Friday, November 30, 2007

Book Review: "Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders and Maritime Disasters"

Donald Shomette's Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders and Maritime Disasters along the Delmarva Coast, 1632-2004 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) is a meticulously-researched anthology of, well, exactly what its title suggests it is. Drawing on archival sources Shomette offers vignettes of a small portion of the shipwrecks that have occurred off the coast of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. He devotes significant space to the American Revolution, several major storms in the late 1880s, and the German U-boat attacks during WWII, but Shomette also discusses many lesser-known events and happenings, and closes by outlining some of the great ongoing battles over salvage rights and treasure-hunting.

An impressive work, all the more so when coupled with the extensive list of all known wrecks in the region, which follows the text. Focusing on fewer wrecks in more detail might have improved the book, but the approach Shomette took works fairly well. Recommended for maritime aficionados, treasure hunters, or others with an interest in the subject.

Bet He's Not Laughing Now

The Sunday Mail reported this week that a stand-up comic has been pleaded guilty to stealing more than £100,000 worth of books from HarperCollins UK, where he worked part-time as a forklift operator. Gary Little, 44, lifted the books and sold them on eBay at bargain prices: a friend of Little's told the paper "Thousands of books were going out the back door and straight on to eBay. Many of them commanded premium retail prices. So when they were offered cut-price on the internet, there was still good money to be made."

He's to be sentenced shortly.

[h/t Shelf:Life]

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Massachusetts History Book Fair

If you're in need of something bookish to do this weekend, and you live reasonably close to Boston, read on!

The Massachusetts Historical Society (1154 Boylston Street in Boston) is hosting its first Massachusetts History Book Fair this Friday evening and Saturday (30 November and 1 December). The speaker lineup is as follows:

Friday, 6 p.m. - Robert Allison, The Boston Massacre and The Boston Tea Party

Friday, 7 p.m. - Eric Jay Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

Saturday, 10 a.m. - Stephanie Schorow, The Cocoanut Grove Fire and The Crime of the Century

Saturday, 11 a.m. - Susan Wilson, The Literary Trail of Greater Boston

Saturday, 12 p.m. - Bonnie Hurd Smith, "Mingling Souls Upon Paper": An Eighteenth-Century Love Story (Judith Sargent and John Murray)

Saturday, 1 p.m. - Diane Rapaport, The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England (or

Saturday, 2 p.m. - James A. Craig, Fitz H. Lane: An Artist's Voyage Through Nineteenth-Century America

Saturday, 3 p.m. - Eve LaPlante, Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall and American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson

Authors will be signing books after their discussions, and copies of all the books will be available for purchase. Free and open, so drop by for one talk or come for them all!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Garnet Book Images

By way of follow-up to yesterday's post regarding the rare book up for auction on Sunday which may bear the image of its subject, the good folks at Wilkinson's Auctioneers in Doncaster have sent me some further information about the book and some images, which are used here with permission.

There are two key issues here from the original press report: is the book bound in human skin, and does the front cover bear the image of a man's face? Wilkinsons' description of the book reads that the volume is "believed to be bound in human skin, possibly that of the aforementioned Jesuit priest Father Henry Garnet."

I have some concerns on both points. First, the classic article on the use of human skin in bookbinding, "Tanned Human Skin" (1946) notes that the practice was quite uncommon until the time of the French Revolution, though not entirely unknown before that time, as some seventeenth-century examples have been found. Also, Dr. John Stockon-Hough, who experimented with anthropodermic binding during the late nineteenth century reported that most human skin is fairly coarse-grained; he had managed to obtain a sample which was "almost indistinguishable" from pigskin, but that came from a woman's thigh. The material used to bind the Garnet book appears quite fine-grained from the photographs, and without evidence to the contrary it seems just as likely that it's a standard form of vellum rather than treated human skin. I suppose a close examination would answer this question, so if any experts in vellum bindings near Doncaster have a go at it, I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Further, I have been unable to discover any evidence that Garnet's skin was removed from his body following his execution (unlike his head, which was placed atop a pole near London Bridge and shocked people by remaining lifelike and refusing to rot; contemporaries reported crowds of up to 500 people coming to stare at the macabre object). Such things are generally kept quite close track of (witness the bloody cornhusk which supposedly bore Garnet's image - that was kept in a crystal case and smuggled out of England!), so the fact that no mention can be found of Garnet's skin being used to bind a copy of the account of his trial is rather telling. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I would certainly like to see more evidence before I accept it.

To the second question, of whether a face appears on the unbacked front cover of the book, I'll let the pictures speak. There are clear areas of discoloration on the cover, which appear from the second picture to be the result of thinner vellum there (notice how more light shines through the "face" area when the cover is held open). Grisly supernatural phenomenon, or not? You'll have to be the judge of that.

Regardless, the auctioneers have played this up well, and certainly gotten some attention for the sale of this book. Whether or not it's bound in human skin (let alone that of Garnet), and whether or not bears a ghostly image, A True And Perfect Relation Of The Whole Proceedings Against The Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet A Jesuit And His Confederates is a rare title by any measure, and an interesting copy like this should sell strongly. After Sunday's bidding I'll pass along the results.

[Update: Sky News' article on the book contains some comments from the volume's current (anonymous) owner, including a translation of the Latin inscription on the front cover: "
severe penitence punished the flesh." The owner "believes that marks on the leather are evidence of torture" (Garnet is not known to have been tortured, although he was certainly threatened with the rack as part of extensive interrogations). The owner also told Sky that he hopes the book will go to a museum so that it can be viewed by the public (if that's the case, why he decided to have it sold rather than donating it he doesn't say).]

[Further update: Sales info here]

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New Timewasters!

As if we all needed some more distractions, right?

Between the Covers Rare Books has unveiled its newest biblio-game, Letter-ature (lower right). It's like Wheel of Fortune, but with books. They also have Famous First Lines (upper right), which I confess to being completely and utterly terrible at.

Another one that's making the rounds lately and which has proven rather addictive for me is FreeRice, a vocab game where for every correct answer, ten grains of rice are purchased (by advertisers) and donated through the World Food Program. A neat idea, nicely executed.

More on Reading

Two things to point out in the wake of my weekend post "Is the Sky Falling?". First, NYTimes book critic Motoko Rich had an essay on Sunday tackling the question of why and how people "become readers." She writes "The gestation of a true, committed reader is in some ways a magical process, shaped in part by external forces but also by a spark within the imagination. Having parents who read a lot helps, but is no guarantee. Devoted teachers and librarians can also be influential. But despite the proliferation of book groups and literary blogs, reading is ultimately a private act." Rich also suggests "the right book at the right time," "the discovery that a book’s character is like you, or thinks and feels like you", or "the embrace of the Other."

Then David Mehegan over at the Globe went after the question in an Off the Shelf post yesterday; his theory about why people read centers on "power, in that when you read, you are aggressively seeking and getting the learning or the story, rather than sitting passively and being told, as the illiterate person must learn by being told. If you can read, you can go on your own to find out a truth, but if you are not a reader, you can only hope that you hear it, in person or on television or radio. This is what people mean when they say that reading is a kind of adventure. People who love to read, in my hypothesis, tend to be the kind who crave adventure, even if they're too shy to go abroad, or lack the funds."

I'm not sure Mehegan's theory is universal (I know plenty of 'adventurers' who also read voraciously, and some readers who seem quite craving-free), but I think he's onto something for many of us. Reading is a way to experience times, places, people, events that we cannot physically reach, whether that's Hogwarts, or colonial New England, or the French Revolution, or the parallel universes in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (my current read, incidentally), or whatever strikes your fancy. It can be difficult to explain to non-readers the rush - yes, the power, that a good story well told can bring to bear.

