Site recommendation – black and wtf

Looking back in the tumblr archives for some inspiration – check out http://blackandwtf.tumblr.com/.  You will not be disappointed.

Old, black and white photos and postcards posted with little to no context.  The site closed in 2013 but it is still a great site to sift through. 

NY Times

Māori ‘tattoo writing’

February 6th was Waitangi Day in New Zealand.  It is both a celebrated national holiday and day of protest, a way to discuss old issues … and possibly raise new ones:

But that’s why it is a source of pride for kiwis (New Zealanders).  As one news commentator said this year – many other national days are bland and boring – at least ours is a chance for a real, up-front (and non-violent) look at our national identity!

And the most important forum of the day is a verbal one.  The Māori culture is an ‘oral’ culture, and also one that puts as much energy into protocol as the average Victorian-era dinner party host.  While the surface conversations may seem silly to an outsider – who will/won’t or can/can’t stand and talk where, or at which stage of which meeting on which specific day – there is a huge undercurrent about what these arrangements say about the relationship, and the attitude between those involved.  Sense and Sensibility Antipodean style.

This post is not about that type of detail.  Needless to say, the reason for Waitangi Day is to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and most (not all) Maori tribes in New Zealand in 1840.  The common, modern, description of the Treaty is about ‘partnership’ between the Crown and Māori in decision-making, ‘participation’ to empower Māori communities, and ‘protection’ by giving Māori the rights of British people and giving them the right to practice their own culture.  The way that (again… most, not all!) Māori tribes agreed to this Treaty was by signing one of nine documents that were sent around the country.

This type of signature was clearly fairly new to many of the Maori chiefs.  While many of them had by then begun to learn English, many ‘signed’ the Treaty with a drawing of their ‘moko’, their facial tattoo.

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From http://www.teara.govt.nz – signatures gathered from Ngāti Porou chiefs in the East Coast of New Zealand.

It is normal to talk about Māori culture being an “oral” one.  True enough, but it begs the question about what is a “language”?  The Maori moko was a written language, one that others could use to identify the ‘whakapapa’ (lineage) of the bearer, and one that was good enough to translate to a signature. You could say the same about the elaborate carvings of the marae (meeting house).

Here is a famous signature, the unfinished moko of the Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha.  So much more than a simple English scrawl, the drawing shows the care and importance the man placed in the act of transferring a part of himself onto a page.

Below is a link to an interesting paper about the use of moko as signature.  It’s well worth a flick through.

Quote from the paper (cited as Henare 2007 – see references): “The moko mark was consideholy and binding, because it was taken from the skin of the head, believed to be the most sacred part of a leader’s body.  The ‘tohu’ or sign, was the recognised signature of the leader… Subsequent generations of descendants of the signatories would refer to such moko marks as ‘taonga tapu’, a most sacred treasure and commitment.”

That quote says so much about the intersection between the British and the Maori, coming from very different worldviews but arriving at basically the same result.  It’s a shame some people on both sides still refuse to see each others’ perspectives, but as long as we can really “get it all out in the open” in a forum like Waitangi Day, there’s hope for the country yet.

Ki tō ringa ki ngā rākau ā te Pākeha? – Drawings and signatures of moko by Māori in the early 19th Century – Ngārino Ellis, University of Auckland: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/docs/Volume123/JPS_123_1_02.pdf 

 

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It’s in the writing..?

When you read a transcription instead of the original written page, how much of the meaning do you lose?  And how much of the magic?

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(from Commonplace book of T Austen of Rochester (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Here is an interesting article from the Spectator (Matthew Parris – December 2014) about “Why it’s time to revive the commonplace book“.
The article hooked me with its by-line, which is basically the reason for my own blog.

“A [commonplace book] often tells us more, unwittingly, about its compiler than a self-description would.”

Basically – historical letters and (most) diaries are self-curated, a type of manual Facebook.  While you can look at other ephemera – scrapbooks, professional notebooks, marginalia – these resources focus on a small range of topics.  Commonplace books are a catch-all for what the creator thought was worth remembering.  Therefore, it is the curation, the time and care spent in the record, and the formatting of the book that is just as important as the text itself.
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Tells you so much more about the writer than a transcription ever could (image from ‘Minced meat for pyes’ – commonplace book of Hester Lynch Piozzi (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

The main topic of Parris’ article is “More Rags of Time”, the limited edition, printed commonplace book of Kenneth (Lord) Baker (now only available through specialist booksellers).
The book appears to be mainly a collection of transcribed quotes, with the odd quote from Lord Baker (“It is no good telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof”).
Parris delves into the subject by talking about Baker’s notes showing “a lovely sense of self-mockery, a small dash of vanity, and a keen critical appreciation of satire”.
I completely agree with Parris that the commonplace book is a ‘lost art’ that is well deserving of revival.  On the other hand, I have the nagging thought that a transcribed “commonplace book” – such as you see cropping up every now and then – somewhat misses the picture.
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Often the format and style of the writing tells you as much about the personality as the text itself (from Commonplace book of T Austen of Rochester (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

At most, these kind of books give a summary of the author’s likes and dislikes from borrowed text.  That is where the magic – in my opinion – is lost.
More than a journal or a diary, commonplace books were meant to be carried and used.  It is one thing to read the quotes that someone decided to copy into their book.  It is another to see the frayed edges of certain well-thumbed pages, to see the quotes that were scrawled compared with those carefully transcribed.
Some commonplace books have an index a-la Locke.  Some have folded pages, crossed out quotes (once used by the author at a dinner party or book?), text running lengthwise, across the seam, in the margin, vertically or in a box.
Was a comment clustered in with others of the same type, or did an author dedicate an entire page of precious paper to the thought?  How does the handwriting change over time, and does the marginalia point to the author reviewing and revising the original text years later?
All of these are also clues to the mind of the owner.  Just as much as the choice of words.  How much would we lose the magic of Da Vinci’s notebooks if we saw only the printed text and some cropped images?
There are many amazing, digitally scanned collections of commonplace books online – check out my reference page for more links.  Yes, the handwriting is often hard work and for an amateur like me much of it is almost unreadable.  But half the fun of looking at these books is getting to know the author through their own pen scratches rather than a neatly typed and bound book.  It’s a lot of effort and many people won’t have the patience, but lets be honest – the printed versions aren’t exactly flying off the shelves in the Top Sellers section of the bookshop!

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