Episode 38: Take a Look, It’s in a Book (or a scroll, or a tablet, or…)


“When I was in library school, we never discussed outright conquest as a method of collection development.” In which we discuss books (and other recordkeeping methods), the growth of reading in conjunction with the consolidation of manuscripts, and also Em is a nerd about classification systems.


Paul Saenger “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” Viator 13 (1982): 367–414.

Paul Saenger Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Stanford University Press link.

Lambros Malafouris How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. MIT Press link.

Lionel Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World. Amazon link.


1/ The “map of a cat” story was in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. He has come up before on this podcast too–see episode 2, note 24.

2/ Melvil Dui’s issues could probably fill a three-volume series. Book 1: the problems with the Dewey Decimal System. Book 2: Spelling. Book 3: Sexism. Yanno.

Besides Dewey, other common classification systems are Library of Congress Classification (my favorite, despite its faults), Universal Decimal Classification, and Colon Classification (used a lot in India). I believe there may have once been a system called Cutter Classification, which is now only, or largely, extant in “Cutter numbers,” which are the numbers that get put after your classification number to shift it over on the shelf and make it unique while still keeping it in the category you need. Chinese and Russian libraries have their own systems. –Em

Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things begins with this famous passage:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought–our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography–breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the very thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

3/ “More than twelve.” LOL there’s about 28, or 30 if you count the Wisconsin Historical Society archives and UW’s archives and records management. [Wow, awesome!–JN]

4/ Virtual unfolding! Here is the scientific article by J. Dambrogio et al explaining the process: “Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography.” and here is an article with a simpler explanation of the scientific paper above: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/02/972607811/reading-a-letter-thats-been-sealed-for-more-than-300-years-without-opening-it — this was recently published when we recorded this episode.

And here is an article about scanning fragile papyrus scrolls from Herculaneum, where a private library of 2,000 scrolls was buried by Mt Vesuvius. (Pompeii wasn’t the only town buried!) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/buried-ash-vesuvius-scrolls-are-being-read-new-xray-technique-180969358/

In episode 32, note 6 we discussed the use of modern technology to read palimpsests. Here’s a fun article on students doing this for a project: https://www.rit.edu/news/rit-students-discover-hidden-15th-century-text-medieval-manuscripts

5/ For general info on Nippur: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nippur

6/ Ebla tablets: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebla_tablets

7/ Hattusa (see the section on the royal archives): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hattusa

Em: Nowadays, a colophon refers to a page at the end of a work that gives information on the typeface the work is printed in.

8/ Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned c.1115 to 1077 B.C.E.): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiglath-Pileser_I

9/ Ashurbanipal (reigned c. 668 BCE–631 BCE); his library: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Ashurbanipal

10/42:xx The Enuma Elis, we have mentioned before, is the Babylonian creation epic on which the Torah’s creation story may have been partially based. See episode 4, note 3 for more!

11/ Provenance is very important to scholars (and it theoretically ensures that nothing was stolen). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Provenance

12/ 53ish: My (Em’s) librarian mind is a little blown by the curses. All the libraries I’ve ever worked in used something called tattle tape. Curses seem much better.

Jesse: It might be time for them to start trying some curses! These are mostly in Casson, pages 10–13.

13/ All hail banned books week! List of banned books: https://bannedbooksweek.org/banned-books-week-2021-books-unite-us/

And Tango Makes Three has frequently been banned: https://bannedbooksweek.org/banned-spotlight-and-tango-makes-three/
Here is its Amazon site: https://www.amazon.com/Tango-Makes-Three-Classic-Board/dp/1481446959

14/ I do want to give a shout out to Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, although I’m not sure that this is what Alexander had in mind.
Here’s the Spotify link: https://open.spotify.com/album/3Q7efFg6OJ5ePGnLlTAvgg?si=aUw7XuLcTcSzU0ICCLvErg&dl_branch=1

Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander%27s_Feast_(Handel)