But we know it well, don't we? And although it might not be easy, as I said the other day, we must do our best to share it, that others might join our adventures.

Spooky Find, or Auctioneer's Gimmick?

The Press Association (UK) reports that a rare volume "believed to be bound in the skin of a priest executed for treason appears to bear a 'spooky' image of his face on the cover, according to the auctioneers who are selling the book."

The book, A True And Perfect Relation Of The Whole Proceedings Against The Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet A Jesuit And His Confederates (London: Robert Barker, 1606) is an 'official' account of the trial and execution of Father Henry Garnet, hanged for treason after the Gunpowder Plot (he claimed to have known of the plot but that he did nothing to support it).

Soon after Garnet's execution, a piece of bloodstained straw from the hanging site was found which supposedly bore the image of the priest (called a martyr by some Catholics). The straw is known to have existed through the time of the French Revolution.

The article does not indicate why the book is believed to be bound in Garnet's skin, but it does include a comment from Sid Wilkinson, who'll be selling the volume at auction in South Yorkshire on Sunday. "It's a little bit spooky because the front of the book looks like it has the face of a man on it, which is presumed to be the victim's face," Wilkinson says.

I've been unable to locate a description of the book on the auction house website, so I've shot off an email to Mr. Wilkinson asking for provenance information about the book and for any images of the 'spooky face.' Stay tuned.

[Update: Images and more discussion, here]

Monday, November 26, 2007

Carol Costs Rise

[Since it's now after Thanksgiving and Christmas carols are allowed ... ]

The good folks at PNC Wealth Management apparently have a bit of extra time on their hands at this time of year, so they've computed the costs of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (that is, what it would take to purchase the partridge, the leaping lords, the milking maids, &c.). This year, they report, the total cost is up 4.1% from 2006, to $78,100 (that's if you buy each thing as many times as it's mentioned in the song).

"Buying each item in the song just once would cost $19,507, up 3.1 percent from last year's $18,921. And shopping online would be costlier, with the total for the 364 items costing $128,886, up 2.5 percent from last year's $125,767. You would spend $31,249 online for each item just once this year."

The federal minimum wage hike and higher costs for food and gold this year pushed prices higher. "The price of a partridge ($15), two turtle doves ($40) and three French hens ($40) remained the same, as did seven swans a-swimming, at $4,200, and nine ladies dancing, at $4,759."

PNC first began calculating the costs of Christmas back in 1984; you can see trend-lines here. You can even listen to an mp3 of this year's results, in a form of a "breaking news" alert (here).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Links & Reviews

- In today's New York Times, an article of historic if not necessarily book-related interest: amateur investigators in Russia have apparently discovered the remains of two of Tsar Nicholas II's children, buried just 70 yards from the site where the rest of the royal family was found in 1991. DNA testing is being done now to confirm the find.

- Yesterday, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported on the Shrewsbury Historical Society's decision to sell their broadside Declaration of Independence. Leaders of the society were very surprised at the price the document brought; the Telegram quotes president Dorby Thomas as saying "We had no idea it was worth that much. ... We knew it was worth more than we could afford to just put it on the wall. So no one could see it, and we couldn’t show it to anyone because it was so valuable. What was the point in having it if we just kept it hidden?" Buyer Seth Kaller told the paper that he is working with his client to determine the best way to display the Declaration: "We are discussing exhibit possibilities, and most likely will end up lending it to a major historical institution."

- Ed passes along a really creepy 1953 animated adaptation of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

- Paul Collins notes a Guardian piece on some of the weirdest book titles of 2007, including
Do Ants Have Arseholes?, How to Fossilise Your Hamster and Potty, Fartwell and Knob: From Luke Warm to Minty Badger - Extraordinary But True Names of British People. Of the latter, Amazon's description notes "Every single one has been checked for authenticity and its source is given, as well as extra notes where further fascinating illumination is possible. The book provides a rigorously researched yet laugh-out-loud overview of Britain's eccentricity through the ages."

- A mystery in Waltham Forest (England), where 250,000 library books have gone missing. A library worker told the Guardian "the books were dumped to make space in the refurbished Walthamstow Central Library and, by the time work was finished, there was not enough staff left in employment to sort them, give them away or sell them." Word is that at least two vanloads of the books were destroyed. Library patrons confronted Cllr Geraldine Reardon, cabinet member for libraries, about the rumored destruction; she told them she would answer questions at the next meeting on 28 January. (h/t Reading Copy)

- Also from the Guardian this week (they've really had some excellent book coverage lately), A.B. Byatt has a very worthwhile essay on fairies in English literature, coupled with a review of "The Age of Enchantment: Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890-1930", an exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

- Richard Cox comments on two recent historical literacy studies: E. Jennifer Monaghan's Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America and Hillary E. Wyss' Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America. He writes "Such works on historical literacy reflect scholarship that archivists and others interested in archives can mine for references to the generation of texts that ultimately end up in archival repositories. Careful reading of such work will help archivists to interpret more effectively the sources they are managing, and, perhaps, will assist them in preparing more richly detailed representations of these sources."

- And another Guardian article, this one an interview with essayist Anne Fadiman about her newest collection, At Large and At Small, just out in Britain. Some excellent quotes, but my favorite is this one: "I am very grateful to the electronic world for making my life easier but there is something about holding a book - the smell and the world of association. Even when e-books are perfected, as they surely will be, it will be like being in bed with a very well-made robot rather than a warm, soft, human being whom you love."

- In the Boston Globe, Philip McFarland reviews Philip Gura's American Transcendentalism. In the Times, Peter Ackroyd reviews Charles Nicholl's The Lodger.

- The year-end "best of" lists are starting to appear, so I'll begin adding a few of them to this post each week, even though I have serious reservations about all of them. The NYTimes has posted its 100 Notable Books of 2007, and the Guardian has several writers and other literary figures pick their favorites. The Times' Peter Kemp picks his favorite novels of 2007.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Book Review: "Unruly Americans"

In Unruly Americans and the Making of the Constitution (Hill and Wang, 2007), Woody Holton continues a trend be began in his first book, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999), examining how "ordinary" Americans impacted "great events".

At the outset, Holton rejects the so-called "ideological interpretation" of the Constitution's roots, taking the alternative view that the impetus behind the Philadelphia Convention were chiefly economic. At times he seems to flirt with Beardism, but never quite gets there - instead of ascribing purely cynical motives to the Framers, Holton's interpretation grants that they were "motivated by a sense of grievance that was genuine and questionable at the same time" (p. 87).
Holton is fond of the kind of overarching blanket statements that I find just as troubling in my own writing as I do in that of others. Of James Madison, Holton says, "More than anything else, it was the desire to overturn state laws that set him on the road to Philadelphia" (p. 7). "No piece of legislation - at either the state or federal level - did more to advance the movement for the Constitution" than a 1785 congressional requisition for $3 million (p. 66). And then there's Holton's conclusion that "Rhode Islanders, quite inadvertently, did more to boost the momentum for the Constitution than their counterparts in any other state" (p. 77). These statements many all be true (to some extent), but I'm reluctant to accept such strong statements without much more evidence.

One of the most salient points from this book is, ironically, one of those which Holton could have made rather more strongly. In Chapter 12, as he discusses the constitutional provisions designed to insulate the federal government from popular influence, he notes the many additional "antidemocratic" proposals which were discussed and rejected by the Framers because they diminished the chances that the states would ratify the the Constitution. These decisions, he writes, "were compromises between the Framers and the American people" (p. 211).

