Cats, Catalogs, Clocks, and Ctesibius

Leave a comment

March 23, 2018 by libroshombre

Several cats in my life have convinced me that Sigmund Freud was full of hooey when he said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” I’ll spare you the details, but, after considering how the Romans kept time, I’m in full agreement with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, who said, “All times are not alike.” It started with reading the “Private Diary of Dr. John Dee” on, that magnificent supplier of 50,000 free, well-edited and curated e-books whose copyrights have lapsed. When Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s mathematician, spy, and astrologer, copyrighting hadn’t been invented.

Dee recorded his diary in the margins of astronomical almanacs used to cast his horoscopes, and while most of the entries are cryptically mundane, in some “he tells us his dreams, talks of mysterious noises in his chamber, evil spirits, and alludes to various secrets of occult philosophy in the spirit of a true believer,” according to his Victorian biographer. Dee was a borderline sorcerer but a prodigy of learning, especially mathematics, and Elizabeth particularly relied upon his astrological forecasting. He composed his Diary in the elastic spelling of the age: “Nov. 22nd, I rod to Windsor to the Q. Majestie. Nov. 25th, I spake with the Quene hora quinta. Nov. 28th, I spake with the Quene hora quinta.”

A bunch of these royal meetings included “hora quinta,” which is Latin for 5th hour according to the old Roman system of time keeping still prevalent then. The Roman day was divided into 24 hours divided between night and day, so the twelve daytime hours were 75 minutes long on summer solstice but lasted only 45 minutes at winter solstice. They also divided the day into observable sections, such as “gallicinium,” or “cock-crow,” and “conticinium,” or “hush of the night.”

The length of Roman hours was changing, yet they devised accurate water-clocks. The Greek mathematician Ctesibius, considered by many to have been the first head of the Alexandrian Museum and its great library, was the mechanical genius who figured out the elaborate system of pointers and gears needed to automatically adjust themselves and show the correct time as the days lengthened and shortened.

Dee’s great library, considered the best in Europe at the time, was destroyed when he was accused of witchcraft, but among the surviving works was his “Catalogue of Library Manuscripts,” that listed his library’s contents. Catalogs are always library cornerstones. Lists like Dee’s were eventually replaced with the card catalogs so fondly remembered by library patrons of a certain vintage, and they in turn have been replaced by incredibly complex computerized catalogs. Our library’s catalog software is the most intricate used by the Borough, and like everything associated with computers, it’s regularly being tweaked and updated.

To be transparent here, I admit that cataloging was my least favorite subject in library school. Apparently people prone to a creative, some might say “inflammatory,” imagination don’t make good catalogers, and I serve as a prime exhibit. Not just his spelling, but Dee’s descriptions and organization were rather fluid, a trait that makes modern librarian catalogers blanch. But creative chaos was the norm in library catalogs until the late 1800s. A glance at the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR) will convince you that today the organizational pendulum’s swung hard back the other way. The AACR’s “designed for use in the construction of catalogues and other lists in general libraries of all sizes. The rules cover the description of, and the provision of access points for, all library materials commonly collected at the present time.” It makes Dee’s Diary seem like a light comedy by comparison.

As a rule, all rules aren’t equal. For example, the prime rule for growing a reader is to read to your kid every day and to have them see you regularly read to yourself. However, Lapham’s Quarterly, my favorite magazine ever, recently listed odd American laws outlining a variety of illegal oddities, such as honking at a sandwich shop after 9 P.M. in Little Rock, biting off another person’s limb in Rhode Island, or carrying a pet dog on a car roof in Anchorage. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., put it, “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: