Umberto Eco was an Italian novelist and public intellectual. He also loved books.
HT: Alan Jacobs
I love Jessica Stillman‘s piece at Inc.com: “Why You Should Surround Yourself With More Books Than You’ll Ever Have Time to Read.” Here is a taste:
…I have good news for you (and for me, I definitely fall into this category): your overstuffed library isn’t a sign of failure or ignorance, it’s a badge of honor.
That’s the argument author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in his bestseller The Black Swan. Perpetually fascinating blog Brain Pickings dug up and highlighted the section in a particularly lovely post. Taleb kicks off his musings with an anecdote about the legendary library of Italian writer Umberto Eco, which contained a jaw-dropping 30,000 volumes.
Did Eco actually read all those books? Of course not, but that wasn’t the point of surrounding himself with so much potential but as-yet-unrealized knowledge. By providing a constant reminder of all the things he didn’t know, Eco’s library kept him intellectually hungry and perpetually curious. An ever growing collection of books you haven’t yet read can do the same for you, Taleb writes:
A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
An antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations – the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself towards the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.
Read the rest here.
Over at The Paris Review, Alberto Manguel writes about the experience of unpacking a library. Early in my career, as we bounced from apartment to apartment and job to job, I did this often. Now, as I enter the back half of my life, I wonder if I will ever have to do it again. I think about this often as I enter my extremely cluttered study and navigate through the stacks and stacks of books that surround my desk.
Here is a taste of Manguel’s piece:
Sometime in 1931, Walter Benjamin wrote a short and now famous essay about readers’ relationship to their books. He called it “Unpacking My Library: A Speech on Collecting,” and he used the occasion of pulling his almost two thousand books out of their boxes to muse on the privileges and responsibilities of a reader. Benjamin was moving from the house he had shared with his wife until their acrimonious divorce the previous year to a small furnished apartment in which he would live alone, he said, for the first time in his life, “like an adult.” Benjamin was then “at the threshold of forty and without property, position, home or assets.” It might not be entirely mistaken to see his meditation on books as a counterpoise to the breakup of his marriage.
Packing and unpacking are two sides of the same impulse, and both lend meaning to moments of chaos. “Thus is the existence of the collector,” Benjamin writes, “dialectically pulled between the poles of disorder and order.” He might have added: or packing and unpacking.
Unpacking, as Benjamin realized, is essentially an expansive and untidy activity. Freed from their bounds, the books spill onto the floor or pile up in unsteady columns, waiting for the places that will later be assigned to them. In this waiting period, before the new order has been established, they exist in a tangle of synchronicities and remembrances, forming sudden and unexpected alliances or parting from each other incongruously. Lifelong enemies Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, for instance, will sit amicably on the same expectant shelf while the many members of the Bloomsbury group will find themselves each exiled to a different “negatively charged region” (as the physicists call it), waiting for the wishful reunion of their particles.
Read the entire piece here.
The New York Academy of Medicine
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Bodleian Library (Oxford)
St. Catherine’s Monastery (Egypt)
Chicago Botanic Garden
American Museum of Natural History (New York)
Library of Congress (Washington D.C.)
Folger Shakespeare Library
Australian National Library
New York Public Library
Free Library of Philadelphia
Learn about the oldest item in each of these libraries by clicking here
Over at Pacific Standard, Katie Kilkenny has a nice piece on the importance of lending libraries in this era of fake news. Here is a taste:
In the report, released Wednesday, Pew finds that the majority of American adults—61 percent—say their decision-making would be improved at least somewhat “if they got training on how to find trustworthy information online.” In this bewildering world of real and fake news, a clear majority—78 percent—believe that the library is still providing them with information that is “trustworthy and reliable.” It’s not just older generations who prefer this more traditional resource: Millennials are more likely to trust the library than all previous generations, including Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation.
Millennials are big fans of their local lending institutions in other ways as well. Eighty-five percent believe the library helps them “learn new things,” according to Pew, and 63 percent agree that it helps them “get information that helps them with decisions they have to make”—both higher proportions than any other generation measured. This research aligns with findings from Pew released earlier in the summer: In June, the research center found that Millennials were the most likely generation in America to have visited a library and used a library website in the past few months. Clearly, young adults’ constant access to social network news feeds and Amazon hasn’t diminished the charm of browsing through the stacks to find the right call number.
