ipod.
Crome 1817 detail 2Benjamin Franklin, one of my favorite people — he's up at the top of the page — invented bifocals in 1784.
It was also in the Eighteenth Century that glasses met the masses.  They were no longer for scholars and artists.  This traveling glasses pedlar on the left argues that glasses were cheap enough that a country woman in a cottage was likely to buy a pair. This ragged tailor on the right can afford glasses to pursue his trade. Crussens mid c17
I haven't found examples of these Georgian and Regency glasses with a curve to fit neatly around the ear.  They seem to have hugged the head in a steely embrace, doubtless leading to many a Regency headache.  Some, intended to tuck intMusvisattrib 1750 wig spectacles spearshaped tipso the fashionable wigs of the time, had fierce and sharpish-looking points.

Now, with all this development of practical eyeglasses that gripped the head and stayed on and didn't require constant fidgeting, you'd think the old, precarious sort without side pieces would disappear. 
Not so much.  As the new utilitarian eyeglasses spread through the hoi polloi, the inconvenient older optics were now considered spiffy and upper-crust.

Quizzing glass closeup Quizzing glass 1820 britinsh museum attrib detail 2So, you had your quizzing glass. 
This was a single, hand-held lens, like a magnifying glass. 

Single lenses that you held had long since been replaced by spectacles for everyday use.  Round about 1790 the French, as the French will, turned this passe object into a fashion accessory.  If you needed glasses, or even if you didn't, you could walk around with a quizzing glass handy, maybe hanging it on a long chain worn around the neck. The you whipped it out to inspect something.

The double-barreled version of the quizzing glass was the lorgnette, which is sort of glasses-on-a-stick.  Lorgnette after 1700 the met Like the quizzing glass, the lorgnette was a decorative social prop, capable of depressing pretension all the way across the ballroom. 

Quizzing glass 1801The word lorgnette, you will be pleased to know, comes from the French lorgner, 'to peer at', from Middle French lorgne, 'squint'.  The French, being contrary, call this instrument a face-a-main — a 'face-to-hand' — and then use the French word lorgnette to mean, not that, but a quizzing glass or small telescope.
The word English word 'lorgnette' appears in 1803 so you should probably not have your character raise her lorgnette to intimidate an encroaching mushroom before that.  Unless she is French.  In which case she is talking about a quizzing glass. 
Life is complex.

One thing you notice, when you're looking at paintings of Georgian and Regency crowd scenes, is how few people are wearing glasses.  When you do see glasses in a crowd, they're generally perched on the nose of a plump parson or peering, bent old woman.  I set aside the possibilities of Eighteenth Century Lasik surgery, contact lenses, and a general eagle-eyed-ness in the population and ask myself why.

Regency Romances portray glasses as a bit fuddy-duddy.  Our Regency heroines hide their spectacles in their reticules (and our Regency heroes have better eyesight than the average squad of fighter pilots.)  This is a Regency Romance convention that seems to have good evidence on its side. 

Nimrud stone and quizzling glass attrib British Museum. Scissor glasses and lorgnette attrib The Met. Pectoral of Senusret cc attrib John Compana. Glasses with wig points and glasses with loops Museum of Vision by permission. Spectacles and caseBlack Hawk attrib V&A.
So.  Thinking about the impact of eyeglasses on the world . . .  Imagine a life with no eyeglasses, and you with not-so-good eyes.  What would you miss most?
One lucky commenter will win a still-fairly-hot-off-the-presses copy of Black Hawk.