Tuesday, July 9, 2013

'Frankweiler' is a Jewish Name, Right?

I met with the LSJS library volunteer today, and she gave me permission to tool around in the librarian's files that were in the library proper (but not in the archives in the back), and so I did that while she was taking a class.

To paraphrase Sheldon Cooper: Explain to me an organizational system in which fountain pen refills and Maimonides in a desk drawer is valid.

All of the drawers and files were disorganized and just full of bills, invoices, random correspondence, books, pamphlets, labels that look like they might have been from dinky museum exhibitions. Some of it was tenuously in chronological order.

There were old hand-written lists of books of the bible and eighteenth-century print books thrown into banker's boxes. There were letters from school students and amateur historians seeking information. Most requests from scholars or other libraries were answered (copies kept of everything in the last three decades or so, it seems) were prefaced with excuses for why replies took so long and chalking it up to there being just so terribly much work to do in the library.

Some of the letters were funny or sort of adorable. (I've obliterated all the non-librarian surnames and addresses.)

This is a library that has kept all of the applications for an assistant librarian position that was advertised nearly twenty years ago while it no longer even owns the copy of Adolf Neubauer's 1886 catalogue of its former manuscript collection. Or if it does, it is nowhere to be found. Actually, what was most telling for me was when the library volunteer and I went to look for the catalogue (in case the LSJS copy had been hand-annotated), we used the card catalogue, and she expressed no surprise whatsoever not only that I knew what it was but that I knew how to use it. At least it's very telling of how behind-the-times it is. Usually anyone my age who asks where the "author" cards are gets a funny look and a patronizing chuckle. This system is so far out of date that the idea that I wouldn't expect to use a card catalogue wasn't a possibility. That said, out of date would be fine if it were organized.

To cut to the chase narratively, once I started going through the last drawer, one piled so full with old letters that I could barely open it, I found one letter from 1998 in which the now-former librarian mentioned to his correspondent that the entirety of the library's archives had been transferred to the London Metropolitan Archives. I was glad to find out this information, but it's kind of outrageous that I should only have found it out sorting through totally unrelated correspondence from the late 20th century. The fact that there isn't even enough institutional memory for someone to have been able to tell me that off the bat is nothing short of outrageous.

 The LMA are open until 7:30 in the evening so I was able to go over there for a few hours, to no avail. A folder catalogued as "reports on the possible sale of manuscripts" yielded only outraged newspaper clippings, including a letter from the custodian of the Valmadonna Trust library, a world-class private collection of rare Hebrew printed books that has been on the market since 2009 because it was put up for sale on the condition that it be sold as a whole collection and to a buyer who would make it accessible to scholars.

There are two more boxes of library correspondence that I still have to look at, but it's clear that not everything made it over. I don't know whether the information I need was destroyed during the war years, lost in one of the four moves that the library made in the last century, is still sitting buried in some box in that bug-infested back room, or whether it never existed at all.

If I sound angry or frustrated, it's because I am, a little bit. But at the same time, all it means is that, barring some shocking discovery tomorrow, all I have is the manuscript. I have to stick to what's on the page. I am trained to interpret text; I can handle this.

Provenance information? Deus ex machina. The easy way out.

Philologists don't need to cheat.

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