The Paper Trail

The Paper Trail

Monday, January 6, 2014

Rosenbach-Free Library of Philadelphia is complete

This story at reports on the completion on December 24, 2013 of the acquisition of the Rosenbach Library by the Free Library of Philadelphia. The state attorney general had no objection to the merger. The April 2013 story didn't go into detail about the board changes, described in this article, which suggests more of a "merger" than earlier reports.

Is it a merger of the two organizations, or an acquisition of the Rosenbach, with its collections and some of its donors, by the FLP? It seems to be both. Time will tell.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Future of Libraries and the Huntington Library (Edward Rothstein at NYT)

Edward Rothstein of the New York Times has a fascinating piece on the Huntington Library's new exhibitions. I think he falters a bit in his review, but his conclusion strikes me as solid and suggestive:
[The Huntington] is developing its own syncretic style, with [aspirations towards] European culture at the foundation. This approach has its tensions. .... And in the library show, the idea of aspiration is almost undercut by later exhibits that are more concerned with grievances and injustices. Yet at the same time, aspiration is not really jettisoned. The spirit of ambitious wonder is preserved in permanent exhibitions like “Beautiful Science” — a haunting evocation of scientific exploration told through the library’s holdings.

Rothstein points with some slight irony to the tension between iconic great books and objects (which the public expects to be preserved) with the new non-canonical materials that fit more with contemporary scholarly research. There's definitely a tension, which I don't think Rothstein unpacks, but perhaps those issues can't be unpacked in a short review piece for the the Times. A lot of that non-canonical material will end up on the web for preservation and dissemination, and I'm not sure that the public will be as supportive of spending money to conserve and exhibit it. 

Source: Edward Rothstein, "A Treasure House of Shifting Aspirations ‘The Library Re-Imagined,’ at the Huntington" (New York Times, Dec 20, 2013)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The End of "The End of Libraries"

Jacob S. Berg at BeerBrarian blog writes a response to those "End of Libraries" articles which he notes tend to be written by well-off males. This response is a series of links to research and articles about the value of libraries. In a nut-shell: libraries are efficient (delivering $4 in services for every $1 spent), their presence in schools tends to improve test scores, and they help even-out the information and digital divides for less-affluent families. And in the comments, some people note that these authors of these pieces seem to have no children. (It's too bad that he and others go on about the whiteness and maleness of these writers--the real problem is social and economic narcissism and the fact that many of these people influence leaders and budget discussions.)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Update on the Rosenbach-Philadelphia Free Library merger

This is an update to my previous story posted about the merger of the Philadelphia Free Library and the Rosenbach Library. My article noted involvement of the Pew Memorial Trusts in the merger. There's more to this than meets the eye.

An opinion article from 2007 by Marie C. Malara, "The New Goals at the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Fate of the Nonprofit Sector" (Nonprofit Quarterly, volume 14, summer 2007:70 – 72). In this piece, the author attacks president of Pew, Rebecca W. Rimel, who wishes to make Philadelphia (Pew's home) into a major center for the arts in the US. The author cites the case of the Barnes Foundation which Pew interfered with in order to move it to Center City Philadelphia. She regards this as a betrayal of the Pew's founding principles.
The article, perhaps rightly, did not receive much play outside the supporters of the old Barnes Foundation. My own take? I don't agree with the thrust of this piece. Merger is the continuing story of foundations urging smaller organizations to consolidate in order to survive and (we all hope) thrive. Pew and Rimel may make some mis-steps, but I don't think it's necessarily a case of bad faith and betrayal of founding principles. There's a lot to be said for Rimel's vision in an extended (post-1980) period of economic contraction and reduced government funding. Still, pieces like this one should make us pause, and ensure that we're really engaged in an alignment of activities, mission and founding ideas.
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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Voynich Manuscript and Fakery [updated]

[Update 10/14/2013 See comment below.] The latest New Yorker has an article about the Voynich manuscript by Reed Johnson. The article helpfully reviews the provenance (some of it possibly putative) as well as the modern history and reception of the very strange manuscript.

