Archives for category: Libraries

If variety is the spice of life, librarians must live quite spicily. New York Public Library recently discovered a box of old questions directed at their staff between the 1940s and the 80s and they’ve been displaying some at their Instagram account. This post from The Gothamist lets you see a few of them.

© Tom Gauld or The Guardian

Tom Gauld also has a go in his recent Guardian cartoon.

Instagram seems to be a favorite venue for NYPL: see my recent post on Insta Novels.

In Philadelphia there’s a nice handsome Georgian house on Delancey Place, a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square.

Here lived the Rosenbach brothers, one an antiques dealer, the other the biggest rare book dealer in the world.

The house (plus the building next door) has been turned into a fascinating small museum. In addition to furniture and pictures you can see bookcases full of rare books and manuscripts, with pages from some of them on display in a glass-topped display case. The manuscript of Ulysses, most of Conrad’s manuscripts, several Dickens originals, a Chaucer manuscript. There’s also a recreation of Marianne Moore’s living room in New York. Her complete library, with many personally inscribed and annotated books from her friends such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop, is part of the Rosenbach collections as well as all of her correspondence and drafts of her poetry and unpublished memoirs.

Although much stuff has been deeded and donated to the museum subsequently, one almost gets the impression that the basis of the display may in fact be what was left unsold when the music stopped and these dealers in antiquities sloughed off their mortal coils.

Dr Abraham Rosenbach got into the book trade by hanging about in the antiquarian bookstore of his maternal uncle Moses Polock, and started book dealing while still an undergraduate. But what really established him as the go-to book dealer for the quality was the commission he got to build up the Widener collection after Henry Elkins Widener had gone down with the Titanic. The library Dr Rosenbach compiled formed the basis of the Widener Library at Harvard. Rosenbach also worked for Mr & Mrs Folger, J. P. Morgan, Henry Huntington.

The Library and Museum, which is affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation but independently run offers an interesting series of events, including Hands-On events which feature early editions and manuscripts, which obviously you can get really close to. Edward G. Pettit, Sunstein Manager of Public Programs at the Rosenbach, comes up with a varied list of activities. When we were there he let us see a copy of The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed (1640) in British North America. They had recently arranged for a concert featuring a choir singing psalms from the book. The Rosenbach also runs a Bibliococktails series, held almost every second Friday, which include light refreshments and themed cocktails provided by Quaker City Mercantile, as well as a rotation of activities such as readings, music, and games. So if you’re planning a weekend in Philly, book your place.

They have a blog, The Rosenblog, which often carries reports on their events, plus research activities and exhibitions. They welcome researchers: make an appointment.

BoingBoing brings us the exciting news that the University of Michigan Library has acquired a book made up of pages consisting of plastic-wrapped American cheese slices. One suspects that library patrons will not be allowed to take out this volume, for fear that it might fall victim to the lunch menu. The book is one of an edition of ten produced by Ben Denzer, whose earlier works include “200 one-dollar bills arranged in serial number order, and a tiny volume of Chinese restaurant fortunes”.

If librarians store the cheese book carefully they can probably manage to keep the book worms and library mice at bay. Do libraries feature freezers?

Link via The Digital Reader.

Chetham’s Library in Manchester is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. It was founded by the bequest of Humphrey Chetham,* who became fabulously wealthy as a result of trading in fustian, a cloth made from a mix of linen and cotton, and controlling the entire supply chain reaping profits all the way through: the Jeff Bezos of his day. A religious man, he wanted to use his wealth to overcome poverty by curing ignorance, and paid for the education of 20 boys. He once declined a knighthood, an affront for which he was fined. When he died in 1653, by his will he established a school for 40 boys, Chetham’s Hospital, as well as the library.

The building housing the library is even older, dating from 1421, when it was built for the housing of a college of priests attached to the nearby church, now Manchester Cathedral. It can be seen through the entrance gate archway in the picture above. The sandstone buildings can be seen to advantage in this photo, with the library wing in the distance — by which I don’t mean the downtown skyscrapers.

The school, which now occupies the site vacated by Manchester Grammar School — the red brick structure on the left of the gateway — is now a School of Music. Because it’s a place of study, access to the library is by guided tour, on the hour. Entry is free, with a suggested donation. They also have a few items for sale: notably a handsome little book about the library published by Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers in London. The place still acts as a free public library, though you’ll need to make an appointment to come in and consult a volume. Their catalog is on-line and may be found here.

The books in the library were originally chained, but now they are protected by gates closing off each bay. 

Chetham’s Library’s collections contain 40 medieval manuscripts, and 120,000 printed books, most published before 1850 when for space reasons they began to restrict their purchasing largely to Mancuniana. They have a copy of The Nuremberg Chronicle from 1493 with a 16th-century English translation in the margin.

Chetham’s will also left £200 for the provision of “five small libraries of books, designed to be ‘chained upon desks or to be fixed to the pillars or in other convenient places’. They were to be located in the parish churches of Manchester and Bolton and in the parochial chapelries of Gorton, Turton and Walmesley.” The one from Gorton has survived and has been acquired by the library. It may be seen here. The books in these little libraries were all of an elevating nature, and in English.

Perhaps the highlight of the tour is the very table at which Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx sat researching and writing during Marx’s visit to Manchester in 1845. They display it with books they are known to have consulted — not the actual copies, reprints. 

As a tail piece you may admire this blogger reading up on The Poor.

Thanks to Peter Sowden for notification of this survival.


* Quaintly the Library pronounces his name to rhyme with cheat ’em, while the school, often referred to as Chet’s, uses a short e. Chetham spelled his name various ways and nobody knows how he’d have pronounced it.



New York Public Library is offering novels which you can read on Instagram. The first, available now, is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with illustrations by Magoz.  Hyperallergic tells the tale.

Here’s an NYPL video — if you don’t see the YouTube video below, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

This plan seems insanely sane, and may even persuade some kids to look at a book.

The Library’s Instagram account is @nypl.

The Atlantic (via The Passive Voice) seems to be trying to fool us with a headline suggesting that microfilm was invented around the same time as Gutenberg’s successors were getting the moveable type and letterpress printing business going. However their title “Microfilm lasts half a millennium” is in fact forward looking, referring to the durability of microfilm as an archiving medium. The National Archives assure us that they continue to microfilm records, despite the lure of the digital. Microfilm is a low-cost, reliable, long-term, standardized image storage medium and has a life expectancy of hundreds of years. All you need to view microfilm images is light and magnification — presumably likely to be available long after there’s nobody left who’s even heard of iOS or Windows.

Microfilm was patented in France in 1859 by René Dagron who built on earlier work by John Benjamin Dancer. It remained a clever but unneeded technology until it was used during the Franco-Prussian War to enable pigeons to carry miniature messages into besieged Paris. In 1906 a couple of Belgians suggested that microfilm might be used as a means of space saving space in libraries, though it took till the 1930s for this to get going as an archiving strategy. Navigation remains clunky — see the video below — but everything involves trade offs. Secure and clunky or fast and ephemeral: you probably want both. Indexing will help, but a) it’s expensive, and b) you still have to turn the wheels to get to your target.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post in order to view it in your browser.

Atlas Obscura’s story includes the link to the Geena Davis, Chevy Chase video clip.

I insist that I can recall the smell of the Galashiels Public Library, or the College Library fifty years ago. Of course the beauty of one’s confidence in such memories is that nobody can deny or confirm whether they are or are not accurate. If I think it’s a madeleine, it’s a madeleine, whether what I think is correct or not. It’s completely un-contradictable.

Apparently however the Morgan Library is running a research project into exactly how the library would have smelled back in 1906. Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Library’s blog has a story about the project.

One has to be impressed by the bent paperclip’s research role in Christine Nelson’s photo of the smell sampling equipment at work at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York on Ihesus: The Floure of the Commaundementes of God, printed in London by Wyken de Worde (1521). As Hyperallergic tells it, “Nelson [curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan] and a group of students from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), who gathered in the Morgan’s conservation lab, were deeply inhaling the scents of a selection of old books to consider what the place may have smelled like way back in 1906, the year that John Pierpont Morgan’s stately McKim, Mead and White-designed library was completed.”

“And whether or not the windows were open in J. P. Morgan’s day was on the mind of Jorge Otero-Pailos, who is teaching this experimental historic preservation class. Street smells from Gilded Age New York could have wafted through the windows, mingling with the collection of rare tomes from across various eras, and the cigar puffing of Morgan himself. ‘I try to get students to rethink how we can preserve objects in a creative way that reengages people with those objects,” he said. Last year at Westminster Hall in London’s Palace of Westminster, his The Ethics of Dust” installation involved a latex cast of one wall, a process that lifted visible and invisible dust and dirt from the old structure.'”

If one can eventually get at the smell of the Morgan in 1906, how much will that tell us about Galashiels Public Library in 1958 of course? Still, it’d be interesting to see how much one would be willing to accept the smell as “right”.

A Hinman Collator is a pre-digital machine for comparing two different copies of a printed page in order to detect any differences between them. Lights and mirrors allow you to see the two images superimposed one on top of the other, at which point any small differences between them will hit you in the eye.

The Folger Library blog, The Collation, has a piece by Andrew R. Walkling. This includes an animated clip showing dancing before your eyes the difference between two versions of a line of type.

The device was invented by Charlton Hinman  (1911-1971) in the late forties and drew upon his wartime work on aerial photography. Its main market was among bibliographic research institutions, but it is alleged that the CIA did buy one for more practical purposes. Hinman was the editor of the Shakespeare Quarto Facsimiles and The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare. From 1960 till 1976 he was professor of English at the University of Kansas.

I suspect you have to start noticing the loss of something for the idea to come into your head that maybe it should be described as rare. Nobody would think of applying the label “rare” to the sparrow — unless they lived in London where the birds have apparently decided to join urban flight and flit* to the suburbs and beyond. In London they are rare; in New York they are everywhere, including especially the bushes in the sunken subway entrance at Columbus Circle where you often suspect there must be a couple of loudspeakers broadcasting chirping. They are also often to be encountered in quite deep subway stations, where they seem content with their underground existence.

The Cambridge University Press blog FifteenEightyFour has a post about the origin of the rare book occasioned by the publication of David McKitterick’s book The Invention of Rare Books: Private Interest and Public Memory, 1600-1840. It seems that it took till the late 16th century for the concept to emerge, at the same time as we collectively woke up to the fact that there were a whole lot of books out there, forcing us to consider whether we might have to start worrying about disappearing texts.

The University of Washington, according to Atlas Obscura, has a collection of over 20,000 rare and special books. Their notification of this fact carries a small gallery of images showing a few of these books. If you want to see them, you’ll need to make an appointment. Their website can be found here.

Quaintly, one of the rarest books, Shadows from the Walls of Death is a volume published in 1874 in an edition of 100, intended to warn against the dangers  of arsenic-printed wallpapers. “Paris green” a color often favored in wallpapers had a significant arsenic content, and tended to flake off after a while. The author, Robert Clark Kedzie, wanted to help people identify dangerous wallpapers in their homes. His book consists of a title page and 8 page introduction followed by 86 sample of poisonous wallpapers. He sent copies of his book to libraries in Michigan. Unfortunately, by including samples of those arsenic papers, the book posed exactly the danger it was warning against. Today, only four copies of that book still exist, and unsurprisingly they’re treated very carefully. It is not recorded whether there were any consequences for the author, but he did live till 1902.


* What we call moving house in Scotland. It’s an old English word which, like the sparrow, has deserted the metropolitan center. It’s already in the OED, so isn’t available for notification in the Regional English drive.