A majority of Americans studied say that libraries help them “grow as people” (65 percent) while a minority of Americans agree that libraries help them focus on the most important elements in their lives (49 percent), deal with a busy world (43 percent), and deal with a world where it’s hard to get ahead (38 percent). That last figure seems to suggest that most contemporary American library-goers aren’t just visiting the library for the quiet place to chill, but for specific information needs.
Read the entire piece here.
Historian Kevin Hayes has a new book out on the reading habits of George Washington. (Kevin, if you are out there I would love to interview for the Author’s Corner. I can’t seem to find an e-mail address. Thanks).
Here is a taste:
A hundred years ago Ezra Pound criticized American history textbooks for ignoring George Washington’s intellect. More often than not Washington has been seen as a shelf-filler, someone who decorated his home with books, but seldom read them fully or deeply. Here’s an alternate theory: though George Washington never assembled a great library in the manner of, say, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, he did amass an impressive and diverse collection of books that he read closely and carefully and that significantly influenced his thought and action.
No one has ever written an intellectual biography of George Washington. Though Washington’s surviving comments about books and reading are not nearly as extensive as those of other Founding Fathers, he did leave many different types of evidence that, in the aggregate, can help to reconstruct his life of the mind. The evidence takes many different forms:
Though Washington’s library was widely dispersed during the nineteenth century, many of his books do survive. The Boston Athenaeum holds the single largest collection of books formerly in his possession. Additional books survive at Mount Vernon. Other libraries—the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, the Virginia Historical Society—all hold books from Washington’s library in their collections, most of which I have examined.
With the notable exception of his copy of James Monroe’s View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States, Washington’s surviving books contain little marginalia, but he did write in his books occasionally. Most of the time he did so to correct typographical errors, but sometimes his marginal notes reveal how he read. Occasionally his notes in one book indicate other books he read. The fact that Washington wrote in his books has gone largely unnoticed, because uncovering these notes requires work that some find tedious. One must examine the surviving books meticulously, turning over one page after another in search of the slightest pencil marks showing that Washington did read the volumes that bear his bookplate.
Read the entire piece here.
Turns out it was illegal.
Check out Jamie Somers’s piece at The Atlantic on Google’s failed attempt to scan every out of print book in the world.
Here is a taste:
Although academics and library enthusiasts like [Harvard historian Robert] Darnton were thrilled by the prospect of opening up out-of-print books, they saw the settlement as a kind of deal with the devil. Yes, it would create the greatest library there’s ever been—but at the expense of creating perhaps the largest bookstore, too, run by what they saw as a powerful monopolist. In their view, there had to be a better way to unlock all those books. “Indeed, most elements of the GBS settlement would seem to be in the public interest, except for the fact that the settlement restricts the benefits of the deal to Google,” the Berkeley law professor Pamela Samuelson wrote.
Certainly Google’s competitors felt put out by the deal. Microsoft, predictably, argued that it would further cement Google’s position as the world’s dominant search engine, by making it the only one that could legally mine out-of-print books. By using those books in results for user’s long-tail queries, Google would have an unfair advantage over competitors. Google’s response to this objection was simply that anyone could scan books and show them in search results if they wanted—and that doing so was fair use. (Earlier this year, a Second Circuit court ruled finally that Google’s scanning of books and display of snippets was, in fact, fair use.)
Amazon, for its part, worried that the settlement allowed Google to set up a bookstore that no one else could. Anyone else who wanted to sell out-of-print books, they argued, would have to clear rights on a book-by-book basis, which was as good as impossible, whereas the class action agreement gave Google a license to all of the books at once.
Read the entire piece here.
God calls Christians to love Him with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind. (Luke 10:27). Many Christians are pretty good at orienting their heart, soul, and strength toward their Creator, but few really know what it means to love God with their minds. This problem, as many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, was addressed most forcefully by historian Mark Noll in his seminal 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and its 2011 sequel, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. I have written about this as well, both in Why Study History: A Historical Introduction and most recently in my May 2016 Religion News Service piece, “In Supporting Trump, Evangelicals Are Reaping What They’ve Sown.”
Noll diagnosed the problem of evangelical anti-intellectualism. We are now faced with how deal with it. What kind of practical steps can churches take to overcome this serious deficiency in the church? How can people interested in serious Christian thinking make a difference in their churches and communities and perhaps prompt others to take this Christian duty seriously.
