Book Sniffing at #MashCat

MashCat is the latest in the Mashed Libraries un-conferences. Held at the Clinical School in Cambridge, this event focussed on cataloguing. The event was  informal and friendly, with much chatting over coffe, good food and a FABULOUS cake!  Thanks to the organisers (who usually work in their own time to make these kind of events happen) and to the DevSCI project for supporting the day.

Rather than list all the sessions, I thought I’d highlight one that I attended and give my personal response to it. Others will be blogging the entire day, so I’ll link to their posts as they appear.

For me, the most interesting session was something totally different to anything I was expecting to happen at an event focussed on technologies. Run by Helen Harrop (@iamcreative on Twitter) and called ‘Come & Sniff My Old Books’, the session was a chance to look at old catalogues produced when private libraries where put up for sale in the late 19th/early 20th century. They are part of the Library of Lost Books , a kind of book hostel for the elderly, the broken-spined, the torn-paged, the scribbled in – the injured books that libraries discard. Here, they are given a home, safe from ‘death by pulping. In time,  the orphaned works are sent out to artists to be remade as works of art. Helen is working with old catalogues to produce a piece of art, and wanted to share the volumes with us.

After a morning of interesting and fast-paced presentations on various technical innovations, we sat quietly in a corner of the room. Helen produced the books and we looked, talked, rustled pages, pointed out interesting things to each other and calmed down. Yes, we sniffed them! They smelled old in a nice way, like happy, forgotten secrets. There was so much to think about, so many stories crammed in there. The catalogues detailed the sales of private libraries, and the thought of a personal collection of what must have been much-loved books being split up was a little depressing at first. We could see from the notes in the catalogue margins that the libraries had been divided among many buyers. Then it hit me that although the library was taken apart, the books themselves remained. Maybe they went out to be the seed of another collection?  What if another library grew around each one? I was reminded of a Twitter conversation about the drawbacks of us only renting, not owning,  e-books and e-journals. These catalogues were solid in my hand, representing real books that were probably still out in the world.

We chatted about trying to trace the books today. This would be possible, at least in theory, as the seller was Southeby’s and each entry in the catalogue had a carefully written note of the buyer’s name. Had they been bought and then passed on as a legacy to friends and families? Bequeathed to other libraries? Forgotten in an attic? For the most part they were valuable books, so unless they had been accidentally destroyed, there is a very good chance that they are still in the world somewhere. Which was a sobering thought. My kindle suddenly seemed very flimsy by comparison.

Helen talked about the idea of a secret library – hidden niches or even whole rooms where private books were kept. I thought of my time working in an academic library. In the Summer vacation, when we checked through the whole library, we would find, in the oldest rooms where the deepest shelves lurked, little stashes of books. Students (and maybe staff) hid away the books they collected for their work at the back, safe behind the screen of shelved books. A secret, private library within a library. Every Summer the cached books were set free for others to use, the small collections broken up and added back into the main flow of the ‘real’ library. Only to be started again, no doubt, in Autumn.

Helen has some really cool ideas for her work with the catalogues. I am looking forward to seeing what she ends up with. If you get the chance,  I urge you to look at the books, feel them, think about then and yes, definitely sniff them. In fact, I left the session thinking every library event could do with a box of lost books, put in a quiet corner, for people to go and take a grounding and restorative sniff.

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  1. Presentations from Mashcat 2012 « mashcat

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