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10 posts from October 2009

30 October 2009

There never will be anything more interesting than that American Civil War


The right statistics can really help to focus the mind. I knew that around 620,000 Americans had died during the Civil War, but when I heard Professor David Blight say that if you applied the same death rate per capita to the Vietnam war, some 4 million American soldiers would have died in Vietnam (as opposed to the actual –and still staggering figure of c.58,000), that really helped to bring home to me the enormity of the conflict.

I’ve been following Professor Blight’s Yale course on the war on the wonderful Academic Earth (we can all have a Yale education now!) and another statistic that I learnt, equally staggering but in a different way, is that over 65,000 books have been written on the Civil War, which would tend to give credence to Gertrude Stein’s comment on its enduring interest. I certainly don’t think that the Library can claim to have all of them, although our holdings are strong. Matthew is in fact currently working on a feature on the subject for the Library's online gallery.

These days we are all too used to seeing images of war in the papers or on our TV screens but photography was still relatively new at the time of the Civil War.  Roger Fenton’s photographs from the Crimea in 1855 represent one of the earliest attempts to document war, but although he recorded the landscape and the military personnel etc, there are no battle scenes. Not really surprising since the cumbersome equipment and laborious wet-plate photographic process made it much too difficult and dangerous to photograph actual fighting. But Fenton also deliberately chose not to record the bloody aftermath of battle.

Alexander Gardner, a Scot who worked for Matthew Brady, went to photograph the Civil War in 1861 and, unlike Fenton, he did record the resulting carnage. This included the aftermath of one of the bloodiest days in American history at Antietam, Maryland, in September 1862, when McClellan’s Army of the Potomac faced Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. And here’s another statistic from Professor Blight- each year 23,000 candle lamps are placed on the battlefield at a ceremony held to commemorate the number of casualties that fell there over the course of the almost day long battle.

Gardner’s photographs of the dead at Antietam were exhibited at Brady’s New York gallery and understandably caused a sensation. But he was soon to part company with Brady (who often took the credit for the photos of others) and set up his own studio. More of Brady’s photographers joined him and together they continued to document the encampments, soldiers and battle fields. Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War appeared in 2 editions -one in 1865 and one in 1866, both consisting of 2 volumes, each volume containing 50 albumen print photographs, and each photograph accompanied by a descriptive caption. 

Of course, much has been written on Gardner's 'staging' of some of the scenes and bodies, not to mention the veracity of some of the descriptions (for some examples see our Points of View webpages and also the Library of Congress), but the Sketch Book still represents one of the earliest visual evocations of the horrors of war.


Canaan and the New England Courant

There's a very interesting chapter, indeed the germ of the book, in William Doyle's recent Aristocracy and its Enemies in the Age of Revolution (Oxford, 2009) titled 'Aristocracy Avoided: America and the Cincinnati'.  It's about the controversy that ensued following the establishment of an Order, the membership of which would be extended to the generals and colonels of the French army in gratitude for 'the generous assistance this country has received from France' during the American War of Independence.  A quasi-chivalric order caused quite a stink on both sides of the channel. 

It's a fascinating tale, but what particularly caught my eye was the opening paragraph, which quoted our old friend Ben Franklin, writing as a very young man in his brother's Boston paper, the New England Courant (1722):

In old Time it was no disrespect for Men and Women to be call'd by their own Names: Adam was never called Master Adam; we never read of Noah Esquire, Lot Knight, nor the Right Honorable Abraham, Viscount Mesopatamia, Barron of Carran.

Carran is footnoted sic. It is rendered as Canaan in several editions of Franklin's works, and Doyle suggests it is indeed a misprint in the note.  We have a marked-up run of the Courant in the Burney Collection of newspapers - Franklin, it seems, initialled the anonymous columns by such figures as Silence Dogood.   It has been digitized here at the BL (and available elsewhere via JISC), so I called it up on line.  No helpful initials.  But is is definitely Carran - a misprint.  It is also Baron, too.

A conference, on much bigger matters, is planned for 14-15 December at the British Academy:  The Crisis of the Absolute Monarchy: An international conference in honour of Professor William Doyle, FBA.  Franklin would have enjoyed it.


27 October 2009

British Caribbean accents

Logo I mentioned that the British Library has several curatorial blogs in the last post.  I'm pleased to note that another one has joined the roster: Voices of the UK - a blog about the BL's audio collections of British accents and dialects.  Among the first of Jonnie, Jon and Helen's posts is one about British Caribbean recordings made in Huddersfield - "Poppy-show and kiss-teeth".   A quick click, and you can find out more about patwa, "KST" and the Database of Regional English ...


