Lecture series features literary expert

On Thursday, April 28, Mark Dimunation ’74, gave two lectures to faculty, staff, retirees and students on the book as a material object. The talks were the penultimate lectures of the Boldt Lecture Series. Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, held two talks on Thursday, each centered around the impact of books not merely as texts but as purveyors of culture.

“I want to touch on the material reality of objects as they move through time and culture,” Dimunation said. “Not so much the content of the book but the cultural impact of the book in terms of its presentation and creation.”

The first of his two talks, held Thursday morning in the Sun Ballroom, focused on the ways in which Gutenberg’s invention of metal, movable text greatly changed Western civilization. The change was so profound that some scientists even say that the invention of the printing press was more impactful for the culture of that period than the invention of the computer was for modern culture.

To illustrate how this cultural catalyst evolved, Dimunation led the audience through a timeline of print, beginning with cuneiform clay writings found in the Fertile Crescent and ending with Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius. Dispersed between these bookends were a huge number of texts on a wide range of topics, such as the first Gutenberg Bible and the Book of Nature, which contained original maps of a geocentric universe.

Dimunation showed a presentation featuring pictures of the texts to accompany his speech. Even though the pictures projected were mere representations of their subjects, one could still easily see their age. The books displayed were old, much older than any book most people encounter in their lives. However, Dimunation is not most people. In his position at the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library, he is constantly in contact with ancient artifacts. He works with history. While Dimunation is keenly aware of this fact, it’s apparent that at this point in his career he accepts it as commonplace.

While laymen might marvel at the textual representations of olden times, to those in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division the books are simply a natural presence in their day-to-day lives. In a way, the librarians and archivists become desensitized to the antiquity of these artifacts. A reverence for the texts is still present, but Dimunation and those other select few granted the chance to interact with these invaluable artifacts are able to look past age as a defining attribute. Dimunation illustrated this with a humorous anecdote wherein he dropped and broke a cuneiform tablet, an early example of iconography.

“The tablet was only 3,000 years old,” Dimunation said.

Although on the surface a talk about dusty old books may seem pedantic, Dimunation’s presentation was lively and engaging, partly thanks to the humor he laced throughout. He supplemented the information with a number of humorous comments, touching on the presence of papyrus along the highways of California and sarcastically explaining what a typewriter was for the benefit of the students present. Laughter often followed his literary – and library – themed quips; Dimunation knew his audience.

Dimunation didn’t restrict his jokes to books, however. He also poked fun at St. Olaf.

“I won’t spend too much time on Bibles because we’re at Olaf and you’ve had enough of that,” he said.

Even though Dimunation did often make jokes, it was easy to see his level of expertise. He rattled off facts about every minute aspect of the creation and impact of the books shown, such as the stark difference in production time between books copied by scribes and books printed using the printing press. It took three years for a scribe to copy one Bible versus two years for a printing press to print 180 Bibles.

Throughout his speech, Dimunation endearingly referred to the books shown as “his:” “his” copy of the Gutenberg Bible, “his” copy of The Emperor’s Astronomy. Of course, given his position, the books do belong to him in a sense. However, Dimunation’s claiming of the books seemed to stem from more than just a professional standpoint. Rather, he had a special, intimate relationship with these texts.

This relationship was also highlighted in his second talk of the day, which was held in Viking and advertised to a wider, less library-centric crowd. This talk focused on Dimunation’s work on reconstructing Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, a task that involves finding 4,000 different books to match those in the original collection. Dimunation has devoted 17 years to this end and is still not finished.

“It’s been a profound experience and a real privilege,” Dimunation said.

The Boldt Lecture series on the history of the book as a material object concluded Thursday, May 5, with a talk from Special Collections Librarian Aimee Brown, Head of Collection Development Mary Barbosa-Jerez and Director of IT and Libraries Roberta Lemke on the rare books at St. Olaf.

eganm@stolaf.edu

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