Behind the scenes at the processing desk

It’s the burning question surely on the mind of every undergraduate: What exactly goes on in that mysterious library back office?

The processing table: where it all happens

Well, as a Library Assistant, one of the tasks I spend the most time on when I’m not at the issue desk is processing. This partly involves getting our new stock ready for general circulation (adding all the features that make an item recognizable as belonging to the library: a shelf mark, date label, often some kind of protective cover, and a plethora of stickers and stamps … I won’t list them!). But the aspect of processing work that I enjoy by far the most is repair – bringing back to life our older items that are in need of some TLC. Having worked in medical libraries too (where it’s not unusual for earlier editions of popular resources to be thrown out as soon as a more recent version is available), one of the great pleasures of working in a music library is being able to handle our older stock – sheet music that is often a century or more old – on a day-to-day basis. Despite a fair amount of wear and tear, it’s usually possible to work some restorative magic on these items, and to get them into a condition where they are ready for circulation once more.

Library copy of Bantock’s Hamabdil (Chester, 1919), before repair

For example, this 1919 edition of (Trinity alumnus) Granville Bantok’s Hamabdil for solo cello is a typical example of older stock which – with a small amount of time invested – can once again become usable. I gave it a new shelf-mark label, carefully covered the dog-eared front cover in clear plastic, and secured the frayed and torn edges of each page with our trusty ‘invisible’ tape (clear tape that can still be written over in pencil; ideal for mending sheet music!).

Library copy of Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion (Novello, c. 1877), front cover

This contact with older items can open up another world, often especially through aspects of a score that are peripheral to the musical content itself. For example, at the processing desk I recently stumbled across this vocal score of Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion (published c. 1877 by Novello, Ewer & Co). The striking design and typography of the score’s front cover is just the starting point here: on the inside cover we have an advert for The Musical Times, ‘the largest and best Musical Journal in existence … [containing] Occasional Notes on passing events, and accounts of Musical Performances in all provincial towns, as well as those which take place on the Continent, in the Colonies, and wherever the Art is cultivated.’ On the back cover, meanwhile, ‘Messrs. NOVELLO, EWER & Co. beg to announce’ that a list of works, including Mozart’s Requiem Mass and Gounod’s Messe Solennelle ‘may now be had at a uniform rate of ONE SHILLING EACH.’

Exposed manuscript used as spine reinforcement in a library copy of Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion (Novello, c. 1877)

Exposed manuscript used as spine reinforcement in a library copy of Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion (Novello, c. 1877)

However, it’s when I look at the necessary repairs for this score that things get really interesting. A number of this copy’s pages have broken away from the book’s binding, revealing the inside of the spine. Seemingly tucked inside the spine is yet more manuscript – a serendipitiously-positioned footer (see image below) informs us that this is part of a Novello score for Handel’s Messiah. Jubilant at this unexpected discovery, I consult our cataloguer Helen, who tells me that sheets of paper (a then valuable commodity) from old copies were often used as binding reinforcement for new books – a practice spanning centuries which has led to discoveries of rare manuscript fragments from 13th-century Notre Dame and medieval Hebrew texts, to name a few. Libraries holding books which contain important fragments in the binding might choose to repair the book in a way that simultaneously conserves and renders visible the fragment in the spine. In our case though, pragmatism won the day, and, somewhat sadly, I sealed up the pages so that the snippet from Handel’s Messiah was once again hidden from view.

