Serendipity

by Kieran Healy on January 9, 2006

A few years ago, way back in the days before Crooked Timber, I wrote a post about Princeton’s old library-borrowing cards. A snippet:

When I was a grad student at Princeton, someone told me that (just like most libraries before computers) the books in Firestone library used to have a pocket inside the cover where the book’s borrowing record was kept on a card. When someone wanted the book from the library, the card would be removed and stamped with the date. Faculty and students then stamped their own name on the card or (either earlier, or instead) simply signed the card when they borrowed the book.

The computer catalog and University ID cards replaced this system. Books now have barcodes and the computer system holds a record of everyone’s borrowing. But Firestone has a huge number of volumes, so the library staff couldn’t simply stick the new barcodes in every one. Instead, they did it on demand. If an old book was borrowed under the new system for the first time, a barcode sticker would be affixed to its inside cover. The old card was thrown away.

Very occasionally, then, one would come across a book or journal that had been acquired by the library under the old system, had been borrowed a few times, but then lost popularity and just sat in the stacks. Inside the back pouch would be the old library card, with its list of dates, stamps and signatures on it.

The card shown here has a signature from John Rawls, from March 21st 1950. Beneath him is Jacob Viner, the economist. And there also is Gregory Vlastos, the ancient philosopher and ethicist. As it happens, this evening we’re having a philosopher stay with us for a night or two—one who collects and sells antiquarian books. This topic came up over dinner, and I mentioned my tiny card collection. The philosopher expressed an interest, so I fished them out from a box in the garage, where they’ve been (inside another box) unlooked at for several years. I only have four cards—perhaps I should have worked harder to pilfer Princeton’s treasure trove—but there on one of them (The Philosophical Quarterly v.6, 1956, 6000.7163), quite unexpectedly, just below the signature of Walter Kaufmann and just above the stamp of Gilbert Meilaender is a name that’s been in the news just today: S. A. Alito, ‘72. How odd.

{ 26 comments }

1

Barry Freed 01.09.06 at 11:52 pm

Uncanny.

2

JohnLopresti 01.10.06 at 12:47 am

Your Comment: in the news just today: S. A. Alito, ‘72. How odd.
We used those cards a lot because stack privileges were creme de la cadre bibliotheque; amazing what you would find walking through the metallic tiers wondering if any professor had ever paused to ponder that concatenated linkage of titles all suited in ill fitting jackets and topped with a dusty lock of the appropriate eccentric mode as if time honored one with a prufrockish right to roll instead of press trousercuffs. Though a careful reading of your graphic beside your article shows other people’s autographs, not the one which you said is SA Alito How Odd. Then again, maybe he realized that in 1956 philosophers were saying things that were Odd. I doubt it was some kind of aponym, How Odd. The stack librarian was most understanding, even for the occasional card forgotten to be signed. Kudos to the old judge for his interest in philosophy and his bookish proclivity.

3

dr ngo 01.10.06 at 1:07 am

Not even remotely the same magnitude of significance, but I was amused at a coincidence that popped up in a class I was teaching last year at Duke University on the Vietnam War. One of my students was writing his term paper on Ngo Dinh Diem, and had managed to procure one out-of-print book on him (Dennis Warner, The Last Confucian, IIRC) from some online service.

Well, it turned out the book had been deaccessioned from the library of a small California college, but still retained the (similar) signature card. One of the names on it was . . . mine, from a term paper I had written at Occidental College 41 years before!

4

Luis Villa 01.10.06 at 1:23 am

Duke went through a similar transition period with the library. Wonder if any of Nixon’s old books are still around…

5

Chris Bertram 01.10.06 at 3:01 am

Sadly, there’s nothing especially sexy in vol. 56,

Aurel Kolnai’s The Primacy of Moral Evil,

Ronald Grimsley’s “Dread” as a Philosophical Concept

and Alasdair MacIntyre’s Marxist Tracts seem to be closest.

There are lots of book review of vaguely Catholic stuff.

No smoking gun, I’m afraid. A “special issue” on de Sade would have been nice.

6

Chris Bertram 01.10.06 at 3:01 am

I meant vol. 6 (1956) of course.

7

abb1 01.10.06 at 5:00 am

Inform the CIA and NSA ASAP.