One way of overcoming the scandal is to start a church library that not only caters to children and popular Christian materials, but also to books and resources that encourage Christian intellectual engagement. Why not start the kind of library that Ron Maness had built at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas?
I have never met Ron, but when he started following me on Twitter (@johnfea1), identified himself as a church librarian, and began asking for book recommendations, I knew his library must be something unique and special. Ron is a very active librarian. He sends out a monthly list of new books (with short summaries) to the congregation (250 members), he contacts individual members of the congregation when a new book arrives that falls within their area of interest, encourages his pastor to mention new books from the pulpit, and produces a daily e-mail list of links related to new books, author interviews, and reviews. The Community Bible Chapel is used extensively by church members, community members, local clergy, and seminary students from nearby Dallas Theological Seminary. Ron’s diligent work has cultivated a spirit of reading, conversation and a Christian life of the mind in his church and in the wider community.
I asked Ron to answer a few questions about his church library. Here is my interview with him:
JF: Community Bible Chapel has a very large library for a church of 250 members. What role does the library play in the mission of the church.
RM: Here is the Statement of Purpose/Mission Statement for the library:
Maintain a broad-based library of books, videos, DVDs, audios and other media items for all ages and levels of Christian growth, with the goals of 1) promoting knowledge and application of scripture and doctrine, 2) promoting knowledge of church history, 3) facilitating and supporting other ministries of CBC, including Sunday School and other teaching ministries, ministry groups, youth workers, etc. and 4) enhancing individual and family spiritual growth and discipleship. This will include not only maintaining the existing library inventory, but also the acquisition of new media items on an on-going basis.
JF: What is your library budget?
RM: Our library budget is currently $7 thousand. It has been as high as $9 thousand, but due to the maturity level of the existing library, I have reduced it the last few years.
JF: How many books do you have in your church library?
RM: We currently have over 14 thousand books in the library, of which 11 thousand are adult and 3 thousand are juvenile/childrens books. In addition, we have approximately 500 other media items (DVD, CD, video).
JF: What is your philosophy of book-buying for the library?
RM: I have been managing the library, along with my wife, since 1981. Because I have “lived” books so long, I don’t have any problem with knowing what books I want to buy. In the past, I visited Dallas Seminary’s bookstore weekly, along with other Christian bookstores on a regular basis. I am familiar with publishers and their new offerings, as well as the key commentary series, and authors/theologians. I visit the Gospel Coalition website daily, and am now a frequent visitor to Twitter. I get emails from Westminster Seminary Bookstore. All of these sources provide book information that I use to make buying decisions. I make most of my purchases from Amazon, who is also good at letting me know of new books in my areas of interest. I frequently pre-order books in advance of their publication dates.
Also, since I am the only one purchasing adult non-fiction books for the library (my wife purchases adult fiction and children’s books), I know the library stock and what items might be needed. I try to ensure we have a broad-based stock for all levels of Christian maturity, from new believers to seminary students and pastors.
JF: Christians are called, among other important things, to love God with their minds. How is the library making an impact on the intellectual life of your church?
RM: Our library has been described by several outsiders as comparable to many Bible college libraries. We have a full range of current and classic Bible commentaries, systematic and biblical theologies, Puritan classics, books on all categories of Christian doctrine or ministry, Christian living, biographies, and an extensive history section (church and general). So we have provided the resources to enable the members of our body to grow in the knowledge of Scripture and the doctrines of the faith, in order to equip them to fulfill their individual and collective ministries and strive toward Christian maturity.
In addition to managing the library itself, some time ago I began a library email list. Only those who requested to be included are on it. Presently there are around 75 people on the list, including some who don’t attend CBC. Every morning, I visit the Gospel Coalition website, along with a few other selected sites, and review that day’s articles. I then choose 3 to 5 of the most interesting articles and forward them to the library email list. Part of the purpose is to encourage library usage by articles featuring book reviews, but an additional purpose is to increase awareness of issues being discussed in the wider evangelical world.
Let me provide a quote from a response I received last week from a library patron who is on the email list:
“Ron, thank you, once again, for your diligence to spawn discussion and broaden our thinking.”
That is the impact that I would hope the library would have on the intellectual life of our church.
I was particularly influenced by three books that I read a number of years ago:
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll.
No Place for Truth: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? by David Wells.
Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America, by Mark Noll.
