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Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, from 1890. A new book describes one man’s hunt for Shakespeare’s library.

There are people I’m sure you know who get a bee in their bonnet about some topic, often to the point of wearing out their friends and relatives with a barrage of random facts. But although their enthusiasm can be wearing, there’s no doubt that their research provides benefits to many of us, whether their obsession is about an ancestor of ours or someone we all claim as our own, like Shakespeare.

This report is for Laurie, who is likely to appreciate the enthusiam of Shakespeare hound Stuart Kells.

Alison Flood writes at the Guardian, “In an autumn in which scholars have unearthed Milton’s copy of Shakespeare in Philadelphia and parchment fragments from the 13th-century epic Le Roman de la Rose in Worcester [UK], Stuart Kells, author of the forthcoming Shakespeare’s Library, would like to be clear: he has not uncovered the Bard’s book collection, despite what the title might suggest.

“ ‘But I have confirmed its existence, clarified its scale and scope, and documented what happened to it,’ says the author, who has spent 20 years on the trail of Shakespeare’s personal library, and lays out his search in his new book. ‘It would be a very different book if I had gone out and discovered his library. No one has done that. It isn’t in one spot.’ …

“Kells is by no means the first person to have embark on a quest to find Shakespeare’s library during the last 400 years. As he writes, “for every species of book person, the idea of Shakespeare’s library – his personal collection of manuscripts, books, letters and other papers – is enticing, totemic, a subject of wonder.’ …

“Those not sold on his death, or destroyed or lost, ‘are sitting quietly, in cabinets and on shelves, in public and private collections around the world,’ he speculates. …

“ ‘There are things out there still being found and that’s part of the fun. … People are still finding chests of early letters, and there are volumes of multiple plays all bound together.

‘Play scripts were thought of as low literature for some time – they were slightly disreputable and weren’t taken seriously.’ …

“One of his tantalising findings is the potential former owner of a theologicial work by Agostino Tornielli. The book was published in Milan in 1610 and shipped to England, where it was bound in brown calfskin in 1615, the year before Shakespeare’s death. The cover panels on the book include an image of Pyramus and Thisbe, and the edges of the text block are decorated with elaborate patterning.

“The owner of the four bindings is not known, but there are a few hints.. … Writes Kells. ‘In tiny letters, the cover image is signed “I. S.” No one knows whether the initials are those of the block-maker, the bookbinder, the bookseller, the book’s owner, a patron or a dedicatee.’ … But the initials match those of Iohannes Shakespeare, William’s father, who dealt in leather hides – ‘no doubt some of them for bookbinding,’ Kells writes.

“Kells believes that one of the reasons for the disappearance of Shakespeare’s library is that the playwright was not an ‘avid inscriber of books,’ or much of a letter writer. ‘Practically minded and commercial, he does not seem to have been driven by abstract ideas of fame and posterity,’ Kells writes. …

“ ‘I’m quietly confident things are going to turn up,’ he says. “We now see the quarto editions as some of the greatest literary treasures in the world but, up until the 19th century, they were thought of in a different way. They are slight documents, little pamphlets, so it’s very probable they’re out there. We now have clearer eyes to search for these things and different ways of analysing them and dating things. We’re in a golden era of discovery right now.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. I must say, it takes imagination to interpret the initials of Shakespeare’s father on a piece of leather this way, but it is surely imagination that will find and assemble the lost library.

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Photos: Local Council of Daraya City
This image from 2014 shows young people who rescued books for a secret library in besieged Daraya, Syria.

As much as I love stories about good things happening in bad times, I always wonder when I post them whether the oasis in Kabul or the library in Syria is still going. Was it there in July when a news outlet’s article was written? Was it there yesterday? Sometimes I search the internet to find a follow-up on, say, the multireligion soccer team that was never expected to win. Sometimes I leave it to you.

Despite the ambiguity of this July 2019 comment from VOA, a book on the heroic library started by Syrian teens is still worth talking about:

[Abdul] Basit and his team of volunteers were among those who had to flee Daraya to northern Syria, leaving the library behind. Unable to take the books, the members tried to conceal the library by blocking its entrance with pieces of shattered concrete. Despite their efforts, Syrian government forces were able to find the makeshift library. The fate of thousands of books remains unclear, according to Basit, who has been unable to return home.

At The New York Times, Dunya Mikhail reviews Mike Thomson’s book Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege.

“In a region that sways ‘on the palm of a genie,’ as the Arabic saying goes, where bullets and explosions are more familiar than bread, you would not expect people to read, let alone to risk their lives for the sake of books.

