The End of a Very Long Book Career: Leona Rostenberg Dies
The following quotes are taken from The Prologue to Our Lives, by Rostenberg and Stern, which appears in the Spring 2000 edition of RBM on the American Library Association website: http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlpubs/rbm/backissuesvol1no1/backissuesvol.htm. There are two issues which all who are involved with antiquarian books must confront. The first is, what is the importance of the material contained in these books now anyway? Matters of history can today be reviewed with the benefit of all of the research that has taken place in the years since the events occurred. Who needs the incomplete early reports any longer? The second issue is, with older text now becoming readily available either online or through other digital records, what is the relevance of the physical old books anymore?
To the first question, why original source material is still important when so much in the way of later reconstruction and interpretation is available, listen to Rostenberg and Stern: "To study and reanimate the past, scholars need to know the past when it was the present." The point is well taken. If you were to read a book about Abraham Lincoln today, the chances are it would be a recent one. It may include the benefits of much labor and research, but the chances are it may also be influenced by the writer's own views and ideology and warped by time, even if unconsciously so. The writer sees Lincoln through the wisdom of hindsight, but without the connection of personal experience. The history writer can never fully experience the context or the emotions swirling around those events. Only original source material can truly reflect how those events were experienced by those who lived them. So sure, read the great modern histories and biographies, which may clear away some of the misunderstandings or misrepresentations of old sources, but also read what was written contemporaneously to get the full picture, so you can draw your own conclusions.
Now for the second point. As long as we can obtain this information electronically, what value is there to the physical first sources any longer? Again some valuable words: "What electronic process can reproduce the touch and feel of an incunable Book Of Hours...first edition of Voltaire or Rousseau, the original appearance of a plea for utopian government or perennial peace, the startling revelations of Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle? Nothing in cyberspace can convey the character and substance of the original. It is the original that embodies the past and transports the past into the present." Rostenberg and Stern were writing for Special Collections Librarians at the time, but this is a phenomenon equally known to the private collector. While the text of an old book can be displayed electronically, and its words studied from a computer screen, collectors and librarians still experience a connection to the past that only comes from the original document itself. Perhaps this connection is somewhat ephemeral, even spiritual, but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about a wholly different subject (okay, that subject was pornography), "I know it when I see it." There is something about physical books that those who love them understand, even if others do not. They are sort of like the Grand Canyon. A photograph or movie can explain it intellectually, but it isn't quite the same as seeing it in person. No, it isn't the same at all. Thank you, Leona Rostenberg, for helping us understand what old books are all about.