Are you a librarian, archivist, museum specialist, or other kind of information professional? On Tuesday, November 29, from 6-8pm, The American Bookbinders Museum is having a reception just for you in order to share our exhibit on the Florence Flood of 1966, entitled BOOKS AND MUD: THE DROWNED LIBRARIES OF FLORENCE.
Come join us – check out the new exhibit and schmooze with your colleagues!
Fifty years ago last night, the Arno River in Florence burst its banks and flooded the city, reaching depths of 18-22 feet. Water raged through the streets at some 30-40 miles per hour, tumbling cars and even newsstands as easily as if they were children’s toys. Shops on the famous bridges of the Arno looked as though they had been hit by bombs. Basement furnaces leaked and exploded, and the pressure of the water blew out the sewers. When the waters receded after a few days, the city was covered in a thick, foul slime of mud, sewage, oil, and waterlogged detritus.
Our exhibit, BOOKS AND MUD: THE DROWNED LIBRARIES OF FLORENCE looks at the damage and recovery effort in a single library in Florence, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, in which nearly 100,000 precious early modern volumes were left waterlogged and mud-caked. It has been up for two weeks, and many of the visitors who have come to see it have some memory to share of the 1966 flood. Some remember hearing about it and wishing they had gone to help, while others tell us a bit about being on the scene.
The technical achievement of the restoration workers is, of course, vitally important and interesting to study. The methods the skilled men and women who saved the books developed informs much of the way water-damaged books are managed even today.
That said, the part of the story that seems to lie at the heart of everyone’s memory of the Florence flood of 1966 is the part where thousands of young people came from all over Italy, Europe, and many parts of the world to volunteer their time and labor as angeli del tango: mud angels. They formed lines to the basements of museums, libraries, and palaces, passing books, artwork, and other treasures one at a time to the fresh air and the hands of the professional restorers. They took shovels and buckets and dug mud out of stores, homes, and streets.
The raw film footage and photographs of these mud angels, most of whom remain unidentified in these visual records, is moving and heartwarming. It is beautiful to see the way they move through the streets, filthy and tired, doing what they can to restore the everyday life and priceless treasures of Florence. In the well-worn phrase, it gives one faith in humanity.
As I write this, Italy is once again dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. In the past few months, nearly 250 medium-strength or greater earthquakes have rocked the country. Nearly 300 people died as a result of the August 24 earthquake around the town of Amatrice. The town of Arquata del Tronto has been more or less destroyed. Those wishing to aid the relief efforts can donate here. The Italian Cultural Institute here in San Francisco is also offering the chance to donate via an artist’s exhibit and auction. The auction will take place at the Institute on December 8, 2016, from 6-9pm.
We have also kept track of floods in 2016 as part of the exhibit, or at least, as many floods as we’ve been able to track down. We have a world map on display with color-coded pins indicating flood frequency and severity, and it is updated daily.
Recent major flooding in the United States has of course caught our attention. West Virginia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas have been particularly affected recently, and all have put out appeals for help in rebuilding the public library collections and those of the public schools. Baton Rouge school librarian Trey Veazey’s blog post on the subject spread around social media, but aid is needed all over the affected areas. Most have lost most or all of their collections, and rebuilding is expensive and necessary. Veazey writes:
We are relocating. We’ve been ushered over to a building that was built in 1937. That means my new school is the same age as And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. It also means that, in my first year as a librarian, I have a library without any books.
Access to books is the key to educational success. Our library doesn’t have books. Our classrooms don’t have books. Many of the homes of our students don’t have books. Like the tears that rolled down our faces both in silent & violent measures, they became a part of the flood before being swept away as we looked toward rebuilding & recovery.