23 October 2009

Harmony and Armonicas

What's the collective noun for blogs?  A fond?  A bundle? A roll?  Whichever you prefer, there are quite a few now being hosted at the British Library, including several by curators or collection areas.  One of these is written by our colleagues in the German collections Dach-Blog

So, in the interests of curatorial harmony, I've been looking at an item from the German collections: Johann Christian Mueller's Anleitung zum Selbstunterricht auf der Harmonika... (Leipzig, Siegfried Lebrecht Crusius, 1788).  Looking out from the title page, slightly mischievously as ever, is that great American tinkerer, printer and statesman, Ben Franklin.  He's clearly in full-on european sensation mode, and is depicted with his 'state of nature' beaver-skin hat. 

The volume itself is a guide to playing the Glass Armonica, Franklin's somewhat ghostly-sounding improvement on the parlour trick of 'musical glasses'.  It brought back a few memories for Team America as well, since in 2006 I was lucky enough to be involved in putting on a concert of Glass Armonica music to tie in with our Franklin exhibition (there's a listing of the items in .pdf format preserved on the BL's research archive.  Franklin-as-stuffed toy and an empty Franklin-brand bourbon bottle also now sit on the shelves opposite me.)

Photo 0020The instrument had an enormous vogue in Europe, impressed Mozart and, according to some sources, terrified or hypnotised the young.  As a result, it was even banned by the police in some German towns.  (For those with access to it, there is a fine entry in Grove.)

The Armonica was also particularly favoured by women, and had somewhat romantic associations. Which, rather tenuously, brings me back to today's post in Dach-Blog: "Love's Labour Lost"  (something Franklin knew a little about).

[M. S.]

22 October 2009

What you won't be reading on your Kindle

I’ve been having a lot of fun this week finding books to ‘challenge’ our conservation team. In collaboration with The Preservation Advisory Centre, they are surveying some of our artists’ and fine press books to look at issues around the conservation of modern materials.

Whilst the debate on the future of the printed book goes on, there is a diverse and growing community of artists, printers, small and fine presses which continues to produce books which really wouldn’t work as e-books because they are not just about content. Many of the fine press printers use traditional methods and printing techniques to produce beautifully crafted books. Others find new processes – and new materials, to employ in their work, as they seek to push the boundaries of the codex to its limits. Artists move between different media with ease, and still find the book a suitable format for their work.

Many of the fine press books present relatively few problems from the conservation point of view. The high quality materials used in their production are designed to last and often, only a protective box or flapcase is needed. But these are also books that are meant to be handled, not just viewed in exhibition cases, so the main concern is usually around people taking care when they look at them, particularly if there are pop-ups, or various types of inserts which could be damaged by careless handling.

Artists' books, on the other hand, are a good starting point for challenging your conservators. For example, Andy Warhol’s Index Book, includes great pop-ups (e.g. a little plane and a soup can), but there is also a balloon, which has now part perished and is stuck fast between 2 pages, slowly degrading. Klaus Scherübel’s Mallarmé: The Book, is made of styrofoam. Richard Long’s Papers of River Muds is a book of hand-made sheets of papers that contain mud from various rivers around the world.

We also have Artists & Photographs, which isn’t a book at all. Effectively, it’s an exhibition in a box, consisting of a combination of texts, images, and multiples by numerous American artists from the 1960s. Most of the contents are paper-based, but it also includes Rauschenberg’s multiple Revolver, made of plexiglass discs, and Tom Gormley’s Red File Cabinet (with lightbulb), which, yes, does contain a little lightbulb.


I’ve also come up with a lot of metal for the survey, including Donald Glaister’s Brooklyn Bridge: a love song, in which the pages are made of sanded aluminium. When we acquired it, it was the first almost completely metal book that I had seen (apart from Anselm Kiefer’s, which you will find in art galleries rather than libraries). But earlier this year, with the assistance of The Art Fund, the Library was able to acquire Marinetti's metal Futurist book Parole in Libertá. Marinetti and Tullio D'Albisola produced it back in 1932, and fortunately, it seems to be surviving well.

For some general information on the Library’s collecting of fine press and artists’ books, see these pages

And finally, a reminder that the Oxford Fine Press Book Fair is almost upon us.


