Sunday, October 19, 2008

St Gallen's Medieval Manuscripts Digitized

I picked up a little volume about the destruction of libraries at the library the other day, a translation of the Venezuelan librarian Fernando Báez' "A Universal History of the Destruction of Libraries: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-Day Iraq." I hear echoes in the title of a continental predecessor, Borges, in this title. Whom Peron demoted to chicken inspector. On the other hand, my great-uncle found employment as Pigs & Bacon Commissioner after the end of his fringe-party political stint in Ireland, so perhaps such occupations leave more time for browsing?

Amidst the barnyard and sty, coop and nest, I have often wondered how little survives from what we must have learned once. Báez has previously chronicled the loss of the archives at Alexandria, a shameful combination of a succession of assaults by Islamic fanaticism after Byzantine stupidity. (Not to mention poor Hypatia's fate previously.) When you multiply the trash, fires, rats, and mildew by millions of documents we discard daily, and then exponentially over millennia, the amount of ignorance gained along with the need for spring cleaning, persecution, moving in and out of a place, and sheer happenstance makes a humbling record, or lack of such, to our legacy.

With our delete keys and trashcan icons, with demands that we empty our mailboxes at work servers when they reach their limit, we too succumb, even in this realm where once we were assured that we could save it all, and never lose an iota of what pings into terabytes. Still, we too must suffer the restrictions of virtual shelves, and limits on our accumulation of information. As opposed to knowledge.

I'm in the middle of J. G. Farrell's novel set during the 1857 Mutiny in India, "The Siege of Krishnapur." The improvised fortress under attack by rebels, the Collector's sheltered from the increasing deprivations of mortar fire by the colorfully bound-- by bureaucratic "red tape"-- piles of imperial correspondence. It's stacked up for better symbolic and practical uses as substitute pillows and sandbags against the bullets of the sepoys. The voluminous packets--those that have not been eaten away by white ants-- cushion the functionary's perilous office, and his ginger-whiskered head, as he seeks a respite from the jackels, stench, artillery, and cadavers that surround the embattled colonials and their animal and human rabble. Cholera's pending, meanwhile. How many times, in past desert battles over monasteries or redoubts, must sensitive types found a retreat from the barbarities endured outside, in the "real" world that their rulers and Types A despoil in the name of civilization, to destroy one empire only to raise up another tyrant?

Bringing a Trove of Medieval Manuscripts Online for the Ages by John Tagliabue, from the New York Times, October 18, 2008. The summary: "The Stiftsbibliothek — literally, the abbey library — in St. Gallen, Switzerland, will digitize and post its collection with the help of a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation." For $175 million of American money, it's encouraging to see the other side of colonialism, capital, and the endless march of progress in the name of market shares. The nineteenth century's investments on repentent robber barons pay off for a nod to saving our precious literary culture. Rather than stoking Wall Street's greed, given the current trend to the contrary, same as it ever was. The library's site: St Gallen Library.

Photo: Library at St. Gallen. Dominic Buttner, for the NY Times.

No comments: