On card catalogues

The yesterday’s post at Folger Library’s Collation brought back some memories of all the card catalogues I have studied back and forth over the past years, starting from the catalogue rooms of the Jagiellonian Library and the Czartoryski Library in Kraków through many other collections. I completely agree with Abbie Weinberg’s diagnosis and I also believe that the traditional card catalogue can be a powerful research tool which in some cases may prove to be much more useful or inspiring than its brand new, completely digital, glimmering online version and there are probably many other researchers who can confirm this. In this post, I would like to illustrate Abbie’s remarks with two catalogue anecdotes related to my own research.

Last August, I visited the City Library in Elbląg (Elbing) hoping to find some annotated volumes that could show some forms of reception of early modern chronological controversies. Over the years I have developed a long check list of names and subjects which I try to verify methodically in almost every library I visit. When I was preparing for my trip to Elbląg, I checked their online catalogue, noted down all the shelfmarks that I needed and sent them in advance to the library so that at least some portion of the books would be waiting for me on Monday morning. On the first day I saw a trolley filled with volumes that I ordered and I was getting ready to have a look at them when the librarian instructed me that they have also some other volumes by the authors I am interested in. It turned out that the online catalogue does not provide full information about their holdings as there is a number of titles that can be found only in the traditional card catalogue. The reason for this lies in the fact that in the process of cataloguing of the special collections somebody made a decision to include ONLY the items that were bound as the first positions of Sammelbände and to skip other titles. If one would base her research only on the online catalogue and would never get in touch with the librarians she would never know that one of the composite volumes contains a brochure on comets by Bartholomew Keckermann with an dedication in author’s hand (call no. Pol.7.II.2419–2426) or to discover the heavily annotated collection of early sixteenth-century astronomical prints by Johannes Sacrobosco, Johannes de Glogovia and Andreas Perlach, followed by a set of notes by some anonymous sixteenth-century student (call no. Pol.6.II.211–216). Imagine that you are interested in preparing a census of Keckermann’s works in European libraries or you are chasing annotated copies of Perlach’s textbook that are scattered around the world (as Darin Hayton did in his magnificent recent study of astrology at the court of Maximilian I) – without the (unofficial) knowledge of discrepancies between the card and online catalogues and consulting the card catalogue (or asking the librarians to do this on your behalf) you would probably overlook a number of titles hidden deep in the stacks. In this case the analogue card catalogue remains the basic reservoir of knowledge about the full contents of the Elbląg collections – consulting the online catalogue may bring you results as the following:

BKeckermann APerlach

(The necessity of consulting the card catalogues, either on site, or in digitized form or mediated by some incredibly patient librarian leads obviously to another issue, that is the limits of this kind of research and the criterion for saying stop at some point, but this is a topic I would like to keep for another occasion.)

Another anecdote is related to my personal pursuit of books annotated and/or owned by Peter Crüger. As I explained in one of older posts, the biggest (and, historically speaking, natural) repository of Crüger’s books is the Gdańsk Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences, although a number of his libri annotati can be found in few other locations. In order to make sure that there are no other titles in Gdansk that could contain Crüger’s marginalia, I travelled there a number of times and spent ca. 20 working days browsing the traditional card catalogue and leafing hundreds of volumes. Yet doing one’s research in the special collections of the Gdansk Library is not that simple. Its card catalogue is a kind of a historical monument which documents efforts made by generations of German and Polish librarians who worked at this institution over the past two centuries, organizing its vast and rich holdings into thematic clusters and creating tools for finding volumes. This multigenerational nature of the catalogue makes it a unique material object in its own right. The drawers are filled with cards made of various kinds of paper, some of them very thin and fragile, some quite thick. The handwriting on the cards (I don’t recall seeing a single typewritten card!) is sometimes really awful so if you recognize your author but do not remember or do not know the title of his work, it is nearly impossible to decipher it and write down on the order slip. Once you get the author, title, year of publication and the shelfmark, it is good to check the latter against the subject catalogue which has the form of a series of monumental handwritten volumes and contains annotations by postwar librarians who left information about possible war losses. Between the card catalogue room and the bookshelf filled with tomes of the subject catalogue begins the real adventure as one needs to learn the whole system and begin to work his or her way through the collection. Although a catalogue, with its alphabetical order, clear system of shelfmarks and well-organized rows of cards put in drawers may seem to be a simple tool it has also some mysteries and secrets. For a majority of volumes that I saw in Gdansk (and, as I said, I saw quite a lot of them) this worked quite smoothly. But with time the system started to reveal some discrepancies that can be understood or explained only by a librarian who has a lot of experience in tracking down the volumes between the stacks. This is actually a matter of transmission of expert hermetic knowledge which cannot be learned in the university classrooms where the future librarians are trained but can be gained only through practice. During my last visit to Gdańsk, in early December 2015, I decided to have a look at the copies of Heinrich Pantaleon’s works. At some point I received two titles I have ordered (Chronographia Ecclesiae Christi of 1568 bound with works by Clemens Schubert, shelfmark Lb 1131 2o, and Martyrum historia of 1563 bound with the 1559 Basel edition of John Foxe’s Rerum in Ecclesia gestarum … pars prima, shelfmark Uph. fol. 116). Neither of them contained annotations in Crüger’s hand so I made some basic notes about the volumes and returned them quickly at the circulation desk. To my amazement, it turned out that there is a problem with another copy of Chronographia Ecclesiae Christianae (Basel: Nicolaus Brylinger, 1551) as the librarians cannot recognize the shelfmark (XX C fol. 252). First, they suspected that I miscopied the shelfmark, so we went to the card catalogue room, I showed the card and for the next two hours I could observe a number of Gdańsk librarians of various generations walking between the two catalogues and the stock, discussing the possible explanations of this problem. It turned out that nobody has ever seen this kind of shelfmark and that I accidentally digged up some archaeological layer of the catalogue which was completely forgotten. The most plausible explanation would be to assume that in the process of recataloguing of the collection somebody must have forgotten to change the shelfmark on the card or to prepare the new one and that this singularity is a kind of fossil documenting earlier stages of the development and organization of this collection. This, however, did not explain the fact that the subject catalogue did not contain references to this particular copy of Pantaleon’s work and, again, it is possible that it was lost either long before the introduction of the current system of shelfmarks (which is actually a work of German librarians inherited and maintained by their Polish successors) and hence the book never received the new shelfmark.

