Index ⇠ Blog

Daily perchings of mind.
Better than twitter.

Oct. 1, 2020

Today was my first time visiting a rare books library since March, and my first time at the wonderful Othmer Library housed in the Philadelphia Science History Institute. It felt great to be back in action and handling physical books! So good, in fact, that I very soon lapsed into my incorrigible habit of getting teary-eyed from squinting at small print and dozing off less than an hour in. This was only for a brief moment. With only three full hours at hand until closing time, I had to get through an equal number of requested items at break-neck speed, scribbling down notes with only my trusted Blackwing pencil on narrow-ruled paper without bothering to take out my decrepit laptop. First up, a thick duodecimo book entitled Thaumatographia naturalis (1632) by the Polish physician Joannes Jonstonus. I spent 90 minutes gutting this compact volume, focusing on its early sections. As it turns out, Jonston was a remarkably well-travelled scholar who earned medical degrees from Leiden and Cambridge, as well as being a good friend of Comenius. I will return to this work soon to read the remainder.

Next up was a short, 100-page 'Dissertation on the nature of Cold and Heat' (1671) by a French military engineer and scientific academician by the name of Pierre Petit. The title page reveals that he was the 'Intendant of Fortifications' at the time of publishing, but I don't know much about this man. The source as a whole was neither disappointing nor surprising: it did have some interesting references to contemporaneous works and new instruments like the Florentine Thermometer, but not much in depth. Particularly infuriating is a reference to a certain Cardinal who 'just a few days ago' died from extreme cold along with his entire entourage while traversing the Alps. I've been unable to identify said Cardinal, though I gather there was a papal conclave in Rome in 1669/70. No references there to any cardinals dying en route or on the way back. Who might this be? If any of my readers has the answer please send me a note, I am dying to know.

Reading physical books in a library reading room with real people (there was one librarian present, but I had the chance to correspond with the head librarian beforehand) made me realise how much I (we all) had been missing out since the pandemic. In an alternate reality where Covid never happened, I would have been spending every day in libraries and archives happily surrounded by sources and talking to archivists and researchers.

On the other hand, I came to appreciate more than ever the many readily-available digitised archives and the sheer amount of effort that went into creating them by scanning each page. Without them, I would not be able to do any primary source research at all. It is thanks to these open-access online databases that I'm able to find and read obscure pamphlets, almanacs and treatises at the touch of a button in the comfort of my room. And as much as I love touching, smelling and reading material texts, the computer screen is so much easier on the eyes for books duodecimo-sized or smaller.