Holton's concerns being primarily economic, there is much detail here on the debates over paper money, bond speculation, debt assumption, taxes and other financial matters. The research is impressive and the writing clear, but it is very difficult to make such issues particularly engrossing except to the most committed reader. I had to take this book quite slowly to make sure I didn't miss anything hidden within the dense chapters on monetary policy. Nonetheless, Holton's managed to find some interesting sources (including Abigail Adams as bond speculator and the very odd Herman Husbands, who seemed to weigh in on just about everything), and used them well.

I simply cannot share Holton's overall conclusions about the Constitution, which he says contains "insidious ... safeguards against grassroots pressure" (p. 273). I do not believe that the Framers intended their government as a "slur on the capacities of ordinary citizens" (p. 278), because I don't believe they could have ever imagined how long their Constitution would last and the changes America and the world have seen since 1787. I do believe there was significantly more at play in Philadelphia than economic concerns; though those certainly had some effect, I'm unwilling to grant them the primacy Holton does.

A well-written book, and I recommend it highly even though I have reservations about its message.

Audubon Exhibit in Seattle

Seattle's Museum of History & Industry has mounted an exhibit titled "John James Audubon: American Artist and Naturalist," which runs through 6 January 2008. The show includes 60 birds from the double-elephant folio, as well as a selection of letters, paintings and personal artifacts. Seattle Times art critic Sheila Farr has a short writeup.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Is the Sky Falling?

This week, the National Endowment for the Arts issued its latest report on Americans' reading habits, ominously titled "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence" [PDF]. The report compiles data from studies conducted by various government, academic and business surveys, and the results, NEA chairman Dana Gioia says, "are startling in their consistency. All of the data combine to tell the same story about American reading."

"To Read or Not to Read" finds that Americans - particularly younger Americans - are spending less time reading. In a 2002 survey, 48% of people in the 18-24 age bracket said they read no books not required for work or school, a 7% decline over the previous decade. In 1984, just 9% of 17-year olds said they never read for pleasure; by 2004 that number had risen to 19%, almost matching the decline in the percentages who said they read almost every day.

A fair portion of this trend seems entirely attributable to the simple diversification of activities. So much now occupies every second of young peoples' lives that it's hardly surprising that pleasure reading has declined. Very few if any colleges want to know how many books you read in your spare time last year, but they do want to know how heavily involved you were with various clubs and sports and volunteer activities. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Reading is no longer the default recreational activity for many young people, who now have the vast reaches of the Internet to explore, or their iPods to organize, or ... you get the idea. There's simply too much going on.

More reading is now taking place in different ways than before - look, you're reading this blog, which the NEA apparently doesn't consider reading at all. And I'm writing it, which means I'm not reading either (the six or seven articles plus the NEA report I read just to prepare the composition of this post? they don't count). The statistics may be scary, but they fail to accurately capture the whole picture, and they're overly simplistic. Troubling trends in attendance at cultural events, volunteerism and voting patterns cannot be solved by just encouraging people to read more books; there must be a concomitant shift in mindset. As Timothy Shanahan, past president of the International Reading Association and a professor of urban education and reading put it in an interview with the NYTimes, "I don’t think the solutions are as simple as a report like this might be encouraging folks to think they might be."

There's another important aspect of all this too, and I'm glad Pat Schroeder - president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers - mentioned it in the Boston Globe article on the report. She "said part of the problem could be that adults can make children feel that reading is a duty. A common complaint she hears from children and young adults is that few books relate to their lives or interests." Children (heck, even adults) have to want to read - they should be given every opportunity, lots of options, and the freedom to choose their own books (or blogs, or audio-books, or whatever!) at their own pace, but they should not ever be guilted or forced or cajoled into reading.

I think those of us who do read have a duty here as well, and that is to talk about what we learn, experience, enjoy about the universes we travel to when we read. Share with your friends, in a casual way, what you're reading - ask what they like, and see if there's anything you can recommend. Loan a copy of your favorite novel to a coworker or a classmate if you think they might enjoy it as much as you did ... but then let them read it in their own way.

The sky's not falling, but the stars are realigning, and things will never be the way they were. That doesn't mean we shrug our shoulders and huff about in high dudgeon, it means we get to work and make the best of it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Miller Pleads Guilty

Travis reports that Jay Miller, arrested back in August for the theft of rare books from the estate of retired Harvard professor William Ernest Hocking, has pleaded guilty to "one count of Interstate Transport of Stolen Goods." He'll be sentenced on 8 February, 2008. Travis provides some details on what happens between now and then.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book Review: "Turning Back the Clock"

Umberto Eco's latest translated collection of essays is Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism (Harcourt, 2007). Loosely connected as a reaction to some of the leaders (Bush, Blair and Berlusconi) and events (terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, &c.) of the first years of the present century and the media's involvement in those events, Eco's essays are all thought-provoking and make for fascinating reading, even if all of his conclusions might not be what we want to hear. Some of the selections seem a bit dated or rather parochial (a few deal solely with Italian political campaigns, which while interesting didn't seem timely at this stage), but on the whole this volume is highly relevant. Typically even when Eco's making a point about Italian politics it's perfectly reasonable to extend it to American life, so even if you don't recognize the names, pay attention to the message.

In "Some Reflections on War and Peace," Eco makes the point that a truly global war in this day and age would be utterly disastrous for every culture, while adding that a truly global peace is as unlikely now as it's ever been. Our only hope for any lasting peace, he suggests, is to focus on making local peace and slowly extending it outward. "Enlightenment and Common Sense" is a fascinating look at the legacies of the Enlightenment based around the fundamental assumption of that movement: "there is a reasonable way to reason."

Eco takes on cellphones in "From Play to Carnival" and expresses his concern at what he calls "the joyous renunciation of privacy" so many of us have allowed ourselves to become a part of. I found his views on political correctness rather useful: "Let us stick to the fundamental principle that it is humane and civilized to eliminate from current usage all those words that make our fellow beings suffer" seems a good rule to live by to me. I also quite enjoyed his take on what he sees as Americans' "tacit rules for coexistence," including our extreme patience with waiting in lines and our assumption that everyone's telling the truth (except advertisers).

"Back to the Seventies" was one of my favorite essays included here; in it Eco reacts to what he calls the "dangerous principle" that "Because terrorists exist, anyone who attacks the government is encouraging them." This is "moral blackmail, holding up to civic disapproval all those who express (nonviolent) disagreement with the government." We don't have to look far to see this in practice every day, and I agree wholeheartedly with Eco that it's a terrifically dangerous thing.

Always witty, with some of the best analogies and pithy comments in the business, Eco's pulled off another win with Turning Back the Clock.

Beedle the Bard Photos

In case you've been waiting with bated breath for more information on the newest J.K. Rowling work, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, I can offer up some photographs today, courtesy of The Guardian. Remember, this copy - the only one offered for sale - will go under the hammer at Sotheby's on 13 December, with proceeds going to charity.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Declaration Was Shrewsbury's Copy

The Boston Herald reveals that it was the Shrewsbury Historical Society whose early broadside copy of the Declaration sold big at Skinner on Sunday.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hear John and Abigail's Letters Tonight

This evening (Monday, 19 November) at 7 p.m., there will be a public reading of selected letters from My Dearest Friend, the newly-published collection of John and Abigail Adams correspondence. The event will be at Boston's Faneuil Hall, and will feature Governor and Mrs. Patrick, Senator and Mrs. Kennedy, and former Governor and Mrs. Dukakis as readers. It's free and open to the public, so do join us for what promises to be an exciting time.