As I mentioned earlier, the sense of contact with the past while working at the processing desk often extends beyond the direct content of the item itself. I’m frequently jolted into an awareness of another life lived: old train or concert tickets tumbling out of a score, a piece of typed correspondence tucked away for safekeeping (or perhaps as a makeshift bookmark), a pertinent inscription or detailed marginalia handwritten inside. These layers give a glimpse into the usually hidden story of a book’s use and history; while, simultaneously, the book becomes a vehicle for a brief imagining of another’s life at another time. The fact that this all comes from an enduring physical object held in one’s hand provides a useful reminder of our seemingly unequivocal cascade into digital life, where the nature of our everyday communications (once through physical, tangible objects; now through ephemeral yet supposedly always traceable – although frequently forgettable – digital content) has fundamentally changed. With digital versions of works (e-books; digital music files; and so on), at least as they stand, what you see is what you get: there may be hidden extras inserted by the creator, or online versions which allow commentary (through interfaces such as SoundCloud, for instance), but the digital format doesn’t allow you – within a piece of content that you own, at least – to gain a glimpse of how someone else has used or responded to the work. Perhaps at a time where reviews and comment are available to most of us (whether to write or consume) at a click of a button, this isn’t so important, but I can’t help feeling that with this move from analogue to predominantly digital, something personal is being lost.

On this issue, news of two recent publications has caught my eye; taking dramatically different approaches, both go some way to counter concerns about the sometimes sterile feel of products consumed in our digital world. The first is a recently published novel – S. created by J.J. Abbrams (co-creator of TV series Lost, and the new director of Star Trek) and Doug Dorst (Canongate Books, 2013). The book itself is produced as an old library book, complete with detailed annotations from two different ‘readers’ (who, it turns out, are leaving notes within the book for each other), and is full of loose-leaf ephemera – newspaper cuttings, letters, postcards, and so on – for the reader to explore. Not only is the library book a stand-alone novel, but its annotations and ephemera provide a counter-narrative which explores both the relationship between the book’s two fictional readers, and their collective relationship with the text and author in question. While Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian, praises the work’s authors for captivating readers through the ‘antihistorical concept of an analogue interactive book’, ironically, librarians have been seriously tested by the publication, in particular by the need to keep track of its masses of ephemera on each loan and return.

My second example is The Mozart Project (Pipedreams Media, 2014), to which Trinity Laban’s John Irving is a major contributor. An interactive book designed for iPad, the project was conceived by two non-musicians, and provides not only 10 chapters on Mozart’s life and works by eminent scholars, but also accompanying audio excerpts, timelines, maps, video interviews with leading Mozart performers, and roundtable discussions with the authors, all in an attractive, easy-to-use format. With so much integrated, high-quality material in a range of media that encourages both sustained, concentrated engagement and ‘dipping in’, the concept offers a sense of discovery not often found in a traditional e-book format. Where a printed, previously-used analogue book might offer flashes of awareness of a previous readership (ephemera fluttering to the floor; annotations in the margins) and, perhaps, the opportunity to critically engage with that readership’s experience of the work, The Mozart Project promises an all-round experience living in the present, with content updates and the opportunity for readers to pose questions to the book’s authors online.

This concept of a living, breathing resource is a compelling one, and in drawing to a close, this post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the work currently being undertaken in the digital humanities, which – at its best – unites the sometimes opposing worlds of tangible historical object and accessible, fluid digital media. For example, the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM) provides images of thousands of medieval manuscripts, substantially decreasing people’s obstacles to engaging in these manuscripts through location or cost, while simultaneously creating and archiving digital records of manuscript fragments which may be extremely vulnerable to future deterioration or loss. And, finally, the Online Chopin Variorum Edition (OCVE) takes things a step further, providing access to images of Chopin’s manuscripts and first editions within the structure of a research project which, amongst other questions, aims to interrogate how ‘technology [might] fundamentally alter the musician’s and the musicologist’s understanding of different sources, their often complex interrelationships, and their significance as artistic and cultural artifacts within a rich history of publication, pedagogy, and performance’. The resource is rich in scholarly commentary, but, crucially, the interface also allows users to make their own (public or private) annotations, thereby creating a fluid, ‘dynamic’ edition with limitless finely-granulated variations in overall content.

And so, to return to the original theme of this post, there are interesting times ahead behind the scenes in the music library office. There will always be books and scores to repair, I am sure, and I certainly hope that old train tickets and letters will continue to fall from their pages for many years to come. But the examples I’ve described above give me hope that the inevitable ascendance of the digital sphere will open up more worlds – bright, enthralling, accessible and unifying – that it closes.

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