Although my desire to see the volume was never fulfilled, I learned an important lesson on different level: even such a prima facie simple tool as card catalogue requires interpretation and expert knowledge. This knowledge remains tacit and inactive for most of the time, but on special occasions like this missing copy of Pantaleon, has to be activated and this is only possible thanks to the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another. And just like old books, catalogues sometimes also require an archaeological approach and toolbox.

Advertisements

An Annotated Postcard

Last December, when I carried out phase I of my preliminary survey in the tremendous special collections of the Gdańsk Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences my dreams of a marginalia fetishist came true once again. It turned out that my hopes of finding Central European scholars annotating works on calendars and chronology and polemicizing with Scaliger, Clavius, Petavius, Calvisius et consortes by means of annotations left on the pages of their books won’t be limited to the (rich enough) set of glosses left by Joannes Broscius and a bundle of anonymous libri annotati found here and there but will be expanded by at least one more reader who can be identified and whose annotations can be linked with his own works. This is the case of Peter Crüger (1580-1639), professor of astronomy and poetics in the Gymnasium Academicum in Gdańsk, one of the three famous Lutheran educational centers in the broadly understood Pomerania region.

Gdańsk Library is well-known as a treasure trove of various unique primary sources to the intellectual history of the region and its institutions and it seems that even after many years of scholarly efforts there are materials that have never been studied closely or have been studied for wrong reasons. This is the case of Crüger, whose annotations, mostly those left in the 3rd edition of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus (now preserved in the Copernicus Museum in Frombork) attracted attention of scholars not due to the fact that he was an scholar in his own right, but mostly because he was a teacher of a much greater mind, i.e. Johannes Hevelius. This attitude can be best observed in a 3-pages long article published ca. 70 years ago by Tadeusz Przypkowski. In it, Przypkowski presented Crüger’s annotations in his copy of the 3rd edition of De revolutionibus but the conclusion he drew is somewhat surprising as he postulated creation of a monograph of Hevelius! It seems that only Owen Gingerich, in his Census of the first and second edition of Copernicus’s groundbreaking work did Crüger justice, presenting him as an actual reader and giving a very concise yet instructive report on the contents of his marginalia in one of the Moscow copies of De revolutionibus.

Title page of Astronomia instaurata (so-called 3rd edition of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus), owned in turn by Peter Crüger and Johannes Hevelius; Nicolaus Copernicus Museum, Frombork, Poland

 

Apart from these two volumes, notes in Crüger’s hand seem to be a virgin land and I am going to explore it a little bit, starting from the calendrical and chronological corner yet I guess there may be also some other areas that turn out worth exploring.