8

theCoach 01.10.06 at 9:06 am

I aopologize for going so far astray, but this very morning, oddly enough, I was thinking about serendipity. More specifically, and I cannot recall where I heard this, the idea that the culture and layout of Dublin promote serendipity in the way you are apt to run into people.
I have no idea whther or not this is true, but it seems a delightful idea.

9

Bro. Bartleby 01.10.06 at 9:38 am

Nothing sexy?! “The Primacy of Moral Evil”!!!
Anyone have a copy, the monastery is abuzz!

Bro. Bartleby

10

John Lederer 01.10.06 at 10:44 am

And to think…you did it all without resorting to the Patriot Act

11

JohnLopresti 01.10.06 at 12:21 pm

Those were the times when Dylan Thomas was writing good poetry before his untimely departure from this earth. But there was some remnant of nihilist thinking, which is what I suspect titillated the monastics rep, contributing above, who might leaf through a copy of The Philosophical Quarterly circa 1956, though admittedly Alito signed out the magazine in the late 60s early 70s timeframe. Regrettably, Blackwell’s archival site does not have this on the electronic text server. Perhaps a FOIA request. KHealy might scan the issue and post the bitmap, copyright permitting. Seems the Toronto school of Canadian philosphers were in their prime in 1956, too; additionally, there was a sense that the repression of the fifties had turned a mid-decade corner and finally, gratefully was nearing the much anticipated 1960s. Then again, one might imagine this 1956 magazine being just the kind of material that would comfort a psyche longing to become an alumnus and then join Princeton’s CAP; roll it back to the 1950s, lads.

12

Kieran Healy 01.10.06 at 12:23 pm

Just to be clear, the photo above is of a different card (for a French work on induction and experimentation) from the one with Alito’s stamp on it. I took a photo of it in 2002 when I wrote the “original post”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2002/11/26/the-network-of-ideas/. I didn’t have my camera around to take a photo of the Alito card.

13

Bro. Bartleby 01.10.06 at 1:18 pm

Bro. John,
Alas, we have yet to crack the nut of the Toronto school of Canadian philosophers, for we are still working on the Epicurean paradox. I’m afraid the monastery is not a place for the fleet of mind, for many of us are forever stuck in the moment, with little inclination or want for the past or the future (relatively speaking, that is).
Bro. Bartleby

14

MQ 01.10.06 at 1:47 pm

What an absolutely fantastic and original academic geek hobby! So much more ivory tower than the non-academic geek stuff of collecting comic books and so forth. Also tailor made for sociologists’ interests in network theory.

15

joel turnipseed 01.10.06 at 2:35 pm

All I can say is: I’m absolutely jealous–and kicking myself for not thinking of such a thing. I worked at the U of MN library for two years in college–late 80s, when they were going through digitization–and never even thought (even though I supplemented my income at the time by book scouting) to look for library cards with Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, John Berryman, et. al… sadly, not so many famous philosophers there: Herbert Feigl? I was lucky enough to sit in on seminars with visitors such as G.E.M. Anscombe and Donald Davidson, but I doubt they were checking out books.

Great post–and even greater coup.

16

Michael 01.10.06 at 2:46 pm

Great job of dumpster diving. Too back you didn’t find anything evil or nasty or whatever. Oh well, I’m sure you’ll be able to just make something up.

17

Channon 01.10.06 at 2:58 pm

Very interesting – This reminds me of I book I checked out about Michael Faraday, which had been donated by the physicist Arthur Holly Compton. Somebody had ripped out the part of the page where Compton had signed his name, treating it as an autograph.

18

Samuel Adams 01.10.06 at 6:40 pm

Very interesting – This reminds me of a couple of things:

First, it reminds me of the well-rooted concerns about the Patriot Act (BTW — I hope the person who has this library card in her/his possession also has a warrant approved by the FISA court, otherwise the tool of Rove/Cheney, AKA, King George McChimpy BusHitlerHalliburton&Co., AKA The Illegitimate President, will send her/him to Gitmo).

Second, it reminds me of the illegal dumpster diving operation Chucky Schumer’s minions performed to get Michael Steele’s credit history.

