Dispatches from the Houghton, Part Four: The Last Quarter


By: Robert M. Sarwark

Each time that I start a week of research into the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books at Harvard’s Houghton Library, I’m obliged to ask the kindly receptionist on duty for a quarter to access one of the lobby’s lockers to store my bags. You’d think that after three previous trips that I’d have anticipated this and just kept the quarter, but no. Instead, I have opted for the slightly awkward routine of requesting, using, and then returning that single quarter four separate times over the 2019 fiscal year in which I’ve held the Houghton-Mifflin Visiting Fellowship in Publishing History. It’s become a bit of a ceremony, I suppose. 

My last visit, from June 17 to 22, the final quarter (in both senses), coincided with a certain degree of completion, even more motivation (and anxiety, all told) to continue on to this project’s next stages, as well as the bittersweet acceptance that all good things must come to an end. 

This post concludes my series of four Houghton dispatches, the first three of which can be found here (July 2018), here (October 2018), and here (January 2019). 

A Mixed Bag

This past winter, after my third visit, I established a preliminary outline for which banned books/authors I planned to featuring in my manuscript. The total number remains at 46, though I have replaced a few of those original selections. That meant that for my final trip in June, I saved time by more intentionally and strategically selecting and requesting the books to consult in the Houghton reading room. Previously, I had picked more serendipitously from J.M. de Bujanda’s Index des Livres Interdits, Vol. XI: Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1600-1966 (2002) based on whatever seemed the most interesting at the moment. 

One of the most important details for me to start considering has been the differences between first and subsequent editions of banned books. The greatest benefit of having access to a world-class rare-book library like the Houghton is that it holds so many first, as well as other early editions, along with early translations thereof. In many cases, I’ve tried to rely as much as possible on the forbidden texts as they originally appeared, though for time and clarity’s sake if a work was published first in a language other than English, the most efficient method has been to read the first English translation along with that original (especially in the case of works in French, Portuguese, and Spanish, which I can read to varying degrees). This way, I can have a truer sense of the original’s impact with less risk of misunderstanding the text’s meaning and nuance. Analyzing a first or otherwise early edition’s binding, paper, and printing elements is, of course, an aesthetic and tactile experience that is essential to rare-book study. 

Here are a few of the titles that I consulted throughout the week:

And the piece de resistance… Αγεωμετριτος μηδεις εισιτω (Nobody Ignorant of Geometry Should Enter)

Handling and skimming the 1543 first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium) was one of the most singular experiences of my life. Having Houghton curator-librarian John Overholt retweet the above post also really added to this in the sense that it felt as if several others were beholding this truly world-altering text right there with me. As you’ll see in the replies, many of the comments were along the lines of “Woah! You could just touch it with your bare hands?” the answer to which is: yes. In most rare-book and manuscript libraries, it’s actually much better to just handle these kinds of items with bare hands as long as they’re clean and dry. Cloth or latex gloves, in fact, potentially cause more damage because they limit dexterity, which can lead to tearing pages or other elements. But more importantly, I wanted to share that the textual source of the Copernican theory of heliocentrism, along with the other foundational texts that have impacted human history, isn’t something inaccessible or sacrosanct but first introduced in a real, physical — though admittedly highly technical and dense — book. I wouldn’t dare make the claim that I can understand much if any of the original Latin, but knowing what it has signified for our understanding of the cosmos is something strange and wondrous to encounter on a (literally) first-hand basis. 

Talking Out Loud 

Also during my final week at Harvard a podcast interview I did about the Index and Bibliography of the Damned, which I had recorded months before, was released. The host of this episode of the AskHistorians Podcast, (also a popular SubReddit), is none other than author, historian, and archivist Brian M. Watson, whom I made the acquaintance of through this very blog. Many thanks are due to Brian and the other fantastic volunteers at AskHistorians for inviting me to speak with them. 

I’ve also since presented photos and stories of my Houghton fellowship experience to colleagues at my current institution, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. It may seem odd to juxtapose rare books and history with the mandates of the United States’ central bank. But, fortunately, many of my patron-colleagues (yes, I am still a librarian!) are well-versed in economics, a field that intersects with pretty much everything. (Incidentally, I also consulted and photographed a particularly rare 18th-century manuscript volume housed at Harvard’s Baker Business Library on behalf of one of my Fed patrons.) Based on their positive response (as well as to the podcast), I am convinced that this project has “legs” to make it to its next stage of existence as a full-length book. Work continues on the manuscript and I am also open to any potential readers for when the time comes. (And — shameless self-promotion alert — that goes for you too, publishers.) 

Thank You!

In addition to those already thanked above, many thanks are due to the following: Mr. John Overholt for tweeting out the call for applications for the Houghton fellowships, as well as for his efforts to promote public and egalitarian access to his institution’s and furthermore all rare-books collections; Drs. Emily Knox and Terry Weech of the iSchool at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for both their wonderful teaching and letters of reference; Dr. Anne-Marie Eze and Monique Duhaime for administering all of the program’s logistics; reference-librarian extraordinaire Ms. Susan Halpert for her exceptional service and friendship; Dr. Bill Stoneman for his many tips, insights, and fine conversation; and Mr. Emeka Onyeagoro for his kindness, hospitality…and, of course, for all those quarters. 

Find out more about the Houghton, including the visiting fellowship program, which will reopen for applications in the fall of 2019.

Robert Sarwark

Robert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. His scholarly interests include historical and contemporary censorship, with a particular focus on the (now-defunct) Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.

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