THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

8 posts from May 2015

29 May 2015

Conference: Visual Urbanisms

3.8 Looking Up Yonge Street, Toronto, Ont, From and Aeroplane, Canadian Postcard Co, Toronto (hs85 10 35818) (1)

Above: a view of Toronto's historic landscape [BL: HS85/10/35818]

Team Americas were invited to take part in today's Visual Urbanisms conference in the Library's conference centre and there are few prizes for guessing what we talked about. Picturing Canada may have been completed a few years ago but we still like to show the work to new audiences and think more about what the collection tells us.

IMG_8165

Above: history lives on and is performed around us; Toronto streetscape [image by PJH]

With that in mind, the conference was an opportunity to think about the contemporary life of these photographs and how they influence our understanding of the modern city. Crucially, historic images can also directly impact how the urban infrastructure develops, inspiring acts of conservation and building works that speak to a past heritage preserved by the camera's lens.

The_Globe_kittens_(HS85-10-13446-3)

Above: rest assured, the kittens still made an appearance.

Picturing Canada aimed to open up the Library's Canadian photographs to a new audience by collaborating with Wikimedia UK to release high quality images on a  Public Domain license. The result has been a collection used in historical research, to illustrate Wikipedia articles, furnish urban infrastructure (including a bar in Calgary) and to get people thinking about their local history.

For more about the collection and today's talk you can read the slides by clicking here:

Download Canada by Postcard.

[PJH]

22 May 2015

21 May 2015

Stories Weaved in Cloth

Cloth Catalogue (inner)

Above: cloth sample with text description [BL: C.112.e.1, restricted item]

If you have been through the Entrance Hall Gallery recently you will note that our own Lines in the Ice has given way to a wonderful new work by Cornelia Parker. Designed to capture the process of collective memory (and history) making that underpins our ideas about the Magna Carta and its legacy the work is a multi-authored depiction of Wikipedia's entry on the Magna Carta. At first glance, the idea of craft, needlework and textiles in the national library might seem a little odd, but this isn't the only place you'll find such materials in the Library. 

1215-magna-carta-detail-an-embroidery-cornelia-parker-british-library

Above: one part of the Magna Carta embroidery. From the Library's press release.

As Lines in the Ice showed, the Library holds a number of unusual items and accounts relating to the efforts of explorers from the 18th and 19th centuries, not least those accumulated as a result of the voyages of Captain Cook. Amongst the materials relating to Australasia is a book snappily titled, 'A Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook, to the Southern Hemisphere; with a particular account of the manner of the manufacturing the same in the various islands of the South Seas; partly extracted from Mr. Anderson and Reinhold Forster's observations, and the verbal account of some of the most knowing of the navigators: with some anecdotes that happened to them among the natives. [With 39 specimens of cloth, restricted item held at C.112.e.1]' - lest we forget it was published in 1787.

Cloth Catalogue (sample 1)  Cloth Catalogue (sample 2)
Above: two samples of cloth from the catalogue [BL: C.112.e.1, restricted item]

There's a lot to say about this book and it has recently been the focus of research at the University of Otago (you can read the outputs here) but what struck me today was, like Cornelia Parker's piece in the Entrance Hall gallery, this is fundamentally a collaborative effort with a large number of individual stories bound into it. As the title alludes, the collection and publication of these samples of textile are endeavours awash with stories, as are the textiles themselves; and today we are much more aware that the stories of the cloth makers, not just the collectors, need recording too. They communicate, history, heritage and culture in their weave. As a result, the book represents a fascinating and complex historical object, as does the embroidery on display in the Entrance Hall Gallery.

Speaking of complex and contested artistic histories, Team Americas and Australasia are heading over to the British Museum's new exhibition, 'Indigenous Australia, Enduring Civilisation' later this week - so a bonus exhibition / collection items cross over for this post.

[PJH]

15 May 2015

Off The Wall Fridays

433px-HRH_The_Prince_of_Wales_No_7_(HS85-10-36419)

Above: Image from the Picturing Canada digitisation project, 'H. R. H. Prince of Wales, No. 7' by the Freeland Studio [BL: HS85/10/36419]

It's that time of the week again, so today we bring you a Right-Royal Photobomb...

[PJH]

12 May 2015

The Many Uses of Whiskey: a Bryant Lecture roundup

Whiskey and Wather (LC23c5 57)Above: a poetic tribute to Captain John Palliser, who explored the (admittedly, Canadian) Rockies. The spelling of water suggests it was for reciting in a Lancashire dialect [BL: LC.23.c.5(57)]

The utility of whiskey is impressive, it can function as an enjoyable beverage, social facilitator, medicinal syrup and, as of last night, an impressive metaphor about the evolving significance of Magna Carta. Monday saw this year's Douglas W. Bryant Lecture celebrated at the Library, the 20th in all, and we were fortunate to be host the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Matthew Barzun, for the evening.

