Tag Archives: history of books

Recent reading: Codex by Lev Grossman

“What’s that you’re reading?”
“Yes, I can see that…what’s the title?”
“I already told you: Codex.”

How could any librarian not be drawn to a book whose title is Codex? It’s so meta! (For those who may never have taken a History of Books class, “codex” is simply a fancy word for what we would just call a “book” today – gatherings of pages bound together within a cover. But in ye olden dayes, the word “codex” distinguished that familiar format from a much earlier book format: the scroll.)

I had recently read a review for Grossman’s newer books — The Magicians and The Magician King — which are supposed to be like fresh meat for adults lamenting the end of Harry Potter. Anyway, I was browsing the Fiction section at the library, and of course the Magician books were all checked out, but the title of one of Grossman’s earlier books, Codex: A Novel (2004) book caught my eye.

Here’s the book’s official description, since quite frankly it seems silly to reinvent the wheel in that respect:

About to depart on his first vacation in years, Edward Wozny, a hotshot young investment banker, is sent to help one of his firm’s most important and mysterious clients. His task is to search their library stacks for a precious medieval codex, a treasure kept sealed away for many years and for many reasons. Enlisting the help of passionate medievalist Margaret Napier, Edward is determined to solve the mystery of the codex-to understand its significance to his wealthy clients, and to decipher the seeming parallels between the legend of the codex and an obsessive role-playing computer game that has absorbed him in the dark hours of the night. [From the entry on Amazon.]

I was still interested after reading the description, and so I decided to take it home with me — er, checking it out first, of course.

I was not disappointed. Similar to how Grossman’s The Magicians is being compared to Harry Potter, I would compare Codex to The Da Vinci Code. As in, if you liked The Da Vinci Code, I think you’d probably like Codex. If you enjoy a good mystery/thriller that is going to have its characters talking about history, books, and traipsing through an archives or two, then I think Codex is probably for you.

I was delighted any time the narrative described an archives or a bunch of old books — which was often — so I frequently found myself nodding and chuckling, as Grossman clearly knows what he’s writing about.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book — no spoilers — with page numbers from the 2004 Harcourt hardcover edition:

It was at the bottom of a tall stack of books, but before he could offer to help she picked them up and shifted them to the floor in one practiced motion. The books left a ladder of dusty smudges up the front of her dress, but she didn’t seem to notice. (pg. 109)

(Yep. Been there.)

“Do you know what happens to books like these once they’re sold?… They’re disbound. Dealers dismantle them, cut them up and sell them off page by page because they’re worth more money that way. Do you understand? They’ll be gone forever. Dead. They’ll never be reassembled.” (pg. 123)

(Sad but true. However, I was reminded of Micah Erwin’s presentation at the Preserving our Cultural Heritage conference in March, in which he described a project aimed at virtually reassembling medieval leaf collections, using social technologies such as Flickr. It was extremely intriguing.)

“…he imagined another life for himself as one of these silent scholars, buried in his research like a guinea pig in its wood shavings, nibbling away steadily after some arcane piece of knowledge in the hope of making an addition, however imperceptible, to the collective pile.” (pp. 205-206)

(I had to chuckle at this, recalling the massive pile of research I had assembled when trying to figure out my “little Quaker love story” a few weeks ago. And you should see all the papers I have piled up on my book cart as I do background research for the entire Forrer-Peirce-Wood collection. I am completely guilty of the guinea-pig-buried-in-its-wood-shavings syndrome, but I’m happy when I’m in there.)

At one point, a litany of book conservation supplies are described, and I just couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear as I read, thinking, I actually know what most of that is for!

I won’t spoil the ending for you. No spoilers here. But I will say that I was surprised at the ending and not quite sure how I feel about it. 

Nevertheless, it was an awesome book, and part of me wants to read it again, just to catch all the things I’m sure I missed the first time around. I might save it in the back of my mind for a re-read again soon, but for now I have other books that need reading. And I need to return my copy of Codex to the library, so someone else can enjoy it.


Preserving Our Cultural Heritage Conference, Part 3- Tour and Workshop

And without further adieu, the final chapter in my report from the Preserving Our Cultural Heritage conference at IU: the tour and the workshop.


On Saturday afternoon, I attended a behind-the-scenes tour of the Lilly Library, rare books, manuscripts, and special collections library of the Indiana University Libraries. This tour was given by Erika Dowell, a public services librarian at the Lilly Library.

I won’t dwell on every aspect of the tour or how they do things at the Lilly, but I jotted down some things I found interesting. Until looking at them again, I had forgotten most of it — that’s why we take notes! — but it seems that most of my interest had to do with the reading room.

