So here it is, probably not as I read it since you make editorial decisions in the heat of the oratorial moment. No one laughed at the Judicial Astrological Virgin joke but what can you do. Let me know if you have any questions &c.
Dispatches from the Department of Acquisition and Destruction: Robert Burton’s Books at the Bodleian
Brooke Palmieri, April 2011
Book Destruction Conference, UCL
A little over a year ago at Oxford while I was in my so-called ‘Anatomy of Melancholy Phase’ (holla if you’ve been there) I went to request a book belonging to Robert Burton, his ‘astrological notebook’ from the Duke Humphrey library. I had found it mentioned a few times; once in a 1926 Proceeding[s] of the Oxford Bibliographical Society initiated by W. W. Greg in order to collect specimens of early modern literary autographs; a second time in a 1981 essay by J.M Bamborough, describing the contents of the volume at length, partially in response to what he considered to be Greg’s neglect of its real value, that is, as the only surviving notebook from the prolific melancholic. It’s also in Kiessling’s bibliography of Burton’s library. But because I couldn’t find an online record the librarian said the book didn’t exist. I double-checked my sources, and finally after two more attempts, brandishing Kiessling wildly, another member of staff agreed to check the location of the book. Sure enough, upon his return I was handed Bod. 4to R9 Art. (Bod as in Bodleian; 4to as in shelved with the quartos, as books were stored by size in those days of lock-and-key-chaining-the-books-to-their-proper-places; the R9 puzzles me because it has nothing to do with the author which is the way books were listed, 9 because it is the 9th book on the first shelf, and Art because it is in the Arts section, as opposed to Theology, Medicine and Jurisprudence, the four other categories under which books were separated when catalogued in the 17th century.)
The problem is simply that too many people make too many requests per day for the overwrought staff to leap at everything, so as a matter of policy and SANITY if you’re going to order a printed book you have to do it online, and in advance. I’ve worked at a rare book library before, I am one of the lucky ones who has been asked the question “can you just find this book for me, I read it in here a few years ago and its binding is black and it’s entitled ‘short stories’ and it’s rare, I think”, so this procedure makes total sense to me. But what happens if a book doesn’t have an online catalogue entry? It seems to rephrase—and I know this sounds corny—the proverbial tree-in-a-forest puzzle: if a tree is stored in a library and there’s no way to recall it from the stacks, does it make a difference? Does it effect our histories, does it add to our knowledge of the past? I would call this a potential, very silent form of destruction, and it’s what I’d like to talk about today, the kind of destructiveness that follows, simply, from a library’s day-to-day maintenance; lying somewhere between our deepest ambitions to amass as much material as possible, and the need to organize it in some useful way. Where ‘book destruction’ brings up very compelling images of war, heavy artillery, and totalitarianism, instead I’m talking about the kind of destruction that is institutionalised. Out of necessity. And while digitisation both of books and of cataloguing systems casts these issues in the greatest, most immediate relief so far, I’ll leave that discussion for drinks and instead talk here about how there is a quiet destructiveness that haunts the archive, and it’s a habit that also happens to be historical tradition.