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.

Virtual Museums and Time

Few years ago I had the occasion to observe the heroic beginnings of the Virtual Museums of Lesser Poland (Wirtualne Muzea Małopolski, hereafter WMM) project which is aimed at the three-dimensional photographic documentation of selected historical exhibit items from the museums scattered throughout this historical region of Poland. Back then, apart from being a PhD student at the Jagiellonian University, I worked as editor at the Autoportret quarterly and thanks to the fact that both the magazine and the WMM project are based at the same institution allowed me to observe fragmentarily the selection of the equipment and listen to some of discussions about first test sessions.

Few years later, in the fall of 2014, I received a letter from Kinga Kołodziejska of the WMM. It turned out that apart from the traditional (albeit 3D) presentation of the items the team created a section dedicated to a more elaborate interpretations or essays based on the pieces presented in the online collection and written by scholars coming from various corners of academia. Kinga asked me to write a piece on broadly understood time and the offer was simply too tempting to turn it down. Unfortunately, time was not on our side and the final version of my essay had to wait up until the vernal equinox of 2016 to see the digital daylight. But here it is, in Polish and English, available for browsing and downloading and provided with awesome graphic interpretation designed by Anna Zabdyrska.

I wish to thank the WMM team for their invitation and patience and I kindly invite readers of CU to dive into the river of time.


Google and the World Brain in Cracow

Some time ago I announced the publication of the issue of Autoportret quarterly dedicated to the relationship of space and knowledge. Since a number of articles gathered in this issue touches upon the problem of digitization and of what Google does with our brains (and metadata we leave behind), we decided to organize a screening of Google and the World Brain, a fabulous documentary by Ben Lewis, which is dedicated to the Google Books Projects and corporation from Mountain View.

If you happen to be in Cracow on the 7th of May, feel invited to come to the Forum Przestrzenie club at 7:30 p.m. to see the movie and join the discussion which will be moderated by Jakub Danecki and myself.

For more details in Polish visit this site.

Spaces of Knowledge

Back in 2010, when I started to work as a secretary of the board of the Autoportret quarterly, a Kraków-based magazine dedicated to anthropology of space, it turned out that we shared some interest in the relationship between space, architecture and production of knowledge. It took some time before this idea ripened and could serve as a basis for the journal’s thematic issue and find its place in the editorial plan. But it finally happened and I am pleased to inform you that the issue of Autoportret on the spaces of knowledge has come of the press.

This information is addressed mostly to the Polish speaking readers of Chronologia Universalis, but I believe I owe the readers of this blog a brief overview of the issue as some of the articles may be of interest to them, even despite the language barrier. We are starting with the 2009 lecture on Google Books which was given by Robert Darnton at the Frankfurt Book Fair and published in his The Case for Books. Darnton’s essay is complemented by an impression on virtual graveyard written by the AESD collective, originally published at their website. I took the occasion to settle the score with issue which got my attention while I was working on my doctorate, i.e. the spatial metaphors of knowledge in early modern treatises which dovetails with an literary and visual essay prepared by Jakub Woynarowski, a Kraków artists and designer. There are two essays on cartography, one on the role of maps in building the identity in the Renaissance Poland-Lithuania, written by Jakub Niedźwiedź, and the other by Tomasz Kamusella, on the ideological role of historical atlases. The idea of the library is the strongest point of reference for the whole issue of the journal (cf. editorial questionnaire, interview with Dariusz Śmiechowski and photographic essay by Nicholas Grospierre) but there is also an article on the design of the Cité internationale universitaire de Paris by Katarzyna Mrugała. Finally, through essays by Matteo Trincas and Davide Pisu (Osmosis) as well as by Rossano Baronciani and Krzysztof Korżyk we are having a look at the problem of evolution (or devolution) of knowledge in the digital world.

It was a great pleasure for me to get back to the editorial work I left behind in Kraków and to stay in touch with this wonderful group of authors. I wish to thank the editors of the journal for their trust and support and I hope the future will bring us further opportunities to collaborate.

Below you will find the cover of this issue of Autoportret, designed by Anna Zabdyrska, and here you will find some further information in Polish.

Autoportret 44 - Spaces of Knowledge

The theater of cosmic and human history

This post is a revised and modified English version of my guest post at the blog of the Digital National Library of Poland POLONA which was published on October 17, 2013.


Stanisław Lubieniecki’s Theatrum cometicum as a physical book is such a marvellous object that I should recommend all readers of this post to immediately locate the nearest copy, turn off the computers, go and see and feel it on your own. Theatrum, published in three parts is one of these pieces of early modern scholarship which can serve as a material proof of the great falsehood that stands behind the digital libraries, regardless of their size, scope and democratic character, starting from the private, corporate enterprises through the digitization projects carried out by the national libraries, to the digital repositories of academic, regional or even municipal libraries. There is no digital image, no file format that could either render or substitute the experience of having Theatrum at one’s desk in the special collections reading room. Furthermore, Theatrum’s three parts were bound quite often in one monstruous volume of about 1,5 thousand folio pages which, together with the weight of historical wooden and leather bindings, gives a massive brick that requires quite a lot of physical strength from both the librarians and researchers. But let’s leave the discussion of digital vs analogue for another occasion and focus on the very work of the Socinian astronomer.

The content of Theatrum is a subject that would require a separate study, perhaps even a book, which, to my amazement, have not been written thus far. The only longer monographs on Lubieniecki are K. E. Jordt-Jörgensen’s study of his theological views and Janusz Tazbir’s monograph which covers Lubieniecki’s biography and gives some general overview of his achievements in various fields, including his research on comets. The rest of information on Lubieniecki is scattered throughout academic journals, basically in articles and, at times, in brief reports on newly found manuscripts of his letters. The fact that both books on Lubieniecki have been published in the 1960’s and Tazbir’s study, which was actually his PhD dissertation, was republished in a slightly revised form in 2003, justify the claim that this early modern figure still awaits a scholar who, equipped with new research tools and awareness of new discoveries in early modern intellectual history, would encompass Lubieniecki’s scholarly workshop, link his theological inquiries with astronomical observations, reconstruct his theological position in the light of new scholarship on history of Socinian theology, have a look at his achievements in the field of historiography, perhaps shed some new light on the winding routes of his biography and, what seems to me the most important task that needs to be done with regard to this eminent figure, analyze his network of correspondents.

As for the Theatrum itself, suffice to say that the work’s main goal seems twofold: (1) to provide a catalogue of all comets that have been mentioned in historical records that were available in the mid-seventeenth century and which appeared on the firmament in the period between the biblical flood and the year 1665 C.E. and (2) to create a detailed documentation of comets that could be observed in Lubieniecki’s times. This was quite an ambitious enterprise, which perhaps exceeded the abilities of one, even the most talented and skilful scholar, and due to this fact Lubieniecki engaged a whole army of fellow scholars, whose names appear in front of us while we are leafing through the 1,500 pages of Theatrum. The volume as such, and its first part in particular, makes a gigantic research report on all matters related to comets that Lubieniecki found in received letters. In order to create a credible work that would be based on facts and observations, the Socinian astronomer created a whole network of correspondents which included such eminent figures of early modern European science as Henry Oldenburg of the Royal Society in London, Athanasius Kircher, the brilliant (and controversial) Jesuit inventor and scholar, and Johannes Hevelius, the famous Gdańsk astronomer, who gained renown thanks to his observations of the Moon and who published his own Cometography several years before Lubieniecki. Yet the exchange of letters and reports reprinted in the volume constitutes only one part of the whole text of Theatrum and at the same time these letters cover only a certain part of Lubieniecki’s correspondence − some of his letters were not included in the volume, yet they shed some light on both his biography and scholarly workshop. Analysis of these epistles and reports allows one also to look at one of the corners of the great lost continent of early modern res publica litteraria, which is currently restored to life by a growing number of projects. Taken as a whole, the first part of Theatrum makes a mozaic of multinational and interconfessional republic of learned men who stayed in touch despite the experience of a great political and religious divide which ran through the entire seventeenth-century Europe. Paradoxically enough, Lubieniecki as a member of the heterodox Unitarian community of Polish Brethren, which was despised by theologians of all Christian denominations, managed to gather under one roof Jesuits and Protestant scholars for the sake of one common scholarly goal.

Did Lubieniecki manage to succeed? The answer is ambivalent. On the one hand, he managed to collect an enormous amount of data which he incorporated into one, quite well organized conceptual structure. From this point of view Theatrum is an impressive piece of scholarly work and meets the expectations of a virtual early modern reader, especially with regard to the descriptions of the seventeenth-century comets. Through the first part of Lubieniecki’s work we can peek at early modern research procedures and protocols of remote collaboration between a number of astronomers. On the other hand, Theatrum is a broken work, a testimony of a desperate attempt to reconcile and combine in one work a series of various intellectual ambitions and at the same time a monument of the erudite, omnivorous, encyclopaedic spirit of the age. The reason for this is the fact that the pars posterior of Theatrum is not only a methodical attempt at reconstructing all occurences of frozen blocks of cosmic ice on the firmament but it is also a record of yet another, parallel enterprise. The other goal that Lubieniecki had in mind was to synchronize two separate orders of events or phenomena: the astronomical one, with comets and their interplanetary or even interstellar travels, and the earthly one which consisted of the events that sum up into the history of mankind.

Theatrum - title page fragmentApart from being astronomer, Lubieniecki was also a historian, an author of equally monumental History of Polish Reformation (Historia Reformationis Polonicae, published posthumously in Freistadt in 1685). These two professions of Lubieniecki’s met in the pages of Theatrum. On the one hand, he intended to create a purely astronomical work that would meet the expectations of the growing scientific community, while on the other hand he could not resist the temptation to make use of his astronomical knowledge in the field of historiography. On the title page of the whole work he announced that Theatrum, among many other things, is also a work on chronology and what its pars posterior became in the end is indeed a kind of a crypto-chronological treatise that could be put on the shelf with works by Joseph Justus Scaliger, Gilbert Génébrard or Sethus Calvisius. Although he put chronology in a series of other epithets describing his enterprise, I believe it is exactly this term which describes the best what he − willingly or not – actually achieved in the second part of Theatrum.

Chronology, a meticulous study of ancient and modern calendrical systems and their comparative analysis seems nowadays quite an obscure or even obsolete discipline, but back in the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was giving a serious headache to a vast number of scholars. As such it still awaits a thorough narrative that would embrace together the eminent figures of the intellectual firmament and a bit more provincial scholars who on their own tried to tackle such problems as the proper dating of the biblical flood or of Christ’s nativity and death. As a systematic method of “cartography of time” (to borrow the phrase coined by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton in their marvellous study) chronology meets yet another type of scholarly, or even cultural activity. I believe that in certain parts of Lubieniecki’s work an attempt at sketching the detailed map of time was combined with the scientific visual culture, in particular with what Jerzy Dobrzycki and Jarosław Włodarczyk named once a “natural history of constellations”. It is the 84 figures which accompany the text of Theatrum cometicum that deserve also further scholarly attention as Lubieniecki’s work is not only a great emanation of a Baroque mind with all its twists and inclinations but also an attempt to give a suggestive (and visually appealing) representation of data collected in the volume. Between the pages of Theatrum we will find folded charts that contain drawings representing the trajectories of selected comets. Lubieniecki published his opus magnum in Amsterdam, being already a political and religious émigré who was forced to leave Poland on the strength of the resolution of the diet of 1658. His publisher, Franciscus Cuperus, has taken care of fine contractors. The engravings are stylistically varied and they oscillate between the richness of elements which leads almost to illegibility (G. Gerardi) and the delicate, contour stroke which at times resembles drawings by the members of the Art Nouveau movement (Gerritsz). In each drawing one can find a visual representation of the trajectory of either historical or contemporary comet. The reader’s eye has to get accustomed to the mass of elements before it begins to distinguish between the allegorical depictions of constellations (hence the “natural history” phrase) and quite a large amount of astronomical data such as the brightness and magnitude of stars or the route of the ecliptic.

The graphic layer of Theatrum is up to a point a place where all intentions of Lubieniecki meet. Suffice to have a look at a plate between pages 38 and 39 of pars posterior. The reader’s eye gradually notices successive elements of the surrealist collection that consists of a sailing ship, a cross, a chameleon, a lion, a bear and an upside-down Pegasus. The meticulously accumulated stars of various brightness and magnitude do not make this task easier.

1318When the reader starts to think that she finally knows what this is all about, she notices several dozen comets entangled between the stars that bear the dates of their appearance on their tails. All comets depicted in this plate occurred in our era (hence the “A.C.” by each date = “Annum Christi”). What could be the purpose of such a drawing (provided it is not only a showoff of the imagination and artistry of the graphic designer and engraver)? Due to the chronological current that runs through the whole of Lubieniecki’s work the answer is quite obvious yet at the same time astonishing. What we have in front of us is an elaborate, complex and artistic variant of a good old timeline. What then was a “general history of comets” became a joint “general history” of comets and men. If we assume that comets epitomize the whole spectrum of astronomical phenomena, then we can say that we are dealing here with is a general history of everything. It is finally worth noting that this could be perhaps one of the most extravagant of early modern timelines. If we assume for a while that the synchronization of two spheres, two orders, the heavenly and the terrestrial one was one of the main purposes of Lubieniecki, then what else could be said of a representation of history which requires connecting the dots which eventually give a huge knot which is nearly impossible to be untangled?


Lubieniecki lived in times when the belief in magical influence of comets was becoming more and more obsolete. The age of discussions which engaged his fellow-believer, Andreas Dudithius, started to fall slowly into oblivion. Nevertheless, Lubieniecki deciding to leave one comprehensive view of the world immediately entered another one; he rejected the assumption that phenomena from one sphere shape the things in the other, but instead he gave oneself over to the idea of mutual explanation of these two spheres. His Theatrum is a fascinating record (or even a monument) of these intellectual efforts.

All images in this post from: S. Lubieniecki, Theatrum cometicum, Amsterdam 1668; National Library, Warsaw, shelfmark BN.XVII.4.2660, digitized by Polish Digital Library POLONA.