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'I really want to find it before I die': why are we so fascinated by lost books? (theguardian.com)
55 points by Petiver 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 27 comments

My library correlates to my self. Most of the books therein either molded me, or were chosen because of how I was molded; it's a reflection of who I am. Already aware of how short my life can/may be (and even if long-lived), it can outlast me as a guide to my children as to who, deeply, their father is/was. Missing books means a piece of me is missing, that they will miss.

I’ve always felt a little the same way. Having started out in literature studies I’ve accumulated a bit of a collection.

Some of what I own correlate to me at different times in my life. Others are references to subjects that do not at all line up with my morals, thinking, or lifestyle— I keep them for the point of knowledge about something a little more foreign to me— including even some pseudoscience and occult / pop-occult works.

I have to sheepishly admit that I sometimes entertain the thought that I might be one of a selection of people who in the future might be last remaining protectorates of such libraries should the world ever turn on our public physical archives. It’s lofty, probably naive, and pretty silly but I still feel better having them line my wall than I would feel without them. Moving is a bit of a bitch, though.

“You could tell a lot about a man by the books he keeps - his tastes, his interest, his habits.”

― Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

(TBH, I have Illumnations on my bookshelf, but it's one of the most opaque books I've ever tried to read, and I expect the contents of the suitcase were more of the same...)

Lost academic papers are more interesting to me, probably because I am an engineer and the papers I want have practical utliity to me.

One instance where I got lucky was tracking down a 1946 conference paper by famous turbulence researcher J. O. Hinze. The conference proceedings were unfortunately never published. After a lot of asking around Shell, where Hinze worked at the time, provided me with a copy. The paper was less interesting than tracking it down was, but still important enough to cite in my dissertation.

There's a more well cited paper at the same conference by G. Darrieus that my brother found with similar methods.

Is there a point in citing a paper that readers can not find for themselves?

This is a fair point. Here's my thinking: Just because a paper is hard to find does not mean that it doesn't have valuable data or ideas. To give an example, I spent a lot of time tracking down Russian papers in my field because I found their theory to be better developed in some areas than the west's. Should I not cite these papers because most people won't be able to find them? I don't think so. What they say is unique. There is no alternative.

Instead, I translated the most important papers into English. In a conference paper I'm writing right now I cite quite a few of these papers and I've tried to be extremely specific in their citations, going so far as to include OCLC numbers that I used for interlibrary loan. (Librarians will know what to do with this information.)

What's easily found today may not be so easily found in the future. Today, I find that many researchers can't find a paper that's not available online but is available in any decent academic library.

It's also possible that a hard to find paper is cited wrong or cited ambiguously, and having the correct, unambiguous citation is all one needs to find the paper.

To address papers which are practically impossible to track down, as gms7777 suggested, at least people can contact the author of the paper citing the hard to find paper in this case. (For the Hinze paper, as I recall Shell had a NDA as a condition of downloading the paper from their system, so I can't share that one.)

Purely from principles, one might consider it important to credit people for the ideas that they contributed.

From a practical sense, it gives readers a way to find it for themselves -- contact the author that cited it.

> Purely from principles, one might consider it important to credit people for the ideas that they contributed.

That makes good sense.

> From a practical sense, it gives readers a way to find it for themselves -- contact the author that cited it.

Right, but in the case of a paper this old the author is most likely dead or extremely hard to reach. Maybe a standard part of any paper citing other papers should be a reference to an archived copy of the papers cited?

I had a similar experience trying to locate a widely referenced standard - I wrote the standards body to see how too get a copy. No dice. I eventually found a reference to our being replaced by another standard, which is widely available, but the standards body sort of black holed the original.

The search was a lot of fun, though!

STANAG 2324, for the interested: cancelled in 1979. I was trying to get a copy in ~2001 from the NATO library. 2324 was defacto replaced by MIL-STD-1913, which may eventually be supplanted by STANAG 4694.

If you still want the original, might be worth asking the Library of Congress Technical Reports and Standards Unit: https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/trs/trsover.html

I've had decent luck finding technical reports there. STANAG is not listed in their partial standards holdings, but that doesn't mean that they don't have anything from the organization.

I found it in 2012, but by then it didn't matter. Thank you for the pointer, though!

The Library of Alexandria, the greatest library in antiquity, which by some estimates contained half a million scrolls, was destroyed.

The Catholic Church was responsible for the destruction of many writings they found to be somehow objectionable.

Almost all the great authors we know of from the ancient world had writings that were lost, and for some authors all we have are legends of how great their work was. Those are the ones I'd most be interested to find.

This list is always quite depressing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_destroyed_libraries

A Universal History of the Destruction of Books is a really good book on the topic by Fernando Baez. It is historical, but it almost reads like a collection of short stories.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Universal-History-Destruction-Books-M...


> Muslims destroyed the library of Alexandria

If those Muslims occupied Rome at the time then maybe, but the general consensus is that the Romans under Julius Caesar did this.


I can't imagine how you can think the destruction of ancient writings has any value beyond obscuring the sources of human culture. You may think there's little value in reading old writings, but there is far less value in destroying them. There's enough room on this planet for all of our history to remain intact.

If you do happen to find an old lost book, archive.org would be a great place to upload a copy. There are lots of interesting books I've found there.

I lost my 'rationalist press' copy of Joseph McCabe's book "ten years in a monastery" in the UK, in the 1980s.

I found an identical copy (same emprint, same binding) in a bookshop in Dunedin around 2002/3.

Never give up looking.

One of the best stories on finding of lost books are those of the people who went searching for ancient bibles and apocrypha. What they found shed an unexpected light on the history of the religion. I recommend the Smithsonian documentary on the subject [1]

[1] https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/shows/bible-hunters/10033...

Not all of us are, I suggest.

My reaction too, and quite a visceral one. Does this kind of lazy projection actually work to make people care about whatever journalists feel like writing about?

I didn’t realize this before I wrote some freelance journalism myself, but the author of a piece almost never writes the headline. It just seems to accrue one in the editorial process after you submit your draft, and you often don’t know what it’s called until you read the published version yourself. So criticizing a journalist for their headline is criticizing them for something they very likely had no part in.

Same here... I've done some writing for Infoworld and I was typically not the one who decided the (final) title. I would, of course, send along my working title, but it quite often got changed or outright replaced.

As far as I know the editor, or somebody, edits the title to be as appealing / click-worthy as possible.

I never expect my headlines to survive (though the subs shouldn't use lazy annoying ones either), but I do aim to make good enough cross-heads that most of them get left as-is by the subs. \o/

In this case the headline was annoying enough that I did not read the piece at all: whose fault that is doesn't really matter. The fact that is was anti-clickbait does!

I can live without finding a lost book. But yes, the concept does have a hook to it, especially in this age of everything remembered: to have lost ancient knowledge is like a little bit of collective brain damage.

[edit: fixed typo.]

Uh, no.

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