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PITTSFIELD - Today would be Herman Melville's 195th birthday. Born on Pearl Street in Manhattan, the Moby Dick author found solace and inspiration at his family home known as Arrowhead, nestled in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

On August 5th 1850, four days after turning 31, Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, at 46 years old, was an established figure on the American literary scene.  Local Stockbridge attorney David Dudley, Jr. was a mutual acquaintance and set up the rendez-vous by inviting the writers, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, for a hike up nearby Monument Mountain. An unexpected thunderstorm forced the group to take shelter in a cave, which gave Melville and Hawthorne an opportunity to converse at length and ultimately develop something of a literary father-son relationship. The party reached the summit and celebrated in style, toasting their arrival with champange and a poetry reading. 

Over the next three years Melville and Hawthorne wrote regularly to each other, sharing ideas, editing and commenting on the other's work. At the time, Melville was finishing The Whale, while Hawthorne was putting together short stories based on his hometown of Salem. While the friendship would fade by 1852, the men forged a relationship that impacted both their literary and professional lives thereafter. (Melville even dedicated Moby Dick to his friend: "To Nathaniel Hawthorne: In token of my admiration for his genius.")

The Berkshire Historical Society at Arrowhead has hosted a free hike up the mountain to commemorate the meeting since the late 1990's. I spoke with Berkshire Historical Society curator Will Garrison about this weekend's walkabout. "Well, we don't drink champagne at the top anymore," Garrison says. "We stick to sparkling water these days." Lack of alcoholic refreshment doesn't deter enthusiasts in the slightest - between forty and fifty people make the journey each year.

The group meets promptly at 9am at the base of the mountain, in the parking lot, where a volunteer reads the first half of the same poem Melville's hiking party had read: William Cullen Bryant's  "Monument Mountain," a lyrical ode about a lovesick Mohican maiden who throws herself off a cliff when forbidden to marry her true love. Her body was covered with stones as a "monument" to the event. Once at the summit - Squaw Peak - the group finishes the poem, toasts the milestone, and heads back down.  

Interested parties may learn more at the Berkshires Trustees website. Participants are encouraged to wear closed-toe shoes and to be prepared for a moderate three-mile effort, with a total elevation gain of 720 feet. 

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Monument Mountain, where Melville and Hawthorne first toasted their friendship. © Berkshires Trustees of Reservations.
Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with William Noel, Director of the Kislak Center, for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

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How did you get started in rare books?

When I was about sixteen I was completely staggered to learn that you could actually hold an Anglo-Saxon manuscript in your hands, even today, if you could persuade a friendly librarian that you had a genuine research reason to do so.  I had to work hard to find my first research reason, and harder than I would like to admit to find my first friendly librarian. But after having studied one manuscript in the flesh I found it easy to think of reasons why I had to look at more.

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

Cambridge University

What is your role at your institution?

I am the Director of the Kislak Center, for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. I am also the Director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, which is a Research Institute for the study of manuscripts in the digital age.

Tell us about some of your projects, I understand you directed the Archimedes Palimpsest project for example:

So the Archimedes Palimpsest is a thirteenth century Byzantine prayerbook. It contains seven erased undertexts, including two treatises by Archimedes that don't exist anywhere else, and it turns out, other unique political and philosophical texts from the ancient world (  The book was in such bad condition, the scripts so illegible, and the texts so important, that I was able to gather the help of the best conservators, imagers, project managers, data specialists and scholars in the world to do the work.  My primary goal in the project was to make sure I never made a decision; the decisions were best made by the experts. my role was to create an environment in which the right people could make the best decisions.  That wasn't always easy, but I had a far easier job than the experts. It was the coolest project that I have worked on, but I am just as proud of my publications on English manuscript illumination, and of the digital catalogue and archive of many of the manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum, where I could and sometimes did contribute to the intellectual side of the endeavor. 

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?

Easy. The Utrecht Psalter - the great masterpiece of the book arts from the Carolingian Renaissance. I have only grazed it with the little finger of my right hand. But I have spent several days looking at it with Koert van der Horst, who was the (very friendly) keeper of manuscripts at the University Library of Utrecht for many years.

What do you personally collect?

Recordings of Bach's Cello Suites.

What excites you about rare book librarianship?

Two things.  Handling medieval manuscripts on a daily basis, and the potential of digital technologies to make special collections available to an audience of five billion people.

Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?

I tell you what. The future of Special collections is clear, and its rosy, and they will be central to the future of any library that is lucky enough to house them. As for rare book librarianship as a vocation, we have to make sure that we retain and value traditional skills as we rightly embrace the most modern technologies.

