Ink and Water

A recent entry at Bonæ Litteræ, a blog that is both a pleasure to read and a personal reminder of my scholastic and literary inadequacy, brought a dim memory to mind.

The aforementioned author wrote of his recent encounter with the new, and irresponsibly user-friendly, decision to allow water bottles into the reading room of the Bodleian library. Part of me—that part that is still the weary librarian—thought that there was some ‘market model’ philosophy at work at the Bodleian. Many library administrators are concerned with declining user numbers, and other efforts to argue that their collections, and their services, remain relevant in the world of web 3.0 (or whatever current version is the accepted standard to panic over). I have no way to know if that is even a concern for the Bodleian, but the reality of conditions are not always part of the decision making process. I could go into this, but frankly, it’s tedious and I haven’t the energy to do the work required for an informed comment.

Instead, I will describe the anecdote that this entry brought to mind.

Back in 2005-6, when I was an otherwise unemployed spouse to an LLM student at Cambridge, I took advantage of a UCL reader card and spent many afternoons beneath the Tower of Glower.1 One day, I happened to wander into the West Room, home of the periodicals, and noticed, near the doors, a desk with the typical public office tools like scrap paper, the little printed slips to warn the pages that you were still reading that pile of books you left untended. There were also a few of those little golf pencils and a bottle of ink, with a pad of blotting paper.

Wait… ink?

Yes, that is a small, glass bottle, of dark blue, pen-ink. It’s a perfectly filthy bottle of ink, with an ineffective pad of blotting paper. Who was using ink pens in the reading room? No, a better question is who uses refillable fountain pen in the reading room? Better still, who would use a refillable fountain pen in the reading room who would not bring their own ink? Does anyone actually use this ink? Who takes care of this thing? How old is this ink? The questions kept piling up without actual answers.

So strange was this appearance that I probably doubted my understanding of it. I could have just asked someone at the reference desk about this fluid of mystery. I did not think to ask. Considering the impression I got of the reading room staff, I think I knew their answers would be wholly unsatisfying.

Water may have been one of the great enemies of books, according to Blades.2 Theft was clearly one of the chief antagonists of early University Libraries.3 Fire, naturally, is to be feared and guarded against. So too, human neglect or casual cruelty.4 But to leave a bottle of ink lying around, unattended, in a reading room, seemed as safe to books as a box of matches or open tubs of corn syrup. What may save the materials of the Cambridge reading rooms is the general decline in the use of the fountain pen. As shocked as I was to see that ink, many would stop at the simple puzzle over its purpose. Maybe they would assume it’s there for patrons who bring in stamp kits, or recent gang-initiates who plan on some impromptu tattooing in the stacks. Who can say. Probably not the reference staff.

NOTES

1 I got my readers card through the kind offices of the Grad-tutor at the College. I still have the very impressively worded recommendation from the tutor, vouching form my researcher’s interests and moral character.

2 Blades is quoted at Bonæ Litteræ for his opinions on water and other high-risk behavior around books: W. Blades, The Enemies of Books (London: Trübner and co., 1880).

3 The literature of libraries and fire, (in the literal, and metaphorical meanings) which is considerable, makes for hard reading. A good general survey is Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004).

4 I have a great fondness for chained libraries, and I wish there was some way I could formally claim credit for getting Cambridge University Press to re-issue the single great history of chained libraries in their Cambridge Library Collections series. Sadly, I can’t, even here, at the risk of spoiling my vague anonymity. See Burnett Hillman Streeter, The Chained Library: A Survey of Four Centuries in the Evolution of the English Library, Cambridge Library Collection ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011 [1931]).

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