March 25, 2009
Parable of the Decrepit Book
Monday I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum called “Canadiana Treasures from the Rare Book Collections of the ROM”, given by the head of the library and archives, Arthur Smith. Not surprisingly, the ROM has some really priceless holdings, including the 1613 Les Voyages of Champlain, Des Barres’ Atlantic Neptune, 1st editions of Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It In the Bush and more. In many cases they have books in conditions unmatched anywhere in the world (not always hard to do, considering many of these books number less than twenty in the world).
One work, though, really stuck in my mind because of the story associated with it, and that was the ROM’s copy of the 1866 Buch das Gut, enthaltened den Katechismus, Betrachtung or, as it was introduced to us, the Mi’kmaq prayer book. This is a fat little book of prayers written in Mi’kmaq hieroglyphics, this edition printed in Vienna. Unlike the other books we saw, the prayer book was not at all in good condition. The leather covers were falling apart, the book had been written on and the pages appeared largely unbound. Indeed, Smith noted that the book had been found “languishing in a Toronto auction house” because it was deemed to be in too poor a condition to be of any value.
But the ROM bought it anyway. As the story goes, the shipment of these prayer books from Europe was largely lost at sea, and so very few copies remain. A dilapidated copy is still a copy, valuable even in this condition. The librarian went about contacting the owners of the other known copies (exclusively, as far as he knows, institutionalized) to compare his, and found that the ROM’s copy was the only one in the “damaged” condition. Pity, right?
As it happens, not such a pity after all. The origin and use of Mi’kmaq hieroglyphs, as it turns out, is a source of some contention. This story goes that a 17th century Catholic missionary witnessed the Mi’kmaq using porcupine quills to press shapes into bark, then adapted and expanded this system of shapes into a written language that could accommodate Catholic prayers. This story is thought by some to be apocryphal, and they argue that the “language” was invented entirely by the Catholic church, and no actual Mi’kmaq read it.
Except that some, very evidently, did. The evidence is all over the ROM’s prayer book. The geneology of the owning family is carefully inscribed on the first page, and the book shows evidence of repeated readings throughout. The value of this book is in it’s poor condition, in the use and character of this individual copy.
Not every book can be hoarded and not every copy should be archived, digitized, conserved. But sometimes it’s worth remembering that there’s more to the value of a book than the printed contents in their idealized form (sorry, bibliographers). There’s as much story to be gleaned from the marks, wear and scars. From the ghost, as they say, of the “hand that touched the hand”.
The ROM library and archives are, incidentally, open to the public for research. You can’t withdraw books as in other libraries, but you can use the University of Toronto library system to search the museum’s holdings and can request and inspect the books in the museum’s reading room.