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?

We are currently processing the archive off John Mauchly, the co-inventor of Eniac, and he turns out to have been a wonderful character. Check out this and other blog posts by Holly Mengel.

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

Opening on August 22, and running through December 19 is "As the Ink Flows; Works from the Pen of William Steig", which will display highlights of a collection of over 3,000 drawings, notebooks and other material, by this wonderful cartoonist and children's book author. The gift was made by his widow Jeanne, to University of Pennsylvania Libraries.
9781451667059.jpgDo Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records (Scribner, $25) is not, of course, a book about books, but it is a book about collecting, which is why it made our list of "7 Summer Reads." The author, music critic Amanda Petrusich, delves into the underworld of quirky collectors, an "oddball fraternity of men" who scour flea markets and estate sales looking for backwoods blues artists released in small batches on 78s in the 1920s and 30s. It's a fun and often funny book, and one that will inspire a feeling of familiarity among bibliophiles--Petrusich herself admits to her childhood predilection for perfectly lined up spines of her paperback collection. The book is about the "lure of objects," as she puts it, and the preservation and veneration of those objects.

Petrusich may be bitten by the collecting bug, and thus as vulnerable to its neuroses as the rest of us, but she ably unpacks these record collections as cultural documents, particularly in the case of 78s when so much of the music lay undiscovered for so long, with records so rare only one or two copies exist. Unlike later vinyl, 78s leave no masters behind, which means the brittle disks themselves are what's left of the recording sessions. Bibliophiles generally have to reach much further back to find that combination of original material and incredible rarity, but reading this did bring to mind the zines of the late 80s/90s. Created in small editions, quickly outdated by technology, and largely forgotten until collectors and archivists began to see their documentary value.

Do Not Sell is full of strange, even beautiful, tales of obsession. For example, she interviews a collector plagued by dreams that he has finally found a 78 of Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman." The book's title comes from a neat anecdote of seeing two 78s, now in two different collections, each bearing a sticker that proclaims, "Do Not Sell At Any Price." Petrusich writes, "I was subsumed by a strange gratitude, just then, for that faceless person and his little white stickers, for his vehemence, for this commitment to music as a thing to work for and revere and treasure and save, till death do you part." But perhaps the most entertaining story is Petrusich's own--when she scuba-dives into the muddy Milwaukee River hoping to discover a treasure of shiny shellac long ago flung into the river by Paramount factory workers.

Even someone who knows little or nothing about 78s will find Petrusich's book an incredibly enjoyable read. An excerpt is available here.
2016 may seem a long way off, but that year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death and commemorative events are already in the making.  Leading the charge is a traveling exhibition entitled Shakespeare and His First Folio, which will bring the 1623 first published collection of Shakespeare's plays to all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U. S. Virgin Islands. Applications to host the exhibition just recently opened.  (Applications accepted from public, academic, or special libraries, small museums, colleges or universities, historical societies, or similar cultural institutions).

Multiple copies of the First Folio will tour the nation accompanied by six interpretive panels.  The exhibition will provide thousands of people across the country a unique opportunity to view in person the first collection of Shakespeare plays, published seven years after his death. Of the 750 copies printed in 1623, it is believed that 228 have survived into the present era, almost all of which are now housed in institutions.

The traveling exhibition is a joint project between ALA, the Folger, and the Cincinnati Museum Center. The exhibition will be funded in part by a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Shakespeare and His First Folio will launch in January 2016 and continue throughout the year.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York opened this weekend a show of more than 100 posters, lithographs, printed ephemera, and illustrated books by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the French artist often credited with bringing the avant-garde to the masses.  Widely published in journals and magazines, his art depicted the cultural life of late nineteenth-century Paris--cabarets, salons, brothels. It is first exhibition at MoMA since 1985 dedicated solely to Lautrec, and most is from the museum's own collection (donated, in large part, by the Rockefeller family).

JaneAvril small.jpgHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864-1901). Jane Avril. 1899. Lithograph, sheet: 22 1/16 x 15 in. (56 x 38.1 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1946.

Performers--and their venues--were of great importance to Lautrec. In particular, he made many lithographs of dancer Jane Avril (seen above) between 1893 and 1899.  Another entertainer/muse, Cha-U-Kao, was a Moulin Rouge clown, depicted in the Japonisme style (seen below).  

Clownesse small.jpgHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864-1901). La Clownesse au Moulin Rouge (The Clowness at the Moulin Rouge). 1897. Lithograph, sheet: 15 7/8 x 12 11/16 in. (40.4 x 32.3 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1946.

