An Introduction to Paper Computers

After computers were made of bronze cogs but before they were made of integrated circuits, they were made of paper, they were found in books:

The figure pictured above is called a volvelle or wheel chart; it’s a series of circles held together that can be rotated in order to yield some string of information. On paper, the concept dates back to the 11th century Persia where it was used most frequently in astronomical texts to depict the movement of the planets and stars, or by astrologers to forecast the future in devices known as zairja. Based on its ability to yield calculations, however simple, the volvelle is considered an early example of a computer. But you can also find one that doesn’t compute anything on the album sleeve of Led Zeppelin III.


From East to West

A portrait of Lull in Giovanni Imperiali’s ‘Musaeum Historicum’ (1640), a biography of great intellects.

Volvelles were imported into the West in the 1270s by Raymund Lull (1232-1315, also possibly the first European novelist). The ‘Quarta Figura’ pictured above is a printed version of his ‘Lullian Circle’. Lull marketed the idea as the Ars Magna or ‘General Art’, and provided a system of logic blending influences from Arabic mysticism, Egyptian hermeticism, and his own missions to Jews and Muslims, to power the movements of his little paper wheels. Ironically enough he had built a tool to debate Muslims – to debate the beliefs of the Arabic philosophers from whom he had poached the design concept.

Each letter of the circle represents a topic, and each circle represents one portion of a sentence: there are nine main subjects including God, Angels, and Man, each assigned a letter B-K. The same letters next are assigned to predicates: Goodness, Greatness, Duration, Power, Wisdom, Will, Virtue, Truth, and Glory. The relationship between these sets of terms is determined by three triangles in the middle that highlight their differences, similarities, and magnitudes of importance to one another. Sample statements include: “God is eternal” and “Angels are Wise”. Lull worked under the assumption that there were basic, indisputable truths, and that his ‘machine’ could produce all of them. The concept of truth here is pretty limited, but theoretically this early computer is not far in its ambitions from more recent models, and unsurprisingly someone has tried to make a computer program for it.

The Ultimate General Art caught on in manuscript, then print, and then came the commentaries and how-to guides to ensure some trickle-down longevity for scholars of the 16th and 17th centuries (click here for a meticulous list of Lullians through the ages). Henrich Cornelius Agrippa’s popular commentary on Lull’s art reached several editions from 1530 – 1605, so unlike me, his readers must have agreed the system was “easy to learn for schoolboys and old men alike” as he claims in the Preface. This is the book that crossed my desk last week and introduced me formally to Lull, and the long history of paper computing.

Agrippa provides broken down diagrams of the circles, descriptions of their components, and an exhaustive list of all possible letters combinations and their values (BK, BC, BD, BE, and so on up to four characters), but he does not provide the volvelles, although you could cut-and-paste together your own:


From Philosophy to Poetry

In ‘Raymund Lull’s Thinking Machine’, Borges’ main concern with the Lullian circle is that its terms are outdated, not the machine itself: “We (who are basically no less naïve than Llull) would load the machine differently, no doubt with the words Entropy, Time, Electrons, Potential Energy, Fourth Dimension, Relativity, Protons, Einstein. Or with Surplus Value, Proletariat, Capitalism, Class Struggle, Dialectical Materialism, Engels.”

In a sense that had already happened by the end of the 16th century: by Agrippa’s time, Lull’s combinatory art had already blended with poetic practices dating back the 4th century – centos comprised of cut and pasted fragments from poems and chance operations as with bibliomancy – and updating it to suit the latest tastes. Poetic ‘machines’ were used to piece together syllables into words, words into verse, proving that computer-generated poetry isn’t just a child of the 20th century.

The poems might not have been any good, but the adaptation of the paper machine to new pursuits meant new audiences. As a poetic system it had more formal uses: in 1651 Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, equal parts poet and linguist, used volvelles to compute the limits of the German language:

Georg Philipp Harsdörffer’s Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache, or the Five-fold Thought-ring of the German Language (1651), is composed of five nesting paper discs, each of which is inscribed with a set of word parts along its edge. The innermost ring contains forty-eight prefixes; the next ring, fifty initial letters or diphthongs; the middle ring, twelve medial letters; then, 120 final letters or diphthongs; with the outermost ring storing twenty-four suffixes. When spun, this simple mechanism can generate German words, producing as many as 97,209,600 different combinations. (Source)

For more on Harsdörffer and the Lullian connection see Whitney Trettian’s dissertation: “Computers, Cut-Ups, and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms” which thoroughly covers the poetics in the age of mechanical reproduction and can be found here. It’s both an amazing resource for material on the history of paper computing, and a computing device in its own right – as it focuses on the use of volvelles to produce poetry, so it practices its preaching and allows you to produce your own textual ordering of the essay.

From Poetry to Mathematics

At the close of the 17th century, there were really only two roads a paper computer might follow: the satirical and the serious. Luckily there was enough paper and time to travel down both.

Enter Jonathan Swift. On his travels, Gulliver is given a tour of the Academy of Lagado, and taken to the department of “Speculative Learning” where a professor aims to enable  “the most ignorant person…[to] write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study” using a giant ‘machine’ ridiculous yet imaginative, adding wire and iron to the paper works:

It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language….The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes.

Did anything worthwhile happen other than what Jonathan Swift thought worth making fun of? Probably not. But if he acknowledged “My main purpose in everything I do is rather to enrage than to amuse,” he also documented change. In this case, change of possibilities for the ‘thinking machines': from religious debate and poetry to any field of knowledge, from a fixed set of 9 subjects to words on 40 six-sided cubes. Such a heightening of the stakes made the device, for all its absurdity, more recognisable as a computing machine, one that has to grapple with randomness and in terms of information science, one that makes a whole lotta noise.

It’s no coincidence Swift lambasts a machine that mostly produces random babbling: it was an idea he had criticized over a decade before he wrote Gulliver in “A Tritical Essay Upon the Faculties of the Mind” (1711):

[H]ow can the Epicureans Opinion be true, that the Universe was formed by a fortuitous concourse of Atoms, which I will no more believe, then that the accidental jumbling of the Letters in the Alphabet would fall by chance into a most ingenius and learned Treatise of Philosophy…

Swift’s scepticism happens to form the basis for one early articulation of the infinite-monkey theorem – “that a half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce the works of Shakespeare” – traced by Borges in his essay “The Total Library”. But his preoccupation with accidental jumbling is no accident: a few countries over it had been put to serious practice by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

There is too much to say about Leibniz. What a guy. You should probably just read Maria Antognazza’s Intellectual Biography and in the meantime his Wikipedia page. Funny that Swift complained about a ‘fortuitous concourse of Atoms’ and the ‘accidental jumbling of letters’ in the same breath: Leibniz’s doctoral dissertation on the Art of Combining (1666) had discussed just that, drawing a parallel between the random yet meaningful combination of the atoms of the universe into matter, and the particles of speech that comprise words and sentences. He concludes that language and the universe are similar in that they are the work of the same acts of mixing and re-mixing. Leibniz applied Lull’s combinatory art to the idea of a universal human language, what he called an ‘alphabet of human thought’, the inspiration for which was drawn from Harsdörffer’s German language wheel. He wanted to reduce all thought to a series of characters (like hieroglyphs), and a computer to order these characters in every possible combination. This would mean that the system would produce all possible ideas, old and new. Such a machine would eliminate the unknown.

Unfortunately he never elaborated on the actual alphabet he had in mind, although it is thought he imagined it to be a kind of algebraic language. By 1714 he had abandoned the project and distanced himself from his schoolboy ambitions, but not without reflecting on the merits of his resources for the in a letter to Nicholas Raymond:

“When I was young, I found some pleasure in the Lullian art, yet I thought also that I found some defects in it, and I said something about these in a little schoolboyish essay called On the Art of Combinations, published in 1666, and later reprinted without my permission. But I do not readily disdain anything—except the arts of divination, which are nothing but pure cheating—and I have found something valuable, too, in the art of Lully…”

He might have dropped the idea of universal language, but he kept the idea of a machine that could compute the language into each possible combination. The calculator. The value in ‘the art of Lully’ was that it contributed to the calculator Leibniz invented in 1694: the Stepped Reckoner. It was the first to be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide (Blaise Pascal’s calculator could not multiply and divide automatically). So from Arabic Astrology to Raymond Lull, Religious Debate to Poetic Composition and Language study, revolving paper wheels were finally put to the task of solving math problems, leading to the calculator, and setting the foundations for computing instruments of the 19th and 20th centuries – c.f. The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing.

All of this adds just another dimension of the relationship between book and computer. More than containers that sometimes compete for the same information, they are on the family tree of a daunting ambition to compute and compile all that can be known. Each in their own time are the best-fit materials for the job, and the complexity of harnessing that ideal in some material form is as troublesome for Lull’s paper machine as it is in digital terms.

If we look at these two technologies based on the loftiest ideals they’re meant to serve, a universal library being one of them, things seem a little less tense. Thinking about each as instruments to aid and abet in that (as-of-today) impossible goal is one way of arguing on behalf of both, because neither serve the purpose. Both have failed so far. So one has not trumped the other. Like the majority of sibling rivalries, it produces all kinds of anxieties and behaviours that never truly resolve themselves but are never as life threatening as they seem.


Since the 2008 recession there have been calls to renew the Federal Writers’ Project, founded as part of the WPA in 1935 by FDR to create jobs for writers, artists, even archaeologists and geologists, along with other unemployed Bachelors of Arts. The financial crisis in 2008 sparked discussion across journals, an outcropping of blogs, and most recently members of the American Historical Association, discussion in favor of reviving the little corner of Roosevelt’s New Deal that gave writers like John Steinbeck, Kenneth Patchen, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ralph Ellison steady work.

