Archives for category: Libraries

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.

. . . but is it the right way?

The Borders Council (I’m relieved to note that my cousin is no longer a member) has decreed that a pupil or a volunteer parent can easily fill the functions of librarian and three Border schools (one of which I attended a year or two ago). They claim that the “job” will teach pupils leadership skills. Och aye? BookRiot carries a link to The Guardian‘s story which gives the third site as Hawick, whereas The Herald story linked to there says Kelso, as does the BBC.

Knee jerking demands resistance to the plan — the general secretary of the the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) union is quoted as saying “Seeking to replace such [library] staff with the unpaid labour of pupils is folly of the highest order”. But I wonder if things are as bad as the objectors imply. Yes, it’s true that a qualified librarian can provide direction, but is direction really needed? I never attended a school which boasted such an employee, and we seemed to get through OK. Maybe wee Jimmy from Form 6 can check books in and out and provide advice just as well as a starchy librarian. After all, the readers he’ll be advising are his peer group, and what he has enjoyed might be expected to be what they’d enjoy. In so far as resources are web-based, his advice might well be better.

Galashiels Public Library

Frankly I think it’s a bit of overkill for Gala Academy to have had a librarian at all. Isn’t taking the money spent on that and diverting it to other purposes only sense? All local authorities are always short of money, and prioritizing expenditure is a necessary part of governing. Seems to me it’s better to pay teachers — or even buy a book or two — than to hire a librarian. Now, if it was the librarian at the town’s public library who was being replaced with a school kid, my knee might be jerking more.

Shelf Awareness’ 11 April issue tells us: “The American Library Association released its annual Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books, included in the ALA’s State of America’s Libraries Report 2018, which ‘affirms the invaluable role libraries and library workers play within their communities by leading efforts to transform lives through education and lifelong learning.'”

“According to the report, libraries continue to face challenges — including the potential for censorship — to a variety of books, programs and materials. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 354 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2017. Some individual challenges resulted in requests to restrict or remove multiple titles or collections. OIF estimates that 82%-97% of challenges remain unreported. Overall in 2017, 416 books were targeted–direct attacks on the freedom to read. The most frequently challenged titles last year were:”

Alii alia sentiunt, though I guess one can understand a parent wanting to protect their child from all the “bad stuff” that goes on in the world. The kids of course all know a lot more than their puritanical parents think, and are by nature more tolerant, but that can hardly be used as an argument for not trying to protect them against ideas parents don’t like. We, the enlightened, know that knowledge is good, no matter what its subject matter, and that the way to promote understanding is, well, understanding. Reading about something we disapprove of is maybe a duty we should all assume every now and then. Fear of the unknown can be relieved by changing the unknown into the known. We liberals all know what’s good for others, don’t we? Yet I dare say there are lots of liberal parents who’d like to prevent their children reading stuff like Atlas Shrugged or Guns and Ammo magazine.

Here’s a link to The Guardian‘s take on the news.

We are all being forced to recognize that all this suppression of dissenting points of view is driving the confronting groups to ever more extreme positions. The Guardian tells us that there were 23 reported hate crimes in libraries in 2017, ranging from the scrawling of swastikas on library walls to the destruction of Muslim religious texts. If only these idiots would sit down and read about the groups they fear so groundlessly.



Atlas Obscura brings us a story about the digitization of The New York Society Library‘s lending records dating from 1789 to 1805. The Society’s Library is now on East 79th Street, but obviously started out way downtown (in 1754). Earlier records were lost during the British occupation of New York in the Revolutionary War. We are allowed to see that Alexander Hamilton was reading Goethe while Aaron Burr was engaged with Voltaire 14 years before their duel.

Early in the 20th century records were switched from ledgers to index cards, and thereafter the only records kept were those for prominent people.









You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Privacy laws now make it illegal to store this sort of information.