“All You Can Do with Catalogs”

In 2015 the Forum Transregionale Studien (TraFo) in Berlin awarded Paola Molino, at that time Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ludwig Maximilians Universität (LMU) in Munich, a grant for the organization of an exploratory workshop on information management in early modern societies.  While working on her application, Paola Molino had invited Martina Siebert, Guy Burak, and me to join her as co-convenors.  The workshop was held in Berlin on 6 October 2016 in the Staatsbibliothek (SBB), and on 7 October 2016 in the rooms of the TraFo.

In February 2017 Paola Molino submitted her official final report about the workshop to the TraFo.  Her version was written with the co-convenors, with contributions by Anne MacKinney, and is available here.  The following text includes sections from earlier interim drafts, and is therefore more detailed.

This project began with a serendipitous crossing of the paths of four scholars working on the transmission of knowledge and the history of science in European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian societies.   All of us have extensive experience with libraries—as readers, catalogers, and librarians—and hence quickly found common ground in our abiding interest in the composition of finding aids between 1400 and 1800 ce.  In western Europe, during the early modern era, the transformation of feudal societies into territorial states prompted the ruling elites to invest into the construction of imperial libraries and archives, whose design projected transregional connections and supranational ambitions to the world at large.  Although new cataloging principles emerged for the collections housed within these new physical spaces, they did not explicitly break with the already recognized knowledge traditions, and rather attempted to integrate the established authoritative epistemes into new classificatory regimes.   These finding aids are fascinating objects in their own right: as artifacts they are primarily paper tools and, yet, their written contents can also be understood as a graphic representation of ideas.  Therefore, we decided to focus our exploratory workshop on the catalogues themselves.  One of our goals was to cross over the institutional barriers of memory institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums, as they often generate a confrontational relationship between readers and librarians.   We invited colleagues with a wide range of expertise to reflect on the roles of finding aids within the history of their own academic disciplines.  The transformation of concepts of knowledge—from fifteenth-century Humanism to eighteenth-century Enlightenment and nineteenth-century Positivism—has already received significant scholarly attention, and it has been studied from the bottom-up through tracking the interpersonal transmission of knowledge, and from the top-down by analyzing how imperial institutions, such as academies and universities, supported the diffusion of knowledge.  Against this backdrop, the workshop pursued the nexus between the catalogued items—whether written texts or material artifacts—and the concrete, practical power of a catalogue.  How were finding aids employed as instruments for transforming amassed holdings into a collection’s apparent order?  Conversely, how were cataloging ventures expressions of a ruler’s sophistication through the effective control of precious, rare assets?  In the daily business of doing research catalogues are usually experienced as humble tools and inevitable intermediaries operating as transparent, and thus seemingly neutral, interfaces between readers and written texts.  We wanted to use the exploratory workshop for comparing finding aids in different cultural traditions in order to open fresh views of these very familiar resources—as if they had suddenly changed into unexplored territories.

The workshop comprised five sessions.  We were joined by fifteen established scholars and around two dozen registered guests.  In addition, we included four lightning talks by Sebastian Felten, Celeste Gianni, Anne MacKinney, and Julian zur Lage, since they are currently working on research projects related to the history of information management in a transregional perspective.  On the first day the workshop was held in the Simón Bolívar Lecture Hall, generously made available by the Berlin Staatsbibliothek.  Since the hands-on examination of a catalog’s handwritten or printed copy is an indispensable part of research on their intellectual history, we are grateful that the Staatsbibliothek allowed us to draw on its rich collections for a show-and-tell.  For the second day we convened in the rooms of the Forum Transregionale Studien.

The workshop opened with a session on the epistemology of catalogues, and was chaired by Nur Sobers Khan, a curator at the British library and a historian of Turco-Persian societies after 1500.  Paola Molino, Islam Dayeh, and Martina Siebert investigated how the construction of libraries and the design of their research facilities developed in conjunction with the organization of finding aids.  Molino focused on early modern Europe, Dayeh examined Arabic finding aids from the Arab world before 1500, and Siebert surveyed the development of Chinese bibliography between the first and the nineteenth century.  The speakers agreed that the refinement of classification schemes went hand in hand with a growing demand for the systematization of knowledge.  Particular attention was given to the technical terminology of classification schemes vis-à-vis the various purposes of bibliographical information, and to the appreciation of finding aids as intellectual achievements in their own right.  In the discussion, we explored the possibility of a methodology for the study of finding aids as sources for a transregional history of knowledge.   What is the impact of ideology on classification schemes?  To which degree are cataloging ventures driven by the universal human experience of loss and the complimentary desire to prevent the destruction of cultural heritage?  What is the relationship between technological change in the reproduction of written language (e.g., manuscript books, blockprinted books, books printed with moveable letters), levels of book production, and approaches to the compilation of bibliographical information?