Most of us can’t go dig these places out of the mud and sweep away the flood waters, but other ways you can help may be found here:
On February 28, 1963, the television series The Twilight Zone aired an episode entitled “Printer’s Devil,” based largely on a short story by Charles Beaumont entitled “The Devil, You say.” In this episode, the editor of a failing newspaper makes a deal with a stranger who offers to fund the enterprise in exchange for serving as the sole linotype operator and sole reporter. As the stranger, Mr. Smith, gets scoop after scoop – some mere minutes after the events take place – the newspaper gains in status. Mr. Smith then tries to get the editor to sign a contract guaranteeing continued success in exchange for the editor’s immortal soul. It seems that Mr. Smith also modifies the linotype machine so that whatever is written on it takes place for real.
The title of the episode refers to Mr. Smith as an incarnation of Lucifer, but it also refers to a term used to describe some printing apprentices. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, the term’s origin is the object of some speculation. Some think it refers to the black skin stains resulting from the ink, and as black is a color associated with malicious sorcery, these apprentices came to be called devils.
Others speculate that worn-out or broken type ended up in a “hellbox,” which the apprentices took to the furnace for recasting, or that the term dates from the apprentice to English printer William Caxton, whose surname was Deville.
There are, however, two stories that are less practical but more compelling as anecdotes.
Early printing was often associated with devilry (even Aldus Manutius, the extraordinary Venetian printer, came in for his share of suspicion). There is an apocryphal story about a business partner of Gutenberg’s named Johann Fust. Fust was a major investor and supporter of Gutenberg’s printing-related inventions, but when Gutenberg failed to repay the investment and its interest within a set amount of time, some unproven stories say he took the machinery as collateral. It is certainly provable through court documents that Gutenberg eventually went bankrupt and appears to have lost control of his own invention.
In any case, according to this version of the story, Fust is supposed to have sold some of Gutenberg’s bibles to the French royal court of Louis XI. As early type was designed to resemble scribal handwriting, it would have been easy to mistake them for the manuscripts standard at the time. But the books raised some questions among the courtiers. All of the letters were unnaturally identical, after all, and the red ink might well be blood. He also seemed to make and sell the books far more quickly than was possible with manuscript books. So Fust was jailed on suspicion of black magic.
This story, while an excellent one, has little documentary evidence to support it. That said, over the years there have been whispers linking this story to the one of the infamous Dr. Faust, who sold his soul in exchange for knowledge.
Another explanation for the term “printer’s devil” refers to the idea that every print shop had a special devil, possibly the “patron demon” of scribes and printers named Titivillus, who indulged in minor mischief such as inverting type and misspelling words. The apprentices were an easy group to blame for such errors, and so became known as “printer’s devils.”
Whatever the origin, it is a wonderfully spooky term, and the many possible sources make for good storytelling. There was even a pub in Bristol, England, named The Printers Devil, but unfortunately it has been closed since 2008. Who knows? Maybe it was haunted.
Inspired by Eleanor Boba’s recent guest post on spellbooks and books of power in literature, I thought I’d post a follow-up with a focus on similar books onscreen. It is, perhaps, a little sillier than our usual posts, but hey, it’s Halloween month!
The first errant fool that touches the page shall loos’th himself in the image therein and shall be cursed to live the death that is therein depicteth. Yet, he who utters the dying breath may then be spared the errant death, but breath be spoke before the flame or death shall take him all the same.
— WAREHOUSE 13, Season 3, Episode 1: “The New Guy”
There are many options for notable books and books of power. Though tempting to include because of the TARDIS-like binding, River Song’s diary on DOCTOR WHO is not in itself a book of power, so I had to set it aside. The storybook in THE NEVERENDING STORY is an appealing choice – a book that changes its story with every reading, in large part to suit the needs of the reader/hero, is certainly a book of power. But I haven’t seen the movie and this post isn’t about literary versions of stories. Another tempting option is pretty much the entire library of books used on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
However, I’ve settled on books featured in two shows, one still on the air, and one recently finished.
The first is the storybook in ONCE UPON A TIME. Though seemingly stuffed with limitless classic tales (the loose definition of “fairy tales” used by Disney properties is a conversation to be had in another time and place), the child Henry immediately notices when an unexpected story has been added, and also knows when a character appears in town who isn’t in the book. It’s an interesting combination of characters’ life stories existing in a status of already-written and being-written simultaneously. Extra pages appear at times in the show, while others are rewritten or destroyed. For characters during the first curse, touching the book, hearing their story, or seeing an illustration of themselves can cause brief, confusing visions of their previous life. Eventually, doing so is what convinces Emma Swann that the curse is indeed real, rather than her son’s imagination at work.