The Lilly’s collections “are available to all with a research need for them” (see the Lilly’s use policies). To use materials in the reading room, you have to register (they photocopy your ID – good idea!), and you get “buzzed in” to the reading room when your requested materials are ready for you. They don’t require gloves except for photos or metal objects but obviously you should have clean hands — Ms. Dowell said they often wish they had a hand wash station available (another good idea – ah, facilities planning!).

I noticed that there was at least one security camera in the reading room. I have not seen that before in any library where I’ve worked; then again, I’ve worked mostly in public libraries. Some might say it could be considered a “privacy violation,” but I can’t blame them when they’ve got things like a copy of the Gutenberg Bible!

There were a lot of manual card catalogs around, too. In the reading room were over 100 drawers of cards comprising an item-level index of their manuscript collections. Ms. Dowell said these card files are not kept current anymore, but they definitely come in handy. (We have similar card files at the Dayton library – though not nearly as extensive because our collections are not as extensive! – but again, they are not kept up, but do come in handy at times.)

Ms. Dowell also pointed out another card file in one of the staff-only areas; it was a project of some sort that was begun a long time ago but never finished (because card files were “out” once the digital age hit), yet they still keep it because someone worked really hard on that – and again, it could still be useful – it was just never finished or kept current. (This was another one of those “I’m glad it’s not just me” moments!)

I enjoyed the tour very much, and I was extremely impressed and in awe of the collections – their content, their quantity, their significance…just rows and rows of amazing stuff.


By far the highlight of my trip to Bloomington, though, was the Paper Conservation Workshop with Doug Sanders, paper conservator at the E. Lingle Craig Preservation Laboratory. I had heard of the Craig Lab prior to this conference because I refer to their online preservation how-to manual often. (Seriously, their manual is awesome: very detailed step-by-step instructions with tons of photos.) The conservation workshop was actually the deciding factor in my attending this conference. I thought it looked interesting anyway, but when I saw this workshop on the agenda, I had to sign up!

Mr. Sanders had a 3-page handout ready for us when we arrived. The handout briefly described each of the several treatments he would be demonstrating (more on that later) and had space for notes in between: it’s like they knew I was coming! I scribbled all over just about every inch of those 3 pages, plus wrote some notes on a fourth sheet of my own paper… (What? I’m verbose; don’t act like you hadn’t noticed.)

Mr. Sanders did not demonstrate any procedures on books or bound materials. As the paper conservator, he handles unbound and loose paper materials: manuscripts, maps, photos, etc. Here’s a great article about Mr. Sanders and his work. (Check out the other members of the preservation staff – there are nine people who work in the Craig Lab! How wonderful!)

The treatments Mr. Sanders demonstrated for us were:

  • Surface cleaning: to remove surface dirt and accretions from the paper.
  • Washing: to reduce acidity and discoloration, remove stains, deodorize.
  • Alkalization (de-acidification): to add an alkaline deposit to the paper, to neutralize acid and prevent future acid build-up.
  • Mending/infilling: to repair tears and gaps to improve handling and legibility.
  • Humidification: to introduce moisture at a controlled rate to relax paper (e.g., for tightly rolled items) prior to attempts at flattening.
  • Pressing: aka flattening.
  • Housing (e.g., boxes, enclosures, encapsulation): to protect the item while in storage.

The handout also mentioned (but did not describe) these “higher level treatments” that should really be left to a professional conservator with a solid background in chemistry:

  • tape removal
  • backing/lining
  • inpainting
  • fixing
  • consolidation
  • leaf casting
  • vellum/parchment

That is all I’m going to say about the actual treatments. That may come as a bit of a let-down, seeing as I was so excited about this workshop. But I am going to play the “liability” card on this entry, because I don’t want to run the risk of accidentally giving out inaccurate information in regards to actually performing these procedures. Yes, I saw him do it, and yes, I took a ton of notes. But what if I misheard or misunderstood or wrote it down wrong? I don’t want anyone following “my” instructions [or worse, attributing the misinformation to Mr. Sanders] and consequently harming something.

(I tend to think that Mr. Sanders would also appreciate my refraining on the details, as well: At one point while he was humidifying a photograph, I asked him if he could give a general recommendation about when it is safe to do so – because all the books I have say “leave for a conservator” – and after giving his answer [which I’m not going to post here!], he said, “But don’t quote me on that!” Haha.)

One thing I learned during the workshop that I don’t feel dangerous in sharing is the preservation challenge presented by documents written in iron gall ink. (Is it sad that I first heard of iron gall ink when I saw the movie National Treasure? In my defense, I didn’t start my archives master’s degree until after that movie came out.) 

Anyway, back to iron gall ink: Evidently, this ink was very commonly used up through the 1920s because it was so smooth and worked well in quills and nib pens. I won’t try to get into the chemistry of it all – that Wikipedia article I linked to does a good job of that – but because of the iron (yes, it really has iron in it) and other components of this ink, the ink actually eats through the paper it is written on, over time. Mr. Sanders showed us an example of a document written with this ink, and the letters were literally just falling out of it. It was the most bizarre thing. (This web site shows an image of iron gall ink corrosion.)

He said there are new conservation treatments being developed to help curtail this type of deterioration. (Here’s some info on iron gall ink treatment from Library of Congress.)

But just the idea of the ink eating through the paper blew my mind a little bit. We [archivists] spend so much time trying to figure out how to protect documents from all sorts of things – heat, light, water, bugs, people – and here is a type of document in which the writing itself (the very essence of the document) is causing it to self-destruct. I suppose it’s a similar idea to trying to protect documents being damaged by their own acidity, which causes brittleness in paper. Well, I knew the paper could cause the document to self-destruct, but I never thought about the ink!

(Note: After learning about iron gall ink, I was inspired to check a couple of our 19th century collections at the library, to see if the documents showed any signs of this type of deterioration. I am pleased to report that a spot-check — no, I didn’t study every document in detail but I checked several — of the Van Cleve Dover (MS-006) and Brown Patterson (MS-015) collections revealed no apparent corrosion around the letters. However, I did see a little bit of this “haloing” phenomenon; maybe 200 years is still not old enough to have actual corrosion damage yet…hrm. Guess we’ll just have to keep an eye on them!)


I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures in Bloomington last weekend. I know I enjoyed the trip and the conference, as well as writing about them.

Preserving Our Cultural Heritage Conference at Indiana University, presentations, part 2

More from the Preserving Our Cultural Heritage conference at IU:


Danielle Emerling (IU-Bloomington) gave a presentation, “Motion Picture Film Preservation at the Chautauqua Institution Archives.” This presentation described a project in which Ms. Emerling participated last year to preserve and make accessible 2 or 3 silent film reels from 1923 (35mm film). With the help of Eastman House and Kodak in Rochester, NY, the film was evaluated (not nitrate – woohoo!), preserved, and ultimately digitized for access purposes. We were even able to watch clips from the films during the presentation – cool stuff!

It was kind of amazing to watch these videos from 1923, being played on a computer, no less. This gives me hope for getting some of my grandpa’s old home movie films (16mm and 8mm from the 1950s and 1960s) preserved and digitized someday. (I am afraid to know how much the whole process cost, though.)

The subject matter was interesting as well. One film showed activities at Chautauqua. The other seemed to be a sort of patriot film, which depicted a group of “immigrants” being schooled on American history (the 30 second version!). (That was one of the more anti-immigrant time periods in American history – if you don’t believe me, check out the details of the Immigration Act of 1924.)


Brenna Henry (IU-Bloomington) presented “Non-textual Objects in Library and Archival Collections.” In this presentation, Ms. Henry shared the results of some survey research she conducted regarding the non-textual objects (often called “realia”) in libraries and archives, including how and why the objects got into the collection and how the institutions deal with them.

I can only imagine some of the things that might be floating around in an archives that, er, don’t really belong there. Sometimes you get and keep these things because they go with a larger manuscript collection that you really did want. Sometimes you have these things because someone at your institution in the past didn’t really understand the archives and museums are actually different. Or, sometimes, they just sneak in on you – like those 19th century notebooks with locks of hair in them. (Yep, we’ve got some of those…)

I asked Ms. Henry whether any of the institutions mentioned directing patrons to another repository that deals with 3-D objects, and she said yes, some of them do. That’s what we usually do at the library, if someone has historic artifacts that they want to donate: we recommend a museum instead. But we’re happy to take manuscripts that fit our collecting policy.


Day 1 presentations that I did not attend (sessions were concurrent):

Kristopher Stenson (IU-Bloomington), “The Grigg Report and its Effect on Appraisal in the United Kingdom.”

Camille Torres (Simmons College), “Rethinking Appraisal Theory for Government Documents.”

Ed Hill (IU-Bloomington), “Heavy Metal as Folklore and the Case for Preservation.”

Richard Fischer (City University of New York-Queens), “‘The Mystery Song’: Histories of the Contingent in Documentary Jazz Recordings.”


Day 2 presentations:


Kristen Schuster (Simmons College) read her paper “Photography, Identity and Descriptive Processes.” Here is a description of the presentation from the paper abstract: “The relationship between the creation of records and the impulse to archive represents the interdependence between memory and identity. How we articulate our past experiences reflects our ability to understand the meaning [of] memory, as well as the subjects we include in them.”