The show-and-tell highlighted some of the important Latin, Arabic, and Japanese finding aids in the Staatsbibliothek’s collections.  Ursula Winter presented the holograph of the Catalogus manuscriptorum by Johann Raue (1610–1679), the first librarian of Berlin’s Kurfürstlicher Bibliothek (Electoral Library, est. 1661).  In 1668, after Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg (r. 1640–1688) had opened his Electoral Library to outside readers, Raue compiled the first catalogue of the new library’s manuscript holdings, arranging these codices according to how they were shelved within the library.  Raue’s Catalogus illustrated the possible interdependence between library architecture and a catalogue’s systematic arrangement (cf. the use of so-called shelf lists as strictly internal methods of inventory control).  Christoph Rauch und Dagmar Riedel explored how bibliographical information was transmitted in Muslim societies by contrasting two Arabic manuscript copies (dated 1724 and c.1840 respectively) of the Kashf al-ẓunūn ʿan asāmī al-kutub wa’l-funūn (“The removal of doubts from the titles of books and the scholarly disciplines”) with an Arabic fragment (dated 14th or 15th cent.) of the Wafayāt al-aʿyān (“Death dates of notables”).  The Wafayāt by Ibn Khallikān (1211–1282) is a bio-bibliographical dictionary and the Kashf by Katib Çelebi (1609–1657) a title catalogue in alphabetical order, but neither the Wafayāt nor the Kashf was designed as a finding aid for the holdings of a particular library.  Exploring the affinities between catalogues, anthologies, and book collections,  Ronny Vollandt showed an Arabic manuscript (dated 1325) with an anthology of prophetic books from the Old Testament, al-Jawhar al-muḍīy fī’l-sittat-ʿashar al-nabī (“The essential content of the sixteen prophets”), and Christian Dunkel explained a private collection of Japanese bookseller catalogues.

The second session investigated catalogues as means to the mastery of knowledge, and featured presentations by Christian Jacob, Seth Kimmel, and Alberto Cevolini.  Arndt Brendeke, a historian of early modern Europe, presided over this session.  Drawing on Kantian epistemology, Jacob highlighted the power of catalogues.  He argued that knowledge is always bound to specific historical circumstances, so that the organization of finding aids reflects concrete human practices of the transmission of knowledge.  Comparing finding aids and maps, Jacob suggested that insights gleaned from research on maps can be employed to advance our understanding of information management through catalogues.   Kimmel used the ultimately failed project of a grand universal library, which the Spanish cartographer, explorer, and bibliophile Hernando Colón (1488–1539) had pursued in Seville, to explore tensions between the Humanist ideal of universal knowledge and Spain’s politics of conquest in the Americas.  In contrast, Cevolini focused on a mechanical indexing device for the storage of written notes and excerpts, known as the “ark of studies“ and designed by the otherwise obscure Thomas Harrison (1595–1649) in the midst of the English Civil Wars.  Cevolini described the “ark“ as an external memory, and interpreted it as a disruptive invention which showed how new cognitive habits were accompanied by new organizational strategies.  Approaching the  “ark“ from the perspective of the sociology of knowledge, Cevolini argued that from the 1450s onwards, after the invention of letterpress printing in western Europe, readers had to confront a dramatic information overload because of steadily increasing levels of book production.  In the discussion, Cevolini’s interpretation of the “ark“ was challenged for its rather negative view of information management in manuscript cultures and its complimentary teleological belief in the inevitable progress of technological change.

The second day opened with a session dedicated to the cataloging of books, handwritten or printed, in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian.  The presentations by Christoph Rauch, Emile Schrijver, and Francs Richard, who all have worked as catalogers and librarians, combined an examination of the historical development of cataloging standards with observations about the impact of digitization on the access to books in the twenty-first century.  Its chair was Guy Burak, a librarian at New York University and a legal historian of the Ottoman empire.  Rauch used the history of  the Berlin Staatsbibliothek’s Arabic manuscript collection to highlight the importance of scholarly expertise for the cataloging of texts in Semitic languages which were not widely taught at nineteenth-century German universities.  While Rauch presented the cataloging history of a state-owned collection, Schrijver explored the challenges posed by cataloging the books of a religious minority, and surveyed how the history of Hebrew bibliography reflects the precarious life of the Jewish diaspora in western Europe.   Because of the hearty embrace of digitization for the preservation of Jewish Schriftkultur Schrijver examined how digital surrogates are changing the roles of both libraries and catalogs.  Since readers increasingly rely on global online catalogs in order to access books as digital surrogates in global online collections, such as those of the National Library of Israel, what will happen to the relationship between a library’s spatial organization and the systematics of its catalogs?  Richard‘s presentation took as its starting point the cataloging practices in Muslim societies since the tenth and eleventh centuries.  Although there is much evidence for vibrant library traditions in Turkey, Iran, and India, very few catalogs of historical library collections have come down to us.  Richard observed that the librarian’s personal responsibility for a collection under his care might have worked as a disincentive for the compilation of publicly available finding aids, since a catalog can also be used to control the work of the librarian.  At the same time, Richard was sceptical about the current practice of ‘digitize first, catalog later‘, arguing that digital surrogates of uncatalogd books are effectively inaccessible as no catalog can be searched for unidentified items.  The discussion was dominated by questions about digital screens as today’s omnipresent interface between readers, catalogs, and books, since some well-funded western libraries are encouraging readers to set up online accounts in order to create their own digital collection of the depository’s holdings.  Does the access to the contents of books through digital surrogates imply changing ideas of who owns the physical artifacts and consequently pays for their cataloging?  What is the reader’s responsibility for the physical artifact if she only is engaging with its digital surrogate as downloaded unto her own computer?  We also observed that digital surrogates are accompanied by their own access barriers, since readers need a working internet connection in order to benefit from Open Access depositories such as Gallica.

