James H. Billington (1929-2018): A Remembrance

“If we didn’t already have libraries, they would now have to be invented. They are the keys to American success in fully exploiting the information highways of the future,” wrote James H. Billington in the winter 1994 issue of Media Strategies Journal. At the time, the thirteenth Librarian of Congress was reminding a nation enthralled with the nascence of the internet that libraries would be as important as ever in the electronic age, as preservation repositories, testing grounds for experiments in digitization, and strongholds where anyone could freely access humankind’s various written efforts.
Billington wasn’t just offering his opinion; he was engaged in what would become a battle to preserve the mission of the Library of Congress (LOC).
In 1995, a report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested, in an effort to streamline operations at the LOC, that the library’s $350 million annual operating budget be slashed to practically nothing and turn its focus to “increasing revenue” (whatever that means) rather than building and sustaining the country’s knowledge hub. Luckily, Congress committee members charged with reviewing the document rejected the plan. As Billington noted in Patience & Fortitude (Basbanes, 2001), the attempt to undermine the LOC’s mission was hardly noticed by the national media. “The Messiah could make a personal appearance in the main reading room, and the chances are fifty-fifty that it would get any attention from the press,” he said. But the GAO’s report, if acted upon, would have had serious consequences for the future of America’s library, and Billington “went after it tooth and nail….because it was a cautionary issue of no small significance.”
Indeed, what was at stake, as the career humanist realized, was whether the world’s largest library–charged with, as he put it, “stockpiling information”–could continue to ensure that anyone could browse the LOC’s unique treasures.

 

And yet, Billington did not shy away from the new digital medium. In fact, he embraced what this technology could offer. During his tenure from 1987 to 2015, Billington oversaw great change at the LOC, ushering in dozens of free digital initiatives like the online American culture resource for K-12 education now known as the National Digital Library; thomas.gov, a free portal to U.S. federal legislative information; National Jukebox, which provides free access to over 10,000 out-of-print music and spoken word recordings; and a digital talking books app. He also established programs like the National Book Festival and the Veterans History Project.
And though cost-cutting was often on the wish-list of many political agendas, over the years, Billington raised over half a billion dollars to supplement Congressional financial support no matter who was in office.
Billington faced the future of book culture with steely-eyed awareness and an understanding that far surpassed many contemporaries. He welcomed the Internet age as a liberation of physical books from the cumbersome task of storing facts and figures. “With the move to electronic formats, what I believe you will now see is that books containing data will be online, and the serious kind of traditional literature that has always been in book form will continue to appear in book form. The book, in my view, will be freed from a very heavy burden that it has to bear all these years,” he explained in Patience & Fortitude. “It will be allowed to flourish anew.”

Raptis Rare Books Employing DNA Technology to Authenticate Books

Stealing rare books just got harder. Booksellers have always had to contend with warding off book thieves hungry for valuable volumes. As part of its ongoing efforts to deter book crime, Raptis Rare Books in Palm Beach, Florida, is employing a new piece of technology called synthetic DNA.

According to the product’s creator, UK-based SelectaDNA, so-called “synthetic DNA” can help fight inventory loss and theft and has been employed in casinos, hospitals, banks, museums, and other institutions worldwide for over a decade to identify and protect valuables. Earlier this month, Raptis became the first bookseller in the United States to incorporate synthetic DNA for authentication and inventory management.

 

“Think of each unit of synthetic DNA as a high-tech fingerprint,” explained SelectaDNA vice president Joe Maltese. “Each application of Synthetic DNA generates a unique code, providing clients with the ability to identify and recover lost or stolen rare books. Raptis is using the technology to demonstrate their rare books have been authenticated and sold by them.”

 

For book collectors worried this serum might mar their treasures, fear not: the non-toxic, water-based serum is invisible to the naked eye. Applied to a book, the serum can last up to five years and has a lifespan of 4 to 6 weeks on skin–helpful to pinpoint a thief who has been inadvertently misted with a special spray, also sold as part of an alarm system by SelectaDNA. The company says their product reduces theft by 83 percent when incorporated into such an alarm system. If triggered by a burglar, the system releases a mist containing a unique DNA code and UV tracer. Shining an ultraviolet light on the suspect will reveal whether he or she purloined the goods in question.

 

Raptis is using the DNA Asset Marking System which is applied to books with a special stamp; the images below show Raptis is using a stamp in the shape of an “R.”

 

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“Raptis Rare Books takes extraordinary measures to ensure authenticity of its collection of literary treasures,” said Raptis founder Matthew Raptis. “The use of SelectaDNA is an excellent complement to our rigorous authentication protocols,” he continued. “It provides our clients with added confidence in purchasing these rare literary gems.”
Images, from top: Matthew Raptis, owner and founder of Raptis Rare Books, alongside Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio, valued at $100,000. Book marked with synthetic DNA solution without use of ultraviolet light. Book marked with synthetic DNA solution and fluorescing from use of ultraviolet light. Used with permission from SelectaDNA.

