Tag Archives: student article

The Library of Babel and Special Collections

The following is a guest post by student assistant Blaise Denton.

The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. (PQ7797 .B635 B5213 2000)

Here in the Florida State University Special Collections we have a very special volume, Jorge Borges “The Library of Babel.” The standalone volume in our possession is illustrated by Erik Desmazieres. The Book details life in the great and infinite Library of Babel. It is never ending, universal, broken up into hexagonal rooms and filled with an uncountable number of books. Filling each book are letters, clumped randomly to spell out nonsense. Every so often people find a book with words, real words that spell out ideas and thoughts. Because the library is infinite, there must be one book somewhere in the collection that details the past and future. There must be a book that catalogues the rest of the books. There must also be an infinite number of false narratives, false leads, and even more books that are unreadable.

Special Collection isn’t infinite. Most of the books in the collection are carefully catalogued and lodged in a place where we can find them. We know what almost all of them say. But the task of the librarian is the same, whether it is in the Library of Babel or here in Special Collections. We live in a big world, rather full of books, and more full of things. In Special Collections we find those books that “matter”, a rather subjective verb, and we keep them here, safe. They deteriorate; they get lost. We bundle them up safe with boxes and paper wrapping; we hunt them down and bring them back to their preordained place. The librarian’s tasks, in fiction and in life, are to bring order to chaos and to decide what matters.

La Tour de Babel. Plate II etching by Erik Desmazieres

Many of the books in Special Collections are in languages we can’t read. Many of them are so small you need a magnifying glass to examine them, some are so big it takes two people to open them. Some are serious tomes on theology and philosophy and some are tiny children’s books. Some of them are pornographic. But they all have two things in common: they are kept in place by a complex cataloging system, and they are meaningful.

In “The Library of Babel” when someone finds a book with meaning, that book becomes incredibly valuable. People travel from all over the universe, that is to say the library, to look at it. Whether it is fiction, poetry, prophesy or biography the book becomes something invaluable. It has meaning, it proves that there is truth.

Special Collections is rather like that, if a bit less grand. People choose things as

Haute Galerie Circulaire. Plate VII etching by Erik Desmazieres

meaningful enough to write about or otherwise document. Someone has combed through all the books to buy, all the books that have been donated, and selected these. These are the most valuable, the rarest, the oddest books that FSU libraries has. Come look at a book inscribed by a medieval monk. An Akkadian trader. A 60’s beat poet. Come look at “The Library of Babel” by Borges. There are books from every age and perspective here. There are so many books you could never read them all. Try reading a few, very different books and see if you, like the fictional librarian, find some meaning in order.

Smokey Hollow: Recovering Lost History

Colin and poster 1

My name is Colin Behrens, a freshman here at FSU.  I am a work study student working for Eddie Woodward in Heritage Protocol, a part of Special Collections and Archives. The reason why I pursued this job is because of my love for historical research: more experience in an archival setting can only help me in my ambition to become a historical scholar.

Today, I have met the first milestone in my goal to be a historian. Strozier Library hosted the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, a symposium dedicated to undergraduates at FSU who are pursuing either independent research or are aiding faculty members in their own research. I am, in addition to being an assistant at the Heritage Protocol, the research assistant to Dr. Jennifer Koslow in the History Department. Dr. Koslow is working on reconstructing data from the lost community of Smokey Hollow, located here in Tallahassee.

Smokey Hollow was an African-American Community located in what is now Cascades Park. It was founded in 1893 and was eventually wiped off the map in the 1960s. During the 1960s, a movement called ‘urban renewal’, which aimed to replace poorer areas of urban settings with more affluent commercial and residential zones, spread to cities all across the country. This movement spread to Tallahassee and led to the death of Smokey Hollow.

We do know some things about life in Smokey Hollow. The federal government has recognized Smokey Hollow as a historical heritage site due to its unique architecture. One of the most famous residents of Smokey Hollow was “Famous” Amos, of Famous Amos cookies. In addition, we know that the community valued education and that it was an extremely tight-knit community. Everyone was either related to each other or was at least treated as family if no blood-ties between two members actually existed. One of the more prevalent stories tells of how if a poor member of the community was jailed, whether rightfully or wrongly, an affluent member of Smokey Hollow would bail that poorer member out, no questions asked. This kind of loyalty was prevalent throughout the community and was one of its signature qualities.

Despite this knowledge, there’s quite a lot that is unknown about Smokey Hollow. We don’t have numbers on things like employment, education level, and ages. In order to solve this problem, Dr. Koslow aims to use the 1940 census to gain the data and then use statistics to glean insights into Smokey Hollow’s demographic makeup. My role in the project is first to transcribe the census records into Excel spreadsheets and then to begin the statistical analysis of the census data. It should be noted that white people lived in Smokey Hollow’s boundaries and are therefore included in the census, but because Smokey Hollow is by definition an African-American community, they will not be included in the study.

I have not yet finished transcription; it will be completed this weekend. I have, however, been able to eyeball the data available to us and make some general observations. Despite the fact that, in 1940, the Great Depression still plagued the country and that Smokey Hollow was an African-American community (which typically have lower employment than comparable white neighborhoods), employment was high. This can be ascribed to a myriad of factors.  First is the fact that there was a coal plant nearby, which would have hired the workers (and indeed, did). Secondly are New Deal programs, such as the PWA, the WPA, and the CCC, that employed a significant number of workers (though not near a majority by any means). Finally are the bonds of kinship and solidarity that the community held dear to their hearts. With such a vibrant community, with every member loyal to the others, it can easily be seen how the community would pull together in order to help everyone keep themselves employed in order to keep food on the table.

As a freshman at FSU, it is an odd thing for me to involved in a project of such high caliber. The reason why I am involved at all is due to my luck at being accepted into the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), which is in its pilot run this year. UROP aims to teach undergraduates how to perform academic research, and part of that process is assigning each and every student to a research assistantship, so that we may learn from successful members of our fields. That’s how I met Dr. Koslow and how I got the chance to work on such a wonderful project.

It’s important to note that research is one of the fundamental goals of FSU, and one that Special Collections fulfills very well. While my assistantship has not required the use of Special Collections, I have frequently seen my friend John Handel in the Special Collections room, performing research on his own. It is my hope that other undergraduates will follow our examples and participate in FSU’s undergraduate research community, as well as using Special Collections to the maximum benefit.