“Yet in 2013 a group of enthusiastic readers in Daraya, five miles southwest of Damascus, salvaged thousands of books from ruined homes, wrapping them in blankets just as they would victims of the war raging around them. They brought the books into the basement of a building whose upper floors had been wrecked by bombs and set up a library. As Mike Thomson recounts this unlikely story in Syria’s Secret Library, this underground book collection surrounded by sandbags functioned, as one user put it, as an ‘oasis of normality in this sea of destruction.’

“There, the self-appointed chief librarian, a 14-year-old named Amjad, would write down in a large file the names of people who borrowed the books, and then return to his seat to continue reading. He had all the books he could ever want, apart from ones on high shelves that he couldn’t reach. He told his friends: ‘You don’t have TV now anyway, so why not come here and educate yourself? It’s fun.’ The library hosted a weekly book club, as well as classes on English, math and world history, and debates over literature and religion.

“Advertising the library’s activities without compromising its security was a dilemma; patrons relied on word of mouth for fear that it would be targeted by the Syrian Army. By the time the library was founded, Daraya, a site of anti-government uprising and calls for reforms, had been under siege by the army for more than a year. Its 8,000 remaining residents — from a prewar population of about 80,000 — faced near-constant bombardment and shortages of food, water and power….

“Thomson, a radio and television reporter who covered the war in Syria for the BBC, dedicated months to interviewing the library’s founders and their friends via Skype and social media. When the internet went down in Daraya, his sources recorded comments on their phones as audio diaries they could send on to Thomson when the connection was restored. His book is a compassionate and inspiring portrait of a town where, one of the founders tells him, ‘fuel for our souls’ was an essential need.

“The books ‘help us understand the outside world better,’ another founder, a local dental student, said. Likewise, Thomson’s book may help the outside world better understand Syrians. …

“In the same spirit of piling books under Daraya’s shattered streets, local artists painted graffiti art on the walls of ruined buildings. In a moving image drawn by Abu Malik, a local artist nicknamed Banksy, a little girl stands on a pile of skulls writing the word ‘hope’ high above her head.” More.

Are you good at research? Maybe you could help me find out what has since happened to the library. I volunteer with displaced Syrians and others at a resettlement agency in Providence, and I feel a personal interest in this war-torn country.

The artist Abu Malik next to his mural amid the ruins of Daraya in 2014.

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Photo: Culture Club/Getty Images
Detail from CW Quinnell’s portrait of 17th century poet John Milton.

Never doubt the ability of a motivated academic researcher plodding along in dusty library carrels to uncover miracles. I credit the intense focus of youth, imagination, and the thrill of the chase.

Alison Flood writes at The Guardian, “Almost 400 years after the first folio of Shakespeare was published in 1623, scholars believe they have identified the early owner of one copy of the text, who made hundreds of insightful annotations throughout: John Milton.

“The astonishing find, which academics say could be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times, was made by Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren when he was reading an article about the anonymous annotator by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Bourne’s study of this copy, which has been housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, dated the annotator to the mid-17th century. … She also provided many images of the handwritten notes, which struck Scott-Warren as looking oddly similar to Milton’s hand.

“ ‘But I always think “I recognise that handwriting,” ‘ Scott-Warren said, ‘[and] normally I’m wrong. This time I thought: “The case is getting stronger and stronger.” ‘

As evidence stacked up, he said he became ‘quite trembly … You’re gathering evidence with your heart in your mouth.’ …

“Scott-Warren has made a detailed comparison of the annotator’s handwriting with the Paradise Lost poet’s. He also believes that the work the annotator did to improve the text of the folio – suggesting corrections and supplying additional material such as the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, along with cross-references to other works – is similar to work Milton did in other books that survive from his library, including his copy of Boccaccio’s Life of Dante.

“The scholar tentatively suggested in a blogpost that he might have identified John Milton’s copy of the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, admitting that, ‘in this as in other cases, there’s usually a lot of wishful thinking, plus copious spinning of the evidence to make it seem plausible, and elision of anything that doesn’t seem to fit.’

“But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. ‘Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,’ said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. … ‘This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.’ …

“One highlighted section in The Tempest is the song: ‘Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands: / Courtsied when you have and kiss’d / The wild waves whist.’ The unusual rhyme, of ‘kiss’d’ and ‘whist,’ is echoed in Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: ‘The winds with wonder whist, / Smoothly the waters kist.’

“ ‘We would already have known about that allusion, they are the only two writers who used that rhyme, but you can see him marking it in the text and responding to it,’ said Scott-Warren. ‘It gives you a sense of his sensitivity and alertness to Shakespeare.’ ” More here.

(Looking for a comment from blogger Laurie Graves, a devoted Shakespeare fan.)

Photo: The Guardian
Milton’s annotated first folio of Shakespeare, recently discovered in the Free Library of Philadelphia Library by a Cambridge University fellow. “He said he became ‘quite trembly … You’re gathering evidence with your heart in your mouth.’ ”

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Image: Jennifer Luxton / Seattle Times
Richard Brautigan, best know for the quirky
Trout Fishing in America, encouraged unpublished writers to express themselves. Now there’s a library in his honor — a library of unpublished manuscripts.

In bookshops, I have often perused books by Richard Brautigan but have always concluded they were too odd for me. After reading about the unusual library the writer inspired, however, I have changed my mind. I’m going to take the plunge.

Megan Burbank writes at the Seattle Times, “It’s easy to trace the lingering influence of Tacoma-born writer Richard Brautigan if you know where to look. Though known for depicting San Francisco’s counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s with surrealistic flair, you’ll find one of his greatest legacies on three bookcases in the basement of Vancouver’s Clark County Historical Museum.

“Known as the Brautigan Library, the collection spans family histories, absurd Brautigan-esque capers, DIY religious tracts and memoirs of ordinary lives. They don’t feel like books at all, really, so much as the complete, unfiltered contents of other people’s minds. And they all have one thing in common: They’re unpublished. …

“When I visited the Brautigan Library in February, I couldn’t stop thinking of a passage from ‘Trout Fishing in America,’ perhaps Brautigan’s best-known work, that compares a bookstore to a graveyard:

‘Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars. Most of the books were out of print, and no one wanted to read them any more and the people who had read the books had died or forgotten about them …’

“The books I encountered, crouched on the floor in that vaguely antiseptic-smelling basement, ran a fierce gamut. … Some stood out for their titles alone. My favorite was Alyce Cornyn-Selby’s ‘Did She Leave Me Any Money? A philosophical comedy about men, money, motivation, winning strategies, architecture, nudism, trucking, corporate assassinations, heart attacks, sexual politics, hometown parades, Spiritual Warriors, and the dredging of Willapa Bay.’ …

“The rows of manuscripts are punctuated with little cardboard printouts of mayonnaise jars, a nod to the collection’s cataloging technique, known as the Mayonnaise system.

“The name is a reference to the last line of ‘Trout Fishing in America.’ (‘Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.’)

“When Richard Brautigan died in 1984, control of his literary estate fell to his daughter, Ianthe Brautigan Swensen. [She] started getting letters from a man named Todd Lockwood. … His request [to create a library like the one in a Brautigan novel] was the first proposal Brautigan Swensen received that reminded her of the person her father had been.

“ ‘All of the sudden, I was like, “Right, this is the father that I remember,’” ‘ she says. ‘And right after my dad died, I was so — obviously — devastated and I thought in my mind that I’d lost him forever, and I picked up one of his books and there he was.’ …

“In 1990, Lockwood took on [the role of the novel’s librarian, who collected manuscripts.]. His Brautigan Library, based in Burlington, Vermont, operated as a nonprofit. At its peak, he says, it had about 100 volunteer librarians and attracted visitors from out of town.

“But in 1997, it closed due to lack of funding, and the manuscripts were put in storage in Lockwood’s basement.

“This caught the attention of John Barber, a faculty member in the Creative Media and Digital Culture program at Washington State University, Vancouver, who had once studied under Brautigan.

“He found space for the collection at the Clark County Historical Museum, and the library was moved and reopened in 2010. The manuscripts in the library date from the Vermont years: 1990-96. In 2013, it began accepting manuscripts again, but only electronically; there’s not enough space to keep accumulating paper volumes.” More.

What fun! This could be for you!

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Photos: Sian Cain/The Guardian
Where libraries are scarce, Indonesians have risen to the challenge. Sutino ‘Kinong’ Hadi, above, runs the Bemo mobile library in a Jakarta suburb.

Books are important for children, but there are many places around the world where books are scarce. Caring adults do what they can to fill in the gaps, sometimes even going without food in order to buy more books.

Sian Cain writes at the Guardian, “With a great heave, a young man pushes the ancient, three-wheeled rickshaw down a ramp and it splutters to a start. The driver, Sutino ‘Kinong’ Hadi, laughs as he putters his tiny Bemo in a loop outside a preschool in Tanah Abang, in central Jakarta. It’s all the signal the children need; around 20 flood out to envelope the car, pulling at hangings, clambering into the front seat. It’s an exciting time: their library has arrived.