My December visit to Gdańsk proved to be only a beginning of a longer journey. After studying few books annotated by Crüger it turned out that one of them is preserved in quite a surprising location:

API

My March trip to the 2015 Annual Meeting in Berlin, where I organized a series of panels on chronology in the early modern period, seemed to be an excellent occasion to have a look at this volume. On Wednesday before the official proceedings of the RSA began, I spent a lovely morning at the Library of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam-Babelsberg where a copy of Kepler’s Astronomia nova, owned in turn by Crüger and Hevelius, is preserved. It is a fine volume which was carefully restored in 1950’s and all the annotations except for few minor ones have survived until today in highly legible form. I am really happy for two reasons: this brief, technical visit allowed me to pick up a single yet quite substantial piece of a puzzle which can be somehow linked to the astronomical workshop of Crüger and at the same time, like all good marginalia (should) do, opens up new paths for further queries.

Two days after my visit to Postdam and just seconds after the chronological panels, a bucket of cold water was poured on my head. I went to the roundtable session celebrating the 25th anniversary of Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine’s seminal essay on Gabriel Harvey’s reading of Livy. One of the most important things I learned during this fabulous meeting is that Grafton and Jardine, calling themselves “granpa and grandma of marginalia studies”, are not satisfied with the way their article was applied and imitated in further studies on early modern readers and that they ment something different than establishing a simple generative model for writing an endless series of papers on ‘X reading Y‘. While I believe every case is different and it always depends on the skills and approach of particular historian what s/he will eventually do with such kind of primary sources as marginalia, I must admit that Grafton and Jardine diagnosed an important illness (or a sin) of letting oneself believe that finding a reader and his annotations is a sufficient condition to write yet another study following the rules established by their 1990 paper. I have spent few past years with annotations, either doing research for my PhD, then moving on to other fields, and it was last December when the symptoms of this illness (or inclination towards this sin) struck me for the first time. It was then when I saw Crüger’s annotations for the first time during my visit to Gdansk: they simply triggered a feeling of finding something familiar yet new, something that you dealt with earlier and you know how to proceed with this kind of sources (or at least you believe you know) and at the same time something idiomatic and unique, which will force you to find new way of writing on this kind of sources even if you feel OK with the way you wrote your earlier studies. This feeling of familiarity can be misleading and cannot end well and it always takes great effort to overcome one’s mental and scholarly habits in order to find new approach and I think the apparent ease with which the “Studied for Action” paper can be emulated is the main fault for the entire confusion about the method and purpose of studying marginalia.

Certainly, there are some aspects of early modern annotations that can be treated as basis for data-mining and large scale analysis based on a large corpora of libri annotati – this is mostly the purpose of a new exciting project on the “Archaeology of Reading” with Grafton and Jardine as principal co-investigators. I really look forward to the development of this enterprise and I can only imagine what kind of tools and results the project will bring over the years to come. Yet, being also an admirer of micro-narratives, I do not want to let early modern readers dissolve in the pool of hundreds and thousands of annotations. I am not sure if the authors of the paper celebrated in Berlin would agree with me that what makes the set of marginalia writing about is the fact that they allow one to go beyond the closed cycle of references between a series of books and look at the relationship between these annotations and some other kinds of evidence. It is really difficult to find such a link in some cases, sometimes it is not necessary – it depends on the kind of history you would like to write and how far your sources and your imagination can take you. And I believe that this fact gives me at least partial absolution: “my” readers were involved in public activity, both as teachers and polemicists, and even if large chunks of their annotations have a technical or theoretical character and create a coherent system of internal references between piles of books, some of them still extant, some of them perished, they can be linked to their involvement in the public sphere where they translated their professional knowledge into the more popular kind of discourse and tried to shape views of citizens without professional training in calendrical astronomy or training of any other kind.

Having said this, I must confess that my sin drove me again to Gdańsk where I arrived yesterday and will stay until Friday, carrying out phase II of my survey. Here I am, an irredeemable sinner, willing to study marginalia in hope that there is some kind of order that can be derived out of them and that they can create pieces of narrative that can be written on Crüger – not as an isolated scholarly reader but as a scholar who by means of reading and linking various texts laid foundation for education of next generations of citizens of Gdansk/Danzig and whose knowledge of astronomy and the way it can be applied to chronology allowed him to get involved into public debate on Gregorian calendar and use chronology as a vehicle for other kinds of knowledge. Having transcribed a large portion of Crüger’s notes today and awaiting to see some other of his volumes over the next four days, I am still thinking about differences and similarities between him and other readers I have studied or read about. When you are sitting in a reading room, trying to decipher Crüger’s tiny hand, focusing on direct relations between the note left in the margin and printed text, trying to figure out the real meaning of all these references to Josephus, Bucholzer, Tremellius, Scaliger, Casaubon, Kepler and Petavius – it is easy to forget about the reality outside the library. Bu the world behind the library’s walls does exist, just as it did in Crüger’s times – and this is probably one of the arguments which gives some value added to the study of annotations and makes this kind of scholarship useful not only for book historians and manuscript fetishists but also for people interested in social interactions and the history of shaping of public sphere through of education, scholarship, and debate.