Medieval manuscripts for sale – part 2: “no, we won’t photograph our collection”

Well!  It looks as if the Karlsruhe state library may really have to hand over 2,500 manuscripts (including some papyri) to the Counts of Baden.  There is much scaremongering going on online (e.g. in the PAPY-L list) about what happens, how many books are involved, books being sold, “broken up”, etc.  None of the mss seem to be online, and lots — they’re very shy about saying what — are unphotographed. 

What can we do?  Well, I have been emailing the library, and suggesting that they get a bunch of volunteers in to take photos of the lot with digital cameras, or as much as can be done in the time.  After all, if the library doesn’t put the interests of scholarship first — which is access and preservation — then it doesn’t deserve to have the books.

The responses have been interesting, but negative.  Apparently, despite all the scaremongering, the library still can’t face the idea of scholars taking photographs.  This is very odd indeed; surely books at risk should be photographed?

Even more interesting was the response of a certain poster from Heidelberg University on the PAPY-L list, which I will quote as it probably reflects very accurately just why many state-funded libraries have obstructed public access to images of mss online:

“…I want to stress that I would not appreciate either having anyone here who seemingly does not realise that certain differences between original and copy still exist, but who is interested only in taking pictures of our collection and distributing them all over the world just as he likes it.”

I admit that, in my innocent way, I rather thought that getting the public looking at images of books all around the world was what state-funded libraries were for.  It makes one realise how far many libraries have to  go.  We live in a world in which google book is freely available to Americans, yet here we have people actively hostile to the idea.

“… To put it briefly, I am not in any way willing to accept either this attitude nor that of our government. … Any do-it-yourself attempts of this sort do not appear to be very helpful at this point because they almost seem to condone the selling.”

I worry about this, whether the attitude behind this is that the manuscripts belong to the institution, not the public.  I myself have more manuscripts online at my website than the Karlsruhe library.  Anyone who wants to work with them can.  The world has not ended.  The trouble is that very few people care much about mouldly old books.  Unless we publicise them, no-one will.  That’s part of the reason that the problem has arisen — the politicians do not care about a collection of books.

Collections should not be broken up.  The bureaucrats may be wrong-headed about digital photography — although I bet they all own digital cameras, and I bet more than a few of the staff have snapped pages for their own use.  But in fighting against an indifferent legislature handing over a collection to be auctioned, aren’t they serving us all?  Perhaps: if it were not that they were so determined that this collection would be of so very little service to the world.   Then again, if they had spent more time serving the public, perhaps the law-makers of Baden would have a better idea of how the public benefits from keeping the collection together.

I’m ambivalent, not least because there is no material known to me at Karlsruhe that is relevant to my research interests (attempts to find out what the collection contains have been ignored).  It doesn’t matter to me who owns manuscripts, so long as they are safe, recorded and accessible to the public.  But is the public interest served by breaking up this collection?  Surely it would be better to simply get rid of the obscurantist staff, and keep the books together? 

It will be most interesting to see what happens.  If only we had a handlist of the books, online!

Leave a Reply