19 October 2009

550 Years after Gutenberg

Against the background of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which can be dated back to a few years after Gutenberg started promoting movable type, the previously stateside-only Kindle has landed in Europe.  Ever since e-Ink has shown that reading on-screen can be almost as pleasant as on-paper, the digital book has posed a huge number of questions about the future of print.  The only consensus so far is that the publishing world wants to avoid the pitfalls into which the music industry blindly fell.  A small exhibition of e-readers is currently on show in the Front Hall of the Library, for those wishing to see what these things are like in the flesh.

On a smaller scale, Americas Collections was pleased to note the arrival of one of the US's most interesting, and quaintly hip, imprints in digital form: McSweeney has 'dipped a fleshy toe into wireless waters'.  This small offering also highlights the not-so-small problem of how literary materials like these can be ingested by libraries (and yes, that is the rather digestive jargon preferred), making them available now and in the future.  More questions to be answered. 

Meanwhile, our colleagues (who sit just across the hallway) from the UK Web Archive have just released one piece in the jigsaw puzzle: a new iteration of the UK's archive of online materials, now with full-text searching.  But, everything is connected.  This new search facility is powered 'in the cloud' by the same people that make the Kindle. 

[M. S.]

16 October 2009

I think I'll....maybe, no, wait a minute

Rushcha_new Reading the Metro on the way to work the other day, I was surprised to find a piece on the American artist Ed Ruscha. Being a fan, I was pleased to discover that Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting has just opened at the Hayward.

I was reminded of a small exhibition that I worked on some years ago 'From Laycock Abbey to the Sunset Strip,' which juxtaposed William Henry Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature with some of Ruscha's little photobooks from the 1960s (it had seemed a good idea at the time). The exhibition included two of my favourites - Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), an accordion-fold book which, when fully opened, measures 27 feet and shows, well, an image of every building on the Sunset Strip, and Royal Road Test (1967), in which a series of photographs document the fate of a typewriter thrown on to Highway 91 from a speeding 1963 Buick.

Ruscha didn't want to make expensive limited edition books but high quality mass produced objects - 'I could print a hundred books each and sell them at $50 apiece as great works of art. But I don't want to do that. I want to get the price down, so everyone can afford one. I want to be the Henry Ford of book making.'

A lot has happened since then. For a start, the Library has now acquired the Fox Talbot archive, which contains many wonderful things, including a beautiful copy of The Pencil of Nature (look out for it in our forthcoming exhibition Points of View). And it's just as well that we acquired those photobooks when we did since they have become very collectable indeed, with prices that would make your jaw drop. I wonder what Ruscha thinks about it all.

The papers have also been full of the changes that the Obamas have made to the artwork in their living quarters and offices in the White House. I was amused to read that the President 's selection included Ruscha's text painting on indecision I Think I'll. Our Americas office, on the other hand, has a little reproduction of Ruscha's lithograph OK. 

[C. H.]

15 October 2009

The North West Passage and the Serial Set


With reports on the possibility of shipping in the Arctic within a decade in mind, our Official Publications curator writes about some of his recent findings among the many government documents held by the Library:

While following up a lead on Benjamin Franklin in the digitised U.S. Congressional Serial Set,
I stumbled across a later reference to Sir John Franklin’s 1845 exhibition to search for the North West Passage.  The item in question was a short Senate Report from the Committee on Military Affairs (47th Congress 1st Session  Report 655) requesting authorisation for the full payment of salary to a U.S. Army lieutenant, Fredrick Schwatka, who had taken leave to search for written evidence left behind by the ill-fated Franklin expedition.

Schwatka set off in June 1878, commanding a group of four others and accompanied by Inuit guides. Although the exhibition did not recover any written evidence left by Franklin’s expedition, the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society described Schwatka’s two year exhibition “as remarkable and in many respects his journey is without parallel [for having survived in the wilderness of the Arctic] without loss and without accident of any kind”.*  Additionally, The Times applauded Schwatka for clearing the “reputation of a harmless people from undeserved reproach.”

While both Franklin’s and Schwatka’s stories are well known (for example, James Anderson, Searching for Franklin (1999)), it is always comforting to know that the Congressional Serial Set’s official record can offer up insights into events such as the search for the North West Passage.  Now back to my lead on Benjamin Franklin...

*Vol. 2, No. 11 (Nov., 1880), pp. 657-662  [BL shelfmark: Ac.6170/2]

[J. D. J.]  

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