The fourth session approached catalogs from the micro perspective of individual sample entries, and juxtaposed the British cataloging of Persian literature with the Ottoman cataloging of North African literature.  It was chaired by Ronny Vollandt, a Semitist and a specialist of biblical manuscripts.  Nilanjar Sarkar’s case study was the entry on a manuscript copy of the Fatāwā-yi jahāndārī (“Imperial legal opinions”) in the highly regarded and still indispensable Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office (1903) by Hermann Ethé (1844–1917).  Although Ethé was a very accomplished scholar of Persian literature, he did not recognize that the Fatāwā is a work of advice literature which originated in Dehli around 1350, and wrongly identified a work of belles-lettres as an anthology of historical legal opinions.  Sarkar examined to which degree Ethé‘s cataloging error reflected British colonial attitudes to the knowledge traditions of pre-colonial Muslim India.  Guy Burak and Dagmar Riedel used the entry on the Dalāʾil al-khayrāt (“Signs of good deeds”) in the aforementioned Kashf al-ẓunūn to demonstrate that scholars inside and outside Muslim societies approached this alphabetic title catalog as a work of pragmatic literature which everyone could adapt and correct in accordance with their own particular needs.  In different manuscript copies and printed versions of the Kashf, the entries on the Dalāʾil, which is a widely used prayerbook by the North African Sufi Ibn Jazūlī (1404–1465), vary considerably.  These variances can nonetheless seem insignificant, since this prayerbook is so well known.  In the discussion we returned to the point, made by Christian Jacob during the second session, that catalogs are never neutral collections of facts as their production cannot be independent from the ideological commitments of their compilers.  But we also explored the importance of errors and misreadings for the transregional diffusion of knowledge.

The global historian Sebastian Conrad chaired the workshop’s fifth and final session on catalogs of books related to East Asian societies. Michael Facius, Florence Hsia, and Joachim Kurtz discussed synchronicity in knowledge management, and challenged the evidence of transregional influence and interdependence in order to probe the nature of knowledge circulation.  Facius analyzed how the library of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1867) served as an important node in the knowledge networks of early modern Japan.  He examined the relationship between the catalogs of the Shogunate Library and the Nagasaki commissariat’s control of the import of books in Chinese and other foreign languages.  Hsia used the historical development of sinological archives in early modern Europe to pursue the sociological dimensions of list-making.  She examined in particular the challenges posed by the task of cataloging Chinese texts within the Jesuit tradition of bio-bibliographies, and the efforts of Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) to identify the Chinese books held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  Joachim Kurtz took the torrent of publications translated into Chinese between 1895 and 1911 as an indicator and a factor in the drastic remaking of China’s intellectual landscape in the waning years of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912).  These catalogs were compiled by publishers as well as scholars and reformists, and range from thinly veiled advertisements to analytical reviews of new branches of learning.  Taken together, they provide ample evidence for changing intellectual emphases, new epistemic ideals, and consequential taxonomic shifts that hastened the demise of China’s imperial order with the end of the Qing dynasty.

In sum, we organized the workshop in order to examine catalogs as intellectual enterprises and material artifacts within a transregional framework.  Its starting point was a gesture of inversion, since usually catalogs are consulted for reference purposes, and not studied in their own right.  The workshop’s focus on the comparative analysis of catalogs from a wide range of European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian societies allowed us to explore similarities and differences in their compilation, while being mindful of the dynamics between catalogers and readers.  The intellectual generosity of all participants ensured stimulating debates that revealed the potential of not yet explored sources and yielded numerous new ideas for future research projects.  Venturing beyond the comfort zone of one’s own discipline is always a challenge, and we deeply appreciate that the Forum Transregionale Studien gave us the unique opportunity to take this risk.

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