It can be frustrating to find something described as miscellaneous but sometimes that is just what it is. I’d like to share my reflections on a few events which I’ve attended over the last couple of weeks, which taken together give a good idea of the variety of life in the world of Special Collections.
Last week I attended a session on Approaching Medieval Manuscripts which had been organised by artsmethods@manchester primarily for Post-Graduate researchers at the University of Manchester. The session was led by Dr Luca Larpi, a Researcher at the University of Manchester who used early medieval manuscripts in his PhD. The session was highly interactive – we were immediately faced with deciphering the runes on “Thror’s map” from Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Luca showed how perserverance and dedication can lead from confusion and “strangeness” to familiarity and understanding. The relationship between the text and the materiality of the physical object was also clearly illustrated with examples of interesting provenance from the digitised manuscripts at the British Library and videos showing the construction of medieval manuscripts. The session ended with Mr Bean – a disturbing display of how NOT to handle manuscripts, which I had not seen before.
On Monday I went to London for the British Records Association Annual Conference entitled “Jewels in the Crown? Archives of Empire”, where papers were read by academic researchers and library professionals on a wide range of topics, from records of slavery in an English country house to dance across the British Empire. I was struck by the huge potential that British Libraries and Museums have to support and illuminate international research, especially when we can think outside the limits of format and institution. Here at the Rylands our collections encompass Foreign and Commonwealth Pamphlets, letters of East India Company officials, early photographs of Australia, records of mining in Africa, manuscripts created by indigenous cultures around the world and missionary records – to name but a few. Tom Lawson’s paper on genocide in colonial Tasmania showed us that where the official record is lacking, we can often find evidence in cultural remains, reminding me that the Library itself is a record of British Imperialism.
Tuesday saw the launch of the Arabic Aphorisms Project in our School of Arts, Languages and Cultures. It was exciting to hear about such a wide ranging and interdisciplinary project working with manuscript source material. The project seems to make the most of emerging technology, bringing together a range of diverse manuscript sources to enhance our understanding of the relationships between Ancient Greek, Arabic and later European thought. The researchers involved in the project spoke enthusiastically about the finds they had already made and about how working with Arabic translations and commentaries was developing their understanding of Ancient Greek and cultures of translation.
Last but not least, on Wednesday I attended a public lecture at the Manchester Museum by Dr Keekok Lee on “Divergance and convergance: Traditional Chinese and Western Modes of Thinking” (organised by the Confucius Institute). The talk focused on the historical relationship between the I-Ching philosophy of Ying and Yang and the Western mode of dualism derived from the philosophy of Aristotle, and the explosion of this difference by Neils Bohr’s work on Quantum Physics. While some of the philosophical discourse went above my head, it has given me an interesting perspective on the “Orientalism” still evident in the management of non-European Library collections. I will attempt to bring my new philosophical outlook to bear next week when we welcome a group of visitors from Manchester’s Chinese Community, part of a project the Library is working on with All About Audiences.