The event is co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society and Harvard University Press.

The entire John-Abigail correspondence is also available on the MHS website (here).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Links & Reviews

Sorry this is late - the major biblio-activities in Boston kept me busy this weekend. After the auction this morning I spent the afternoon at the Hynes fair again until closing time. I made my one small purchase (more on which later) and enjoyed some more chatting-time with various dealers and other folks. A pretty exhausting weekend, but a good one for sure.

- The Free Library of Philadelphia's Rare Book Department has mounted an exhibition titled "Wonders of the Invisible World: The Spiritual Life of a Young Nation." The show "traces the growth and development of religion and spirituality in the United States from colonial times through the Civil War using imprints and manuscripts from several of the Rare Book Department's collections, along with significant texts and images from the collections of various other departments throughout the Library." Exhibit hours are 9-5 M-F, and it runs through 28 March, 2008.

- In The Times, Ben Macintyre has an essay on some false etymologies (etymytholgies), including crapper, "rule of thumb" and kangaroo. Very much worth reading.

- Paul Collins notes a Guardian report about the ridiculously low percentages of translated fiction in English-language bookshops. Really sad, actually.

- Michael Lieberman comments on the London Library. Also this week, Michael interviewed Jenny Hamilton, co-owner of Rogue Book Exchange.

- John reports that his Edward Gibbon exhibit at Houghton rated a piece in the Harvard University Gazette; I've still got to get out there and see that - after this week for sure.

- Travis' take on the TransyThieves Vanity Fair debut is here.

- News has finally broken about David McCullough's newest book project: he'll be writing about Americans in Paris.

- Tim fired another salvo in the book-site wars this week, presenting exhaustive evidence of a Shelfari astroturfing campaign (where an employee posts positive comments about the site on other blogs/&c. without disclosing the connection). Shelfari blames this on an overzealous intern.


- Joseph Ellis' American Creation is reviewed by Randy Dotinga in the Christian Science Monitor.

- Kate Mosse's new novel Sepulchre is 'reviewed' by John Crace in the Guardian.

- Over in the Washington Post, Pauline Maier reviews Woody Holton's Unruly Americans.

- John Gray reviews George McKenna's The Puritan Origins of American Puritanism in the Financial Times.

Declaration Sells Big at Skinner

A hush fell over the room at today's Skinner auction in Boston when Lot 11 came up - that was the early Boston-printed Declaration of Independence broadside I mentioned here on Friday. Presale estimates on the broadside were $70,000-90,000, but those quickly fell by the wayside as a flurry of bids from the floor and the phones drove the price up rapidly ... and they kept coming. Most of us were occupied with just looking around trying to see who was bidding in the room, totally dizzied by the numbers we heard.

When the hammer finally fell, the price was $625,000 before premium (Update: Skinner's saying the total was $693,500). The buyer was Seth Kaller, Inc. out of White Plains, NY - before the end of the day the broadside was in their booth at the Hynes fair, marked "sold." I asked who the client was and they told me they'd purchased it for an individual, not an institution. That will, I believe, make this the only known copy of the imprint in private hands [correct me if I'm wrong].

Once the bidding ended most of the spectators clapped, many went up and congratulated Mr. Kaller, and the auctioneer - Stuart Whitehurst - quipped "Okay, let's all go get a drink. We're buying." It was quite a thing to see.

The Boston Herald ran a short piece on the auction today with a bit more background on the selling organization, which is described as "a central Massachusetts historical society." The article notes that the society has owned the broadside since the late 1800s, but felt that due to the risk of theft, it was more a liability than an asset. Whitehurst told the paper "They realized they couldn’t display it because of how expensive it was. So it’s being sold to benefit a trust fund for a historical society. But it was a tough decision for them, I imagine."

Whitehurst bobbled a bit when introducing the item, first saying it was being sold to benefit "the Massachusetts Historical Society," then adding "no, no a Massachusetts historical society, not the Massachusetts Historical Society."

If I find out any more information I'll be sure to pass it along.

Book Weekend Update

My apologies for not posting more regular dispatches from the front this weekend, but better late than never, right?

Things got started on Friday night with the Big Show; we got there just after opening (so we wouldn't have to wait in line) and I was there until close at 9. The crowd was impressive, and for a while it was tricky to browse in some booths. The stock was great, some really interesting little items scattered throughout.

Bill Reese had some of the great New England history high spots and a first edition of The Power of Sympathy, generally considered the "first" American novel (and a bit out of my price range at $10,000); one of the science dealers had a case of fake eyeballs that were quite an attraction. A gorgeous five-volume English translation of Bayle's Dictionary also caught my eye (but again, slightly out of reach). Oh well, it's fun to look.

Friday tends to be the browse/chat night so it was nice to walk around and talk with the dealers and the other fair-goers. I made a small purchase; the Brattle had Barry Moser Bibles for $20 so I grabbed one of those (I gave one as a gift last Christmas and liked it so much I almost couldn't part with it). I've got my eye on a couple other things but we'll see if they're still there this afternoon.

Yesterday morning (Saturday) I headed out to the Radisson show at 9, joining the throng of book dealers waiting to get through the doors when they opened. The space was a little cramped there during the first rush, but I took my time and browsed through pretty carefully. Again, some good things, but also quite a bit of stuff that didn't seem show-worthy. Ian's booth (which he's blogged about, with some pics) looked amazing, and I was glad to have a few minutes to chat with him. A new outfit I'm really impressed by is Robert McDowell Antiquarian Books out of Concord - he had some really neat items.

I had a break for lunch and then headed off to the Hynes again, where I circulated until 2:30 (spending some time with the good folks from the Ticknor Society, discussing career-related-things with Terry Belanger from Rare Book School and doing a bit more browsing). From 2:30-5 I manned the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section table over in Cultural Row, answering questions and distributing pamphlets.

Today it's off to the Skinner sale in a little while to watch the first few lots sell, then I'll go back to the fair for the afternoon. Tim and Abby from LT are going to be there today so I'll try to run into them and finish up the visiting (and we'll see if the books I've been watching are still there waiting for me).

You've still got time to hit the fair - 12-5 today, so come by and enjoy the atmosphere. I'll do a full wrap later and finish up this weekend's links and reviews.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Skinner Sale Highlights

A few of the many interesting pieces from Sunday's auction at Skinner Galleries in Boston:

- Lot 11: An early broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence. Boston: Printed by John Gill, and Powars and Willis, in Queen-Street (believed to have been printed around 12-16 July 1776). Very few copies of this broadside exist (one bibliography lists just three, although there are apparently at least four, since I've confirmed this is not one of the three). Estimate: $70,000-90,000.

- Lot 20: A letter from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney (Ambassador to Great Britain), informing the latter of Jefferson's resignation as Secretary of State. Philadelphia, 3 January, 1794. Written four days after Jefferson had informed President Washington of his decision to resign. Estimate: $70,000-100,000.

- Lot 51: A much-damaged page from the diary of Dr. /Major General Joseph Warren, dated 24 January, 1771. The page lists Warren's medical appointments for the day. Estimate: $1,500-2,000.

- Lot 336: Second edition of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (London: W. Tatlor, 1719). Estimate: $2,000-4,000.

- Lot 519: A complete collection of eleven Thoreau first editions. Estimate: $18,000-25,000.

Many other goodies too - I might have to swing by for part of the sale.

Spain's Foreign Ministry Library Hit by Thefts

Hot on the heels of the recent thefts at Madrid's Biblioteca Nacional comes word this week that the library of Spain's Foreign Ministry has also been targeted by thieves in recent years. A recent inventory revealed that nearly 300 "highly valued" books are missing from the collections of the library, which is open only to scholars or specialist researchers. "Among the missing items are several maps from the late 16th century, a number of large-format books, as well as a valuable collection of 18th-century maps of the coastline of northern Europe."

Most of the losses are believed to have occurred within the last four years. "Police sources say that thieves have taken advantage of poor security at the 17th-century Ministry building in Madrid that houses the collection," and authorities are investigating possible insider involvement: "One hypothesis being explored is that a Ministry employee has taken advantage of the poor security in the building to systematically steal books to sell them on the black market."

[h/t Everett Wilkie, ExLibris]

RCP's Linneaus Makes £180,500

Back on 2 November I noted the impending sale of the Edinburgh Royal College of Physicians' copy of Linnaeus' Systema Naturae; the auction took place on Wednesday, and the book fetched £180,500 (not quite reaching the high estimate of £200,000).

The Scotsman reports that the buyer was not identified.

On the Trail of a Lost Manuscript

This is a literary all points bulletin.

The Hampstead & Highgate Express reports on one man's search for a lost manuscript, an unpublished work about artist Robert Seymour, who is best known for illustrating several serial installments of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers. The 350-page document by Rowland Morewood was last mentioned in a 1927 magazine article. It was then known to be housed in a deedbox.

Stephen Jarvis, in the process of writing a biography of Seymour, says of the missing work "I have little doubt that overall this is the most important archive of material relating to Seymour in the world. I have been trying to track it down for about two years now. The deedbox really is the Holy Grail for my research."

This seems a terrific longshot, but I suppose it's possible that this document has survived out there somewhere. If you know of it, I suspect Mr. Jarvis would be eternally grateful if you'd contact him. His email address is at the end of the article.

[h/t: Shelf:Life]

[Update: See Mr. Jarvis' comment below, which is important.]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Boston Biblio-Weekend

It's that time again ... big book-doings around Boston this weekend.

The Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair (ABAA) runs 5-9 p.m. on Friday night, noon-7 p.m. on Saturday and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday, at the Hynes Convention Center. A few highlights have been posted here. Even beyond the impressive exhibitor list there will be a few seminars and tables from some other book-related organizations. I'll be manning the RBMS table on Saturday afternoon, and will be roaming around the fair on Friday night and Sunday.

But that's just the beginning. Over at the Radisson the Boston Books, Print & Ephemera Show will run from 9-4 on Saturday; I'll probably stop in there before the ABAA fair opens that day.

And Skinner's annual Fine Books & Manuscripts Sale kicks off on Sunday at 11 a.m. More on that at some point today or tomorrow, I'll preview some of the interesting lots.

It promises to be a fun, exciting weekend of book and book people (and as of right now, it doesn't even look like it's going to rain or snow).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Christie's Pulls Letters from Auction

Bloomberg notes that Christie's has "removed two lots from its Nov. 29 London auction of Russian books and manuscripts after a cultural watchdog agency said they were stolen from the Russian State Military Archives in Moscow." One of the lots included forty letters signed by Marshall Georgi Zhukov, a top Soviet commander in WWII; the letters had been estimated to sell for up to $16,000.

The Federal Agency for Mass Media and Cultural Heritage Protection (RosokhranKultura) asked Christie's to remove the two lots, and the auction house responded "Christie's will not sell any work of art that we know or have reason to believe does not have good title. In regard to the items in question, Christie's is cooperating fully with Russian authorities."

More on this story as necessary.

[h/t Shelf:Life]

BPL Having a Rough Week

Whoever's in charge of PR at the Boston Public Library is undoubtedly having a not-very-fun week at work.

On Monday night, Boston's CBS affiliate broadcast this report (video available at the link) on violence in and around the BPL's main branch at Copley Square. They note that for the past three years, police calls to the area have averaged 270 annually, and the story features some police reports of items being stolen inside the library, people fighting or refusing to leave, &c. "The library prides itself on being a true public building open to all. It's a sad sign of the times, but more and more homeless people are finding it to be their last refuge during the day," correspondent Joe Shortsleeves said in the broadcast ... The mission of a treasured landmark is getting lost."

Kathy LaFrazia, the director of St. Francis House - one of the only daytime homeless shelters in Boston - said "These are people that doors are shut to them constantly, and they stay few minutes at a McDonalds but they are moved along, moved along. People get desperate, people get angry." Of course people need a place to go during the day, where they can be warm and safe and left alone. Should that place be the Boston Public Library? In most cases, probably not. There's a much larger issue here that does not involve adding more security at the BPL, or excluding people, but providing adequate space for people who need it.

This story clearly wasn't handled well by the BPL (whether that's their fault or the t.v. station's is unclear). No library official appears on camera in the piece, only a man identified as "an employee," who commented "It's a big concern. Loitering and people hanging out. Run of the mill disruptive behavior sometimes." Mayor Menino told Shortsleeves that the issue has never before been brought to his attention (which, if true, is absolutely unbelievable).

The timing of the story was most interesting, as it came just hours before the library's board of trustees met and voted 7-2 not to renew the contract of BPL president Bernie Margolis. Margolis is not going to go quietly; in a front-page Globe interview today he lambastes Menino for interfering with library operations and not providing adequate funding for library operations. He accused the mayor of running Boston as an "authoritarian state," telling the paper "I didn't think this was Venezuela."

Menino responded by saying "I'm not getting involved in 'he said, she said,'" but his chief of staff, Judith Kurland, fired right back at Margolis. "It's hubris and entitlement, thinking that he owns the job. Nobody owns the job," she told the paper.

Margolis accused the mayor's administration of neglecting services at the city's branch libraries, including a rejecting of a plan to have the branches open on Saturdays in an attempt to help combat youth violence. At a meeting about the proposal earlier this year, Margolis says, the mayor "'dismissed it in the 'the most casual, offhanded way,' saying, 'Oh, those kids just want to be at the beach.'" Ironically, aides to the mayor have made the same charge against Margolis, that he's been "fixated" on the Copley Square facility while neglecting the branches.

I can't speak to the branch libraries, but if the current state of the Copley Square branch is what ten years of "fixation" has resulted in, I'm really worried about the state of things. I barely even use the BPL anymore because service and facilities are so poor - photocopiers are rarely working, the books I request from the closed stacks often cannot be found, and the place really is pretty grungy. Margolis says Menino didn't like that he went around telling people that the library doesn't have enough money, but anyone who walks through the doors ought to be able to see that's the case.

The Globe story reports that while library use has been up in recent years, the budget has increased just .26% per year since 2000, and full-time staff positions have been cut from 603 in 2002 to 483 in 2007.

Anybody who's crazy enough to take Margolis' job is obviously going to have some major issues to deal with, and they're definitely going to have to be tough enough to stand up to Menino's administration in an effective way and push for increased funding at attention at all levels. The BPL's collections and facilities are a crumbling treasure, and something must be done soon, before it's too late.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wuthering Heights Soars at Auction

A first edition of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights sold for £114,000 (including tax and premium) at Bonhams yesterday, fetching more than twice the presale estimate. The winning bidder was book dealer Robert Kirkman, "on behalf of a an unnamed British client who is a keen collector of Brontë works."