Federal Writers’ Project works are pretty collectible according to ABE books, but it’s also easy to work with them because there is a decent archive of them on the internet.  They’re catalogued on the Digital Book Index, and many websites from the Library of Congress (1, 2) to regional historical societies in Oklahoma proudly preserve the benefits the FWP had for them across the 250 works it saw to press. The Library of Congress still holds manuscripts from many projects, including one of the most insightful among them, a collection of thousands of testimonies and photographs of former slaves, published in 17 volumes as Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

The project was an equally great outlet for photographers and designers, and even a cursory look through the Digital Books Index displays a thorough catalogue of American art  of the time from Art Deco….(as in this guide to Santa Barbara):

…to a kind of  Social Realism (coming from Kentucky here):

Even preserving local murals (again from Kentucky), which as we learned earlier this year are by no means permanent.

So the project preserves history but also captures an amazing artistic and literary moment in American history in its own right. Conservatives hated the American Guide Series in the same way that they hate Public Broadcasting and Sesame Street today: it gives work to almost inevitably lefty thinkers to disseminate their lefty ideals. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a Liberal reading of the projects entails coming to terms with racism among other things. But the point is, jobs were created, and there’s a body of work to show for it. You can’t learn from history that’s not recorded. As the introduction to the Philadelphia Guide points out: “The ultimate product, whatever its faults or merits, represents a blend of work of the entire personnel, aided by consultants, members of university faculties, specialists, officers of learned societies, oldest residents, who have volunteered their services everywhere most generously.” For all its sins the methodology is thoroughly dependent upon the fabric of local communities and local color. Add that to a fully collaborative approach between disciplines from history to physical science, and you’re working in an ideal intellectual world.

As the back cover of the Philly guide puts it, the Federal Writers’ Project “furnishes a wealth of information that will be of real value, not merely to those who visit…”. That value is only a richer renewable resource as time goes on.

At least in theory, the state-by-state approach is a good fit: each volume contains concise history, geography, and is illustrated. There are thorough bibliographies for the curious reader. In the case of Philadelphia, whose early history I happen to have learned a lot about, there is even more research than meets the eye in the bibliography: details provided, for instance, in the description of the foundation of Germantown relied upon materials only in manuscript form at the time. Combine that with easy-to-use maps and guided walks through the city and surrounding areas, and you’ve got no trifle of an educational resource.

Finally, there were also Federal Writers’ Projects on different areas of the sciences, often no more then 30-40 pages and aimed at children:

Aside from taking great pleasure in mining the online archive for fun facts about Arizona, New Jersey, Florida, it’s also an archive that steps outside its time and bids us to do some serious critical thinking. It says: See? Projects that enrich public life and learning can happen during times of depression as much as they can during times of prosperity. Our priorities are not misguided in demanding them of our government.

I’m guessing that if you are the kind of person who would read this blog, you are the kind of person to agree that at this point that some kind of wholly- or partly-subsidized Government program to employ folks and preserve the bits and pieces of our cultural heritage (and this need not be limited to the US) would be great. But how?

Robert Reisch’s call for the American Historical Association to implement something along the lines of the FWP, sadly seems to have amounted to little more than healthy google search results for me to contribute to. Ditto the earlier, 2008 New Republic article by Mark I. Pinsky, which nevertheless had a very handy view toward implementation:

Administering the new FWP as an individual grant program through community colleges and universities could minimize bureaucracy and overhead. In consultation with the Obama administration–perhaps through the National Endowment for the Humanities–and Congress, guidelines could be established and a small staff assembled in Washington to oversee the projects, in the form of grants, rather than hourly wages. Projects could be pitched locally to colleges, or suggested and posted by them, vetted preliminarily and then approved or rejected by the national staff.

But still nothing has happened. The current situation threatens something like the opposite: you may have heard tell of the so-called Research Works Act which would effectively close down one frontier of open access to information by keeping federal- (read: taxpayer-) funded research from the public domain and allowing publishing companies to charge for it! Rather than coming any nearer to something like a Federal Writers’ Redux, relationships between publishers and researchers are falling to pieces (you can sign a petition against the Research Works Act here). Legislation is threatening to tear apart the allies the Federal Writers’ Project once kept together.

Why? Why is the internet full of awesome ideas about saving culture that no one listens to? Are blogs (like this one) the new proverbially unpeopled forests filled with falling trees? Do you hear me? Are blogs just online equivalents of the mentality people have when they go to modern art galleries?

Internet = We Should Do That + Yeah But We Won’t. 

How are we going to get this Federal Writers’ Project Redux off the ground? We’re four years away from the crash that forced us to reconsider it and counting.

In addition to Pinsky and Reisch’s suggestions here are my thoughts. For now all we can do is keep talking:

We should start this from the ground up rather than wait for someone to do it for us. This point addresses one of the major criticisms of starting up another FWP: why should the government spend time and money underwriting books and documentary films when there are much more terrible problems with poverty and unemployment to fix first? Only too valid.

