Monday, July 30, 2012

Rare Books CSI

Dealing with rare books, our job can seem a little bit like that of a detective and a little bit like a scientist. We have to track down clues and then piece together what information we can, while maintaining objectivity and without embellishing the facts. Take an enigmatic book in our collection. Two different works are bound together in one binding: a 1688 Treatise on Japanning and a publication of the French National Convention from 1793, printed in both French and Arabic. What are these two works doing together, how did they come to be in our collection, and what’s the story behind the French publication?
The manuscript label says one thing...

The first two questions have to do with what’s called provenance. If we know who the former owner was, that information goes into the record. This can be the person who gave it to us, or the person whose name figures on a bookplate. In this case, the volume has a manuscript label: “A specimen of the Arabic character, with the French translation by C.F. Volney printed at Paris.” However, the label conflicts with the information on the title page. The title page says “Translated into Arabic by P. Ruffin, secretary-interpreter of the Republic, printed by order of the National Convention, by L. Langlès, guardian of Arabic, Persian, Tartar-Manchu manuscripts for the National Library.”

...but the title page says something different.

When we make a catalog record, it’s important to be objective. That means we report the information that is present in the item, but we can’t draw conclusions. So, each of these people is included in the catalog record, under a heading known as “associated name.” But who were these people, and what did they have to do with the document? Rare-book catalogers take a couple of steps to identify names when they crop up. The first is to check in the Library of Congress Name Authorities, and the second is to look at a dictionary of biography, like Michaud’s Biographie Universelle

The Biographie Universelle contains entries for all three. While dated and partial, they provide evocative portraits.  Langlès comes off as a mediocre scholar who avidly sought fame and participation in prestigious projects. Ruffin was a talented linguist and diplomat who served successive French governments faithfully in the Middle East. And Volney was a controversial and strongly anticlerical author, celebrated for a variety of works both on the Middle East and wider historical and political theories. Significantly, Volney was also an associate of Franklin’s, and spent time in the United States at the turn of the century. 

This last detail suggests Volney might be the missing link. To try to establish this, the next step is to consult some in-house resources. When the Library acquires books, they are given accession numbers, which contain a numerical component and a letter, which identifies the item’s size format. But in this case, the Accession Records don’t provide any useful leads. Instead, only the Treatise on Japanning is listed.

Luckily, the Accession books are not the only resource. The Board also held regular meetings, and acknowledged gifts at those meetings. So, taking a look at the minutes, we see the following entry in the Minute book from a Directors meeting on June 2, 1796:
“The following books were presented by Mr. C. F. Volney:
1.      A specimen of the Arabic language in Arabic Characters, with a French translation. Folio pamphlet.
2.      Memoires sur diverses antiquities de la Perse, par A. J. Sylvestre de Sacy 4o
3.      Odes, Cantites et Poessiés diverses de B. Rousseau. 4o.
4.      Simplification des langues Orientales, par C.F. Volney. 8o.
5.      Christie’s Revolution of France, in answer to Burke.”
Thus we can establish that Volney brought this copy to the U.S. during his sojourn at the end of the 18th century and that he gave it to the Library Company, along with the other items. Since Volney was a linguist and the author of several books about the Middle East and eastern languages, it is not surprising that he had the pamphlet in his possession. In fact, when the pamphlet was written, it contained express instructions “…that each assembly member receive six copies, and that it should be translated into every language.”

The Committee that wrote the text wanted it widely disseminated because it laid out some fundamental principles about freedom and the rule of law:
These sacred principles and eternal truths should drive all citizens:
A nation should never be ruled by the whims of some transient power that cedes to every passion; instead, laws ought to be the sole authority.
Laws exist to guarantee the free exercise of rights. This precious guarantee is what Man is seeking in political association, which provides him with a form of government that contains the citizen within the bounds of his duties.
Any action that hinders the free exercise of these rights, is a crime against Society.
Individual liberty must only be limited at the point where it infringes upon the liberty of others; and it is up to law to recognize and delineate these limits.
Property must be sacred. Far from the systems governed by sloth and immorality, which diminish the horror of larceny and establish it as doctrine! Law must uphold property rights, as it must also ensure all other rights of citizens.
But who should establish the Law? The sole will of the people, though the representatives to whom they have delegated this power.

Beyond this point, anything is conjecture. In the same way a scientist can establish correlation but not causation, a cataloger can’t fill in the blanks. The Treatise on Japanning and the National Convention’s address were pamphlets in the same folio-size format, so at some point they were bound together. Someone added the manuscript label identifying Volney, but we have no way of knowing who, or at what point, or what sources they consulted to come up with the label, or whether they could read French (and it’s doubtful they read Arabic).
The ornately designed Arabic portion printed in two colors.

Despite these gaps, the pamphlet is still a fascinating artifact. The committee writing it clearly felt what they had to say was very important, and went to a lot of trouble to produce a visually striking edition. They probably hoped it would end up in the hands of foreign diplomats, but instead here it is on the shelves of a research library, providing us with a window onto the French Revolution.

Edith Mulhern
Digitization and Reference Assistant

1 comment:

  1. The importance of a french translation being accurate and efficient can indeed not be overstated. Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.