Marc Tiefenauer's orientalia & bibliophilia

Marc Tiefenauer's orientalia & bibliophilia

E-story vs. history

Spanish painting from the 1400s by Pedro Berruguete

Spanish painting from the 1400s by Pedro Berruguete showing the miracle of Fanjeaux (source)

Recently, in a local newspaper1, I read that in 2035, my County Library “will only buy e-books”. It is important to be clear that the library the article was speaking of is a university library devoted to human sciences. In the following lines, while bringing together facts of the present and the past, I’ll try to figure out what such libraries will become if we follow this technophilic trend.

I am a computer geek, but I can’t stop thinking
Before developing any argument, I want the reader to be sure that the man who writes these lines isn’t “technophobic” at all. I love computing, I spent all my teenage with IBM PCs and until recently I was coder and web developer. I’m a computer nerd as well as a sci-fi lover. I hope I’ve made myself quite clear…

Human intelligence
A library is not a warehouse. In a library, books are selected by librarians who develop thematic collections. Doing this, librarians favor some sources and reject others, the same way a gardener plants in and plants out species to make up an elegant and balanced arrangement. That’s the first point: libraries are the works of human intelligence.

Freedom of thought
In most university libraries, librarians have the full responsibility of their books. It means that they are entitled to do what they consider to be good for their readership and also for the consistency of their collections. They are responsible for their diversity and quality; for this, libraries need to stay as much as possible independent of politics and short-sighted economy. This way, libraries might be considered as tools for democracy and freedom of thought.

Historical persective
There’s a huge difference between university libraries devoted to “hard” and “soft” sciences. Their difference lies in the objects they deal with, and also in the way “soft” scholars and “hard” scientists work. For the latter ones, the newest articles are the first to be read, because they probably present the most accurate results. Thus, for “hard” science, topicality is one of the highest virtues. On the other hand, for “soft” sciences, newness is important too, but not that much. In human sciences, the long history of a discipline (e.g. philosophy, sociology, theology, etc.) is much more important for a scholar than the latest paper. It’s only through the knowledge and analysis of the sedimentation of her/his discipline that a researcher in human sciences can hope to get results and esteem of her/his peers. That’s why scientific librarians specialized in human sciences need to select, collect and preserve data from the past. Some are handwritten on vellum, some carved in wood, some have been typeset on rag paper, and some are only available on electronic devices. Such librarians—I mean those working in human sciences—are specialists of the present… and the past: they need a sense of historical perspective.

A question of power
If tomorrow we only buy e-books, these e-books will be stored on servers. But why should these servers stay into the buildings of today’s libraries? The e-books will more likely “dwell” in the cloud of all the web servers around the world. Thus, there won’t be the need of local libraries anymore: one cloud-based meta-library will be enough for entire mankind. The cloud will store monographs and it already stores lots of scientific journals and revues. The local business ecosystem will be replaced by global exocentric powers led by all-powerful Internet corporations and few titanic publishing houses. Throughout the whole human history, the ones who took possession of the knowledge where the same to rule the world; information is the Holy Grail, and its possession is a question of power.

In conclusion, if the universities are ready to leave the construction of their knowledge to the sole responsibility of computer algorithms (i.e. bots using tags and search engine indexing to filter articles and books); if they prefer giving up their independence to let global economics rule scientific production; if they consider that the most recent articles resulting of the scholarly publishing fever are more important than books published hundred years ago (and which aren’t available on Google Books for copyright reasons); and if universities prefer putting all their eggs in the basket of a few foreign multinational companies, we may soon witness a replay of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. But this time we will know whose fault it is.

  1. «Le passage aux livres numérisés devrait aussi économiser de la place. En 2035, ils représenteront même la totalité des acquisitions.», 24 heures, 21st-22nd January 2012, p. 13.

Such a great honour

Lord Gaṇeśa

Lord Gaṇeśa on his mount (vāhana): a mouse (mūṣika). Artwork: all rights reserved.

Some events are so important that they deserve to be emphasized. The visit in Lausanne University (UNIL) of the Hon. President of India, Mrs. Pratibhā Devīsiṅh Pāṭīl, on October 4, is one of them.

