Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Spin the Wheel

Now that Hilary term is over, and the undergraduates (barring our revising Finalists) have gone home, it is time for tutors to head back to the library. In the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room, I’ve been working on early Polish polemics against the Reformation. This has involved both reading about early modern practices of handling and producing books, while also handling a large quantity of printed books myself, as a 21C scholar. At my desk in the Bodleian, I’ve feel as I’ve been literally juggling books – trying to consult 3 volumes of the Jagiellonian Library catalogue simultaneously, while typing on my laptop at the same time. At the British Library, there are laminated A3 sheets on the desks which sternly warn readers of all the things they should not to do to books – such as weighing them down with a mobile phone, or a hefty dictionary, to keep their pages open. I sometimes feel as if I literally don’t have enough hands.

Handy? Ramelli's bookwheel
Image from Wikipedia Commons.
Medieval and Renaissance scholars had this problem too, and I think their solutions were a little more ingenious than the crumbling, green-grey foam book rests which are sometimes made available to researchers in British libraries. Looking at Dora Thornton’s The Scholar in His Study (1997) last week, the illustrations leapt out at me. There was a 14C illumination of an Italian cardinal sat at his desk, in a chair with a bookcase built into its back. Not very comfortable, perhaps, but handy. There were woodcuts showing men craned over giant book rests, which held 3-4 works open at the same time, in a nice straight line, so you could scan across them all. There were images of book wheels, which displayed volumes open at the requisite page, but on a little carousel like those you find today in greetings card shops. One of the most grandiose solutions to the simultaneous consultation of multiple books was Agostino Ramelli’s 1588 design – a contraption reminiscent of a giant hamster wheel, which the scholar at his (or, theoretically, her) desk could manually rotate, to see mounted books whizz past their face. (This design impressed the Princeton historian Anthony Grafton so much, he had one constructed for his office). In some ways, our 21C book technologies, with digitalisation and e-readers, are breathtakingly sophisticated; in others, when the only bookholder on sale in Blackwells on Broad Street is a 30cm strip of blue plastic, perhaps we lack a little imagination.

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