I believe the library has contributed to our body gaining a fuller understanding of other traditions and perspectives. To take three examples of areas where there are often sharp differences of opinion, I have found a receptive audience for books featuring different views on end times theology, creation (young earth vs old earth, creation science vs intelligent design, etc.), and the on-going “Christian America” debate. And I am always quick to acquire new volumes in the several series giving four or five views on specific subjects, like Zondervan’s Counterpoint series for example. These enable the reader to, in one volume, see different perspectives all together.
In summary, I do think our library has had an impact on the intellectual life of the church. In the past, this was aided by our church leadership determining not to tie our church to hard positions on secondary matters, such a specific end times theology. And in the present, the library has been enabled by leadership’s continuing financial support for an aggressive library ministry.
JF: Thanks, Ron.
Are you interested in developing a church library or strengthening your existing library? Check out the library page at Community Bible Church for Ron’s helpful suggestions.
Our reports from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence last weekend continue to roll in. Elise Leal is a Ph.D candidate in American history at Baylor University. She is working on dissertation on the relationship between evangelicalism, social reform, and childhood in the early nineteenth century with a particular focus on the American Sundays school movement. Read all of her posts here. –JF
On the third day of OAH 2016, I participated in a special tour of the American Antiquarian Society. Six other conference attendees joined my bright and early Saturday morning for the drive to Worcester. I was the only graduate student, as the majority of the group were archivists, plus a high school history teacher. One of the archivists was a native of Massachusetts and regaled us with interesting historical facts about the state to help pass the time. For example, I learned that if you take the commuter rail from Worcester to Boston, it will take you just as long to get there today as it did in the late nineteenth century due to the slow speed of the trains.
We were greeted at the archive by Paul Erickson, AAS Director of Academic Programs, and James Moran, AAS Director of Outreach. They began the tour by sharing a brief history of the Society’s illustrious founder, Isaiah Thomas. A Revolutionary War era patriot and printer, Thomas was an outspoken promoter for independence in his newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy, which forced him to flee from Boston to Worcester in 1775 to escape being arrested by the British. In 1812, Thomas founded the American Antiquarian Society (then called the American Society of Antiquities) out of his personal library, creating the first historical society established in the United States with a national focus. The AAS now houses the largest collection of materials produced before 1820 and is surpassed in total collections size only by the Library of Congress.
One thing that I appreciated about the tour was that it was structured without being restrictive. After the brief historical overview, Paul and Jim took us through the main reading room and upper conference room containing historical memorabilia (think commemorative china plates sporting Lafayette’s face or a grandfather clock belonging to John Hancock). They then spent the majority of the tour taking us through various archival stacks. Throughout this whole process, they let us wander around with a fair degree of freedom and allowed us to handle many of the historical documents. For example, the first archival room we visited housed the AAS’s extensive collection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century newspapers. Paul and Jim pulled a selection of these newspapers for us to view, and they generously let us pour over these documents to our hearts’ content (it definitely took awhile…) My personal favorite, though, was the next room, which housed the nineteenth-century literature, pamphlets, graphic arts, maps, and the like. Paul asked about our research interests a few days before the tour, and he had prepared a lovely stack of American Sunday School Union books for me to view. Of course, the Revolutionary War letters from British officers, eyewitness accounts of an eighteenth-century cross-dresser, the mid-nineteenth century Valentine’s cards, and the giant hand-drawn genealogies that he pulled for other tour members were pretty cool too.
Speaking of cool things, Paul pointed out a large collection of railroad sources that have never been viewed and said that he’d love to have someone come use them for a project. If there are any early stage graduate students reading this, I’ve just found you a dissertation topic. You’re welcome.
In all, this two-hour tour was definitely worth the trip to Worcester. I got a fascinating insiders view of how archives are run from two very engaging AAS staff members. I also got to view a range of rare historical documents, some of which I didn’t know existed let alone thought I would handle. Many thanks to the American Antiquarian Society, and to Paul and Jim in particular, for making my first OAH experience that much more enjoyable.
Her name is Carla Hayden:
On Wednesday, February 24 at 7:30 PM with “A Sea Change: Naval Warfare in the American Revolution during the Spring of 1778,” a lecture by Dennis M. Conrad. There were significant changes in the nature of naval warfare in the spring of 1778, including the internationalization of the naval war, a re-direction in British strategy, and the emergence of significant Loyalist privateering activity, to name but a few. Dr. Conrad is Documentary Histories Technical Lead at the Naval History and Heritage Command. Using materials taken from the newly-published Naval Documents of the American Revolution, volume 12, he will provide a new and exciting perspective on America’s naval heritage.
