The Bloodsucker Award

I have never met Mr. Roger Pearse in real life, but I am a very regular visitor of his great website, the Tertullian Project, which not only offers a lot of information on the great Christian author, but also an impressive amount of online Patristic and other sources from Late Antiquity.

We have exchanged several messages and I imagine he is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man, who will not be angry soon. I was somewhat surprised when I discovered that he also has a gift of satire worthy of Tertullian, when he announced the Bloodsucker Award on his blog, which he will award

to institutions in receipt of state funding which in order to make money violate their primary directive; to make books available and promote learning.

The first recipient is the John Rylands Library in Manchester; you can read Pearse’s story here – and he is absolutely right in accusing this institution of obstructing the cause of research.

Unfortunately, the John Rylands Library is not the only institution that forgets that the first and foremost task of libraries and museums is to allow people to investigate things. I can add several museums: cf. this posting about the Bundeskunsthalle, this one about the Louvre, and this article about three expositions in Paris by my friend Marco Prins. Of course these institutions have a responsibility to the tax payer as well, but the demands of a decent budget may never become more important than the institution’s primary directive.

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3 Responses to The Bloodsucker Award

  1. Bill Thayer says:

    Kudos to both of you. In my experience, once something gets in a museum, it may as well have vanished off the face of the planet, since anything not actually on display — 90% of any museum’s holdings are off display in their basements — becomes next to impossible to see; and indeed, often, seems to be permanently lost.

    In fact, I have personal experience with one museum curator who was fired from his post at an important American museum for using his position to deaccession items he coveted, so friends of his could buy them and they could event find their way into his own possession; and I’m told this is far from uncommon, and usually, as in this case, hushed up by the museum.

    But even in the normal, honest run of things, once something gets in the basements of a museum, it stands a big chance of getting lost or damaged; and staffs make it easier on themselves by fielding any inquiries with “We don’t have this item”, or “We can’t access it ourselves due to (renovation, funding policies, personnel on vacation, etc.)” or finally just plain “No, you can’t see this.” And of course, the centralization itself of collections into large museums is a recipe for disaster, since museums and libraries can, and do, lose everything in one fell swoop: not to go back to the Museum and Library at Alexandria, we can think of the library at Louvain — twice! — and the museums of Kabul and Baghdad.

    As for libraries, even in the United States, where obtaining access to public library systems is easier than elsewhere, just try accessing a university library if you are not faculty or student there. I’m not talking about borrowing a book and removing it off the premises — fair enough, I don’t think I’d often allow that either — but just gaining access to the library and sitting down at a table and reading. I’ve had a running battle with the library of the university nearest my house, about eight blocks from me: erratic policies and uninformed staff make it a crapshoot, and most of the time over the years, I’ve failed to gain access.

    Bravo Roger, and thanks Jona for reporting this.

  2. rpearse says:

    I’ve noticed a tendency in the UK to treat the non-student reader as a source of profit. Once, so long as you could produce some kind of letter of introduction, you could get a reader’s card. There might be a nominal charge, but often not. Then charges started to appear everywhere, and to rise and rise. Taxing the visitor is a fairly heartless activity.

    I’ve obtained access to most places with a letter of introduction from a scholar which is now 10 years old, but in general I seem to be lucky about getting access to read (copies are another matter entirely). I find that it helps if I wear my suit and tie, wear a pleasant smile as if there could be no question of my right to be there, and walk around slowly like a cruising shark, just like their boss would. It makes petty bureaucrats nervous about refusing my reasonable requests!

    Of course there is rather a history of difficulty of access to books. Why else did the humanists sometimes have to steal them from their ignorant, careless, yet greedy owners? Even cataloguers are not exempt: isn’t Montfaucon’s Diarium Italicum (1702) nothing less than the diary of this reverend, venerable, and fabulously learned Benedictine Father getting the bum’s rush from princely libraries up and down the length of Italy?

    Libraries do burn. The oldest manuscript (‘S’) of the Syriac Explanations of the feasts of the church (works by Cyril and Thomas of Edessa) was safe until Addai Scher brought it ‘for safety’ to his archiepiscopal library at Seert. There it perished with all his books (and himself) in the massacres of 1915. A copy of it, ‘A’, from the abbey of Rabban Hormizd is the archetype of all the current mss. It was brought to Baghdad ‘for safety’ during the 70’s. Since the bombing of the Chaldaean patriarchate, no-one has seen it (although I believe it may be in a crate in a cave somewhere). No photographs exist of it, of course. I need to implore the Chaldaean clergy to STOP placing mss of this work in a “place of safety”, because we’re running out of manuscripts!!!

  3. rpearse says:

    I failed to explain why we might care about something like the Explanations. The reason is that Thomas of Edessa, in the bit on Christmas, in chapter 10, tells us that the pagans in his time (6th century) every year celebrated a festival of the sun god on Christmas day. A useful snippet, two centuries after paganism became illegal, I think!

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