Monday, July 8, 2013

Indiana Jonesing

I arrived in London today not having been successful in making contact with the librarian at the London School of Jewish Studies, where I am hoping to track down the early European provenance of a manuscript I'm working on. It was held for a long time as part of what was formerly Jews' College London, originally a rabbinical college and institution of higher education founded by Moses Montefiore. As the college fell into disarray, its associations with the University of London and SOAS were terminated, and the library was in such a shambles that it sold off its Hebrew manuscript collection, which had originally been assembled by one of the early chief rabbis of England. It's not clear what happened to the library's records for those manuscripts once the collection was broken up.

The librarian finally emailed me this morning to tell me that the manuscript I want records for was never owned by JCL. I was prepared to go in with my iPad and argue that this catalogue entry and this insignia in the manuscript say different. (Only I was planning to be more polite than that.)


I arrived at the time that the librarian had indicated, only to discover that she'd had to leave due to a death in the family. The problem was that nobody else in the school could tell me anything about the library. The girl at the reception desk took me to the library at the suggestion (by phone) from a library volunteer that she look at a few card boxes on the librarian's desk. No luck. I do have to say, though, the periodicals in this library are catalgogued well, in detail, and many times over in many places.

The receptionist told me she really couldn't let me into the room, but then relented and let me walk up and down the hall while she watched, and then left me to it with a sort of wink and nod.

It's a disaster zone:

It might not look so bad in the pictures, but the boxes and folders contain odd conglomerations of different types of documents: accession records, random periodicals, invoices, correspondence; and very little of it pre-dates the second world war (actually maybe that's part of the problem?).

This floorplan was the only evidence I found of the manuscript collection even having existed. To be fair, I was shuffling quickly and haphazardly, because I didn't want to get caught and kicked out (since I really wasn't supposed to be in there.) It's not an ideal way to work in a disorganized collection with zero finding aids.

Rule number one in handling archives, rare books, and manuscripts is that you must wash your hands when you're finished, especially before you touch your eyes, because you never know what kind of schmutz, arsenic, or bugs you might have gotten on your hands.

I found a book that contained conservation records for print incunables (close, but no cigar!), that had a mummified spider resting on the first page. There was far more wildlife in this hall than one likes to find in a rare book collection.


And my hands have never, ever been this dirty walking out of a library.

I'm almost ready to accept that I'll never have anything extra-textual that will help me situate this manuscript. I find it to be an infuriating state of affairs because it's not like it's information that was burned by the inquisition or lost sometime in the late Middle Ages: It's been discarded by an institution that doesn't appear to care about its own history or its cultural/religious heritage. It's such a shame.


  1. needles. haystacks. good luck!

  2. Frankly, this borders on being a needle in a needlestack.