In one throw-away line, Johnson notes that some people have questioned whether the manuscript is as ancient as claimed:
The hoax hypothesis can’t be ruled out. But if the Voynich is a fake, it’s an elaborate one. A twentieth-century scam artist would have to have located a hundred and twenty sheets of blank six-hundred-year-old vellum in anticipation of the invention of radiocarbon dating (which did not yet exist when the manuscript first reĆ«merged, in 1912).
This reasoning strikes me as naive. By the early twentieth century, some art forgers were certainly using antique materials (not in expectation of radiocarbon dating, but in expectation of trying to fool better trained experts), and the use of such old materials and old techniques was far more common in the 1920s. Eric Hebborn's Art Forger's Handbook, while slender on history, is very suggestive about the overlap between early art restoration and forgery--indeed some early 20th C restorers tried their hand at outright faking. (I'm ignoring the question of whether the manuscript's code is medieval or modern, which is a major buttress to it authenticity in Johnson's reasoning--but, frankly, that evidence could be argued either way, as the "Hoax" section of Wikipedia suggests.)

In terms of provenance, the descent sketched by Johnson has some gaps, and the overall provenance could go either way, but the romantic story about Rudolph II makes me a bit suspicious. It sounds a little too good (to be true) and while the story might have been tarted up by Voynich to sell the manuscript, it wouldn't surprise me that an anonymous forger used the story and references to create this minor masterpiece that still excites the fancy of writers and laypeople.

The Unread: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript (New Yorker, July 9, 2013)

Update 2/20/2014: Professor of Applied Linguistics, Stephen Bax, at the University of Bedfordshire, claims to have made a start deciphering some of the coded language by comparing names and known images to medieval Arab manuscripts. From a university press release:
Although Professor Bax’s decoding is still only partial, it has generated a lot of excitement in the world of codebreaking and linguistics because it could prove a crucial breakthrough for an eventual full decipherment.

“My aim in reporting on my findings at this stage is to encourage other linguists to work with me to decode the whole script using the same approach, though it still won’t be easy. That way we can finally understand what the mysterious authors were trying to tell us,” he added.

“But already my research shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.” [emphasis added]
Obviously, this is preliminary and will probably be altered as time goes on. -PWR
(update: fixed some typos. Update 10/14/2013 update for comments)
(update 2/20/2014: Professor Bax news)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Manuscript sharing: NYPL and Pennsylvania to share a Bill of Rights

The Wall Street Journal reports on an interesting 100-year sharing agreement between the New York Public Library and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for a manuscript Bill of Rights.The NYPL received the manuscript on donation in 1896 and its provenance before then appears to be uncertain. The WSJ article notes that only fourteen copies of the Bill were made (one for each state and for the federal government) and that Georgia, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania are all missing their copies. Georgia's and New York's were probably lost to fire. (NYS's great and tragic 1911 Library fire destroyed a lot of early state history, including a lot of colonial era manuscripts.)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Our stories: morality vs stuff happens (Paul Krugman quotation)

"Everyone loves a morality play. 'For the wages of sin is death' is a much more satisfying message than 'Shit happens.' We all want events to have meaning." -- Paul Krugman, "How the Case for Austerity had Crumbled," New York Review of Books, June 5, 2013

Krugman is often my source for interesting one-liners or neologisms. What I do think Krugman misses in this quotation (from an admittedly longer and more complex article) is that while stuff happens, there is also a human tendency to want a more complex agent than an accumulation of events--or a mistake. Yes, we want to give meaning to events and stories, and the meaning in my mind is much more interesting than (dull, drab) reality. It's this impulse that in extreme forms can power conspiracy thinking.

Krugman's piece is an interesting review of the theory behind austerity, primarily as it has played out in Europe, but also in the GOP.