Mrs. Pāṭīl honoured the University of Lausanne with a visit intended to set up a Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Studies between the University and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR / भारतीय सांस्कृतिक सम्बंध परिषद). Prior to this great event, Prof. Johannes Bronkhorst had met HH. Karan Singh, President of the ICCR, India’s Ambassador to UNESCO and—last but not least—Titular Mahārāja of Jammu and Kashmir; during their fruitful discussion rose the idea of ICCR and UNIL bringing together.

Through her inspiring speech, Mrs. Pāṭīl traced the outstanding artistic and philosophic career of the great Bengali poet and, quoting Tagore himself, reminded us of the importance of education:

“The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”

In a period so much focused on economics and performance, particularly in universities, this quotation sounds very luminous and—in some ways—refreshing. It reminds me of this verse from the famous Viṣṇuśarman’s Pañcatantra:

को विदेशः सुविद्यानां कः परः प्रियवादिनाम् ।

“What land is foreign to men of learning?
Who is a foe to men of gentle speech?”1

All events and speeches sound different to the ears of their many listeners. Here are shortly my feelings about the unveiling of the statue of Rabindranath Tagore by Mrs. Pāṭīl and Mrs. Calmy-Rey (President of the Swiss Confederation), which marked the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between ICCR and UNIL.

Indian studies are not new in Lausanne. Sanskrit started to be taught in UNIL in 1903 by the German linguist Hans Schacht. Professors Constantin Regamey, Heinz Zimmermann and Johannes Bronkhorst occupied that Chair after him, parallel to the Chair of Buddhist Philology created in 1968. Thus, Sanskrit appeared in Lausanne University almost contemporaneously with Tagore’s ashram foundation in Śāntiniketan (the ashram was founded in 1901 and became a University in 1921).

To feed the minds of the Swiss indologists, an important collection of Sanskrit works grew in Lausanne University Library (BCU) and, thanks to the erudition of Jacques May and François Obrist, my predecessor, this collection became a renowned reference for Indian studies in Switzerland.

Here are my sentiments on the visit in Lausanne of Mrs. Pāṭīl, President at the head of a country with 1.2 billion citizens: Indian studies must be a leading department within humanities in Lausanne. An important support must be given to this branch, because it’s thanks to such disciplines—partly oriented towards the past—that Lausanne University can avoid provincialism and face the cultural, historical, religious and political issues of today’s India. A word to the wise is enough.

  1. Pañcatantra 2.57cd. Translation: Olivelle, Patrick: The Five Discourses on Wordly Wisdom. New York University Press / JJC Foundation (Clay Sanskrit Library), 2006, p. 75

As clean as before


Photograph by Kusakabe Kimbei (日下部金兵衛 — 筆で書き物をする女), c. 1890.

We experience that every day. Our e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts constantly pop up, distracting us with silly out-of-context messages, while we should be concentrating on this new short story, this one mile long e-mail, or this paper to be written for yesterday.

A new software trend has seen the light: the distraction-free word processors which isolate our minds while typing. I found six of them in Apple’s App Store: Byword, iA Writer, OmmWriter Dāna II, WriteRoom, Writer and Clean Writer. On Windows, you could use Creawriter, Writespace, Q10… among many.

It is the irony of technology: computers, tablets and smartphones should enhance our user experience in such an efficient way that our productivity or pleasure would be doubled. But the continuous e-mails, tweets, chat pop-ups, update announcements, low-battery and obsessional security warnings (on Windows) take us out of our thoughts and avoid any durable concentrated state of mind. In addition to these interferences (mostly due to connectivity), the word processors have themselves the tendency to cloud our mind with their useless complexity.

It reminds me my library attendance statistics, growing every year. One of the hypotheses explaining that constant growth puts forward the biggest need of students (before technology): quietness. In today’s over-connected environment, libraries constitute the last havens of peace available in a city (in parks, we have very lovely—but noisy—children, not to mention the dogs running after them).