“Kinong is one of thousands of Indonesians who have opened their own library in their own communities. Estimates suggest there are thousands of such libraries in Indonesia, started by ordinary people with great initiative to address the lack of books in their area and funded by occasional donations.

“There is the Perahu Pustaka, a library boat that sails around West Sulawesi. There are libraries on the back of vegetable carts, shelves lugged around by horses in Serang and in West Papua. Across Banten, a 200-strong motorbike gang called the Komunitas Motor Literasi (Moli), brings books to homes from a box attached to their vehicles, delivered with the ease of a takeaway. …

“The persistent myth that Indonesians aren’t interested in reading still pervades; last September, Jakarta governor, Anies Baswedan, told the Jakarta Post: ‘We are challenged to improve our reading interest, particularly in an era where people are far more interested in reading WhatsApp [chats] than in reading books … People nowadays prefer to skim rather than read.’

“But civilians argue that interest isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of infrastructure. ‘Reading appetite isn’t low in Indonesia, it’s just hard to get books,’ says Laura Prinsloo, a publisher … ‘A lot of the people operating these libraries don’t have an education, which makes it hard in a place where it’s about who you know. So if you don’t know anyone, you just do it yourself.’

“Like Andri Gunawan, a wiry young man who heads up the Komunitas Motor Literasi. He never had a library in any of his schools and only became a voracious reader as an adult. ‘Contrary to what a lot of people say, it’s not that there is no interest in reading, it is that there are no books,’ he says. …

“Or Kiswanti, a 52-year-old woman who started out delivering books door-to-door for free on her bicycle. Now, her library and school Warabal, found in Parung, Java, is 21 years old and houses 15,000 books, looked after by 25 volunteers for 1,700 members. …

“ ‘My father apologised as he couldn’t send me on to further education’ she says. ‘But he told me, if I wanted to be smarter, I had to read.’ …

“When Kiswanti opened Warabal in 1997, she even began fasting 10 days each month to buy more.

‘I needed 3,000 rupiah (16p) to eat a day,’ she explains. ‘If I didn’t eat, I can save 30,000 (£1.66) in 10 days – so I could take our best students by taking them to bookshops and buy them any book they want.’ …

“ ‘Reading transports me and introduces me to new worlds – I want to give children that.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. For similar stories on seat-of-the-pants libraries around the world, search the blog on the word “library.”

This mobile library has been running since 2013. The children are eager for books, but Hadi has found it’s not advisable to let the books go home if  he wants them back.

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Photo: Chicago Public Library
Chicago Public Library STEAM Team First Assistant Librarian Alejandra Santana (left) reads to storytime attendees at Bubbleland laundromat.

Suzanne and Erik’s son went through a period of being utterly enraptured and entranced by washing machines. When his uncle came to visit from Denmark, he made him sit on the floor of the bathroom with him and marvel at the wash cycle. When his sister was born, he pushed her baby bed in front of the washing machine to show her the greatest wonder of life. When my husband babysat him, he insisted on visiting the local laundromat just to watch the machines work. All the staff knew him.

So when I saw this story about the Chicago library system setting up story hours for young children in laundromats, I thought of my grandson. He would have considered library outreach an intrusion on his contemplation (he once sent my husband out of the laundry room because he was in the way), but I think that for other kids, libraries in laundromats would be fantastic.

Anne Ford writes at American Libraries, “Laundry: It’s got to be done. And if you’re in a family with small children and no washer or dryer at home, it’s got to be done at the neighborhood laundromat — probably every week, probably on the same day every week, and probably with those children in tow.

“That’s why, in 1989, Chicago Public Library (CPL) Children’s Librarian Elizabeth McChesney (now CPL’s director of children’s services and family engagement) visited a local laundromat to introduce herself to families. How she responded to what she saw there would help change the landscape of children’s literacy initiatives for decades to come.

“ ‘What I saw was that these were families who, because of a variety of circumstances, were not likely to come to the library for storytime,’ she says. So she went back to the library, threw some books, a couple of puppets, and a tambourine into a laundry basket, walked it back to the laundromat, and held a storytime for the kids there — right on the spot, as the washers whirred.

“McChesney’s not claiming she started the laundry-and-literacy movement. ‘People have done this off and on for the last 25, 30 years,’ she says. Still, thanks to her, CPL continues to hold regular storytimes at laundromats across Chicago. And, she says, the librarians who participate continue to see rewards.

