January 27, 2004

Libraries, and lots of them.

All this talk of medieval books, language and Chaucer makes me think of Robert Cotton, my favorite librarian in history (second only to my lovely sister, the cataloger extraordinairre).

Cotton had, I think, one of the most interesting methods of cataloguing books: by the busts of Roman emperors. Of course, he was apparently a walking card catalog, so it didn't really matter that his collection was organized in such a strange fashion. (Example citation: Tiberius B.V. f.56v, which turns out to be an Anglo-Saxon "world map." Presumably you'd find this on the shelf underneath the Tiberius bust.) C.J. Wright of the British Library says this of Cotton's library:

The Library of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) is arguably the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual. Amongst its many treasures are the Lindisfarne Gospels, two of the contemporary exemplifications of Magna Carta and the only surviving manuscript of `Beowulf'. Early on in his career, Cotton had advocated the foundation of a national library of which his collection would form a part... he was always generous in the loans he made other scholars.

Which leads me to wonder about other notable libraries in Britian, of roughly the same time period. I did a quick search and came up with Cambridge and Oxford. Oxford's Bodleian Library has an interesting site with scanned images of manuscripts from the 11th century to the 17th. Cambridge's library has an interesting retrospective of it's past 600 years, and gives a short description of a library during the 1400s.

The rooms were fitted up for the storage and reading of books with wooden stalls or lectern cases bearing framed catalogues at their ends, and portable stools; the books being chained against theft.

So, that sounds a better outfitted than Cotton's. Or, at least they aren't mentioning the busts of Roman Emperors. [Side note: what would it take to get catalogued under Nero? Books about fire? Fiddles?]

And who could pass up the mother of all libraries: the Library of Alexandria, which burned. Speaking of the ancients, Aristotle also kept a library.

Ancient geographer Strabo said Aristotle “was the first to have put together a collection of books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library."
Thus, Aristotle was not only in acquisitions, but was also a cataloger.

Which leads us to the present debate, which my sister and I frequently have (she's a cataloger with the Library of Congress). How is the Internet changing libraries? Should libraries catalog and preserve web sites, even though they are constantly changing (many libraries are attempting this in some manner)? How would you accomplish this task without big problems (esp. in funding, national lines, etc.)? Libraries collect letters and journals of some people, should they be preserving personal writing like weblogs? Who determines what's of value on the Internet? What type of "card catalog" will the web have? What role will search engines play? And doesn't Google stink when compared to library-style methods of classification? You don't get categories and subheadings in Google - it won't tell you where to "see also."

To me, it seems like libraries are at the early stages of classifying and preserving the web, much like Cotton was when he was cataloging according to emporer. It took forever for libraries to evolve, and there is no absolutely consistent classification system. Seton Hill is still going by Dewey. Major libraries are using LC. See the dilemma? Yikes. All this makes me glad I'm not a librarian. ;)

Posted by Julie Young at January 27, 2004 11:27 PM

It's posts like these that make me think you'd be a natural for graduate school, whether in literature or in library science. If you had a higher degree, you could qualify for grants that allow you to visit old libraries in England and so forth. Wouldn't that be fun?

Posted by: Mike Arnzen at January 28, 2004 11:35 AM

A very thought-provoking post. For the library-lovers out there, here are a few itneresting posts...

The Invisible Library (catalog of imaginary books mentioned in literature) http://www.invisiblelibrary.com/

Real-life mystery story about books disappearing from monastery library

Card Catalog RIP

The Library of Babel
(Short story about an imaginary library)

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 28, 2004 01:03 PM
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