Blue Teeth, Vatican Jocks, and Crossroads of Civilizations

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February 6, 2019 by libroshombre

A computer meme has me thinking about libraries even more than usual. There’s much to consider, because libraries and librarians come in myriad forms and fill manifold functions, like the Cocktail Library and the Vatican Library’s 62-year-old Olympic hopeful librarian. The librarian is unnamed in the news reports about the Vatican officially teaming up with the Italian Olympic Committee “to launch this divine squad of runners, which includes not only the priests and nuns, but he or she joins also Swiss Guards, and pharmacists drawn from the city-state’s 1,000 residents.

The Cocktail Library resides appropriately in Cocktail Kingdom, a New York City barware and cocktail bookseller. It’s open to the public, but appointments must be made with Martin Dourdoroff, the company’s librarian and cocktail historian. There you’ll find multiple editions of Jerry Thomas’ famed 1862 work, “How to Mix Drinks,” that’s “widely considered to be the first cocktail book ever written,” according to the NYTimes.com article “Finally, New York Has a Cocktail Library.” They also own the first book to use the word “cocktails” in the beverage sense, “Fermented Liquors” from 1858.

Libraries are our civilizations’ repositories of knowledge and understanding, and reading about history’s cyclical nature provides solace in troubled times, and it often overlaps with librarianship and science, as in a recent scholarly article from ScienceMag.org titled “Medieval Women’s Early Involvement in Manuscript Production Suggested by Lapis Lazuli Identification in Dental Calculus.” Here’s the gist: as Asian trade routes opened during the European Middle Ages, a brilliant blue pigment known as ultramarine became available to European artists. Ultramarine was derived from ground lapis lazuli, a blue precious stone from Afghanistan, and was expensive – as costly as pure gold. It was used in only the finest works, such as illuminated Bibles produced in monastic libraries, and only the most gifted scribes were entrusted with utilizing it.

Scribes were the librarians of medieval times, and these included nuns as well as priests. Recently researchers discovered granules of lapis lazuli embedded in the teeth of an exhumed 11th century German nun. “In Germany, women’s monastic communities … were largely made up of noble or aristocratic women. Many were highly educated, and devotional reading was encouraged as an expression of piety.” Two main methods existed for getting lapis lazuli in one’s teeth back then, grinding the stone to make the pigment, and in the late Middle Ages “the work of pigment production [was] typically performed by women.” The other way to get blue teeth was osculation, where fervent readers kissed illuminated figures in their Bibles, which was popular for several centuries.

Librarians are always passionate about their libraries, even though libraries and librarianship constantly evolve. The first public library in the English-speaking world is Chetham’s Library in Manchester, founded in 1655 in a former monastery by wealthy merchant Humphrey Chetham. It soon housed 2,455 theologically-related volumes, all securely chained down to discourage theft, but any librarian in history will tell you that restricting books like that leads to books missing pages. I visited Chetham’s a few years ago, observed the hoary, leatherbound tomes shelved in the priests’ cells, and lolled on the bench where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels met to develop the Communist Manifesto. No computer terminals, fiction, or children’s story hours were anywhere in sight, but there were bright-eyed, helpful librarians.

Public libraries have come a long, long way, as evidenced by our own lovely libraries. They’re packed with humankind’s finest thoughts, exhilarating diversions, and gorgeous Alaskan artwork. And, if you’re one of the nearly 60% of Borough residents with active library cards, you can download e-books, audiobooks, magazines, comics, movies, music, as well as powerful databases.

Oh, yeah; that computer meme I mentioned earlier, it’s a poster that encapsulates how most librarians I’ve ever met feel about the significance of their work. It reads, “This is a Library, Crossroads of Civilizations, Refuge of All the Arts Against the Ravages of Time, Armoury of Fearless Truth Against Whispering Rumour [and] Incessant Trumpet of Trade; From This Place Words May Fly Abroad, Not Perish as Digital Waves But Fixed in Time, Not Corrupted By the Hurrying Hand But Verified in Proof. Friend, You Stand on Sacred Ground: This is a Library.”

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