I know it’s not the Book Owl’s usual posting day, but I just wanted to share the excitement of World Literacy Day with you!
So what’s the day all about? Well, the fine folks over at Wikipedia have this to say…
“8 September was declared international literacy day by UNESCO on 26 October 1966 at 14th session of UNESCO’s General conference. It was celebrated for the first time in 1967. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies.”
And since I (aka “The Book Owl”) love being able to read and think reading is one of the best pastimes EVER, I wanted to celebrate by sharing a couple podcast episodes in which I cover a little bit of literacy, the importance of being a reader, and the strange historical course of inventions that help keep people reading to this very day.
The first is Episode 3 in which the Book Owl delves into that age-old question, the quandary that has stumped philosophers and scientists for centuries, the issue I’m sure has been keeping you up at night….
Do dogs know how to read?
Spoiler alert…no, they don’t, but they can listen which is why our canine buddies are regularly invited into libraries to help build better readers. How does this work? Who came up with the idea? How can you get involved? Find out in Episode 3: Is That A Dog in the Library?!!
Note: I was still getting the hang of things with Episode 3, so the sound quality isn’t the best, but it’s still worth a listen.
Then we haveEpisode 8: The Story of Seeing Clearly in which I take a peek at the amazing combination of historical events that turned eyeglasses from a luxury item used only by the wealthy to a household commodity (and requisite accessory for many readers…including myself).
From imprisoned Venetians to curing syphilis, the history of eyeglasses is more intriguing than it might seem at first glance (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Those show links will take you to the episode’s listening page where you’ll also find links to the show’s transcript, in case you know, you wanted to actually read on World Literacy Day!
A rich guy goes around buying up a bunch of stuff. That’s not exactly news, is it? Well, when the guy is Chester Beatty and his shopping expeditions ended up creating and preserving the most extensive collection of ancient papyrus, Middle Eastern illuminated manuscripts, and many other book-related treasure, it draws attention.
In this episode of the Book Owl Podcast we explore how Chester got bit by the collecting bug, how he earned his wealth, and how he thumbed his nose at the British Museum and moved his goodies to Dublin, Ireland.
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
Okay, so we got a little silly in the last episode, but it’s time to get back to, you know, serious business with the story behind a book-filled wonderland that Lonely Planet has called one of the best museums in Europe, and was honored with the Museum of the Year Award in 2002. And after having visited this place myself a ew years ago, I have to agree…although, a bit later I’ll explain what NOT to do when you go there.
But before we start exploring, I just want to say how much I loved all your comments from Episode 9 when we went rolling along with the Bookmobile. And this episode really did kick up some happy memories for you guys. Both Teresa and LaVelle recalled how excited they’d were to see the Bookmobile coming to their neighborhoods. And Jonny of the Jaunts & Haunts blog shared his memories of the Bookmobile, but as we chatted back and forth he also stirred up my own memories when he mentioned the little Scholastic book catalogs you’d get in class. I could spend hours with those things! Also, Tierney of Tierney Creates said our mutual love of the Bookmobile makes us fellow book geeks…an honor I will gladly accept.
Anyway, thanks so much for your comments, and keep them coming. I’ll throw the links in the show notes, but you can comment any time on the Book Owl Podcast blog, on Instagram, by email, or by responding to the newsletter that goes out with every episode and that you should really subscribe to.
Okay, let’s go check out this museum everyone’s raving about. The museum in question is the Chester Beatty and it’s located in the fine city of Dublin, Ireland.
I’ll get into what you’ll actually see there a later in the episode, but basically this museum houses 25,000 highly artistic manuscripts, rare books, and the world’s most extensive collection of texts on papyrus. Don’t worry, not all 25,000 objects are on display, but what is on display will knock your book nerdy socks off.
Now, as I said, this place is called the Chester Beatty and everything on display is something he collected during his lifetime. But who the hell is Chester Beatty? As I said, I’ve been to the museum, and I still had no idea who he was, so researching this episode was a wonderful bit of discovery.
So Chester was born in 1875, and he was not born into wealth by any means. I mean this guy built himself up from a fairly modest background. In 1898, he graduated from the Columbia School of Mines, which does not like a terribly interesting course of study, but anyway he knew about mines and he needed to put that knowledge to use, so he headed west to Colorado…where like any college grad, he got a grunt job. And in the mining world, that meant digging and clearing rubble from tunnels.
But Chester was no slouch and within only five years he was part of the management team of the Guggenheim Exploration Company, which kind of makes it sound like he should have been going to Antarctic or something, but no, sorry still just Colorado. In this position he not only earned his normal wage, but he also got sort of a profit-sharing deal. So, by the time he was 32, our Chester was a millionaire.
So, I won’t overwhelm you with all the details of his career, but by 1908, he’s left the Guggenheim operation, he’s returned home to New York, and he’s set himself up with his own very profitable consulting business for mining engineers. What could be better? He’s doing great, right? Well, Chester’s life takes a sad turn when his wife of 12 years dies of typhoid.
It’s really too much for Chester. He can’t bear to be in the house they shared any longer, so not long after her death, he packs up the kids and moves to a house he’s bought in London’s Kensington Gardens…swanky! About a year after moving to London, Chester remarries and it really is a great match because they both turn out to be avid collectors.
See, even as a kid Chester loved to collect and he’d go to auctions and bid on rock and ore samples from mining expeditions to add to his collection. While he was in Colorado, he also started collecting stamps, Chinese snuff boxes, Japanese figurines, and most importantly for this episode, ancient documents on papyrus and Islamic manuscripts. And while his career in mining did require some travel, it was really some health troubles that helped him satisfy his pack rat nature.
Chester had some trouble with his lungs and a dry climate helped with that, so he would winter in places like Egypt, but he was also vastly rich, so on his way home, he’d pop over to Japan and Southeast Asia, you know, as you do.
Anyway, back to the thread of the story. As I said, Chester was already raking it in, but when he moved to London he joined a mining compact. During the 1920s the members of this compact took a risk on some mines in Zambia and the Congo. Well, the risk paid off and they discovered copper. The already rich Chester was now super duper rich…and using that money to travel more and add to his manuscript collection.
By now Chester is fully infected with the collecting bug, and by the 1930s he had a strong reputation as a reputable collector. He only bought the finest pieces of work. To help him out, he had agents and advisors who made sure what he was buying was authentic and from trusted sources. This network of agents and his own searches gathered illuminated copies of the Quran; manuscripts from the Mughals, the Turks, and the Persians; as well as ancient works written in Armenian, Greek, Burmese, and more.
And Chester wasn’t just snatching these things up like some crazed Scrooge McDuck swimming in his room full of gold coins. Okay, that was a bad analogy because you can’t really swim in manuscripts, but you get the idea. He wasn’t just buying these texts to say, “Haha, look what I’ve got.” He actually consulted with people on how best to preserve them and in 1934, he converted a portion of his Kensington House into a library and gallery for people to look at these amazing works which were probably from cultures that most people at the time thought backwards or uncivilized.
Oh, and I mentioned his wife was a collector too. Her passion was for antique furniture and paintings, and she actually preserved several pieces of original furnishings that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.
But back to Chester. He’s rich. He’s got lots of stuff. He’s got a stellar reputation as a collector. And he wanted to share his findings. So starting in the 1920s he worked with and shared his finds with the British Museum. And all along he’d been planning on leaving his collection, which was pretty substantial and worth a ton by this point, to the British Museum when he died.
Then, kind of a double whammy of things got on the wrong side of Chester. First up, as with most rich people, he didn’t like taxes. In the 1940s, Britain changed their tax structure in a way that Chester didn’t really like. But the thing that really pushed Chester too far was the hiring of a new director at the British Museum. This guy didn’t not agree with Chester’s involvement…involvement in his own collection, mind you. The new director questioned the quality of Chester’s collection, he insisted he would have the final say in everything, and he insisted the collection only be shown in the British Museum.
Well, Chester didn’t like this one bit. Go figure. So, in 1950, he took his collection and his vast amounts of wealth, and moved to Dublin…partially because Ireland had a much more favorable tax structure and partially because his son was already living in Kildare County.
Unlike the British Museum, the Irish weren’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Chester put his collection on display in a purpose built library/museum in a suburb of Dublin and opened it to share with the public in 1953. But that wasn’t the end of it. Chester also bequeathed his entire collection to the people of Ireland. Not too shabby a gift. And a big FU to the British Museum.
The Irish, possibly learning from the British Museum’s mistake, showed their appreciation. Chester not only was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of Ireland (this was in 1954), but when he died in 1968, he was the first private citizen to be honored with a state funeral.
So in 2000, the original library was closed down and the collection moved into its own gallery in Dublin Castle. And I have to say, if you’re ever allowed to travel again and you’re in Dublin, get yourself to this exhibit. First up, it’s free which means you’ll have money for a pint of Guiness. Second, it’s incredible.
It’s been described as one of the best collections of Western, Islamic, and Southeast Asian artifacts. And while there are a lot of religious texts on display, the religion is not what’s emphasized, it’s the art and the calligraphy and the beauty of the texts themselves.
There’s two main exhibits, Arts of the Book and Sacred Traditions, and you might also catch a rotating exhibit, but what you’ll see includes Greek papyrus from the third century, Japanese scrolls that seem to go on forever, Biblical texts in various languages, illustrated texts from the Middle East and Moghul India on religion, medicine, and astronomy, A full collection of Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, and yes, Chester’s snuff boxes from his Colorado collecting days.
Now, here’s where we get to the warning, one thing you must not do if you ever do get a chance to go: Don’t make my mistake and forget your glasses. I could see well enough to enjoy the art of the illustrations, but I could not read a damn thing on any of the display information thingies.
Anyway, like I said, it’s free and you shouldn’t miss it, but since most of us can’t get to Dublin right now, you can satisfy your curiosity by taking a virtual tour of the collection on the museum’s website, which is really a stellar site and you can read it in Gaelic if you’re so inclined. And I recommend cracking open a Guiness as you spend some time on the virtual tour, you know, just to add to the experience.
Alright, that’s all I’ve got for Chester and his fabulous collection. I’ll have the links in the show notes for everything so you can check out the museum and take that virtual tour, but right now, it’s time for quick update.
And I will make this quick because we’ve already gone on a fair bit of time. The big news is I have mostly finished Book Two of my Cassie Black trilogy. Hoorah! I was really scared heading into this draft because there was a lot of missing stuff that needed filled in, but I squeezed my brain hard enough and the words eventually popped out. In other news, I’ve been having a big think and taking in some good advice and I’m rethinking my entire approach to writing, including scaling back on some things, pushing harder on others, and honestly, I’m feeling really excited about putting it all into place, even if it is going to take a bit of a mindset shift.
Anyway, if you want more of my writing news, I’ve got a link in the show notes for that newsletter.
Alright everyone, that is it for The Book Owl Podcast! Thanks so much for listening, if you enjoyed this, tell a friend or leave a review, and I will hoot at you next time!
The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, Copyright 2020, All rights reserved.
Theme Music “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
It’s Episode 7 and this time I’m taking you on a wander through the stacks of the world’s largest library…and quite possibly the deepest one. So grab your library cards and your book bag and your passports if you’re outside the UK because it’s time to head to the British Library.
Behind the Scenes
There’s not much behind the scenes information for this episode. I selected the topic because, as you might have guessed from the post title, July is the month when the British Library was officially founded in 1973.
I visited the library during my second trip to London and did my fair share of drooling over the book nerd treasure trove in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, which you’ll learn about in this episode. After recording this episode, I’m eager to visit again because I had no idea of the treasure trove hidden behind the smoky glass tower!
Alright, that’s it, let’s get on with the birthday celebrations!
Clicking the image will take you to the episode’s web page where you can listen, or you can use the links just under the image to find plenty of other listening options. If you’d like to read along, a rough transcript is a bit lower down.
I usually save images as bonuses for my newsletter subscribers, but since they’re getting something extra special this time around, I thought I’d include photos with this post to help give you a better idea of a few things mentioned in Episode 7.
Of course, if you’d like to join the flock and get regular bonus tidbits, be sure to sign up today to get the Book Owl in your inbox every other week.
The (Rough) Transcript
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
It’s episode 7 and this time I’m taking you on a wander through the stacks of the world’s largest library and quite possibly the deepest one.
This is a slightly longer episode so rather than go on about supporting the Book Owl with your hard earned cash, I’m just going to ask you to show your support by making sure you hit that subscribe button on your favorite listening app, by giving the podcast a review, or by sharing the podcast with one other person. And once again, Tierney of TierneyCreates and Helen of Crawcrafts Beasties have been superstars by mentioning the podcast on their blogs over the past few weeks.
Alright grab your library cards and your book bag and your passports if you’re outside the UK because it’s time to head to the British Library.
So remember at the start how I said this was the largest library. I lied. Square footage wise it may bot be, but it is the largest by collection. I don’t want to overwhelm you with numbers but this is going to be a very “Wow that’s a lot!” episode and that’s going to involve spouting some digits.
The collection, well it’s hard to pinpoint but estimates put it at 170 to 200 million items and that includes some 13 million books. I’ll let you book nerds drool over that for a sec, historical artifacts, and other media. To put the collection into perspective, Time Out magazine has calculated that if you looked at five items a day every day, it would take you 8000 years to see everything.
Now I don’t know about you but I tend to view way more than five items whenever I go to the library so I bet I could knock that down to 2000 years no problem.
But as we’ll find out, it’s not going to be easy to see the entire collection because it’s growing by leaps and bounds every single day.
I’ll get into some more numbers in a bit, but right now let’s wander back few years and explore the history of the library and a little bit about what makes the library special today.
So as I’m recording this, I’ve just turned the calendar page to July. And that’s the reason I chose this topic. Because the British Library was founded in July 1973. Now, the concept of libraries in England dates back centuries, but these were mostly private libraries whose owners allowed people to make use of their collections and could be pretty restrictive as you can imagine in such stratified society. It wouldn’t be until the 1850s when a truly public library would open.
But that’s a whole different topic and I’m going to steer you back to the founding of the British Library. So 1973, as far as British institutions go that doesn’t seem terribly old, but prior to this, the library had simply part of the British Museum since the mid 1700s. It was housed in what’s called the Reading Room which if you’ve been to or have seen pictures of the main lobby of the British Museum the Reading Room is that big round room above the gift shops and I’ll add a picture of that to the episode webpage so you can see what I’m talking about if you’re not quite sure. And, as with any link mentioned, the link to that page will be in the show notes.
And it kind of made sense that the library would be part of the museum because some of the items the library held, which were mostly acquired by donation, were hundreds even thousands of years old. These donated items included the entirety of George II’s Old Royal Library and George III’s King’s Library. George III, by the way is the one who happened to lose those pesky American colonies. So lots of old stuff sort of like what you find a museum, right?
But the collection wasn’t just in the British Museum. It was spread out in a mish mash of items to various buildings across London. Then along came the UK’s Library Act of 1972 which made the collection its own entity and that became the British Library. Trouble was, there was no actual library building for the collection to go to, so the British Library remained in the British Museum for nearly 25 more years.
Talk about the slow pace of government.
So after a lot of head scratching and probably a bunch of committees, the first idea to get the library collection its own home was to level the blocks facing the British Museum which is in the Bloomsbury area of London. And the Bloomsbury area isn’t some derelict neighborhood with rundown structures that are half-toppling over and in need of demolition anyway. These buildings, some of them historic, are still used by scientific and literary societies, businesses, and residents. So as you can guess, this is not go over well and after much protesting led most strongly by George Wagner the planning committee went back to the think tank.
Eventually, they settled on a disused area near St. Pancras station, and in the late 1980s, designing and building began. The architect who won the job was prepare for very long British name Sir Colin Alexander Saint John Wilson, who was nicknamed Sandy because wow that’s a long name. Sandy designed a place with a brick facade that fit in perfectly with the red brick of St. Pancras Station.
And, number time, about 10 million bricks went into creating what would be the largest public building built in the UK in the 20th century. Of course some of those bricks were used to build the library’s entry piazza where a very large statue of Isaac Newton hangs out with a few other sculptures.
So, with a building and a piazza in place, in 1997, it was finally time to start bringing the collection to its new home. Trucks began trundling between the British Museum and the British Library in October 1997. And trundling. And trundling. In June 1998 Queen Elizabeth got out her big old pair of scissors and cut the ribbon to officially open the doors, but it would take four years to move the entire collection.
And just as a side note, the Reading Room of the British Museum is still open but it’s used primarily as a research library.
Okay so QEII has cut the ribbon and you’ve wandered in. The first thing that will draw your eyes, besides the wide open interior, would likely be a central, six-story tower of smoky glass behind which are thousands of items.
What’s in there? Remember Georgi III’s donations? That’s what’s inside. The contents of the Kings Library includes 65,000 books and 19,000 other items like maps and pamphlets. The smoky glass helps protect these antique items from UV light while still allowing you to gape at a tower of book spines.
Within the library itself, if you could to wander every area of the stacks, you would walk past find over 246 km of shelving, which is about 150 miles, but you’d have trouble ever reaching the end because another with around 8 to 9 km, or 5 miles, of new shelf space is added every year.
So why do they need to keep adding all this shelf space?
Because the British Library is what’s called a legal deposit and, no that doesn’t mean that’s where legal documents are dropped off. It’s actually a concept that dates to 1610. And what it basically means is that the library gets a copy of every single book published in the UK and Ireland and was made official in the Copyright Act of 1911. And while researching his episode I found the library’s annual statement for 2018. In that year, through the legal deposit, they added about 300,000 new physical items, and 250,000 digital ones. That works out to about 1500 items being added each day. Which will tack on several more years if you’re only looking at five items a day as I mentioned earlier. As a perspective my local library adds about 30 to 40 items.
So even though what you see of the British Library is pretty big, it’s kind of like an iceberg where you only see a small bit. I told you it might be the deepest library, right? Well, that time I wasn’t because this place goes down eight stories below ground.
This underground area is environmentally controlled with moveable, color-coded stacks of shelves. And what happens is if you want an item from there, you put in a request, a print out goes to an assistant who goes and hunts down your item, puts it in a little red box and then it travels along a portion of the 1.6 km of conveyor belts to get to the pick-up desk. And for my newsletter subscribers, among a couple other bonuses, I’m going to have a video that allows you to ride along the rails with one of those items.
When you’re done with your book, it goes back along the conveyor belt and an assistant resolves it. On average these poor assistant’s pull 3000 items a day which makes my legs tired just thinking of the miles they must walk.
So the library has miles and miles of shelves, millions of books, it’s just a big library right? Wrong. Because the library’s collection houses some astounding treasures that you can see for free.
As I said the library has been collecting donations of materials for a couple hundred years, long before they were ever actually a library, so they’ve gotten some amazing manuscripts, documents, and other historically important printed items, which are put on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery which is honestly a book nerd and history nerd paradise.
Now what’s on display does rotate to help preserve the items, but what you might see are things like, and keep in mind these are all originals, Captain Cook’s journals, song lyrics and letters from The Beatles (and no those aren’t from the two hundred year old donations), decrees signed by Elizabeth I – and if you’ve ever seen her signature on like book cover it really does have all those flourishes and everything and it’s really quite a signature. They also have copies of the Gutenberg Bible printed on Johannes Gutenberg’s press, they have two of the remaining copies of the Magna Cata from the year 1215, and they have the sole surviving copy of Beowulf.
So all in all even if you you have no intention of doing anything at the library just going to that gallery is well worth making your way over to the building if you’re ever n London.
But of course right now most of us can’t travel or aren’t willing to travel, but you can still visit the British Library. And I’ll have some links to these all on the show notes, but if you explore the library’s website, you’ll discover they have some unbeatable online resources. One of these is a sound library where you can listen to British accents from across the island. You can also click your way through several online exhibits including the history of writing the history of magic, and the history of mapmaking.
But probably, the resource I could see losing the most time playing with is being able to head to their digitized manuscripts and flip through the pages of a few famous manuscripts. One of these is the St Cuthbert Gospels which if you’ve heard of the Book of Kells, which will be a topic on the podcast one day, you’ll be familiar with what an illuminated manuscripts is, and if you’re not, it’s a book, usually a bible on which the pages are decorated with brightly colored animals and intricate patterns. And even though the Book of Kells is probably the most famous of these, the St. Cuthbert Gospels, which were made in the early 700s, are actually about 80 years older. And thanks to the British Library and you can virtually turn page by page looking at it. If colorful bibles aren’t your thing, you can also browse the pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks from the early 1500s and try to read his backwards writing, look at his prototype helicopter, and ponder his many sketches. I believe the library’s website said they have they said they had 30,000 images of their various manuscripts, so that should keep you busy for a while. Maybe by then the travel ban will be over and you can go visit the books in person.
So that’s it for the British Library or at least that’s all I’m going to cover it really does have some incredible displays so, when they re-open, if you can go I highly encourage you to do so. In the meantime enjoy those online resources,
As for my updates. First a bit of podcast news. I have been working on updating my old episodes and I know this is only episode seven, but I want to get this taken care of before things get out of hand. There’s a few of the earlier episodes that had some horrible horrible sound quality issues and, now that I’ve got a better handle on my editing software, I’m trying to fix them. I’ve just taken care of episode 3, so if you’ve listened to that and couldn’t get through it because of sound issues, try it again because it should be a little better. I’ll keep you updated with other improvements and I am constantly working at improving the sound quality of my recordings, but if you’ve noticed a sound issue, don’t be afraid to let me know using the contact info in the show notes, or by simply going to the book owl podcast dot com slash contact.
As for my writing updates, well it’s July and I have jumped back into my Cassie Black trilogy with both feet. I’m working on Book One which was a bit of a decision process because I’d been originally thinking about getting Books 2 and 3 mostly done, then going back to Book One, but since Book One is so close to being done I think I just want to get through that and really hone that puppy to perfection, so I can put it out of my head. In June I also wrote a short story and I’ll be polishing that up this month as well.
And speaking of stories if you want a free story from the Book Owl, there’s a link in the show notes to grab one. All you had to do is just click on that and enter your email address and you’ll get a free story sent right to your inbox. It’s a little gruesome, a little macabre, but it’s also a little bit funny so you might enjoy it and hey who doesn’t like free books.
Okay everyone, that is it for the show, and I will hoot at you next time.
The book owl podcast is a production fo daisy dog media, copyright 2020, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod.
Don’t be afraid of the dark…humor, that is.
Click on the image to check out a small collection of FREE tales for those of you with wicked senses of humor!