On Tuesday, March 15 at 7:30 PM, DLAR will present “Maryland Immortals: Washington’s Elite Regiments and the Band of Brothers Who Led Them,” a lecture by combat historian Patrick K. O’Donnell. In August 1776, General George Washington found his troops outmanned and outmaneuvered at the Battle of Brooklyn. But thanks to a series of desperate charges by a single heroic regiment, famously known as the “Immortal 400,” Washington was able to evacuate his men and the nascent Continental Army lived to fight another day. Drawing on his new book,Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution, Mr. O’Donnell will tell the “boots on the ground” story of the “Maryland Line,” one of the Continental Army’s first elite outfits, which fought not just in Brooklyn, but in key battles including Trenton, Princeton, Camden, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse and Yorktown. Patrick K. O’Donnell is the author of ten books, includingBeyond Valor, Dog Company, and First SEALs.
DLAR will welcome T. H. Breen on Tuesday, April 12 at 7:30 PM to present “George Washington’s Journey to the American People.” In the first months of his presidency, George Washington boldly transformed American political culture by organizing a journey to all thirteen original states, a demanding tour designed to promote the strength and prosperity of a fragile new republic. The trip taught Washington the power of public opinion in securing support for the federal union, an achievement that he saw as the fulfillment of the Revolution. Professor Breen’s new book is George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation, and Gordon Wood says “(Breen) has given us new insights into the acute political skills of our first president and the state of the county in the 1790s.”
First, let me say that I love the David Library of the American Revolution!
I was a research fellow at the library several years ago and it was one of the best research experiences of my career. You can’t beat 24-hour access!
Over the years I have given a couple of talks/lectures at the DLAR and attended the annual McNeil Center for Early American Studies picnic.
If you are doing serious research on revolutionary America, or just trying to add some branches to your family tree, the DLAR is a wonderful place to work.
Over at the Journal of the American Revolution, recent DLAR intern Brianna Heverly has written an informative essay on all the library has to offer, including a few insights into some of the collections.
Here is a taste:
This is the argument of Portland Community College librarian Meredeth Farkas in a piece at The New Republic.
Farkas chides outgoing Librarian of Congress James Billington for, among other things, not modernizing the Library and bringing it fully into the digital world.
President Obama will soon appoint a new Librarian of Congress, a position that requires Congressional approval and could impact the everyday lives of most Americans. This position has the power to provide exemptions to a copyright regime that currently limits what consumers can do with their media, software, digital devices, and even vehicles. The next Librarian of Congress could ease copyright restrictions, provide improved access to federally-funded research, and embrace cooperative efforts toward making our nation’s history available online. On the other hand, the new Librarian could limit what Americans can do with the content and technologies they have lawfully purchased by choosing not to make exemptions to copyright law. It all hinges on the values and background of the person the President chooses to appoint….
|New York Public Library|
Later Friday, I attended two panels about important historical research issues in the digital era.
Press release from the DPLA website:
BOSTON — The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) announced today $594,000 in new funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to research potential sustainability models and to pursue the most promising option (or options). This two-year grant will allow DPLA to expand its staff to target opportunities for further development and revenue, without compromising its mission of open access to the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums.
“We deeply appreciate the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s generous support, which will help us build on DPLA’s tremendous momentum,” said DPLA Executive Director Dan Cohen. “Our ambitious coast-to-coast accumulation of openly available materials will take years to bring together and to put into educational contexts and public programs, and achieving a sustainable model will be critical to fulfilling that mission.”
The project, which will proceed in a series of phases, is designed to first comprehensively flesh out an emerging set of sustainability pathways for the young organization. In the following phases, DPLA will narrow down those options in concert with its partners and through additional technical and content work.
New positions in business development, content, and technology will help DPLA achieve this sustainable path. The opening for a Content Specialist is immediately available; other positions will be released in the near future at dp.la/info/about/jobs.
|Picture of AAS chairs from “Past is Present” blog|
For over a century, readers working in the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. MA sat in Colonial revival Windsor chairs. That all changed on January 6, 2014. Here is a taste of the AAS blog’s “History of the Reading Room Chairs.”
Press release from the Library Company: