From my diary

The calendar of Antiochus is not online, it seems.  It forms part of the Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse — part of volume 1 (1910), in fact.  Like most out-of-copyright German academic publications, these are online only if places like Harvard contributed them to Google Books.  But I want to access it.  Apparently it refers to 25 Dec. as a solar festival, just like the Chronography of 354 does.

Nothing for it.  I’ll have to do this the old fashioned way.  The way we used to do it, as recently as five years ago.  Yep — into the car and a 60 mile journey to my nearest academic library.  This process is already becoming history, and I suppose it’s worth documenting here for the future what it involved. 

Firstly you have to have a reader’s card for the library.  Well, I have one, but it had expired.  So I need to renew it.  This means filling out a form, and going and queueing in the admissions office.  That’s a bit of a pain if you want one article.  They also want £10 for another 6 months access.  I need my passport, a utility bill to prove my address, and my letter of introduction for access to manuscripts.  I fill in the form online on Thursday night, and email to ask for an appointment at 10am on Saturday so I can get my card.  By lunchtime on Friday there has been no reply, so I telephone.  I’m allotted 9:50am.

Up I get this morning.  I drive 60 miles, at a cost of some £40 in petrol.  When I get there I am early, so I lose a few minutes having something to eat.  Then into the office.  My card gets renewed, slowly and inefficiently.  Someone sticks their head in as the process is completing, which causes the clerk to hand me the card and dismiss me. 

Then into the library. I’ve consulted the catalogue online, so I know that the book is in the North Front, third floor — that’s the room in which the book is.  It has a shelfmark of P500.c.170.1.  P says it is a periodical; the room is split into periodicals and non-periodicals.  Both look like bound books, of course.  So at least I’m in the right part of the room.  ‘c’ is the size.  The periodical section is split into four areas, in order of decreasing size, a, b, c and d.  Mine is normal size.  Then I look through that section until I find 170, which is the Sitzungsberichte that I wanted.  Then I look for volume 1 and … there is a gap on the shelf.  In fact the first two volumes seem to be missing. 

Drat.  Where can they be?  It’s not likely that a reader checked them out.  Perhaps they’re at a desk being read.  But no-one is reading in that room today.  Maybe they’re in the photocopying room.  Down the stairs, along the corridor.  Nope.

I go to the enquiry desk.  The girl can’t tell from the system whether they are out of not, as individual volumes are entered haphazardly.  She comes up and we both look at the space.  “Maybe someone has taken them out” she offers, helpfully.  Eventually she suggests that I talk to the people in periodicals.   I wonder if the book is out for binding or something.  Along there I go.  Lots of kerfuffle, staff consulting experts who do not appear.  Eventually it turns out that my guess was correct, and after another delay I get the book.

Then off to the photocopier.  I quickly make some copies.  Then I try to get the copier to scan the pages and email them to me.  But it’s too badly designed — after a dozen pages I give up and make do with the paper copies.  As I leave, I hear the sound of steady cursing from another copier, where a reader even less familiar with the devices than myself is having trouble even getting paper copies out.

And … it is mid-day.  A whole morning has passed, and I now have the article.  It will appear online in due course, trust me!  But for the moment I’m just a wee bit weary.

We take so much for granted.  It’s worth remembering that the above exercise had to be gone through for every academic paper I have ever read, in days gone by.  It’s vanishing now, that cumbersome, expensive and inefficient process.  But it is also a link to the remote past.  Physical libraries like Alexandria were equally difficult to use, unless you happened to live nearby.  There is a chain of people trying to acquire knowledge from these repositories, stretching all the way back to antiquity.  When it finally disappears, will the customs of ancient libraries suddenly become unintelligible to students who have never had to do more than point and click to get a book?


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