Sunday with Zin: Papyrus, Parchment, Paper, Pixels!

Hello, I am Zin! Last week the Boston Athanaeum came to Portland!

Not the whole library, but James Reid-Cunningham (does that not sound like the name of someone from the Boston Athanaeum?) who is the – take a breath – Chief Conservator and Associate Director for Digitization and Preservation! He gave a talk titled “Roll to Codex to Kindle: Books and Libraries in the Age of Digitization.”

Do not be afraid! Surfboards and Hell Money are coming up, just give me a minute!

For those who are not properly awed, the Boston Athanaeum is a private library founded in 1807 and has an image (at least it did when I lived in Boston 20 years ago) of being the sort of place no one goes except for tenured Harvard professors, except that is not really the case, it just is the image they have!

Mr. Reid-Cunningham is a very nice, highly distinguished gentleman who seemed afraid no one would be interested in his lecture, except we all were! That is why we were there! And he seemed worried no one would get his jokes, but we did, especially when he showed the digitalized collection of surfboards! I mean, who could not love online surfboards?

But the fact is – and I discovered this after the lecture while I was looking for the text online – he is also a Book Artist! This was not part of his lecture, but it is too good to miss, just look at some of the amazing works of art he has created:
Love: 12 Devices: it is beautiful, it looks like Chinese script, but not!
Crimson Fears: (with Mike Jennings), a six-copy edition released by Wages of Fear – does this sound like a stuffy Bostonian book conservator to you?
Zakka II: a teeny-tiny book! And I just love teeny-tiny books!
Apocalypse: Zero Hour: it looks like a Kitchenaid mixer but it is actually a “Hell money textblock sewn with a long stitch using magenta linen threads on snakeskin tapes. Plexiglas and copper boards laced on with alum tawed goatskin tackets. Boards and textblock burned. Galvanized steel and snakeskin clasp. Slate display stand with mahogany and rubber supports.” What is Hell Money? I am not sure, I never heard of it before, but it was apparently printed in Hong Kong by missionaries for use in the Afterlife to demonstrate the folly of mammon! See where a trip to the library can take you?
The Enemies of Books: Bookbinders: This is wonderful! It is an 1887 essay by William Blades excoriating bookbinders, bound by a bookbinder into several renditions – some have nail-studded covers! And a micro-book – less than 2 inches across! Look at the photo, it is only about twice the size of a dime! This is spectacular as a technical accomplishment and as an artistic statement!

I wish I had known about this when I went to the lecture! It had nothing to do with his talk, but it was amazing to discover afterwards!

The lecture he gave was excellent even if it did not include Crimson Fears and Hell Money, and you can read it online complete with slides (the surfboards are on pages 59 & 60)! He talked about reading material from papyrus scrolls to wax tablets to parchment codex to paper, the development of bookbinding (which has been substantially unchanged for 500 years!), library technology (back in the days of the card catalog, no one thought computers would work because it was assumed only one person at a time could use it!), and digitization technology (the new-fangled “v-cradle” allows books to be copied without having to be opened flat, which hurts the bindings especially with old books; and a robotic arm to turn pages – “the debate is, which is less likely to damage books, a robotic arm or a bored human being?”). The purpose of digitization is not really to keep people from handling the originals, but to increase availability to those who can not travel to the documents! It actually increases the number of in-person visitors by increasing awareness of what materials are available! This is very cool! And he showed some repair processes: washing paper, mending tears. The next technology will be to allow digitization – copying – of books that can not be opened 90 degrees, which is the case with some very old or damaged books!

And it ended with a cartoon by Edward Gorey: “There’s No Such Thing as Too Many Books!” This means a lot to me; when I was little I was not allowed to buy books, because I already had books! When I had my own allowance and bought my own books (and records and sheet music), my father disapproved because I already had books and records! He was not anti-book, he just grew up during the Great Depression so he was very practical and could not understand that books and music were as necessary as food and clothes and air! But I always enjoy seeing my love for books validated!

The Q&A included some discussion of why “the original is always better” than a digitized copy, and the observation by one attendee that Kindle and other electronic media depend on electricity and additional technology which has been around a very short time! It is true, while it is very nice to have 2000 books on a device you can put in your rucksack, what are you going to do when the Apocalypse comes and your Hell Money is no longer good? You are going to want paper books again! But seriously, everything has its place, and while I love my paper books, if it were not for technology, I would not know about this lecture (or the Book Art), and you would not be reading about it!

This was a wonderful event – there were many great nuggets not included in my much-too-brief summary – and I am glad the Boston Athanaeum no longer has that stuffy snooty feel to it for me! If Mr. Reid-Cunningham comes to your library, I highly recommend his lecture! And in the Q&A be sure to ask him about his book art!

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