THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

06 December 2012

The Aura of the Object: Jack Kerouac's manuscript scroll

 It won’t be too long before Jim ‘Keeper of the scroll’ returns to roll up On the Road and take it back home to Indiana. I’ve no idea how many visitors have come to see it while it’s been on display at the Library but it’s A LOT. And it’s been a real pleasure to see so many people, of all ages, carefully scrutinising the scroll.

When he was over in October, Jim told me that the scroll had recently been scanned -once he had managed to source a big enough scanner! This was an important step for the future preservation of the manuscript and is a demonstration of the careful stewardship of its owner. But scanning had also enabled Jim to locate particular passages more easily and to generally become even more familiar with the scroll, whilst also reducing wear and tear at the same time.

Digitisation is, of course, great – I love the way that we’re starting to open up our collections and make them more accessible, particularly to those who will never get the chance to come here to use them. But, to state the obvious, digitisation doesn’t make the original redundant. It can make something more accessible (both in terms of audience and also in revealing ‘hidden’ content);  it can help preserve a frail or incredibly valuable original; and we’re only really just beginning to get our heads round the potential of digitisation for new modes of scholarship and research. But never underestimate the power of the object.

When Jim started to unroll the scroll in its specially built case, I was surprised at the wave of emotion that hit me. It’s a really amazing textual object, and for a moment I felt like I was in that apartment in Chelsea, standing at the shoulder of Kerouac and watching him pound the keys of his typewriter in that manic burst of creativity.

For someone who really only cared about being considered as a writer but who was destined to be forever burdened with the tag of King of the Beats during his short life, Kerouac couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams that thousands of people would take the time to come to look at his manuscript, - not only here, but in numerous exhibitions across the U.S. and Europe (and by the way, let’s hear it for the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, also owner of the scroll, who has allowed it to travel and not kept it locked in a private vault). So, whatever the wonders that digitisation can bring us, would getting up close to a digital version of the scroll bring a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye? I doubt it. You only have until 27 December to come and see it for yourself.

http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/kerouac/index.html

 [C.H.]

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