Preservation note on Tomorrow’s Songs Today

There’s a copy of my latest draft of Tomorrow’s Songs Today on filker.org at (/home/mcgath/tst_backup/TST.odt). It isn’t publicly accessible, but Spencer can get at it in case Godzilla eats my house with me in it.

If Godzilla continues on to Milford, then we’ve got bigger problems than recovering a copy of the book.

Also, I got tired of URLs to the IndieGoGo project which I couldn’t remember, so here’s an easier one: http://www.mcgath.com/tst.

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Guerrilla preservation

Occasionally I’ve toyed with the idea of a writing project about “guerrilla archiving” or “guerrilla preservation.” In an earlier post, I wrote about the rescue of valuable documents in Timbuktu, with a mention of the Warsaw Ghetto Archive. Stories of people without special expertise or resources rescuing pieces of history are inspiring to me. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes ineptly, but if they keep some treasure from being lost, they deserve credit.

Lately I’ve come across some more stories of the same kind. The story of Anne Frank’s diary is well known, but not all the details are. When the Nazis discovered and arrested the Frank family, SD officer Karl Silberbauer grabbed a briefcase to stuff valuables into. He emptied its existing contents onto the floor; these included some of Anne’s writings. Miep Gies, one of the employees at Opetka where they had been hiding, took the papers and locked them in her desk. Later she instructed the senior warehouseman to get her any other papers from the hiding place before the Nazis cleared it out. Anne’s father Otto was the only family member to survive the war; Gies gave him the papers when he returned from Auschwitz, making their publication possible.

Much of Franz Schubert’s unpublished music went into the hands of the brothers Anselm and Josef Hüttenbrenner after his death. They didn’t always take the best care of it. His incidental music for Claudina von Villa Bella was partially lost in 1848 when Josef’s servants used Acts 2 and 3 to kindle fires. In 1823 Schubert sent Anselm the score for two movements of a symphony, which just sat in his collection for years. In 1865, when Anselm was 70 years old, the conductor Johann Herbeck visited him and looked at them; later that year, he gave their premiere in Vienna. The existence of a sketched score for the third movement shows that Schubert intended to finish it as a full four-movement symphony, but for some reason he never did. As it stands it’s still one of his greatest compositions, and without Anselm Hüttenbrenner and Herbeck we might never have known of the “Unfinished Symphony.”

Franz Kafka also died leaving a lot of unpublished material, but he gave his friend Max Brod strict instructions to burn it all. Brod instead published the three novels, The Trial, The Castle, and Der Verschollene (aka Amerika). In 1939, just before the Germans closed the Czech border, he left Prague with a suitcase full of papers and took them to Palestine. These were the subject of a long legal battle between Brod’s heirs and the National Library of Israel, which reached a decision only two years ago and, as far as I can tell, is still under appeal. As in Kafka’s fiction, the legal process never ends.

Other papers of his ended up with Dora Diamant, his girlfriend during the last year of his life. She told Brod that she had burned them, but she secretly kept them. The Gestapo seized them in 1933 while looking for Communist material. The search has continued for years. According to the Kafka Project at San Diego State University, “if Kafka’s lost writings still exist, they are safely buried among top-secret documents in closed archives in Poland.” (I’m really not very impressed with Kafka’s work, but it’s undeniable that he’s had a significant influence on our culture.)

In all three cases, if people hadn’t done what they did, parts of our cultural canon would be missing now. There must have been other works, some matching them in value, that we’ve never heard of because there was no one to save them from oblivion.

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Guerrilla archiving

The torching of the Ahmed Baba Institute by religious fanatics has an echo in the story of the man it was named for. Timbuktu was once a significant center of learning in the Songhai Empire, fueled in part by the expulsion of Muslims from Spain in the 15th century and by the ascension of a tolerant ruler. Ahmed Baba is often called its greatest scholar. In 1591 Morocco captured the city, and many scholars were arrested, killed, or exiled. Ahmed Baba was among those forcibly removed, and he was imprisoned for a period of time before being released in Marrakesh. His own private library was sacked.

A great many manuscripts from this period and earlier remained in the city, often hidden away in lots of small collections. The climate is dry most of the year, but in August the weather turns rainy and humid, and the average temperature for the year is a grim 29° C. That’s not good for the long-term survival of paper or parchment if it isn’t kept under controlled conditions. Nonetheless, many manuscripts have survived for centuries in many different hands, and lately, with the help of grant money, some people have been trying to gather them again. The Ahmed Baba Center (later the Ahmed Baba Institute) was established in 1973, and a new building for it was opened in 2009. The Institute had a collection of about 30,000 manuscripts before the fanatics occupied the city.

As they were driven out, they torched the building. At first it was reported that most of its collection had been destroyed, but recent accounts say that wasn’t the case. A large number of manuscripts were in the old building, and many others were transported to safe places, in some cases entirely outside the city. The question remains of how much damage occurred moving these fragile items, but it appears that the actions of some people with foresight and initiative saved major cultural resources.

Most of the focus in the news has been on the Ahmed Baba Institute’s collection of Islamic manuscripts, but it wasn’t a mere storehouse of religious texts. New Scientist reports that “[t]he texts include documents on astronomy, medicine, botany, mathematics and biology, evidence that science was under way in Africa before European settlers arrived.” Smithsonian Magazine reports:

At a time when Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages, African historians were chronicling the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese kings, replete with great battles and invasions. Astronomers charted the movement of the stars, physicians provided instructions on nutrition and the therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated such issues as polygamy and the smoking of tobacco.

What does a city that serves as a synonym for remoteness have to do with “building my world”? Well, having just finished the first draft of Files that Last, I’m fascinated by the efforts by which many people acted to preserve the historic manuscripts of Timbuktu. This isn’t the only example of that kind of action; recently I came across the story of the Warsaw Ghetto’s secret archive. There may be enough such stories to put together into a book. I’m making no promises now, but the idea intrigues me, since it would appeal to my interests in both preservation and freedom. If anyone can point me at more stories of this kind, it might help push me along.

Update: Here’s an article with more details on the rescue of the manuscripts.