So how about those who have funding start thinking about allocating it to projects that fit the bill of the American Guide Series. Recognized leaders should take the lead. I’m looking at people like MacArthur Fellows, who have No-Strings Attached $500,000 grants. I’m looking at any of you, Jad Abumrad, Marie-Therese Connolly, Roland Fryer, Jeanne Gang, Elodie Ghedin, Markus Greiner, Kevin Guskiewicz, Peter Hessler, Tiya Miles, Matthew Nock, Francisco Núñez, Sarah Otto, Shwetak Patel, Dafnis Prieto, Kay Ryan, Melanie Sanford, William Seeley, Jacob Soll, A. E. Stallings, Ubaldo Vitali, Alisa Weilerstein, Yukiko Yamashita. Okay, some of you are curing diseases, I don’t mean to bother you. And I know there are other generous grants to single out, too.

But people like certainty with investment. Before we call for Obama to support this idea, to validate the dream that something which happened 70+ years ago is a best-fit solution to the jobs crisis in the humanities now, we should call for individuals who are already comfortable and who are already doing good work to take the lead, build a team, beta-test the thing so to speak. The initial Federal Writers’ Project was headed by a journalist and occasional theatre producer Henry G. Alsberg, who wrote some decent reporting on Mexico and Russia and was involved with advocating on behalf of imprisoned Russian writers, as well as civil liberties for suppressed writers more generally. A contemporary Federal Writers’ Project would only be as strong as the heads of each field it employed. They need to be good mentors, good teachers.

Finally, a key technology to integrate into the projects would be Kickstarter: not only is it a tried-and-tested way of crowdsourcing funding, but of making meaning: built into funded projects are indicators of public interest, the number of people who pledge cash to your project are the number of people who think it matters. The original Federal Writers’ Project of 1935 was to a very large extent FDR’s idea of a public morale booster. Transparency of projects and allocation of funds through means that Kickstarter has streamlined could be critically important in updating what was good for 1935 into what is good for 2012.

Lots of things need doin': more oral histories, more folklore, since there no longer folklore departments in universities, more interviews, from documenting oral histories from soldiers serving time in Iraq, then Afganistan, soldiers serving before and after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, those impacted by 9/11, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and in terms of labor history those who lost their jobs from outsourcing, the architects of the occupy movements across the country. All of these issues in turn take us from narratives to the actual landscape of the country: the topography of cities change, memorials are erected, and canvas tents, factories are destroyed, and canvas tents. Even the rise of environmental consciousness has changed the shape of the horizon as smokestacks from nuclear power plants disappear for good:

There is much to be documented about America, a lot has happened since 1935.

There is also an expansion of job descriptions: Disciplines themselves have changed between 1935 and now: the fieldwork of the trained anthropologist and sociologist dramatically change what we could know about the world around us. A Federal Writers’ Project today would not just be filled with historians, photographers, cartographers, but designers, librarians, journalists, and there would be an important place for displaced IT personnel. How many websites have you seen that are owned by local government, libraries, registry offices, that are out of date, difficult to navigate, and even less helpful when it comes to telling you what you need to know? A Federal Writers’ Project could write and develop web content for many that could really use it.

Let’s do this!

What do you think?


This past 22-23 November marked the launch and celebratory conference of the latest database resource for scholars and book collectors of the 15th-16th century: The USTC, or Universal Short Title Catalogue. The ‘universal’ appeal we’re talking here is very Western: “all books published in Europe between the invention of printing and the end of the sixteenth century” as they put it on their website.

Job Koelewijn‘s Mobius bookshelf

But the ‘universal’ also means access in a truer sense of the word. It is a worry that the preservation of cultural heritage is a little too confined within institutions of higher education, but this database is free and open to the public, has done well to link with digital copies of texts where possible, which really gives face to a name in a way that would appeal to anyone (an area that will only expand), and in the meantime, the opening party was widely attended: Italian, French, and German consulates were all there and yes, even the Edinburgh Renaissance Band provided the music and did it in period costume. To add to the excitement, the launch dovetails with news that the project, based at St. Andrews, has received funding to expand into the 17th century.

For anyone that couldn’t attend, but would have liked to, I’ve tried to make sense of my notes here:

Continue reading


The other day I successfully bid at auction on this seemingly unwanted book, Rowland Vaughan’s Most Approved and Long Experienced Water-Workes (London: George Eld., 1610) not only because it has the distinction of being the first book in English about Crop Irrigation, but because when I turned to the last page of the work I found this:

It seemed odd to me that at the end of a practical treatise on a uniquely boring area of husbandry there would be a blank promissory note, that is, a note that in theory enables the reader to lend money to the author alone, without interest and to be paid back within five years. Not your average happily-ever-after or colophon – moreover as the note passes without explicit mention at the beginning or end of the book, and references to the book (STC 24603) lists that the note does not occur in every copy. Why would Vaughan take up the space to ask you to lend him money, confident that the space is worth taking up, and confident that he can pay you back?

In times like this it helps to start reading the book, I guess. The first 20 or so pages contain various poems about what an all-around great guy the author is. The first, by Vaughan’s cousin John Davies (“A Panegyricke”) didn’t answer my question about the promissory note, but did change my opinion on how entertaining water works could be, and how good Vaughan is in the “royall TRENCH”

This puts the Leaze in Sleaze.

The poem continues to compare Vaughan to King David, King Arthur, God himself, and a variety of pagan deities; in the next poem, Robert Corbet turns the trench into a hive, and Vaughan into that time-honored workaholic, the bee. Each poem paraphrases the story of Vaughan’s discovery of the new technology (told by the author himself later in the book). Once upon a time, he noticed the greener grass on the one section of his property that well-watered because of a molehill that let water flow freely into the small valley below which it created. He spent the next 20 years trying to copy from his observation. The book, these opening poems promise, will include a detailed description of this as well as instructions as to the the season and length of time to “drowne the Grounds”, the type of trenches to be dug depending on the terrain, and other handy tips, including how to keep moles out of the waterworks. And Vaughan delivers.

The exuberant praise for Vaughan and his irrigation system is no less exuberant than the author’s own introduction to the Earl of Pembroke, which takes up half of the volume, and here is where the promissory note is given the full force of its impact. It’s not just water works Vaughan needs to borrow money to fund, but instead he wants to build an entirely new society based upon his advances in crop irrigation, a new social order that will eliminate unemployment and rejuvenate his local economy: he wants to “raise a golden world…in the Golden-Vale of Herefordshire” (check out the side-note below “The richest Country breeds the idlest (therefore the poorest) people)”

In the Herefordshire of the early 17th century there are many in need, by Vaughan’s count there are five hundred out of a job within a mile and a half from his house in all directions. The poverty stems from unemployment, or an employment cycle that lasts three months and entails so much traveling that it results in a loss of income rather than a gain, the equivalent of paying cheap rent so far out of Central London that your travel fair in pounds per annum & hours lost to the commute leaves you exhausted, and what’s more, prevents you from saving any money at all. “There is not one amongst ten that hath five shillings to buy a Bale of Flaxe” to weave into linen, without several days worth of travel and wasted time.

In other words, if you give me money, I can make the system that worked for me work for everyone!

In controlling the flow of water, Vaughan controls his crop yield as well as the mill that grinds it into profitable corn, such that he can build offices and rooms to house all of his workers and “meckanicals”. Building from this model, “Two thousand imploide in the under-business of the Common-wealth” will be made possible when corn from the Mill is used both to feed laborers but also in trade for other goods to employ other tradesman: leather for tanners and shoemakers, flax and pelts for clothiers and glovers, etc. Each trade will have one master in charge of its administration, and as many apprentices as that master sees fit. “A famous preacher shall be maintained” to teach children and give sermons. There will be a Church but no seminaries or monasteries, an almshouse for the elderly and infirm.

The promissory note is all but mentioned explicitly, as Vaughan has no problem asking for money from his readers, particularly those from the upper tiers of society, the rich to pay for the poor (they are probably even more than the 99%). “I cannot see how mony can be wanting, I have so many honourable friends…yet I thank God they cannot say I want honorable friends, such as the Lord Bishops,  your Lordships with others, which may lend me money (if please you and them) I will not for a million anger any of you, to make a motion to borrow money: if lendings come in out of your honourable dispositions…its a better course (tenne to one)  then to take money to usury…”

As an added enticement, Vaughan will keep at his own expense “a dining-roome to entertaine a world of worthy benevolent Contributors: The Table perpetually furnished to intertaine forty of those Contributers dayly in expectancy”. The room will be “wainscoted, and fairly hang’d with Arras” and it will have venison pasties and as many other meats as possible whenever they are available. If only Kickstarter campaigns promised that!

The word Utopia is never mentioned, even though it might be coming to your mind as it does to mine. But the work is distinctly unscholarly and estranged from the genre: “I have not observed a precise scholler-like Decorum: for Mars his University…affoords no rules of speaking in Print”, Vaughan writes: he was formerly a soldier, and the University of Mars the god of war seems to me as something like getting a Ph.D at the School of Hard Knocks. The only references made are to the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. He doesn’t imagine a chance to start over on a far off island, but instead borders Wales and answers to Parliament, and he doesn’t engage with More, Campanella, or even Bacon, he just wants a job and lots of meat for him and his neighbors. It’s not a Utopia because of being a “nowhere”, as the etymology of that word leads us, it’s in his own back yard.

The way he accomplishes this vision through local poets, a vibrant letter to the equivalent of his local representatives (nobles who had a say in Parliament) , and serious innovation: it is a shame this list of accomplishments, as well as the material addition of the promissory note to make good on his ideas, falls far afield of the usual templates of Early English Literature. It is a grass-roots stab at social policy, more than political philosophy, with a very reasonable approach to jump-starting local growth with liquid assets: give jobs and salaries to those who will immediately put that money into their subsistence. Unlike the usual praise and flattery confined to the limits of dedicatory addresses, Vaughan gives his readers the chance to actually make good on their support for his new social order with a peculiar boldness that I have not found in other treatises on husbandry, Utopia, or any other book of the period. The ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue) lists a book published over a hundred years later in 1791 that includes a promissory note, only this note is to fund the publication itself, not a comprehensive view of society.