Very much part of the artistic and cultural milieu, Lautrec applied his talents to advertising posters for debut literary reviews, song sheets, menus, and theatrical events, as seen below in a program he created for Théâtre Libre in 1894.

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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864-1901). La Loge au mascaron doré (The Box with the Gilded Mask), program for Le Missionnaire (The Missionary) at the Théâtre Libre. 1894. Lithograph, sheet: 12 1/16 x 9 7/16 in. (30.6 x 24 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Johanna and Leslie J. Garfield Fund, Mary Ellen Oldenburg Fund, and Sharon P. Rockefeller Fund, 2008.  

The exhibit will remain open through March 22, 2015. An accompanying hardcover book by associate curator of drawings and prints Sarah Suzuki highlights MoMA's collection of prints and posters by Lautrec.
To mark the centenary of WWI, the German government has digitized and made freely available 700,000 documents related to the war on the website of the Federal Archive. The material includes audio recordings, films, and photos in addition to an array of personal and governmental documents. Records of politicians, military and civilian authorities, propaganda films, and even personal letters from the front are all part of the newly accessible treasure trove.

Curators at the Federal Archive said the material will be of particular benefit to genealogists as it includes extensive information about locations where German soldiers served.

German commemorations for the WWI centenary will be subdued. No large public commemorations are planned this year.  The German federal government will instead provide financial assistance to international commemorations and subsidize exhibitions like one entitled "1914: 100 Years Afterward" currently on display at the German Historical Institute in Berlin.

 A slideshow of photographs depicting German life on the front lines is viewable here.
Is the National Library of India destroying rare books after they have been digitized?  Is the library roof leaking rainwater on books and newspapers?  The Times of India reported last month that the National Library of India has "turned into a dumping ground."

Newspaper informants revealed that books were being torn apart page by page in digitization efforts and that the pages were dumped after the digitization process was completed.

Another informant discussed the deplorable condition of the building's roof:

"Many portions of the ceiling are broken. During monsoon, water seeps in and falls on the books and newspapers kept on the racks. In some areas it's so bad that we have to cover the books with tarpaulin or else they will all be destroyed."

The National Library of India in Kolkata, Bengal, is the largest library of India and the nation's library of public record.

The Times of India also interviewed the library director, P Y Rajendra Kumar, who denied the claim about the roof. "As far as I know there is no such leakage in the library. There was one leak from an AC duct and drops of water were falling on the books. I have told the person concerned to take care of it and it will be repaired immediately. Apart from that there is no leakage."

Kumar's comments, however, did not appease the Times of India who referred to the national library as a "graveyard for books and newspapers." The newspaper also reported that the one of the library's back doors was unlocked and no security was present.

The Times of India does not seem to have asked Kumar about the destruction of rare books after digitization.

So... what's really going on in Kolkata?

[Image from Wikipedia]

The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, North Carolina, not far from the world famous Pinehurst No. 2 golf course, has an expert stocking its shelves. Bill Maher, a retried history professor, gets people coming back to the shop for one reason: He knows his stuff.


Antiquarian book collectors sometimes forget that there is another class of book collector. These collectors do not collect books for their beauty or rarity but rather attempt to assemble a collection that represents mankind's current state of understanding of a particular topic. Sometimes misidentified as readers, these collectors do not find their treasures in the dusty and dim shops of the antiquarian collector. Their books often come off the "new releases" table at their local lively and hip bookstore.


Although declining in numbers, many bibliophiles say indie bookstores offer the best way to buy new books because indie stores have the best staff. Being able to be recommended books and talk about books with a knowledgeable person makes indie customers feel that their shopping experience is unique and fun.


Maher, 69, is recently retired from a 25-year career teaching history and political science at Montgomery Community College. He now divides his time between his home in Charlotte, North Carolina and The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines. Maher makes recommendations to the owner as to what history books to buy, and he chooses some books to be featured in his "Bill's Picks" section.


Maher is able to refresh his section often because he reads an average of three to five books a week. "I've always liked to read," says Maher. "I don't golf. The only sports I like are baseball and boxing. The great thing about those two sports is you can read and listen at the same time."


Maher chooses books for his section the same way he tried to choose books for the courses he taught. He picks books that "reach out and grab you by the throat." He believes that there are two ways to write history, from the top down or the bottom up. The majority of the books in his section are of the second variety. They are about the almost forgotten gems of history, the small stories of personal heroism and folly that give color to the grander "top" events.


A collector of modern books on the War on Terror, Maher finds that part of the fun of his job is guiding both collectors and readers in their purchases. He does not "push" books onto his customers if he feels the works are not first-class. "I want to be able to put in my customers hands books that I am totally sure arrive at the truth as close as possible," he says.


