Sunday, May 31, 2015

Links & Reviews

- A 1634 Rembrandt etching and an Albrecht Dürer engraving ("Adam and Eve," from 1504) from the collections of the Boston Public Library were reported missing to police on 29 April after their absence was discovered earlier in the month, according to media reports on 19 May. The FBI was consulted, and Boston mayor Martin Walsh called for a full audit of the library's collections. On 21 May the Boston Globe ran a long piece by Malcolm Gay on the importances of balancing access and security to library collections, featuring comments by Travis McDade, and word broke that Susan L. Glover, Keeper of Special Collections at the BPL, was placed on paid administrative leave on 20 April, even before the thefts were reported to police. In an interview with the Boston Herald, former BPL print curator Sinclair Hitchings blasted the library's security policies, and the Boston Globe reported on 26 May that an city-commissioned audit revealed major problems with collections storage and security. And more shoes continue to drop: on 28 May the Herald reported that another former BPL employee emailed city officials and said that gold coins once placed in the original library cornerstone were missing from the library's collections (but to be fair, they have apparently been gone for decades) and that the library had accidentally deaccessioned a copy of an 1800 political pamphlet for a Friends group book sale. An emergency meeting of the Library's board of trustees to deal with the ongoing turmoil has been scheduled for 3 June.

- Beinecke Curator Raymond Clemens writes about the prayer book read and annotated by Thomas More during his imprisonment in the Tower of London (and now at the Beinecke).

- University of Michigan archivists have found fragments of an unpublished autobiography of Orson Welles amongst papers purchased recently from Welles' companion Oja Kodar.

- The AAS has launched a new online exhibition: Louis Prang and Chromolithography.

- English professor Joseph Bristow talked to UCLA Newsroom about his recent book Oscar Wilde's Chatterton.

- The results of the University of Buckingham's Drood Inquiry, which prompted 15,000 user submissions, have been revealed.

- You can now listen to Michael Suarez's 2015 Lyell Lectures as podcasts.

- Smithsonian reports on recent analysis of the 1491 Martellus map in the collections of Yale's Beinecke Library.

- Via Mitch Fraas: Penn has digitized Mathew Carey's diary for 1822–26.

- A proof copy of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar will be sold at Bonhams on 24 June.

- Google has unveiled a new font family for Google Play Books, which they're calling Literata.

- David McCullough is featured in the NYTimes "By the Book" column.

- At Collectors Weekly, Ben Marks reports on a good book sale find: an 1845 Philadelphia edition of the Pentateuch published by Isaac Lesser.

- Writing for the Telegraph, Hannah Furness covers a talk by British Library director Rory Keating about the future of libraries.

- Alice Schreyer joins the Newberry Library as the Roger and Julia Baskes Vice President for Collections and Library Services on 24 August.

- Over at Rare Books Digest, "Rare Book Market - An Anatomical Exercitation through the Generations."

- Because it made the rounds, I will briefly note the utterly ridiculous coverage of the supposed discovery of a portrait of Shakespeare on the title page of John Gerard's Herball. To quote Professor Michael Dobson from the Telegraph piece on this, however, "it's hallucination." John Overholt, in Medium, has written the only piece you need to read on this topic, frankly.


- Neal Stephenson's Seveneves; reviews by Scott F. Andrews in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Douglas Wolk in the LATimes, and Charles Yu in the NYTimes.

- Matthew Pearl's The Last Bookaneer; review by John Vernon in the NYTimes.

- Steven Inskeep's Jacksonland; review by David Treuer in the WaPo.

- Andrea Mays' The Millionaire and the Bard; review by Stephen Greenblatt in the NYTimes.

- Akhil Reid Amar's The Law of the Land; review by Stephen Wermiel in the WaPo.

- Thomas Kunkel's Man in Profile; review by Blake Bailey in the NYTimes.

- Philip and Carol Zaleskis' The Fellowship; reviews by Elizabeth Hand in the LATimes and Laura Miller in Salon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review: "BiblioTech"

John Palfrey's BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books, 2015) offers a timely and heartfelt examination of the library world as it is, as well as a series of steps he suggests will ensure that libraries will remain vital parts of the American community well into the future.

I wish one more word appeared in the subtitle: "Public." Because by and large the libraries Palfrey discusses in this book are the community-based public libraries that populate large cities and small towns throughout America, like the one I walked to many days after school (where I learned about the magical mysteries of interlibrary loan, where I first used the Internet, and where I came to appreciate the absolutely essential role that a good librarian can play in shaping lifelong habits and interests). These, it must be noted at the outset, are for the most part the libraries Palfrey refers to. At least, I hope they are, since at least some of his recommendations would be severely out of place if applied to most libraries at schools, colleges, and universities, not to mention independent research libraries, archives, and historical societies.

Such shorthanding can be partially understood if we take Palfrey at his word that this book is targeted not at librarians, but at "those who do not work in libraries and who should be taking a greater interest in the fate of these essential knowledge institutions on which we rely more than we seem to realize" (p. 17). I do wish, though, that he had explicitly made the point somewhere in the book, since I fear that Palfrey's message could be easily misapplied by well-meaning but unwise administrators or oversight boards, with potentially dramatic and drastic consequences for the types of libraries to which Palfrey's (over)generalizations simply aren't germane. The needs of the scholarly community at a major research university are vastly different from the needs of the patrons of the Jamaica Plan branch of the Boston Public Library; what is good medicine for the one might well poison the other, or vice versa. If Palfrey sees his prescriptions as universal (which I'm not suggesting he does, but wish that he'd made clear), then there are places where he's just flat-out gotten it wrong. So let's give him the benefit of the doubt, and from here on I will focus to the extent possible on his recommendations in the context of their application to public libraries—recognizing that there are vast differences between those as well.

Palfrey is correct to say that public libraries today will not be able to survive by coasting along on a wave of nostalgia, offering rooms full of Nora Roberts paperbacks, back issues of Popular Science, copies of the 1040 tax form, and a few computer terminals (my examples, not his). All those things can be had elsewhere, probably in more comfortable surroundings. He is also correct that increased regional cooperation, libraries as a "network of stewards" (p. 33), is going to be very important, as is an increased focus on providing digital access to books and other resources. It is true that librarians cannot simply throw up their hands and ignore the trends in publishing and book distribution, nor should they stand by silently (or even quietly) and allow a few powerful companies to come in and control the way people read, or the way libraries handle their own data.

He is also entirely right to call for increased funding, both from governments at every level and from private foundations, to support the important work that public libraries do, from providing a bridge across the "digital divide," offering spaces for civic engagement, educational services, community activities (but also for quiet contemplation), as well as (and still most importantly in my view) being access points for information. Obviously, too, innovative and imaginative programming for children and adults is a must.

Much of what Palfrey calls for is commonsensical and perfectly reasonable. As the founding director of the Digital Public Library of America, it makes sense that he mentions that organization's laudable mission every chance he gets (it's not the only thing he repeats several times throughout the book). He makes it difficult to argue with the idea that more R&D in libraries would be a good thing for the future of the library (it would!) and that librarians should be thinking creatively and frequently about how the ultimate mission of their institution can be pushed forward.

But there are some areas where I take strong issue with Palfrey. He writes, "Libraries must continue to make the shift toward the digital and away from print. The shift should not be overnight, but it should be made steadily and with great care. Libraries can and should de-accession physical materials much more aggressively than they do today, especially to save space and money when these materials are redundant with other local collections or digital forms of access to them. The public will have to accept slower delivery times for print-related materials to come back from efficient shared storage facilities" (p. 219). This blithe dismissal of concerns, "the public will have to accept," comes just a few pages after Palfrey notes that "the browsing experience is one of the most magical childhood memories for many people" (p. 207). This experience he doesn't dismiss so casually, though he suggests that "experimentation in digital browsing could eliminate the problem of reduced serendipity with the removal of physical stacks" (p. 215). That doesn't fly with me. I find virtual browsing to be an exceedingly poor replacement for shelf-browsing. You can't pick up that book on the next shelf that might be relevant in order to check the table of contents or the index ... and if you do think a nearby book might be needed, you'll have to order it up, then wait a day or more for it to be retrieved from wherever it's been stowed. Don't get me wrong, in certain cases offsite storage makes sense, but replacing open stacks with virtual browsing is by no means an acceptable substitution, nor should it be one that is turned to without a deep understanding of how it will change the library experience.