 

This story first appeared on the Fine Books Blog on Friday, October 26, 2018.

Women in a Golden Age of Artists’ Books

The Center for Book Arts is hosting a roundtable on the work of women book artists on May 22nd. Here’s what to expect:

Though artists’ books can arguably trace their origins back to medieval volumes like the Trѐs Riches Heures, contemporary artists’ books tend to reference William Blake as the forerunner to the genre. And since then, the field has produced masters like Dieter Roth, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and others who transform books into art objects.

The 1970s and 80s are considered by many experts as the golden age of offset printed artists’ books, and though it was a field mostly dominated by men, women were making their mark, too. A roundtable discussion being held at New York’s Center for Book Artson Tuesday May 22 will explore the work of those women creators of offset printed artists’ books, the challenges they faced, and what they hope the future holds for the next generation of printmakers. Participants include Cynthia Marsh, founder of Tennessee’s Goldsmith Press; Rebecca Michaels, a photography professor at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia; and Philadelphia-based book artist, printmaker, and professor Patty Smith.

The panel will be moderated by the Met’s associate chief librarian of the Watson Library, Tony White, whose exhibition, Production, not Reproduction: a Chronological History of Offset Printed Artists’ Books, appeared at Yale in 2006 and at the Center for Book Arts in 2007.

Diane Dias De Fazio, a public services librarian at the NYPL and one of our featured librarians in the “Bright Young Librarians” series, has been instrumental in organizing the event. “The work of Smith, Marsh, and Michaels was featured in both iterations of that exhibition. White also served as guest editor for Volume 25 of the Journal of Artists’ Books,” Dias De Fazio said in an email recently.                                                                                          

 

“I interviewed all three women ten years ago when I was creating a genealogy of offset printers for Volume #25 of the Journal of Artists Books,” explained White. “I learned about where they discovered printing, who they studied with, and who they taught. There are a number of male offset printers who have received more recognition, but who came a generation or so later. With so many women book artists’ and printers, I want to make sure their stories are heard, especially in the contemporary book production environment.”

Though Tuesday’s panel of participants is far from complete, White believes that the women sharing their stories are representative of the experiences others have had.

“In a way, I am returning to a project I started in 2007 to gather and publish the interviews of offset printers,” explained White. “The focus of the program is on women who played important, foundational roles in the field of high speed rotary offset printing. “It is a highly technical and demanding printing process–much less forgiving that letterpress.”

“Women in a Golden Age of Artists’ Books” happens on Tuesday, May 22 at the Center for Book Arts (28 West 27th St, 3rd floor) from 6:30-7:45. RSVP to this event at rsvp@centerforbookarts.org.

The Salon International du Livre Rare in Paris this Weekend

**This story first ran on the Fine Books & Collections Blog on April 13th.

Paris, tu es ma gaieté, Paris…
Spring in Paris–is there anything better? Doubtful. The icing on the cake? Today through April 15, the Grand Palais hosts the Salon International du Livre Rare et de l’Objet d’Art. This year the Salon is backed by France’s UNESCO commission and presented by president Emmanuel Macron. (To be determined whether he is greeted by hecklers as he was at February’s Agricultural Fair.) **Update: It appears Macron skipped the show.** The Salon has grown in scope and attendance over the past few years, and 20,000 visitors are expected to stroll the temple to Beaux-Arts architecture at the corners of General Eisenhower and Winston Churchill Avenues.

 

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This year’s special guests include the Institute for Contemporary Publishing Archives(IMEC) and the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM). IMEC specalizies in preserving archival collections at various publishing houses, while CNAM is a doctoral-degree granting program founded in the throes of the French Revolution. Both will be exhibiting materials culled from their respective archives.

 
Among the fifty participants at this year’s salon is Solstices (16 rue Pestalozzi, Paris), a rare books dealer specializing in architecture, political posters, Russian art, and surrealism. And Laurent Coulet will be showing a major Proust find.

 
Museum exhibitions, paper-making demonstrations, and book signings round out this delightful cabinet of curiosities, and with a ten-euro entry fee, the Salon is well worth the price of admission. (Bouquinistes, students, Friends of the Louvre, and LILA booksellers are admitted free.) Bonne foire to all!


Image: Salon catalogue via le Syndicat national de la Librairie Ancienne et Moderne (SLAM)

Darn it! 83,500 Vintage Sewing Pattern Illustrations Available Online

Have you ever flipped through a fashion magazine from days of yore and wished you could rock a psychedelic two-dimensional paper dress circa 1967 or slip into a Mod mini by Mary Quant? Well, now you can–but first, better dust off that sewing machine.