The second show I’d like to reference has a few different and interesting books of power featured at various times. WAREHOUSE 13 proposes the premise that when exposed to heightened emotion, everyday items can become imbued with certain properties that affect humans in a way related to the object’s original exposure. These Artifacts, as they are known, range from relatively harmless (Marilyn Monroe’s hairbrush turns your hair platinum blonde, the original snowglobe can make things, like drinks, cold) to the downright deadly (Gandhi’s dhoti makes you so peaceful that you stop breathing, a piece of the Parliament building rubble from the Blitz works as a hate-fueled bomb).
There are two books featured that come to mind when thinking of WAREHOUSE 13 and books of power. In one episode, a bookseller receives a copy of an Edgar Allan Poe notebook. When he reads it, the words become literally embedded in the skin and lead to loss of sanity. The characters eventually find that it can be temporarily deactivated by the presence of “good stories,” which they accomplish by reading the victim’s own unpublished manuscript to him, which was full of personal passion and emotion. In a later episode, an early folio of Shakespeare is used as a murder weapon: the victims touch the page illustrating of one of the death scenes in a play and then themselves die that way, speaking the “last words” from the play. If they manage to speak the last words before the page’s spontaneous flames consume it entirely, they can survive the attack.
These two shows feature books that create, consume, and destroy in turns. And once you start looking, you can’t help but notice books of power are featured in stories on both page and screen all the time.
Banned Books Week, which takes place this year between September 25 and October 1, is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the freedom to share and express ideas. It draws attention to the problems and harms of censorship. (more…)
I was looking for someone, and I had been here before.
Staring down the long aisle, I blinked hard, and looked at the slip of paper in my hand. A bunch of letters and numbers, written in pencil. A call number. I squinted at my own jagged vertical printing. “Is that an S, or a 5?” I thought. Was this even going to work? Last time, I came up empty. What was I doing?
Earlier this year, the American Bookbinders Museum received the generous donation of the Kathleen V. Roberts Collection of Decorated Publishers’ Bindings, comprising more than 400 volumes dating between 1830 and 1950. As of this blog post, about two thirds of the collection has been cataloged.
I spent the past few days in Orlando, Florida, attending the American Library Association Annual Meeting. It was, as always, an inspirational and thought-provoking experience, as well as being just plain fun. The gathering of thousands of library people never fails to be enjoyable and interesting. From the serious gatherings like the various divisional meetings to the controlled chaos of the exhibit hall to the whole-heartedly goofy (if curious, check out the Twitter hashtag #alalibrarygames for some end-of-conference hilarity – especially the guy who lip-synced “Don’t Stop Me Now” and the interpretive dance to “Bird Set Free”), I loved every moment.
The ABM Library and Archives are up and running! Not everything has been
A colorful portion of our collection.
cataloged yet – more is added to our catalog every week – but with over 3,000 items in the library catalog and close to 18 linear feet of archival documents and photographs organized, it seems like time and past to publicly declare the materials available for use.
This is a remarkable collection, and I enjoy every moment I spend exploring, cataloging, and arranging. I’m learning a great deal. The primary resource I’m using for cataloging is OCLC WorldCat, which is an online catalog gathering the collections of over 72,000 participating libraries in more than 170 countries and territories. WorldCat is a fantastic resource for anyone doing research, because when you search for an item, it offers you two important details: which library holds which edition of the publication, and where they are in relation to your location.
What with Iris Law’s survey of chapbooks in her recent guest post for this blog, it seemed only right to feature a chapbook in the American Bookbinders Museum Library as well. A Sky Empty of Orion is the 1985 creation of noted American poet Laura Jensen, and serves as an excerpt or preview of a subsequent larger work, Shelter (1985).