Keeping letters – so meta

“Some were soil’d and tattered fragments, joined with care where words were torn.  Some were crumbling into atoms, by incessant readings worn… Yet all precious, and all priceless.  In their hastening decay, were these loved and voiceless witnesses of hours passed away.”

Sometimes when you are panning for ink, you find these golden nuggets.

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The impermanence of our written thoughts, brought to you by the Internet.  (from the Bronte Family Collection – Harry Ransom Center, reproduced under fair use)

I stumbled across this great poem (below) in a commonplace book kept by a woman named Mary Pearson.  Mary is another of those ‘common’ people who have not distinguished themselves in history apart from the fact that once in her life she had a short brush with a person of historical importance.

In Mary’s case, it was with Patrick Branwell Brontë, the brother of the famous Brontë sisters – another soul whose life was shaped (and perhaps destroyed) by his being close to the orbit of celebrity.

When Mary was around twenty, she had a lodger at the family hotel for a few short weeks.  Branwell Brontë penned some sketches in four pages of her commonplace book.  This resulted in her journal being considered historically worthy.  Thus, it is now part of the Brontë Family Collection and therefore her thoughts are now available for anyone to read via high definition scans.

And so now anyone in the world with an internet connection can read Mary Pearson’s words, including her transcription of an anonymous poem about the fleeting nature of words and “love letters”.  We can read it on the frayed and yellowing paper of her journal, and in her neat but hurried pen strokes.  Of course, nowadays I can read it from thousands of miles away, and that yellowed paper and fading ink is now in fact as permanent as a high-resolution and carefully archived digital record can allow.

From what little I can gather about Mary’s personality via her commonplace book, I think she would find that quite amusing.

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Old poem (Anonymous) – in the Lincoln Courier, 1st September 1849

 

Quote – New Years diary

“Having omitted to carry on my diary for two or three days, I lost heart to make it up, and left it unfilld for many a month and day.  During this period nothing has happend worth particular notice.  The same occupations, the same amusements the same occasional alterations of spirits, gay or depressd, the same absence of all sensible or rationale cause for the one or the other – I half grieve to take up my pen, and doubt if it is worth while to record such an infinite quantity of nothing.  But hang it!  I hate to be beat so here goes for better behaviour.” Sir Walter Scott – 1st January 1829 (The Journal of Sir Walter Scott – edited by W. E K Anderson).

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Who pays for fornication and witch doctors?

I’d like to imagine people go to old collectibles auctions because they have a passion for the art and the topic.  However, when the sale item is a nearly three-hundred-year-old apology letter for fornication (yours for the generous price of around £400-£600) I’ll be a bit less weirded out if I can believe the buyer is in it purely for the re-sale value.

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Fornication at Invaluable.com

I added a post a while ago about the auction market for commonplace books and ‘ephemera’.  It’s a shame that these letters, journals, diaries, etc are so ubiquitous and easily stored/shipped, that they become perfect items to trade, since the contents are then out of the ‘public’ eye.

This example from Invaluable.com is a good one – “Description: Fornication etc.- [Examples of legal and religious agreements, orders etc.]”.  Probably an interesting bit of social history there.

Or, a treasure from the annals of quackery – a Homeopathic Physicians Commonplace Scrapbook and Ledger by Dr James Grant Gilchrist – on www.read-em-again.com (online Americana and ephemera site) for $1,250.00.  I’m sure there is some juicy history in there but the discovery will depend on both the expertise and inclination of whoever wants to fork out the $$.

That’s why I love when I find online scans that show more than a few teasing images (pun intended).  If you are interested in commonplace books, even for the artistic value (like me) if not for historical or academic research, check out the list of links to online scanned texts via my Read commonplaces online page.  These links are gold for the average hobbyist, and most of the sites are well-curated with gorgeous HD scans (please send me a message if you know of any more!).

The one down-side of these links is that – naturally – most of the content is heavily copyright protected, even if it’s freely available to search.  I have a list of commonplace books I’d like to review and delve into and – although I am sure my posts would come fairly squarely under ‘fair use’ – I want to respect the institutions who make their stuff so freely available by playing fair and asking permission as much as possible.  How they react is yet to be seen.

Is there a fair middle-ground?  If there’s no $ market for this ‘ephemera’ we probably wouldn’t have the quality and quantity we have now, but having a $1,000 text is the same as a book being hidden away (and un-scanned) in a dusty corner of a locked university archive.  The supply side seems to be well covered, but how do you increase the (fair and open-source) demand?

 

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HIstorical treasure-box, on sale at www.read-em-again.com

Project Dust Bunny and the First Folio Tour | Marguerite Happe

Here is a link to an interesting post (link below) by Marguerite Happe on “Project Dust Bunny”, a research project by the Folger Shakespeare Library to collect and analyse fragments of DNA and other articles that collect in the spine of old books.

dust_dancing_in_the_sunlight_me_074aWhile at first it sounds like an excellent idea, she makes some very good points about what could be a slippery slope.  While it sounds like a great idea to analyse these fragments, there is a question about whether the article is ‘part’ of the book.  For example, if a famous author decided to bookmark a diary with a lock of hair, should the hair be counted as ‘part’ of that historical artifact?  How about insects, leaf pressings or other nature samples?

For Project Dust Bunny, the American Libraries Magazine comments that the researchers are deciding how much dust, etc to take out, or whether to leave it until the scientific analysis is advanced enough.

Which leaves another question.  If I bought a book at an auction which was found to be owned by Shakespeare himself, would I ‘own’ any of his skin and DNA within the creases?  To analyse it?  To publish medical or family history data from the DNA that could be embarrassing to his descendants?

It all has too many shades of Henrietta Lacks, and in a way I am glad I will never have enough money to afford a purchase that would necessitate that type of ethical brain teaser!

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When I was in Special Collections today doing research for a Hitchcock project, I ran into Wendel Cox, the World’s Best Reference Librarian. As we were chatting (and they were working on exhi…

Source: Project Dust Bunny and the First Folio Tour | Marguerite Happe