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An Electronic Librarian in a Medieval Library

My wife Mary Ann has a job in a very modern, well funded library in Sharjah UAE. Thanks to the benevolence of the ruler of Sharjah who I unashamedly give a nod to whenever I see his photo. He supports education and the arts at great expense. Shukran.

Her title is Electronic Resources Librarian. In Umbria we got to see the oldest library books either of us will likely ever see, as well as a medieval email!

medieval library

I caught Mary Ann in a moment of shock and awe as she made her way past the “recent” collection (1800’s) into the special collection.

medieval library

These are some of the books from the 1400’S!! I could make out some of the Latin titles enough to know that there were court proceeding records and land title records. Imagine being able to trace the ownership of a parcel of land back to 1450. Mary Ann was quick to pint out that these books were not categorized in either the Dewey Decimal OR  the Library of Congress system! I am no expert on the subject but I suspect these are cataloged  with a system developed by Callimachus, considered the first bibliographer and is the one that organized the library by authors and subjects. Variations on his system were used in libraries until the late 1800s.

medieval calligraphy

They just don’t make them like this anymore. Calligraphy in a 1400’s book.

medieval book

Page one. I beleive this is called a frontispiece. Hand drawn with real gold leafing. You just cannot get this off Amazon!

medieval book

We took one of the books out to examine it. It was a book published in Florence for use by the priests. It  told them how to dole out earthly punishment for sins. The librarian said most of the sins listed were, ahh, sexual in nature! The notes here were written by a priest 500 years ago, I wish I knew what they said, probably something like, “this book just does not cover this man’s sins, you would not believe what he confessed. His poor livestock…”

I am a book freak. I used to collect first editions until they weighed more than my furniture. But I never ever held a 600 year old book in my hands before. I treated it like nitroglycerin.

Now what about that medieval email?

constantantine communication

Well, maybe not email. Maybe snail mail? Maybe mule mail? This is a communication the emperor Constantine sent this town rewarding them with the privilege to stage a festival of games. It is the pride of their library. AND you can walk right up and touch it. It stands about 4 feet tall.


The only word I recognized on the entire message just jumped out at me. I showed it to Mary Ann and I could see visions of Russel Crowe in her eyes.

This was another wonderful experience granted the delegates of the travel bloggers conference. We actually took it a step further by introducing Mary Ann as a professional librarian, so they opened the doors to the collection. Magnificent!

I will share this idea with any of you who can write grants. There is definitely an opportunity for a grant from someone like the world Heritage Foundation of Unesco to find a way to digitize these volumes so that scholars can use them without danger to the books themselves.  Of course you would have to speak Latin…

Please share this with your FB friends, and tell any of your bookie friends about it.

Thanks for reading, stay tuned for more from Italy.

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