Yeah, interactivity is a great invention… for gamers. But when it comes to education, advertisement and software intrusions are fully deleterious, killing deep reasoning and inventiveness. The point of this story is that if we don’t want to become superficial and short-sighted, let’s avoid replacing silent paper with lively and advertising-stuffed devices. Or let’s try to mute these naughty machines with some vacuum simulating softwares…

Books: what will come after

Cat sleeping on books

Whatever happens, don't panic. (Photograph © Umutvedat, 2011)

Funny timing. Yesterday evening, Lausanne University (UNIL) Department of Human Sciences organized a symposium about what will happen after the so-called “death” of paper books. Its title: “Qu’y aura-t-il après le livre ?” (viz. “What will come after the book?”). A few hours ago, on the other side of Atlantic Ocean, Steve Jobs announced his resignation from his role as Apple’s CEO. Thus, yesterday, the contributors of UNIL symposium talked about the slow disappearance of the books while the best paper book gravedigger sent his resignation letter to Apple board. I won’t compare these two events, one important for the world and one somehow provincial, but this coincidence was worth being noticed.

One answer given during symposium discussions was that after the books we will still have… books. Whatever format or platform we shall use tomorrow to read books, our dear texts and sources of knowledge will still exist, in the guise of an avatār or an ectoplasm. I.e. the medium doesn’t matter; what is important is the transmission of the Word1.

Other topics discussed during the talk were: the problem of the cost of ebooks and scientific revues—nowadays only available in big uneven packages, sold by monopolistic publishers and platforms—, and the cost of the devices used to read them (computers and tablets vs. tables and hands); the problems of copyright and the distribution of knowledge (subjet too vast to be discussed here); finally, the unavoidable mix of media we’ll use in the future—digital natives already read with computers, smartphones, tablets and… paper books. Is that a problem? Do they inevitably suffer attention deficit disorder? Not at all.

As mentioned during the conference, one of the biggest worries about ebooks and, generally, the use of electronic files instead of paper, is the preservation of such volatile, energy-thirsty, quickly obsolete and copyright-DRM-stuffed documents. That is a challenge, and needless to say that acid-free paper books are nowadays far safer and more stable than ebooks. In good conditions, they could surprisingly live longer than their descendants…

  1. In Sanskrit, it’s called Vāc, and Vāc, as a the goddess of Speech, mother of the Vedas, is not subject to decay nor death. As a proof of her everlasting soundness, we can mention the Vedas themselves, which have been transmitted very precisely during centuries without even being written.

When ancient languages meet

Glossarium sanscritum title page

Title page of Bopp's Glossarium sanscritum (2nd edition)

There was a time, not so long ago, when scholars used Latin instead of modern languages to write their philosophical, botanical, medical or philological studies. For one work, it was also the case of Franz Bopp, the famous German linguist who did so much for the study of Sanskrit in Europe, in the beginning of 19th century—the pioneers’ age.

Franz Bopp

Franz Bopp (1791-1867)

Bopp studied Sanskrit in Paris with Antoine-Léonard Chézy (who occupied, in Collège de France, the first European chair of Sanskrit) and Louis-Mathieu Langlès (librarian, conservator of the oriental manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale). After publications about Sanskrit verbs and grammar, Bopp gained the chair of Sanskrit at Berlin (1821) and started the compilation of his Glossarium sanscritum. First published in 18301, this dictionary had been added cognate languages like Greek, Latin, German and Lithuanian in the following reeditions (1847 and 1868-71).

My library owns the original edition; for my part, I found last year in Manhattan, Kensas, a copy of the second edition2 which seems to have belonged to the English philologist John William Donaldson (1811-1861).

John W. Donaldson's signature

John William Donaldson's signature?

While this second edition represents a precise scholarship work rich in cross-references, it is, materially, an exquisite masterpiece of typography printed on high-quality rag paper. And the binding!—half binding with corners and raised bands, dark purple shagreen and marbled paper on boards… If stored in good conditions, this delicacy will live for 500 years more. Will there still be someone mastering Latin and interested in Sanskrit learning?

Some 1500 years and 8000 km separate Amarasiṃha, the composer of the famous Amarakośa glossary, and the first Sanskrit courses Franz Bopp took in Paris in 1812. Thus, nothing is impossible, even the meeting of Sanskrit and Latin in the same book…

The verb diś

Definition of verb diś, 'to show'

  1. Glossarium sanscritum a Francisco Bopp, Berolini, ex Officina academica, 1830, apud Ferdinandum Dümmler.
  2. Glossarium sanscritum in quo omnes radices et vocabula usitatissima explicantur et cum vocabulis graecis, latinis, germanicis, lithuanicis, slavicis, celticis comparantur a Francisco Bopp, Berolini, prostat in Libraria Dümmleriana, 1847, ex Officina academica.