“ ‘Families are now changing their behavior, showing up to do their laundry when the library is going to be there,’ she reports.

‘One little boy just recently said: “Let’s do laundry every day, Mom!” ‘ …

“Can’t these children simply go to a branch library instead? Not necessarily. As a recent paper on book deserts by Susan B. Neuman and Naomi Moland in the journal Urban Education (vol. 54, no. 1, p. 126–147) points out, in some areas, decreased funding for libraries has led to ‘limited hours and curtailed services’ — and in many low-income communities, demand has exceeded capacity or parents are often hesitant to check out books because of potential library fines. …

“Not all laundromat library programs are alike, though most operate with some type of librarian participation, direction, or materials curation.

“Wash Time Is Talk Time, an effort sponsored by [the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail (TSTF) early-childhood initiative and the Coin Laundry Association’s LaundryCares Foundation (LCF)], distributes posters in English and Spanish that encourage parents to talk, read, and sing with their children while they do laundry; it also provides books to some laundromats to lend out. …

“How effective are these programs, and what kind of impact are they having on children’s literacy? To find out, [the Laundry and Literacy Coalition (LLC)] is working with Neuman. … The first part of that evaluation, conducted last year, found that children in laundromats with literacy resources engaged in 30 times more literacy activities — such as talking with their families, singing songs, drawing, and reading books — than children in laundromats without those resources. The second phase, announced in March, found that librarians in these programs increased child engagement in literacy-related activities.” More here.

Bubbleland on Western, a Chicago laundromat

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Photo: Book Aid International
The first shipment of books for the University of Mosul’s library arrives in Iraq for Alaa Hamdon’s Book Bridge campaign.

It’s a good thing that humans are like ants in one regard because as soon as a community is destroyed, people begin the work to build it back up. That is what is happening in Mosul, Iraq, a city that was overrun by the culture-hating forces of Isis not that long ago.

Olivia Snaije writes at Publishing Perspectives, “Since the destruction of the University of Mosul’s library, momentum is building for Book Aid International’s efforts to coordinate and enable publishers’ contributions to rebuilding. …

“Most news accounts date the main destruction of the University of Mosul library to 2015, following the start of the Islamic State group’s occupation in June 2014. … The library had been one of the most important in Iraq and the Middle East, a repository of information on the cultures, religions, and ethnicities that make up the region. The destruction of thousands of books, many of them precious, was a tragic addition to the country’s list of tremendous cultural losses in recent years.

“Used by up to 40,000 students, the library was, in the words of Alaa Hamdon at the London Book Fair, ‘an icon for the university, a lighthouse for students and the community, a shining light at the heart of the university.’ Hamdon is the founder of the Mosul Book Bridge campaign to rebuild the library. …

“When Mosul was liberated from ISIS in 2017, Dr. Hamdon decided to establish the Mosul Book Bridge effort to rebuild the university’s library, and contacted Book Aid International. The British charity works with more than 100 publishers in the UK and reports sending up to 300,000 books to countries worldwide.

“Traditionally, Book Aid’s service area has been mostly in Africa. But [Alison Tweed, chief executive, said] that reports of the deliberate cultural and intellectual destruction in Iraq were so moving that she offered to partner with Hamdon’s Mosul Book Bridge campaign.

“ ‘We have infrastructure and logistics,’ she said, ‘and it seemed like a wonderful partnership. … We like a challenge. We made a selection of books and put them onto trucks. They sat in Bulgaria for a few weeks and then limped across the border. The situation is volatile and ever-changing, but the books got there.’

“When the first shipment of 3,750 or so books arrived in Mosul in March 2018, Hamdon said he and his colleagues danced in the street. Tweed said that her colleagues danced in the office. ‘That appreciation is everything for us, it makes our work worthwhile.’

“What made Book Aid’s coordination and contribution especially valuable was that they delivered new books that the University of Mosul had specifically requested, said Mehiyar Kathem, whose Nahrein Network helps people across the Middle East to ‘reclaim their ancient heritage as local history, putting it to constructive use for their communities.’ …

” ‘I visited Mosul in January,’ Kathem said. ‘I’d like to stress how important it is to have the physical books there because the Internet doesn’t work well. These are brand-new important books, because you also have out-of-date books donated, like a book on electronics from the 1980s.’ …

“Hamdon said that rebuilding the library can help ‘give hope to everyone living there, that culture is back. People will feel reassured about their education and their future.’ ”

More here.

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