Third, it reminds me of Democrats.com’s call to its readers to obtain the private phone records of prominent conservatives through shady online information brokers.

Fourth, it reminds me of Bill Moyers calling up J. Edgar Hoover and asking him to find some homosexual dirt on members of Barry Goldwater’s campaign staff.

It reminds me of lots of things, none of them pleasant.

19

joejoejoe 01.10.06 at 8:45 pm

This post reminds me of an essay by Nicholson Baker called “Discards” that covered a similar phenomenon in card catalogs. Librarians (and past browsers) would make serendipitous notes on the cards with quite of bit of information that had no place in a computerized search and was therefore discarded in the technology transfer. The cards at most libraries are destroyed after being computerized – even though the size and storage strongly hint at keeping them.

Baker supposed that if the card catalog itself was given a dewey decimal code they would have been seen as library materials themselves and cherished instead of destroyed.

20

Kieran Healy 01.10.06 at 8:58 pm

It reminds me of lots of things, none of them pleasant.

Mmmm. Kool Aid.

21

Michael 01.11.06 at 12:30 am

This reminds me of a story one of my grad school professors told me once. He attended Harvard in the early 70′s. One time he had to do a paper on some 17th century French historical figure. he checked the card catalog and found the the library had a copy of a biography of the man that had originally been published not long after he lived. So my professor went and found that book. It turned out to be a first edition that the library had acquired at the time of publication. A check of the back of the book showed that the last time it had been checked out was in *1775*.

22

Jack Stephens 01.11.06 at 12:38 am

I didn’t have my camera around to take a photo of the Alito card.Is it too late to find one and do so? I at least would appreciate an opportunity to see it.

23

Stu 01.11.06 at 1:28 am

Holy crap! Meilander taught me Bioethics back in college at Valpo (from a very Christian standpoint, so we never really agreed on anything, even if he was nicer about it than me).

And it turns out he’s one degree of separation from Alito and Walter Kaufmann. Does this mean I’m three degrees of separation from Nietzsche? More importantly, does this mean that Scalia is three degrees of separation from Nietzsche as well? That would explain a lot.

24

Melissa Byrd 01.11.06 at 2:31 pm

On a similar note, I work in a small, private liberal arts college. In the past few months, I’ve been weeding and cleaning the literature section of the stacks. I have found books signed by such people as Andrew Carnegie, Christopher Morley, Pearl Buck & Alice Glasgow. I am fascinated upon such discoveries! Just thinking that these people once held the same book and even signed it awes me. Of course, I’m a geeky bibliophile. But, I’m also horrified to think that these books have been sitting in the general stacks for anyone to take for years!

25

JohnLopresti 01.11.06 at 4:08 pm

This thread shows KH there is a lot of sociology in a book, a jotting of a gnarled youth ungainly striving to become the real self a parent had hoped would develop. Consoltion for Melissa: we had 30,000 students; 30 from each class were allowed in the stacks; these were “general” stacks and beyond into the archive where the secret document of how the cesium clock itself was constructed were preserved. There the thesis your professor made a prior grad student write to justify the prof’s vision of unified field theory would languish flawed nobly documenting youth’s dutiful subservience to age. Admission: After much superfluous discovery among such tracts, one developed a better perspective of how the mouldering tomes in the reserved and private collection stacks developed, many only slightly expanding on the grad school experimentation. The beauty of the experience was how quickly the mind develops in the presence of the full collection and all the private alcoves hourlessly endlessly delving, as the contributor above observes serendipitously aggregated before your attention by some Dewey or Library of Congress schema. I dearly hope Microsoft and Google and the French government and all museum curators everywhere let the electronic version of this come into being, so our young exploring minds soon may campus-hop once one archive is exhausted and the next entices so beconingly.
In a denouement sometime, one realizes your own profs’ office and its private lending library quite loosely defined, contain some of the latest thinking. What google scanner will be allowed to examine the credenza, the planning documents from the obscure New England nonprofit, the JFK school of government compact-course role play negotiation.
It is best to create, simply make; your company will be all those authors, as we tend to think along the same channels and in the same worlds.

26

Norma 01.11.06 at 8:14 pm

“I mentioned my tiny card collection.” Ahem. Those cards belong to the library. Give them back. They are not yours to collect.

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