Has this entry become relevant to contemporary politics yet? Is cataloguing this book political? Is it possible that thinking critically about obscure texts from the distant past has something to say to us now? That history’s bidding is more than a return to more bookishness? I hope so, but I also thought it would be cool to write about this so something more substantial would come up when you google “Rowland Vaughan” or “Crop Irrigation”.


If visions of the tweed-clad ranks of booksellers, one part drowsy and three parts out-of-touch, are your ideal, or if a view of bookselling as a neatly pressed 9 to 5 job gives you peace of mind, you may not have heard of Ernst Philip Goldschmidt.

Sure, Goldschmidt published works and lectures are still useful today: The First Cambridge Press in its European Setting,The Printed Book of the Renaissance, Gothic and Renaissance Bookbindings, and his favorite, Mediaeval Texts and their First Appearance in Print. But he accomplished this during rockstar hours, aka all night, never waking up before 11:30 save for auctions at Sotheby’s (he found it extremely difficult to be on time), & spending most of his late afternoons lunching at Brown’s Hotel (waiters put screens around his table if he was in a bad mood), and staying up all night with his friends and his research. He lived on black coffee. He smoked a minimum of 40 cigarettes while handling the incunabula, fine bindings, and other treasures among the early printed books and manuscripts he specialized in. Once, when trying to determine the provenance of a book up for auction, a colleague merely sniffed the pages. The scent of tobacco that saturated the book meant it had surely belonged to E.P. Goldschmidt, and he favored a peculiar Turkish blend.

Goldschmidt did whatever he wanted probably because he was raised to feel he could: the scion of a major Dutch banking family, connected with most of the major banking families throughout Europe, he was reputed to be the richest undergraduate at Cambridge while there from 1905-9. I write all this by way of saying: if you win the E. P. Goldschmidt fellowship at Rare Book School, you have a great responsibility to yourself and E. P. to infuse your study of books with some high class badassery.

Although his interest in old books dates from his time at Trinity College (upon graduation he privately issued a catalogue of his favorite books to his friends), his first major step into the book trade was in 1917. One day while passing the firm Gilhofer & Ranschburg in his native Vienna, he noticed in their window books on display he had specifically requested, for sale. He went inside to complain. If you are not satisfied with our level customer service, he was told, you are more than welcome to try and run the business yourself. As the story goes, he did, becoming co-owner that year.

In 1923 he moved to 45 Old Bond Street, London to set up E.P. Goldschmidt & Co. Ltd. Not forgetting his roots, the price-code he kept for his stock was the same as Gilhofer & Ranschburg: REPUTAZION. And his reputation remained intact: “There has been no shrewder dealer in the business in our time”, John Carter (of ABCs of Book Collecting fame) wrote in his personal note on the death of his friend. Not only that, but

There have been scholars before now who have dabbled in bookselling. There have been, and are, booksellers who are also scholars. But I do not recall, in the long and honourable history of the book trade, any man since Giovanni Aurispa…. who, being by nature, aptitude, and avocation a scholar, embraced the antiquarian trade as his means of livelihood and used it as a platform from which to deploy his scholarship. (John Carter ‘E.P. Goldschmidt: A Personal Note’, Antiquarian Bookman, 10 April 1954)

More important than the book-length publications put out by Cambridge University Press, however, what made Goldschmidt a great scholar-bookseller were the catalogues of stock he produced. In our reference collection, we happen to have a few, the earliest of which (9) I have decided post on .pdf form here to make my point as to its sheer readability and usefulness as a work of entertainment AND reference.

Some people chain-smoke in front of a typewriter long enough to write On the Road, and others produce scholarship on no less than thousands of books, paying attention (in many instances) for the first time to works of major historical significance. For instance in no. 86 Goldschmidt presents a 3 page description of “AN UNRECORDED AMERICANUM OF 1506″: Johannes Glogoviensis’s Introductorium compendiosum in Tractatum Spere Materialis (Cracow: Haller, 1506). The book is a wealth of information about 367 different books, ranging from incunabula to Americana, medicine, botany, and to books of art and reference. It includes fold-out plates of relevant images: maps of the New World, and an Anatomical fugitive sheet. It seems a shame that this kind of work slips from notice so easily in comparison to other books who entered this world in a similar form of many-typed slips, but there’s the politics of the canon for you. Although the large scale on which it remains unnoticed by scholars, librarians, and other booksellers, is a little harder for me to understand. Of course, there is the age-old dilemma of space. As A. N. L. Munby wrote:

Current booksellers’ catalogues present a grave problem. space forbids that they should all be retained, yet it is a sad wrench to part with them. No ephemeral literature approaches them in fascination. … Only when a mountainous accumulation of catalogues demands drastic action can I bring myself to throw a proportion of them away. Then, perhaps once in three years, there is a gigantic sorting; some are earmarked for permanent retention as works of reference; the rest are reluctantly destroyed after certain material such as plates of bindings and manuscripts has been cut out and transferred to a growing series of folio scrap books, ‘cutting up books to make other books’ as an unsympathetic friend once described it.

