Speaking of book storage…

Statues - New York Public Libr... Digital ID: 1558545. New York Public Library

For the last five years I’ve visited New York City in April to attend the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual meeting. Every year I’ve made a pilgrimage to Fortitude and Patience, the stone lions that stand outside the public library on 5th Avenue. This year I finally went inside--as part of an ASJA field trip. The library gave us a double treat: an introduction to its research resources and a private tour.

Even from the perspective of someone who has spent hundreds (maybe even thousands) of hours at the University of Chicago’s wonderful Regenstein Library, the New York Public Library’s resources are pretty dang impressive. Four research libraries (plus 87 circulating branches) linked by a single catalog, an astonishing off-site book storage facility, special collections galore, and access to many, many on-line databases. Not to mention gorgeous reading rooms.

Main Reading Room Digital ID: 1153329. New York Public Library

When they told me I could have a library card even though I don’t live in New York, I said, “Sign me up!”

The tour was a history nerd’s delight: a combination of stories about the past, architectural trivia, and glimpses of the library’s future use as a circulating library. Here are some of the highlights:

  •  The battered stuffed animals that inspired A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. (Kanga, but no Roo.)

• The marble in the main hall is the same as that used to build the Parthenon, after all the library was meant to be a temple of learning
• The building was designed with an eight-room apartment for the building’s janitor and his family.  (Can you imagine growing up with the library just downstairs?)
• We got to go down in the stacks, something not allowed on the public tours. Look carefully and you’ll see something missing: books! Most of them have been moved to an off-site storage facility designed for book preservation. These days you need to request books the day before you need them.

Now that I've found my way inside, you can be sure I'll be back.

Book-hoarding, 10th Century Style

Anyone who's spent a significant amount of time with me in recent months, whether in real life or in some virtual space, has probably heard me bemoan the state of my office bookshelves.  As the photo above attests, they overflow. Loaded two deep and stacked rather than shelved, there is still not enough room. Worse, for the first time in my life I am having trouble finding things. Twice in the last year I bought a book I already owned. Once because I couldn't find the copy I was sure I had and needed right then. Once because I didn't even realize I owned a copy.* It makes me itchy.

Recently, a factoid has begun popping up in my universe that makes me feel even worse. According to Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading,

In the tenth century… the Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, in order not to part with his collection of 117,000 volumes when traveling, had them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.

Manguel goes on to explain that the camel drivers effectively served as librarians, each responsible for retrieving volumes from his camel at the vizier's command.

At first, I found the factoid charming:  a lovely illustration of the importance of books in the early Islamic world. Then I felt a little jealous at the idea of owning  1117,000 books.  Now I just feel inadequate at my inability to keep control over a couple of thousand books without the added complication of moving camels.

Something's gonna change.


*Oh, the shame!


The Art of the Book

Image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

The Islamic world created illuminated manuscripts that rivaled anything that came out of a medieval monastery: Qu'rans, historical chronicles, stories of the prophets, the deeds of kings, lyric poetry, heroic epics, philosophy, scientific treatises, and romantic tales.

Caliphs, courtiers, and wealthy merchants commissioned manuscripts from the ninth century until well into the seventeenth century, when the Islamic world reluctantly accepted the value of Mr. Gutenberg's printing press. Each manuscript was an expensive and unique production that required the talents of many artists: craftsman who ruled the pages, calligraphers, painters, illuminators, bookbinders and chest makers.

Each page was designed with a ruled frame that determined the number of lines of text on the page and the size and location of paintings, chapter headings, texts and borders. The modern viewer focuses on the miniatures, wonderfully detailed paintings often no larger than a sheet of notebook paper. For the original audience, the paintings are second to the quality of the calligraphy. As sixteenth Iranian author Qadi Ahmad put it, "If someone, whether he can read or not, sees good writing, he likes to enjoy the sight of it." Calligraphers were not anonymous copyists, but revered artists who learned at the hand of a master.

Unlike books in English, where there are many fonts but only one script, Islamic calligraphers had many scripts to chose from, each with a different graphic and emotional quality. They could be slanted or rounded, upright or "hanging", angular or cursive. Some were designed to be easily read, others to be decorative. Qu'rans were often written in one of the angular kufic scripts. One script was described as the "bride of calligraphic styles" and was generally used for lyric poetry and romantic tales.

You've got to wonder what the producers of these works would think about the modern paperback.

This post previously appeared at Wonders and Marvels.