Womens War on Whiskey (cover 8435b55)  Womens War on Whisky (internal 8435b55)
Above: one of the few American tracts on whiskey turns out to be a temperance tract [BL: 8435.b.55]

The Ambassador's talk, titled, 'Magna Carta, 1776 and All That', hinged on the metaphorical relationship between whiskey and the Magna Carta - more on which in a moment. On the way home a thought occurred to me, 'what do we have in the collection regarding whiskey and the Americas?' Turns out the answer is, 'not a great deal that's interesting' (meaning rare and insightful historic publications) but, spread across the Library's manuscripts, newspapers, microfilms and printed books there is a smattering of items.

BarzunspeechAbove: Ambassador Barzun giving his lecture (image copyright Ander McIntyre)

Admittedly, a lot of it is temperance material but, as the wonderful poem in the first image shows, there are also items defending the drink's virtues. For Ambassador Barzun, the link between the Magna Carta and whiskey is based on the method by which the drink is made. A complex process, with deceptively simple ingredients, whiskey takes time to mature and produces strikingly different results depending upon the raw materials used and the geography within which it is produced. The Ambassador argued that Magna Carta and its legacy, in the rule of law and political freedom, can be viewed the same way; just look at how it has influenced the UK and the US. If this piques your interest, the lecture has been posted online by the US Embassy and can be read in full here.

AudienceAbove: audience questions for Ambassador Barzun (image copyright Ander McIntyre)

While the Library may not be the best place to find unique resources pertaining to whiskey in the Americas we are well placed to facilitate research and interest in the Magna Carta. Our exhibition runs until September, we have a whole series of events coming up (including another on Magna Carta in America) and there's a good deal of material in the collections too.

[PJH]

08 May 2015

Off the Wall Fridays

800px-Pelorus_Jack_Mascot_of_HMS_New_Zealand_(HS85-10-29327)

Above: Pelorus Jack, mascot of HMS New Zealand, looking none-too-pleased. From Picturing Canada and the Library's Colonial Copyright Collection [BL: HS85/10/29327]

Another Friday image, however you feel this morning Jack should raise a smile.

[PJH]

07 May 2015

Inventing The Great Gatsby

Careless People (cover)

Above: The cover for Careless People, by Prof. Sarah Churchwell (2013).

[As a prelude to an upcoming Eccles Centre event, Prof. Sarah Churchwell writes for us on 'The Great Gatsby'. You can hear more at her talk, 'Inventing the Great Gatsby: 1922 - 1925' on May 18th]

The Great Gatsby has made countless readers feel as if the Jazz Age were a party to which they have not been invited. Like the party-goers at Gatsby’s revels, the reader of Gatsby is drawn there by word of mouth, looking for glamour and personality, in search of celebrated and interesting people. We want to know F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom we have met through his books: we want to meet his wife, and know whether she was really mad, or destroyed him, or whether he destroyed her. We want to know how much she made herself up, or he made her up, or we've made them both up. Although many literary critics still insist that this impulse is unworthy, a deplorable preference for gossip over art, it is also true that our social personality is a creation of the minds of others, as Proust observed. Scott Fitzgerald understood that better than most, and it is one of the themes of The Great Gatsby. 

Many people respond by throwing their own Gatsby-themed parties, a response with which I sympathize. But because I am an academic (i.e., a professional geek), my idea of throwing a Gatsby party is not to mix a few tasty cocktails and suggest that people put on a pretty dress that approximates one that might have been worn in the 1920s. No, my response is to spend years and years intensively researching what life would have been like in 1922, what Scott Fitzgerald could have known when he was sat down to write the novel, what he guessed—and what he had no way of knowing.

In April 1925, when Gatsby was published, it was a contemporary novel. It had been written in 1924 and set in 1922: so it would work in exact parallel if we imagine a novel published this year, that was written in 2014, and set in 2012. It would be a contemporary novel: we would understand all of its references, without need of translation, explanation, or glossary. The Great Gatsby was certainly a “modern” novel—so modern that its first readers could not see any meanings beyond the ones that were entirely manifest in 1925. Most of these meanings are entirely lost upon us now—but it turns out that they are not entirely lost to us. They are there, waiting to be found, if we’re patient, or dogged, or both. And it is those meanings—the meanings that would have been available to Fitzgerald, and his readers, in 1925—that I set out to recover in researching my book about Gatsby, if I could. The analogy, to my mind, is like trying to do an historically sympathetic renovation of a beautiful old art deco house. Of course you can cover it over with all kinds of layers from other eras, and there are arguments to be made in favor of updating (just as few of us would want to actually live with an historically authentic bathroom from 1925, so few of us would want to return to an historically authentic 1925 attitude toward, for example, anti-Semitism). But there are also arguments to be made in favor of creating something historically sympathetic, and aesthetically consonant, and that’s what I tried to do in the book I eventually wrote, called Careless People.