 
Until now, vintage sewing patterns have been available at various web sites across the internet, but Vintage Patterns Wiki is probably one of the largest collections out there, with over 83,000 downloadable, free, out-of-print sewing pattern illustrations. However, the actual patterns themselves aren’t always free: though a few are available on the wiki, Vintage Patterns mostly links to affiliate sellers.

 
Organized by decade, designer, and garment, patterns date from the 1920s through 1992. There’s even a collection of patterns inspired by Hollywood stars–Olivia de Haviland’s jumpsuits  look particularly on trend for spring 2018. With a little elbow grease and attention to detail, you’ll have a bespoke piece that stands the test of time. Besides, sewing is great for the psyche: as Margaret Atwood wrote in Alias Grace, “I am certain that a Sewing Machine would relieve as much human suffering as a hundred Lunatic Asylums, and possibly a good deal more.”

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Rethinking the Enlightenment

Think of the French Enlightenment, and who comes to mind? Probably Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and their impressive achievements like Candide, the Encyclopedie, and The Spirit of Laws, works that spurred the intellectual and philosophical movement of eighteenth-century Europe. Though the Enlightenment is often considered a male-dominated endeavor, French women played important roles, too.

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Think of the French Enlightenment, and who comes to mind? Probably Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and their impressive achievements like Candide, the Encyclopedie, and The Spirit of Laws, works that spurred the intellectual and philosophical movement of eighteenth-century Europe. Though the Enlightenment is often considered a male-dominated endeavor, French women played important roles, too. Elite, educated women often held salons–forums hosted in private homes where spirited debate on topics from education to politics accompanied sumptuous meals. (This is France, after all.) Women held court in these salons, selecting topics, curating the guest list, and using the venue to seal their social status. One of the more famous Parisian salonnières was Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet, who ran a salon at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, the first of its kind and which likely inspired Molière’s scathing one-act satire les Précieuses ridicules.

 
Other women went a step beyond hosting salons and picked up the plume for themselves. Madame de La Fayette, a regular at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, wrote the first French historical novel called La Princesse de Clèves (1678), while the correspondence of the marquise de Sevigné is widely celebrated for its verve and historical significance.
Today, Houghton Library at Harvard University is hosting a symposium on these and other ladies of the Enlightenment called, appropriately, “Rethinking Enlightenment: Forgotten Women Writers of Eighteenth-Century France.” Members of Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literature as well as guest professors from the Universite de Lille and Wellesley College will discuss the works of women who participated in the Enlightenment “but were excluded from its history until recently.”

 

The discussion accompanies an exhibition on view through April 28th, “Rethinking Enlightenment,” curated by Harvard senior and forum participant Caleb Shelbourne, who assisted professor Christie McDonald with research for her forthcoming two-volume work Femme, Littérature. Une histoire culturelle (Paris: Gallimard, 2019). The symposium comes two days after International Francophonie Day, an annual event celebrated by 220 million French-speakers on five continents.

Pottering About: Catching Up With the Beatrix Potter Society

The Beatrix Potter Society has been keeping tabs on all sorts of various Potter-related events as well as preparing for a springtime gathering in California. Here’s some of the highlights from its winter newsletter:

squirrel nutkin.JPGThe Bookseller reported in December that a first-edition of Potter’s long-forgotten and recently published The Tale of Kitty in Boots, with illustrations by Quentin Blake, was auctioned at the “First Editions Re-covered” sale, fetching nearly $14,000. The event raised funds for Blake’s House of Illustration, a public art gallery in London. The two-hour event raised approximately $180,000.

 
In 2016, the Royal Mint struck a series of coins commemorating the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth, and plans to add new coins to the series in 2018. This year Mrs. Tittlemouse, the Tailor of Gloucester, Flopsy Bunny, and a new version of Peter Rabbit will appear on the 50-pence coins. The proclamation announcing the series appeared in the December 15 edition of the Edinburgh Gazette.

 
The United Kingdom’s National Trust celebrated 50 years of its Working Holiday program–an initiative aimed at encouraging participants to help care for and restore Britain’s beautiful coastlines, homes, and gardens–by planting 4,000 saplings near Moss Eccles Tarn in Cumbria’s Lake District. Stocked with water lilies and various fish, Potter once owned this charming fishing spot and donated it to the National Trust upon her death. Volunteers helped clear non-native plants to make room for the new trees–native oak, birch, and hazel.

 
Finally, the next meeting of the Potter Society will take place March 23-25 in San Diego, California. Among other activities–British afternoon tea on Saturday, for example–author Marta McDowell and librarian Connie Rye Neumann will share new research on the surprisingly parallel lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Potter.

Spring can’t get here soon enough.

                                                                                                                                                                  Image via Wikimedia Commons