Monday, 21 June 2010

My Kind of Librarian: Robert Darnton

What would you do if the newer media were muscling in on your book budget—and on your policy meetings?

If you were Robert Darnton, Harvard’s head librarian, and probably the most articulate in the world, you’d reconnoiter your priorities. ("The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future”, Public Affairs, 2009, is his twentieth title!) It is a collection of essays that describes how shrewdly he has deployed his diverse troops in many diverse engagements.

As a former Princeton history professor specializing in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, for example, he shows how the biggest book seller in small town Montpelier dickers with the refugee Voltaire for additions to his official edition (out of Geneva) of his "Questions sur l’Encyclopedie” to beat a competing local bookseller.

And V’s books, of course, were biblia non grata to the law. Sometimes this meant sailing them down the Rhone, sometimes shipping circuitously through smuggle-easy Marseilles, u.s.w. Bookselling in those trying times was like peddling drugs today, absent the weapons. All of these narratives Darnton assembles by scrutinizing the bookseller’s records!

And RD was not a late bloomer. As a Harvard freshman at 17, he shyly asks the brass at Harvard’s Houghton rare book collection, whether he can see Melville’s marked copy of Emerson’s “Essays”. Minutes later he is taking notes on the former Cape Horn sailor marginalia.

“Because Melville had written extensive notes in the margin, I found myself reading Emerson through Melville’s eyes–or at least attempting to do so. One bit of marginalia remained fixed in my memory. It had to do with Melville’s experience of rounding Cape Horn in what must be the roughest water in the world. At that time I thought the world in general was pretty rough, so I was primed to sympathize with a caustic note next to the passage about stormy weather.

Emerson had been expatiating on the world's soul and the transient state of suffering, which,as any sailor could testify, would blow over like a storm. Melville wondered in the margin whether Emerson had any idea of the terror faced by sailors on whaling ships at the Horn. I read it as a lesson about the Pollyannaish side of Emerson’s philosophy.” (p.56.) Not your usual 17 year old’s take!

Fifty years later Darnton had the itch to reread! “The terrors of the storm are chiefly confined to the parlour and the cabin. The drover, the sailor, buffets it all day, and his health renews itself at as vigorous a pulse under the sleet, as under the sun of June.” Melville’s actual response was: “To one who has weathered Cape Horn as a common sailor, what stuff all this is.” No wonder it took us to the 1920’s to “get” Herman. Ahab was much closer to reality than E’s glib formulations about the American Scholar!

One of the first library media responses was to throw out space taking newspaper files for microfilm. WRONG! "Microfilm is not an adequate substitute for paper: Its chemistry is worse. Frames that were supposed to last forever have developed blemishes and bubbles. They have faded into illegibility. They have torn and shrunk and sprouted fungi and emitted foul odors and melted together on the spool into solid lumps of cellulose. Microfilmed runs of newspapers often contain gaps where technicians skipped pages or failed to adjust the focus.”

Replace the tossed out files? "During the first wave of ‘preservation’ through microfilming, the State Library of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia stripped their shelves of complete runs of the Philadelphia Inquirer.” (p. 112.) Replacement cost? $621,515!

And consider the escalating costs of academic magazines. $20,000 plus for a year! JSTOR, the website funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, allows institutional access to expensive serials for modest annual subscriptions. The New York Public Library delivers so much information all over the world electronically that as early as 1999, it reported ten million hits a month on its computer system compared to 50,000 books checked out of its HQ reading room at 42nd street.

And University presses are under greater pressure. In the 1970’s they could count on selling 800 copies of monographs to libraries. Today, it’s down to 300 copies. Even so “sellable” an edition as "The Papers of Ben Franklin” sold 8,047 copies of volume one in 1959. Volume 33, in 1997, only 753. So digitizing the dissertation to be improved into a solid monograph is one of Darnton’s schemes in cooperation with scholarly societies.

One of his favorite fields is the commonplace book that flourished after the example of Erasmus’s "De Copia”. He likes this genre because the interaction between reading and writing about a text triggers thinking. His philosophy can be summarized: “Digitize and democratize—not an easy formula, but the only one that will do if we really mean to realize the ideal of a republic of letters, which once seemed hopelessly utopian.” (p.58.)

So begin with his summary of media history: "Somewhere, around 4000 BC, humans learned to write. Egyptian hieroglyphs go back to about 3200 BC, alphabetical writing to 1000 BC. According to Jack Goody, the invention of writing was the most important technological breakthrough in the history of humanity." (p.21.)

Darnton analyzes the complexities of book culture in the mysterious but promising Google era. Proceed cautiously but enthusiastically. No more throwing out the baby of newspaper files into the junk heap of microfilm! He makes the challenge sound like a great adventure. He’s my kind of librarian!

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