Gatsby 1925 (CUP406I13)

Above: first pages of the 1925 New York edition of The Great Gatsby [BL:Cup.406.I.13]

One of the unexpected results of this research project was that I came to see much more clearly than I’d ever predicted why The Great Gatsby was not a great critical or commercial success when it was published in 1925; it didn’t flop, but its sales were sluggish, its reviews largely uncomprehending. Along the way I learned a great deal about what New Yorkers in 1922, when Gatsby is set, actually wore (skirts were much longer than we think), what they drank (bathtub gin and bootleg gin are not the same thing), what they danced (not the Charleston), what they listened to, what they ate, even what perfumes were available. (The great French house of Caron produced both Narcisse Blanc and Nuit de Noël in 1922, for example; both are still available for any historical die-hards who do not have to survive on an academic salary.)

Such a critical, and I hope creative, endeavor necessarily raises a series of question about what it might mean to try to recover the past. And as fate would have it, this is the great question asked by the great Gatsby, and by The Great Gatsby. “You can't repeat the past,” Nick Carraway warns Jay Gatsby. “Can't repeat the past?” Gatsby responds, incredulously. “Why of course you can!” And then Fitzgerald adds, with one of the hundreds of touches of mordant humor that pepper the novel, that Gatsby “looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.”

Is the past just out of reach of our hand? For Nick, as for Fitzgerald, this is a facetious remark—and yet the idea that it might be is just the response that the novel has inspired in thousands of readers since Fitzgerald’s death in 1940. But in 1925, as I’ve said, Gatsby was a purely contemporary novel: its ideas about the past were negligible, and its vision of the future was indiscernible, undetectable to jazz-age eyes, as blind as the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg, pointlessly lording it over the ashes of history.

What past we have is an invention. There was a past, and we certainly did not invent it, although other people did; but that past has made its exit and it will not return. Our myths, our legends, our false memories and mistaken historical assumptions, our anachronisms, our egotistical projections of our own values—these are the invented past.

What I discovered is that the hectic absurdity of the past takes us by surprise; we are accustomed to invent only that past that seems useful to us, by and large: rare is the effort to accommodate the present to the past, rather than the other way around. We may not believe that we can repeat the past, but we do tend to believe that we can recover it, although God knows what havoc we would wreak if we found ourselves accidentally grasping it.

Gatsby 1925 cover (CUP406I13)

Above: cover and modern preservation box for the 1925 edition of The Great Gatsby [BL: Cup.406.I.13]

I think most of us expect history to display a certain dignity, as befits its age; but what I learned is that the past is not a venerable old man, an eminence grise: it is an unabashed adolescent, with no understanding or fear of the consequences of its own idiotic behavior. Its carelessness proves, in the end, rather winning, but we should not mistake a survivor’s instinct for sanity.

The history of 1922 reads not like history, but like a rather madcap novel—and that novel is by Scott Fitzgerald, because it was his novel that taught us how to read this story. The sources turn out to have a tremendous story to tell themselves: but we would not know what it was about if Fitzgerald had not told us how to read it in the first place.

Memory is an imaginative reconstruction of the facts. So is history. So is The Great Gatsby. They are not the same things, of course, memory, history, fiction. But they have more in common than we like to think. They’re all a story about the art of exhilaration, about a glittering, gin-drenched, time-drenched world, whether we are dealing with fiction or with history. In either case the theme is the peril and brevity of such vision—that is the theme of Gatsby, and it is the starting point for any serious conversation about it.

[SC]

[Prof. Sarah Churchwell will be speaking about 'The Great Gatsby' at the British Library on May 18th, you can find more information here]

01 May 2015

Off the Wall Fridays

1280px-The_Globe_kittens_(HS85-10-13446-3)

Above: the Globe kittens, from our 2012 Picturing Canada work [BL: HS85/10/13446]

The end of the week will see something a little different on the Team Americas blog from now on. We've got a whole heap of digital content that rarely sees the light of day because we've not had a chance to do further research on it yet so as of now we're posting it for your enjoyment and interest. There won't be much interpretation from us but expect something quirky and often amusing to get you talking about the Library's Americas and Australasian collections.

With that in mind, today we bring you kittens with books - enjoy!

[PJH]