Ms. Schuster’s presentation was intriguing, but it was so very meta that I think the best I can do to comment on it is to copy here some of the extermely interesting sound-bites I jotted down in my notes:

  • What we choose to save is a reflection of our perception of value.
  • “The camera is an archiving machine.”
  • Visual literacy can transform a photo from “art” to “document”.
  • Archival description does not preserve memory but the notion of memory.
  • Cataloging represents an object through controlled terms, thus limiting search ability and stripping details and memory from the photo. [This is one of my favorite snippets! Then again, subject headings and I have a bit of a rocky relationship anyway…]
  • Words and images communicate in different ways.
  • Folksonomy tags democratize subjects.
  • User supplied terms can broaden ideas of a photo’s subject matter or how it is considered; a single indexer cannot provide all possible relevant terms. [Yes!]

Just to be clear: Most of the above bulleted items are probably direct quotes or very nearly so – in any event, all Ms. Schuster’s ideas. Only the parts in brackets come from me. But I was scribbling so fast during the presentation, trying to listen and write at the same time, that I didn’t get everything word for word or sometimes forgot the actual quotation marks. (Ah, it takes me back to my undergraduate history lecture courses…)


Micah Erwin (University of Texas-Austin) gave a presentation, “An Underappreciated Resource: Medieval Manuscript Leaf Collections.” The presentation discussed Mr. Erwin’s experiences with digitizing and describing medieval manuscript leaf collections. (Just so we’re clear: leaf = manuscript page, not like like a leaf from a tree!)

Apparently, in the past it has been fashionable to collect manuscript leaves, which has caused the individual leaves from manuscripts to become scattered among various collectors. Mr. Erwin mentioned some of the ways that digization (even Flickr!) is aiding in identifying leaves from different collections that originally belonged together, as well as how digitization might be used to create a virtual exhibit bringing leaves from different collections back together again. He also emphasized that although these individual leaves are often viewed as mere curiosities and are consequently not always cataloged adequately, the leaves can be valuable teaching aids – so cataloging should be done! [I couldn’t agree more! I think everything should be cataloged! Why have something if nobody knows it’s there?]

This was yet another interesting presentation on a topic I did not know much about, save what I learned in my History of Books class a year or so ago. Incidentally, Mr. Erwin mentioned that renowned medieval manuscripts expert Christopher de Hamel was at the IU Lilly Library recently. Mr. de Hamel wrote A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, which we used in the History of Books class (one of my favorites in my whole MLIS program).


Rachel Woodbrook and Althea Lazzaro (University of Washington) gave their presentation “‘How are [we] to bring such wayward creatures into the bonds of organizations?’ Zine Archives and the Archival Tradition,” and led a discussion afterwards.

I admit I did not even know what a “zine” was prior to this presentation, let alone what sorts of unique archival challenges they might present. The presenters gave a very broad definition of “zine” as: “any self-published creative endeavor done out of passion.” Apparently, this format has been popular in a lot of counter-culture movements (my word, not theirs), such as punk, new feminism, and gay pride, among others.

As a result of the zines’ origins, this affets how they are being collected, preserved, and made accessible. That is, many zine archives (such as the Zine Archive and Publishing Project in Seattle) tend to be low-key and low-restriction, even circulating copies; to lock them away for their own protection would completely cramp the style of the format and step on the intent and the material itself. After all, many of these were written for the express purpose of defying control and oppression! It was a very interesting dynamic.

Issues regarding possible digization for access (so more people could view) and preservation (less handling of the originals) were discussed also. Copyrights and privacy issues were the two biggies. Intellectual property is protected by copyright upon its creation, but you can of course ask permission for certain uses. But what do you do if the item in question has a pseudonymed author that you can’t even find? As for privacy, there is some very personal stuff in some of these zines: it’s a little dicey whether the author would even like it being in an archives (but again – you can’t always find them to ask!), let alone know that something they might have created to circulate among a handful of friends has found its way not only into an archive but was digitized and made available to the world.

Yes, this presentation turned out to be an interesting an informative one indeed. Not only did I learn what the heck a zine even is, I learned about some of the very unique archival challenges they can present.

(As an aside, I overheard someone else talking about zines in a completely unrelated context later on that same day. Weird how one day I didn’t even know what they were, and the next day, I hear about them from two different sources!)


Day 2 presentations that I did not attend (sessions were concurrent):

Sarah Keil (IU-Bloomington): “An Analysis of African Archives: Challenges for the Present and Solutions for Change.”

Alison Clemens (University of Texas-Austin): “The Woman Behind the Curtain: Winnie Allen as Archivist.”


And with that, I’ve finished up the paper/presentation sessions. In Part 3, I’ll share some notes on the behind-the-scenes tour at Lilly Library, as well as the Conservation Workshop (which was my primary reason for attending this conference).