The excerpt is quoted in Henry Woodhuysen’s chapter on Catalogues in Out of Print and into Profit (pp 123 – 156). Woodhuysen goes on to give an appraisal, based on his own extensive collection and research, of what catalogues in the book trade have to offer (the only longer treatment of the subject I have found is David Pearson’s Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook): “Catalogues add value to books, by placing them in context with books of a similar or related kind, their status is enhanced, new subjects for collection are suggested and a spirit of competiton between collectors is promoted.” He charts the ways in which catalogues have shaped interests and scholarship: collections offered of Alexander Pope and other minor poets and plays literally opened up the 18th century for scholars, and single-author catalogues that emphasized manuscript materials, for better and for worse, made the literary establishment’s obsession with the author (and consequently his/her ‘death’) possible. Maggs Bros. in particular issued once-unconventional catalogues that by this point will seem old hat: the first aeronautics catalogue in 1920, alchemy in 1921, Judaica and Hebraica in 1922, and association and presentation copies in 1923 among others. In a more clear-cut sales pitch, they issued in 1924 and again in 1941 a catalogue of incunabula of which “there was no copy in libraries of the United States”. Catalogues sometims included scholarly essays and introductions by famous scholars and writers, or were laid out by some of the major designers of the day: for instance Goldschmidt’s catalogue 106, the year before his death, was the work of Jan Tschichold – whose genius you otherwise may recognize from Penguin and Pelican books of the same era.

Almost as long as there has been a book trade there have been sales catalogues. Konrad Gesner drew from the sales catalogues of the major publishing houses – Aldus (reproduced in Renouard’s bibliography), Froben, etc. during the compilation of the first universal short title catalogue, his Bibliotheca Universalis (1545). And as Woodhuysen can add, “Printed catalogues containing second hand books, imported from the Continent, for sale in England have survived from the 1630s; by the beginning of the next century they were quite common and from about 1730 they started to list books with their prices.” Richard Sharpe has also written an essay on the relative uselessness of these catalogues as printed by the Sheldonian Theatre in the late 17th century under John Fell – he has scrupulously compiled a bibliography of these from the archives, including those of Anthony Wood and John Bagford. The modern catalogue is often meticulously researched (e.g. our Catalogue 59) and sometimes plays a role in determining those works of reference that are used beyond the trade: the secret-seeming language of ‘Adams’, ‘Renouard’, ‘ESTC’ required of a pre-1600 continental book, an Aldine, or an early English Book, are standards of reference that come from our practice of checking stock against documented complete copies – they are practices which scholars and institutions use as well.

Catalogues are hard to collect, and to catalogue: they’re issued inconsistently but in huge numbers by a fluctuating dramatis personae of firms, sometimes in varying formats and without very much information about the time of their publication, there is no standard of appearance, contents, or design. The few collections that exist are incomplete, the Munby Collection at Cambridge, the British Library and Oxford have selections on one side of the ocean, and the Groiler Club and the Folger have a few on the other. Most institutions don’t have the space or the time. The smartest and most exciting answer to this problem has come form Yale’s Lillian Goldman Law Library: we were very excited when the librarian there, Mike Widener, e-mailed us one day to ask if he could copy and paste our descriptions with their appropriate books on the library’s online catalogue. It would be nice to see other institutions follow suit. In the meantime, I’ll be practicing my very best impersonation of E. P. Goldschmidt and maybe one day will have my cataloguing work reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement, too.

As networks of catalogues of the book trade across the centuries are able to tell us all about the economics that propel what we value as cultural heritage, when we begin to value it that way, why, and when that changes, there is a sense that we have a lot to lose in overlooking this strange category of ephemeral scholarship. The main reason for neglect must relate to the bottom-line: as they are meant to sell books, they have been grouped with like categories of sales advertisements. Unfortunately, L.L. Bean catalogues, each object usually entails hours of synthesizing information from bibliographies, works of history and scholarship, books and essays, even personal accounts, past and present. But as it is through these catalogues that the secret history of many an intellectual trend can be traced, hopefully more attention will be paid to them in the future.

Anyone collect catalogues? Or have any neat stories about the books you’ve found in catalogues? Goldschmidt famously said that his favorite client would sent orders by postcard upon receipt of his catalogue in some faraway corner of the world. Agree or disagree?


via mike_smiths_flickr

This weekend in a stroke of sheer gift-giving genius I was taken to Hay-on-Wye for my birthday, a little village in Wales with forty-odd secondhand bookshops, roughly translating to a bookshop per 36 residents, hundreds of thousands of books and hours of intensive rummaging.