The book - one of just three copies of the first edition at auction in the last thirty years - had been in the previous owner's family for four generations.

Wuthering Heights was first published in three volumes at London by Thomas Cautley Newby in 1847. Brontë's pseudonym, Ellis Bell, appears on the title page.

Spain Map Thefts Update

The AP reported yesterday that ten of the fifteen maps stolen from Spain's Biblioteca Nacional this summer have been returned to the library's control. Eight of the maps were found in Buenos Aires with the accused thief, César Gómez Rivero. Two others were recovered from the United States. An eleventh map, now in Australia, will be returned once a thirty-day authorization period passes. Four additional maps - at least - remain unaccounted for.

New library director Milagros del Corral announced this week that a "major audit" of the collections will begin in January. "I can't discount that we'll find more unpleasant surprises," he said, adding that the last such audit was in 1988.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Brattlers Beware

If you've got some money burning a hole in your pocket (or if, in my case, you wish you did), this is a good week to stop by Boston's venerable Brattle Book Shop, since their third-floor (i.e. rarer) stock is 50% off through Friday (when the Boston Book Fair starts at 5 p.m. - and yes, the excitement is already mounting). I visited this morning and found a few goodies, including a 1766 Charles Bathurst printing of Jonathan Swift's Tale of a Tub and Battle of the Books, as well as a very nice 1808 four-volume edition of The Works of Laurence Sterne. My other acquisitions were A.S.W. Rosenbach's bibliomystery collection The Unpublishable Memoirs and G.H. Powell's Excursions in Libraria.

They're my reward for finishing the thesis draft. Yeah, that's it.

Transylvania Thieves Talk

Delano Massey reports in today's Lexington Herald-Leader that three of the four "men" convicted of assaulting a librarian and stealing rare books from Transylvania University three years ago have been interviewed for a December Vanity Fair article, "Majoring in Crime." That article isn't available online, but Massey provides a summary and some very noteworthy outside comments.

Eric Borsuk, Warren Lipka and Spencer Reinhard, all serving seven-year sentences at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, KY agreed to be interviewed; Charles Allen did not. A lawyer for Borsuk said he had advised his client not to talk to reporters, at least until after a scheduled appeal before the 6th Circuit (the men are trying to get their sentences reduced). Fred Peters told Massey "if he [Borsuk] did grant them an interview, it would be against my objection. He shouldn't do anything until the appeal is over. A judge could see the story and make a different ruling." He added that he "can't imagine it helping" Borsuk's case.

But the interviews were granted, and I hope the judge reads the resulting article: Massey reports that the thugs "express no regret for the crime, except for harming [B.J.] Gooch, the librarian." Gooch was stunned, blindfolded and "hogtied" while the thieves snatched rare books, including volumes of Audubon's Birds of America. A spokesperson for the university said she was interested to read the article, and that she is "concerned about inaccuracies and embellishments."

The scheme, which Massey describes as "hatched in a haze of marijuana smoke, with inspiration from popular heist flicks" was motivated by "a desire to escape the 'mundane, nickel-and-dime existence' of suburbia," according to one of the felons. Borsuk tells Falk if they'd pulled it off [a ludicrous idea, really], "they would have lived a 'crazy life thinking we were Ocean's 11 types.'" Lipka adds "In a few years we'll be released. We'll all be ... still young. We will be stronger, better, wiser for going through this together, the three of us. Before, in college, growing up, we were being funneled into this mundane, nickel-and-dime existence. Now we can't ever go back there. Even if we wanted to, they won't let us."

These guys are doing their level best to glamorize their story and make themselves into some kind of counter-cultural super-thieves. How long do you think it'll be before the movie deal's announced? Ridiculous. Here it is, simply put: these are four small-time suburbanite potheads who violently assaulted a librarian and stole major cultural treasures. That's nothing to be proud of. I do hope the judges who hear their appeal read both Massey's and Falk's articles, because it's clear to me that these twerps need every minute of jail time they can get.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Links & Reviews

[Breaks radio silence]

I've emerged, after just about two full days of writing. The full thesis draft and appendices are all done, and I'm pretty (okay, really) sick of looking at the computer so as soon as I'm finished with this post I'm going to go sit and read for a while.

- Travis comments on the Rebecca Streeter-Chen sentence: "... [L]leaving this serious crime in the hands of Rockland County was clearly a mistake. Unless absolutely forced into it by statute, there seems to be a pathetic unwillingness on the part of the judiciary to take these crimes seriously. Does anyone think that if she stole $60,000 dollars in cash from the historical society she’d have gotten probation?"

- The NYPost reports today on a recent fairly imaginative marriage proposal at New York's Strand Bookstore.

- John Overholt announced the opening of a new exhibit at the Houghton Library, "Edward Gibbon: The Luminous Historian." That runs through 22 December, which means I've still got some time to get out there and see it. John's included a few highlights in his post.

- Over at Reading Archives, Richard Cox has comments on two recent books, Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present: Historical and Bibliographic Studies (here) and Putting ‘America’ on the Map: The Story of the Most Important Graphic Document in the History of the United States (here).

- Tim points out a scholarly take on LibraryThing tagging, Tiffany Smith's Cataloging and You: Measuring the Efficacy of a Folksonomy for Subject Analysis [doc]. Also on the LT front this week, Tim fired a book-site-war-broadside with a blistering compilation of blog-posts excoriating Shelfari for its nasty spamming campaign.

- Over at Paper Cuts, Dwight Garners features Bizarre Books, an anthology of books with unlikely titles. Very amusing.

- Texas A&M University has acquired a copy of George Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio (1844), in honor of alumnus Dr. Mavis Kelsey.

- BibliOdyssey's got some natural history and maritime illustrations from the diary of Carl Johan Gethe, a cartographer for the Swedish East India Company (1746-1749).


- For the NYTimes, Richard Brookhiser reviews Christopher Hitchens' Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man': A Biography.

- Also in the Times, Jon Meacham examines Joe Ellis' American Creation. Ellis was on NPR this week to discuss the new book; you can listen here.

- Over in the Philly Inq, Steve Weinberg reviews Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Brief Blackout

I'm entering radio silence this morning to write the final chapter of my thesis; I hope to emerge (unscathed) sometime tomorrow, and will resume regularly-scheduled programming then. The good news is, it'll be a fun chapter to write (it's about 19th-century marginalia in library books). So wish me luck, and I'll see you on the flip side.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Eskander at the BPL

Dr. Saad Eskander, the head of Iraq's National Library, spoke at the Boston Public Library last night as part of a two-week American tour. Much of his discussion, "Rising From the Ashes: The Story of the Iraq National Library and Archive," is covered in David Mehegan's excellent Boston Globe article and follow-up post, but I did want to add a few of my own impressions. Eskander struck me as one of the most down-to-earth, humble and pleasant people I've ever met, and it was incredibly inspiring to hear what he and his staff have accomplished given the ongoing turmoil in the area around the library and the constant threats they continue to face.

Eskander began his talk by providing a short history of the National Library as it existed under Saddam's regime: he noted that official censorship meant that the collections were very conservative, and that the "destruction of cultural heritage" began during Saddam's rule as Baathists plundered the library to smuggle rare books and other items out of the country. He reported that in the pre-war years, all air-handling/ventilation systems were removed from the library building, and that librarians were being paid the equivalent of $6-7 per month (which led to rampant corruption and bribery).

After showing some cringe-inducing pictures of the library after the looting occurred in April of 2003, Eskander made clear that he rejects the theory that American forces intentionally allowed the library to be destroyed, but that they did allow it to happen and should be held responsible for the losses (60% of the archival material, 90% of the rare books, nearly all of the photographs and microfilm collections) caused by looters, thieves, and arsonists.

The major portion of the speech centered on the changes to the library that Eskander has engineered since 2003. He spoke of the new staff (an ethnically, religiously diverse group from across Iraq), new procedures and new technological equipment and systems that they've been able to put in place, including a conservation lab, a microfilm room (both funded by the Czech government) and an IT department (funded by the Italian and Japanese governments). He continued by discussing plans for expanding the archives and creating a Library of Pioneers, which he said would be designed "to create a common cultural identity for all Iraqis." A cooperative digital library project is in the works with the Library of Congress.

Eskander concluded by noting some of the continued challenges, which he said include excessive bureaucracy and widespread corruption at the Culture, Planning and Finance ministries. To combat this and increase the authority of the library's director, he's attempting to
remove the institution from the purview of the Ministry of Culture and link it directly to either the executive or to the parliament. He said the legislation governing archives in Iraq needs to be liberalized to reflect the shift from authoritarianism to democracy, and that the library requires funding to expand and modernize services. A major continuing dilemma, he said, is that coalition forces removed massive amounts of government archives from Iraq during the invasion and have transferred those to America; Eskander stressed that these documents are necessary for Iraqis to study and learn about the old regime so that they can move on and embrace the future.
Following his formal discussion, Eskander patiently answered questions for almost 45 minutes. He had to keep repeating the point that it is vital for the library to be open and available, saying that it remains necessary to make clear "We are here, we're working, and it's important to resist the attempt ... to paralyze life in Baghdad." Asked what the contingency plan was for if the library is attacked again, he noted that they are targeted in some way nearly every day, and that he has taken steps to hire as many 24/7 guards as he can to protect the collections and keep the building secure. Nonetheless, he said, the danger keeps many patrons away - right now the average number of visitors hovers around 400 per month.

Explaining the success of his efforts to have an integrated and diverse staff, Eskander praised his workers and noted "the problem is not at the bottom, it's at the top," adding that leaders of the major religious parties see it as their advantage to "motivate hate for their own ends."

The question that I'm sure most people had - about Eskander's view of whether American forces should be withdrawn from Iraq - wasn't asked until the end, and he prefaced his answer by saying that many in the crowd probably would not agree with it. He said that he has no doubt that the withdrawal of American troops would increase instability in Iraq: "You cannot just leave Iraq after you make a mess." He added that the first people to be targeted after an American pullout would be the liberals and secular leaders, and said that the country must be made more stable and the armed forces made strong enough to protect its institutions before a full pullout could occur. No one likes to see an occupying power in their cities, he said, calling himself "not unpatriotic, just realistic," but he fears that the loss of American protection could easily prove disastrous for the progress that has been made.

A fascinating discussion by a man who is I think one of the greatest unsung heroes of our time.

Streeter-Chen Wrist-Slapped

Rebecca Streeter-Chen, a former curator who stole an 1823 Tanner atlas from the Rockland Historical Society and then attempted to sell it, was sentenced yesterday to five years' probation and 24 weekends of community service with the county Sheriff's Department, Steve Lieberman reports for the Journal News.

County court judge Victor Alfieri rejected prosecutors' requests for a 1-3 year prison term when Streeter-Chen pleaded guilty, saying in August that he was inclined to sentence Streeter-Chen to six months in jail plus supervised probation. But yesterday he didn't even go that far, accepting calls for leniency from Streeter-Chen's lawyers who said that Ms. Streeter-Chen was "the mainstay of the family" and "needed at home to raise and support two children."

I'm sorry, but in my view she really should have thought about that before she stole the atlas. Life is choices, and Ms. Streeter-Chen chose to steal that atlas, she chose to try and sell it, and she chose to put her children at risk by doing so. Probation combined with 48 days of trash-pickup (or whatever onerous community service she gets assigned) is simply not a serious punishment for the theft of a rare book. Utterly absurd.

But hey, what else is new?

I'm sure Travis will weigh in on the sentence over at Upward Departure today, so do check in to see what he thinks of it. I'll post the link when it's up. Hopefully he'll renew his call for cases like this to be handled at the federal level, as this one clearly should have been.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

NARA IG Investigating Major Security Breaches at Reagan Library

The LATimes reports that National Archives Inspector General Paul Brachfeld has opened an investigation into allegations that a former employee stole artifacts from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Brachfeld told the paper that his efforts have been stymied by a record-keeping failure, what he called a "near universal security breakdown."

A former archivist at the Reagan Library was reportedly fired about six months ago for stealing items from the collections; an audit of the collections by the IG's office was begun at that time, and revealed that "the library was unable to properly account for more than 80,000 artifacts out of its collection of some 100,000 such items, and 'may have experienced loss or pilferage the scope of which will likely never be known.'" The report blamed management lapses and poor storage practices, which included "artworks stacked on top of one another, and sculptures and vases unwrapped and lying on their sides on open shelves - in an area prone to earthquakes."

Once again, it's clear that at least some of the problems here are caused by insufficient funding and staffing - the fact that volunteers had to be called in to help catalog artifacts after the problem emerged should be a major clue that more resources should be allocated to these facilities.

More on this as it comes in. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of it.

Grants, Acquisitions &c.

- The Archives and Rare Books Library at the University of Cincinnati has received a $200,000 grant from the Marge and Charles J. Schott Foundation. The funds will be used for "facility and furnishing upgrades."

- The University of Calgary has purchased a collection of four early texts of Biblical scholarship by Nicholas of Lyra, which the university librarian called "probably the most famous early comment on the Bible." The library paid $45,000 for the collection.

- Hamilton College was awarded the Outstanding Project for 2007 prize from the Communal Societies Association for its "digitization of the Shaker periodical, variously titled The Shaker, Shaker and Shakeress, The Shaker Manifesto and The Manifesto. This publication ran from 1871 until 1899 and shared religious and political opinions between Shaker communities from Maine to Kentucky."

- An 8-centimeter fragment of a parchment Bible, the "1087-year-old Aleppo Codex[,] will be given to a representative of the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem on Thursday, following 18 years during which Israeli scholars tried to retrieve it from businessman Sam Sabbagh," Haaretz reports. The small fragment was saved from a burning synagogue in 1947. Much more background on the text at the linked article.

- British fashion mogul Tom Tar Singh has donated 'to the Indian nation' a collection of Gandhi letters he purchased at Sotheby's earlier this year (for more than $90,000). The transfer was made on Monday "
at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), which became [the collection's] official recipients. The manuscripts, which include a series of articles, postcards and letters by Gandhi, were received by Dr Karan Singh, Chairman of the Executive Council, NMML."

- Two leather-bound photo albums showing art looted by the Nazis as they ravaged Europe during the early years of World War II have been given to the U.S. National Archives. The albums "
contain photos from which Hitler and his curators could choose art for the Fuhrer's art museum in Linz." Archivist of the United States Alan Weinstein said the albums could help researchers locate looted works of art which are still missing. They "were found in the attic of the heirs of a US soldier who was stationed in the Berchtesgarden area of Germany at the end of the war in 1945," and were donated to the Archives by Robert Edsel, president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art.

UH Library Damaged (Again)

Three years after a major flood, the University of Hawaii's Hamilton Library is dealing with more water damage after heavy rains last weekend. The library's roof, which is scheduled to be replaced next summer, began leaking in several places, so librarians had to move many books off the third floor. "'Our main concern was to get the books out of the area with all the water. You have high humidity, any moisture, all the books are just going to suck it up,' conservation technician Kyle Hamada said."

"Buckets sit on shelves where books used to be in an area where librarians keep the expensive and rare books. ... While initially staffers thought the problem was limited to one area, more leaks developed as the days wore on. Workers could not keep up. Large plastic canopies cover much of the shelves and make shiftdrains are helping to collect the water."

For the moment, the evacuated books have been taken to a cold storage unit to combat mold growth.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Book Review: "Quicksilver"

Sprawling. Epic. Doorstop. Clocking in at 927 pages, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (Morrow, 2003) is hardly for the faint of heart or weak in wrist. Especially as it's just the first volume of a trilogy in which the succeeding books are nearly as hefty themselves. It is a vastly complicated tale with what must be hundreds (but seems like millions) of characters - some historical, some entirely made up. Of course each character going by several different names at various points doesn't help much.

For all its dense vastness and complexities (and interminable length), Quicksilver is a fascinating and engaging work. The intertwined narratives are well told, and somehow Stephenson is able to keep everything and everybody straight even if we readers may get temporarily lost along the way. The book blends history and fiction quite nicely, providing bold descriptions of England during the Restoration and Glorious Revolution periods, the formation and early years of the Royal Society, and the political, scientific and religious intrigues of seventeenth-century Europe. Sure, there's some literary license, but hey, that's what historical fiction is for.

The characters range from the peripatetic pirate Jack Shaftoe (to whom Disney's Jack Sparrow bears a remarkable and uncanny resemblance at times) to Benjamin Waterhouse (courtier, natural philosopher, Puritan), Robert Hooke, Newton and Leibniz, William of Orange
and far, far beyond.

If you've got a spare month (in fact it took me rather a lot longer than that to read this, since I went through it just a couple chapters at a time before going to sleep at night), and if you enjoy a complicated story well told, I highly recommend suspending your disbelief and hefting Quicksilver onto your lap.

Chile Returns Library Books

The AP reports that Chile has returned 3,778 books its forces stole from Peru's national library ... in 1881. "The volumes, written in Greek, Latin, French and Spanish, some with full-page colonial-era maps, dated from the 16th to 19th centuries. Chile shipped the books, most in excellent condition, to Peru this week via DHL ..."

Chile's national director of libraries, archives and museums, Nivia Palma, called the action a "concrete expression of our deep commitment to building a relationship of brotherhood and cooperation between our countries."

The books were taken after the capture of Lima by Chilean forces during the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific.

Just for fun: if Peru's national library charged 10 cents a day for a late book, I think that works out to ... $17,375,022 (not taking inflation or currency into account).

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Very Bad Idea

The Guardian reported yesterday that libraries in Essex, Somerset, Bromley, Leeds and Southend will begin inserting advertising fliers into books checked out by patrons. "The plan is being run by the direct marketing company Jackson Howse, whose business development director Mark Jackson said the company was 'very proud' of what he described as 'a brand new channel' for direct marketing."

Gag. If this is the best idea library managers could come up with to raise extra money, they'd better find another line of work.

Jackson told the paper that if 300,000 adverts were inserted per month, a library could expect to receive about £10,000 revenue.

Guy Daines, director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals "said that such a scheme should be operated with 'caution' and suggested there would be 'numerous practical difficulties, perhaps the most important of which is that a high percentage of people would find it off-putting.'" Daines added "'Like any other public sector institution finding a new stream of income is incredibly important.' However, he claims, there is a risk that advertising could put libraries' place in the community at risk. 'Free access and impartiality are at the core of what libraries do,' he said, 'so any kind of scheme which seems to compromise that position of impartiality and trust has to be looked at very carefully.'"

As someone who doesn't particularly enjoy having anything inserted into the books I buy or check out of the library (anybody need a gigantic stash of unwanted bookmarks?), this proposal is irksome to say the least. We are all exposed to far too much latent advertising as it is, and we certainly don't need more direct exposure to adverts in any form, let alone staring at us from across the "date due" stamp.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Grafton on Digitization

Biblio-historian Anthony Grafton has an essay on digitization in the New Yorker which is today's required reading. I think he's got it just about right:

"Google’s projects, together with rival initiatives by Microsoft and Amazon, have elicited millenarian prophecies about the possibilities of digitized knowledge and the end of the book as we know it. ... Others have evoked even more utopian prospects, such as a universal archive that will contain not only all books and articles but all documents anywhere—the basis for a total history of the human race.

In fact, the Internet will not bring us a universal library, much less an encyclopedic record of human experience. None of the firms now engaged in digitization projects claim that it will create anything of the kind. The hype and rhetoric make it hard to grasp what Google and Microsoft and their partner libraries are actually doing. We have clearly reached a new point in the history of text production. On many fronts, traditional periodicals and books are making way for blogs and other electronic formats. But magazines and books still sell a lot of copies. The rush to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical moments in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up but in one in a long series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive."

Grafton provides a short history of 'information management', beginning with Mesopotamian tablet-cataloging and the Alexandrian scroll-copiers before discussing the changes wrought by the arrival of print technologies and those that have arrived since. He succinctly and accurately describes the shortcomings of all the current book digitization efforts - Google, Microsoft, Amazon, &c. - and also covers something that most who write on digitization leave out entirely: the place for non-Western books and collections in the grand plan. Grafton notes "Sixty million Britons have a hundred and sixteen million public-library books at their disposal, while more than 1.1 billion Indians have only thirty-six million. Poverty, in other words, is embodied in lack of print as well as in lack of food. The Internet will do much to redress this imbalance, by providing Western books for non-Western readers. What it will do for non-Western books is less clear."

Grafton calls the idea of a universal archive "distant." I'd go a step further and call it utterly ludicrous. "ArchivesUSA, a Web-based guide to American archives, lists five and a half thousand repositories and more than a hundred and sixty thousand collections of primary source material. The U.S. National Archives alone contain some nine billion items. It’s not likely that we’ll see the whole archives of the United States or any other developed nation online in the immediate future - much less those of poorer nations."

"The supposed universal library, then, will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money. The real challenge now is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating. Over time, as more of this material emerges from copyright protection, we’ll be able to learn things about our culture that we could never have known previously. Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible, but a great deal of older material may never coalesce into a single database. Neither Google nor anyone else will fuse the proprietary databases of early books and the local systems created by individual archives into one accessible store of information. Though the distant past will be more available, in a technical sense, than ever before, once it is captured and preserved as a vast, disjointed mosaic it may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention."

Grafton concludes on precisely the right note, in my admittedly biased view: "And yet we will still need our libraries and archives. ... Original documents reward us for taking the trouble to find them by telling us things that no image can. Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar - which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them - he could trace the history of disease outbreaks. Historians of the book - a new and growing tribe - read books as scouts read trails. Bindings, usually custom-made in the early centuries of printing, can tell you who owned them and what level of society they belonged to. Marginal annotations, which abounded in the centuries when readers usually went through books with pen in hand, identify the often surprising messages that individuals have found as they read. ...

For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. No one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen. But if you want to know what one of Coleridge’s annotated books or an early “Spider-Man” comic really looks and feels like, or if you just want to read one of those millions of books which are being digitized, you still have to do it the old way, and you will have to for decades to come. ... If you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will have to take the narrower path that leads between the lions and up the stairs. There - as in great libraries around the world - you’ll use all the new sources, the library’s and those it buys from others, all the time. ... [T]hese streams of data, rich as they are, will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books."

Illuminate, rather than eliminate. I like it.