Maher acknowledges that the independent bookselling trade is hurting. He says that the large retiree population of military, diplomats, and businessmen around his store is a big secret to its success. "Southern Pines is the perfect place for an independent bookstore," says Maher.


When asked about how website and warehouse booksellers compete with his business, Maher says, "Warehouse stores are good for warehousing. The ideas sit on shelves, but the majority of the employees have no idea what the books are."


Maher talks about his store with tremendous enthusiasm. "There isn't an employee in here who doesn't know their sections. They talk about them with customers and among themselves. In here, ideas aren't just stored on a shelf. They float around in the air, like tennis balls bouncing off the walls."


The Country Bookshop is the kind of store where one goes in looking for a book and leaves with five. This is, of course, the plight of the bibliomane, but not every book sells itself. It is up to people like Maher to gently guide the collector and casual reader in making a good purchase. "When you walk into our front door," says Maher, "you're going to have an experience."


Three years have passed since Maher began working in the bookshop. "They treat me very nicely to come down three times a week. They pay me well, and I get a cut rate price on books," Maher says. He seems to have no intention of stopping any time soon.

*All accompanying images are of books recommended by Bill Maher

602px-Downtown_Saratoga_Springs.jpgSaratoga Springs, NY. All spas and horse-racing, right? Not so. Certainly there is racing (the Stakes open Friday), but ballet and literature are giving the horses a run for their money in this historic town. The New York City Ballet holds a mini summer season there, and the Bolshoi will make its debut at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on July 29. There is also the National Museum of Dance. The New York State Summer Writer's Institute, held this year from June 30-July 25 at nearby Skidmore College, brings a decidedly literary element to town.

Where else might the bookies--I mean, bookish--go? I put that question to the proprietors of Saratoga-based Smith&Press, an independent publisher that produces translations and facsimile editions of early printed books (for a Q&A with Smith&Press founder, Selim Nahas, go here). They replied: "When we arrived in Saratoga we discovered the town was home to some unique book businesses. The Lyrical Ballad Bookstore is a rare gem of a bookstore that offers a vast array of out-of-print books where anything can be found. Northshire Bookstore offers a wonderful selection of contemporary works without being a chain store and is known for attracting well-known and respected authors for book signings (Anne Rice recently appeared, Hillary Clinton is scheduled in two weeks, for example). The public library has a special collections room for Saratoga history and given the distinct character and history of Saratoga, we felt that bringing our business here would add to the book culture of Saratoga Springs."  

A recent visit to the Lyrical Ballad Bookstore confirms their opinion. It's a delightful rabbit warren of first editions and vintage paperbacks, where a tidy Modern Library reprint of Christopher Morley's Parnassus on Wheels can be had for $5 (I hope it's as good as his Haunted Bookshop). New York state history, dance/music, and poetry are specialties.

Smith&Press is currently working on its online research and reference tool, TLC and preparing new works, which include translations of Galileo, Cardano, Philippo Finella, Fortunio Liceti, and Leonardo DaVinci's Volo Codice (Flight of Birds), as well as a translation of the complete works of Copernicus (De Revolutionibus). All of these works are being made available in TLC and some select works will be offered in a print-on-demand format. They have also produced adjoining printed facsimiles of the Volo Codice and Leonardo's Leicester Codice.

In addition to the places named above, a literary tourist might also visit the Lucy Scribner Library at Skidmore College. And, if you have transportation, Old Saratoga Books, a used and rare bookshop strong in early American and Revolutionary War material, is about fifteen minutes out of town.

Image: "Downtown Saratoga Springs" by UpstateNYer - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Lord Snowdon, one of Britain's most celebrated photographers, donated 130 portraits of writers, artists, musicians, and celebrities to the National Portrait Gallery in London.  The portraits include iconic images of Agatha Christie, Vita Sackville-West, Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, and Nell Dunn amongst many others.

(Nell Dunn (L) and Vita Sackville-West (R))

The director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne, said "These are wonderful portrait images of some most creative and engaging contributors to Britain in the second half of the 20th century."

Lord Snowdon's gift is one the largest ever received by the institution. Some of the portraits will be included in the exhibition Snowdon: A Life in View opening in September. The exhibition was already being planned for this fall to showcase portraits donated last year by Snowdon.

Lord Snowdon is equally as well-known in Britain for his eighteen year marriage to Princess Margaret, younger sister to Queen Elizabeth, between 1960 and 1978. He also photographed for Vogue magazine for six decades.

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