How does a town become a town of books? The case of Hay follows a distinct blueprint: in 1961 Richard Booth opened up a bookshop in his hometown, stocking it with the contents of entire libraries that had closed in the United States (unfortunately & terrifyingly I’ve not been successful in finding more about this – search results cover only current library shut-downs). There was enough stock to fill many bookshops over, and that’s just what happened, and Booth insisted on placing locals in charge of each. His idea for a “town of books” was, first and foremost, about rejuvenating the local economy by means other than a Tesco and a strip mall.

And the book town model caught on, because Booth traveled around to remake other little towns in Hay’s image, from the 1980s and most recently in Esquelbecq, France (2010). Although the success of the model is inconsistent (you’ll notice that many of the towns on the above wiki-list have fallen out of practice), the International Organization of Book Towns (I.O.B.) is still running strong, and has held meetings every other year since 1998 in order to

  1. raise public awareness of book towns and stimulate interest by giving information via internet and by organising a International Book Town Festival every second year;
  2. enhance the quality of book towns by exchanging knowledge, skills and know-how between the book towns and their individual book sellers and other businesses;
  3. strengthen the rural economy by making propaganda for the existing book towns and by offering a medium (e-commerce) to the book sellers, by which they can offer their books to an universal public, also or specially in the quiet season (“winter economy”);
  4. undertake other activities which can serve the interests of book towns and strengthen independent businesses in book towns, e.g. stimulating the use of information technology;
  5. help in these ways maintaining regional and national cultural heritage and to stimulate the international public to get acquainted with it.

Booth's Autobiography

But Hay’s distinction as the “first” (in the west, saving Jinbocho, Japan) is not the only reason why it thrives as a book town, although if there is a branch of tourist psychology, it must have a lot to say on everyone’s obsession with things that are ‘first’ and/or ‘ largest’ and how they re-enforce success. The main factor here is the cult around the eccentric personality of Richard Booth himself. Folks who grew up in Hay will tell you, he’s a nice man who can throw a great, town-wide party, but beyond that he’s got precisely the flair for publicity that allows a venture like a ‘book town’ to thrive.

There is no better example than in 1977, when the town of books became a kingdom and Booth declared Hay on Wye’s independence. With Booth as King, April Ashley (the first transgender male to female in the UK) as Queen, what started out as a glorified tongue-in-cheek gained recognition on the BBC and the world over. It wasn’t legally a kingdom, but that technicality didn’t matter: there were still passports to be acquired and a web presence where you can buy your very own titles of nobility. To this day in the castle bookshop there are postcards with Booth’s face pasted onto Holbein’s Henry VIII. From the website:

In a world increasingly ruled by impenetrable bureaucracy, and self-interested big business organizations, the Kingdom of Hay was created as an alternative to embrace the good humoured common sense of ordinary intelligent people, which of course ought to be the basis of good government everywhere, always !

Today with government sleaze never far from the headlines, the issues raised in the King of Hay’s Declaration of Independence more than twenty years ago are probably more crucial than ever. But the spirit of the Kingdom of Hay has never been one of despondency. The original Declaration in 1977, presided over by the well-known figure of April Ashley, was celebrated with fireworks and a party for the whole town. And when the King, resplendent in his royal robes with crown, orb and scepter made from an old ball-cock and copper piping, was afterwards asked whether he was serious, his reply was:

“Of course not – but it’s more serious than real politics..!”

The next significant event to add to the fame of the Independent Kingdom of Books was the foundation in 1988 of its annual literary festival. Although Booth wasn’t very involved, the festival was clearly built on the reputation of the town of books – drawing writers and celebrities from all over. During this time the local population swells several times over, and while there we heard tell of hotels being booked up to seven years in advance during the festival time, and even camping areas charging more than what you’d expect. “A Woodstock of the mind”, as it is called, to the max.

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A few weekends ago during a visit to Stirling, Scotland we went a few miles north to visit Innerpeffray, a little hamlet in Crieff that houses the oldest lending library in the country. In 1680, around 400 books from the lavish library of David Drummond, 3rd Lord Madertie were made available to the public, the oldest book being a 1502 imprint The Mirror of Final Retribution:  For Good Works and Evil Ones by Petrus Reginaldetus, and other highlights of the collection including a 1613 King James Bible, a hand-coloured Mercator atlas, and extensive holdings on Scottish history and Law. When Drummond died in 1692, his bequest was formalized and funded by his will. Originally the books were stored flat in the old Innerpeffray Chapel (click here for some amazing photographs – the chapel dates to 1365), but in 1762/3 the books were moved next door to a house specifically built for the purpose by Robert Hay Drummond, Archbishop of York. The 5,000 book collection has remained there until this day, and in the library’s long history books have only been out of circulation since 1968.

In the chapel, books were originally stored flat with paper tabs for easy identification.

The library’s foundation marks a crucial distinction in Scotland’s education and literacy compared to its British neighbors: as the library’s brochure points out, “By 1750 almost every Scottish town of any size had a lending library. They served a society in which 75 per cent of adults could read and write – compared to only 53 percent in England.” When the library was first founded, it was accompanied by a school (which only closed in 1947), and the earliest Rules & Regulations for the library reflect the dedication to local children and their education:

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