Palfrey's cliché-laden references to the book as physical object rubbed me the wrong way too, though that happens with every author who insists on referring to library stacks on nearly every reference as "dimly lit," or "musty." If your library's stacks smell musty, there is something seriously wrong; this is not to be celebrated!

This all seems like a lot of criticism (and it is) but I am genuinely glad that Palfrey wrote this book, and I firmly agree with much of what he says: cooperation, innovation, the adoption of new technologies: these are all important parts of ensuring that libraries have a vibrant future, as are finding new sources for investment in library technologies and infrastructure. We may differ on the details as well as on the extent to which his recommendations apply, but this is certainly a book which deserves a broad audience and one which will, I hope, lead to significant discussions both within the library community and between librarians and those who support (in several different senses of the word) the work they do.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Links & Reviews

- The Jewish Theological Seminary is selling a Gutenberg Bible fragment from its collections: the complete Book of Esther (in eight leaves) will go on the block at Christie's on 19 June, with an estimate of $500,000-700,000. The JTS will also sell thirteen other early printed texts, in preparation for the temporary closure of the library.

- There is a report in The Guardian today about a major conference scheduled for 26 June at the British Library: The Written Heritage of Mankind in Peril: Theft, Retrieval, Sale, and Restitution of rare books, maps, and manuscripts.

- Sebastian Stockman, writing in the Boston Globe, recaps the Radcliffe Institute's recent "University as Collector" conference. Even better, videos from the conference are now available here.

- Andrea Mays talked to NPR this week about her new book The Millionaire and the Bard, about Folger's Foliomania.

- Over at Echoes from the Vault, a great story about the identification of incunabula leaves used as endpapers.

- More than 100 past Rare Book School lectures (going back to a Graham Pollard talk in 1973) are now available on the RBS website.

- From the Harvard Gazette, "Robert Darnton closes the book." See also the full text of Darnton's remarks at a farewell celebration.

- Nina Schneider writes on the Clark Library's blog about the opportunity staff there are taking to reorganize their fine press collection, as they prepare for a building retrofit.

- From the Essex Centre for Bibliographical History, "Twitter, the book historian's friend."

- The Kaiser Library in Kathmandu was badly damaged in the recent earthquakes.

- From the HRC newsletter, a peek inside the processing of the Gabriel Garcia Márquez archive.

- In an effort to break open the case, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has offered a $100,000 reward for the return of a bronze eagle finial stolen along with major works of art during the 1990 heist (this is in addition to the $5 million reward offered for all of the stolen art).

- A copy of the 1611 "Great She Bible" has been identified in St Mary's Parish Church in Gisburn, Lancashire.

- Historian Joseph Ellis is featured in the NYTimes' "By the Book" column.

- Historian Peter Gay died this week at the age of 91. Read the NYTimes obituary.


- The new BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; review by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in the Telegraph.

- Three recent books on the Battle of Waterloo; review by Gerard DeGroot in the WaPo.

- John Hemming's Naturalists in Paradise; review by Mark J. Plotkin in the WaPo.

- Andrea Mays' The Millionaire and the Bard; review by Howard Schneider in the WSJ.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Links & Reviews

- Rebecca Rego Barry has a bit more about the apparent theft of materials from the NYPL. Mitch Fraas has posted some court filings from the case and linked to the NYPL Bulletin issue from 1930 announcing the library's acquisition of the Franklin Work Book.

- The Gospels of Queen Theutberga of Lorraine, a ninth-century manuscript described as "pristine," will be sold at Christie's London on 15 July, estimated at £1.5 million. It was sold from the Beck Collection at Sotheby's in 1997 for around £1 million and has been in a private collection since then.

- The University of Pennsylvania has acquired a copy of what is believed to be the last full-length book printed by Benjamin Franklin, Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg's Petit Code de la raison humaine (printed at Passy in 1782).

- History of Humanities, a new journal, will be published by the University of Chicago Press beginning next spring.

- The British Library has launched a new guide to its collection of American newspapers.

- Carol Berkin talked to John Fea about her new book The Bill of Rights.

- The collection of Japanese internment camp artifacts recently pulled from auction have been acquired by the Japanese American National Museum in LA.

- The Obama Presidential Library will be located in Chicago.

- A new online database of the library of Robert Hooke has launched.

- Writing in the Washington Post, Hillary Kelly argues for a return to the serialization of novels.

- Scholars at the Mark Twain Papers project have identified a number of news stories written by Twain during his early journalistic career.

- Five volumes of manuscripts from the Paston Family correspondence have been digitized and are now available online.

- In The Guardian, David Shariatmadari offers "a history of cartography in 12 amazing maps."

- A signed first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude stolen from a display case at a Bogota book fair was recovered after a week.

- In an editorial, the New York Times has called for needed funding increases for the city's public libraries.

- Cambridge University has acquired two books from the library of historian Edward Gibbon, and Liam Sims has written a thorough account of these new acquisitions as well as the rest of Gibbons' library.

- The Library Company of Philadelphia has joined the Provenance Online Project.

- Tracey Kry writes about some of the legal manuscripts in the AAS collections.

- Excerpts from John Palfrey's new book BiblioTech have been posted on Medium as "The Future of the Stacks." On LibraryCity, David Rothman has a long post on Palfrey's book at the DPLA.

- OPenn has launched, with the entire Schoenberg Collection and other digitized Penn manuscripts available for viewing/downloading/&c.

- A new book claims that Jane Austen's character Mr. Darcy was based on the real-life John Parker, the first Earl of Morley.

- Wired notes the launch of a new online viewer for the US Geological Survey's topographic maps.

- A collection of books, broadsides, and pamphlets associated with Ireland, from the collection of collector Tony Sweeney, will be sold at auction in Dublin on 12 May. See the catalog. Sweeney had tried to collect "the best possible copy of every book or pamphlet that could be shown to have a connection to Ireland before 1700."

- Illinois State University has acquired a collection of material related to animal trainer and circus owner Clyde Beatty. The collection was compiled by Dave and Mary Jane Price over some six decades.


- The 2015 CODEX Book Fair and Symposium; review by Gregory Eow.

- Rosa Salzburg's Ephemeral City: Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice; review by Alexander S. Wilkinson at Reviews in History.

- David McCullough's The Wright Brothers; reviews by Daniel Okrent and Janet Maslin in the NYTimes, Reeve Lindbergh in the WaPo.

- Charlotte Gordon's Romantic Outlaws; review by Cristina Nehring in the NYTimes.

- Joseph Ellis' The Quartet; review by R.B. Bernstein in the NYTimes.

- Cokie Roberts' Capital Dames; review by Elaine Showalter in the WaPo.

- Thomas Kunkel's Man in Profile; review by Michael Dirda in the WaPo.

- Phyllis Lee Levin's The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams; review by Glenn Altschuler in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

- Hugh Aldersey-Williams' The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century; review by Noel Malcolm in The Telegraph.

- Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes; review by Marie Rutkoski in the NYTimes.

- Abigail Swingen's Competing Visions of Empire; review by Jessica Parr at The Junto.

- Bruce Holsinger's The Invention of Fire; reviews by Amy Gwiazdowski at The Book Report and Patrick Anderson in the WaPo.

- Matthew Pearl's The Last Bookaneer; review by Rebecca Rego Barry at Fine Books Blog.