Exclusive Interview: Erik Kwakkel, Medieval Book Historian

Dr. Erik Kwakkel is of a rare breed: a serious intellectual and scholar who makes his studies interesting and accessible to a popular audience. He's a medieval European book historian and a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He has a popular blog where he shows rare books and fascinating book-related antiquities. Bob O'Hara refers to Dr. Kwakkel as "one of twitter's hidden treasures," which is a great description.

Most recently, Dr. Kwakkel attracted a lot of attention on the internet for this unusual find: a Sixteenth Century book (above) that opens from 6 different directions.

Dr. Kwakkel kindly agreed to an interview so that we could learn more about his work and how he discovers these book oddities.

First, how does one become a medieval book historian? What skills and educational experiences are essential to your profession?

Many European and North-American universities provide training in reading medieval script and understanding how the medieval book was put together. When I did my MA here at Leiden University, there was even a Department of Manuscript Studies, which meant you could get a graduate degree in the field. As more and more positions in Manuscript Studies became sliced, a sad movement that spanned the past decade, Manuscript Studies became predominantly offered within other departments, especially History and the modern languages (English, French, German etc.).

Essential to my profession is a good visual memory, in order to absorb letter forms, to get a sense of when something was written down, and where. An interest in material culture and how a book "works" is also helpful - how parchment and ink was made, for example. In addition, knowledge of medieval languages are important, such as Latin, Middle English (if you work in England) or Middle Dutch (when you work in Holland, as I do). Apart from perhaps the language thing, I think the field is quite inviting to students. It is a lot of fun, there is still a lot to discover, and you get to touch objects that were made a thousand years ago.

(Seventeenth Century Pocket Watch)

Is there significant professional overlap in manuscript studies and librarianship?

First of all, it's important to emphasize that librarians are essential for the study of medieval manuscripts. They are the ones, after all, that catalogue the objects, making them available to us - in many cases putting them on the radar for the first time. There is some overlap here, as cataloguing a manuscript requires undertaking research. What text does the book hold? How old is the handwriting of the scribe? In what country was the book made? A more significant overlap between librarians and scholars has emerged with the proliferation of social media. Librarians are now often taking on the task of promoting the medieval book, through blogs, tweets, and what not. Traditionally (that is: in the era of exclusively printed media) scholars were the main players in promoting manuscript. I think this is a change for the better: librarians are great ambassadors of the premodern book.

In addition to scholarly attention, your work has attracted a lot of popular interest, such as recent features at Gizmodo and Colossal. Do you see a future for sustained interest in your field among non-scholars?

Sustained interest is possible, in my experience, if you keep changing your game. I experiment with new themes and ways of presenting knowledge related to the medieval book all the time. I have done a series on spectacular library images on Twitter, every Sunday at 2 PM. I have my Friday themes on Twitter, where I post an image on a certain theme at the top of every hour, all day long. I had a series of Halloween-themed blogs on Tumblr last fall. You can't really sit back and keep on repeating a successful model. The inky cat paws on the medieval page I tweeted last year were extremely successful, and they even made headlines in the printed press; but I don't want to be the cat-paw twitterer. I have learned what buttons to press - what images and captions to use - but I want the experience to be surprising, both for myself and my followers. I actually enjoy the challenge of tapping into new ways of sharing things medieval. And that is, perhaps, why it might just be sustainable. For now.

(Conjoined Books)

What's the neatest book or related artifact you've discovered as a part of your work?

Last year I discovered a tiny strip of parchment glued to a medieval bookbinding here in Leiden University Library. It turned out it was the medieval equivalent of our yellow sticky note: a student or scholar had jotted down some notes on it to figure out a problem. I had  read medieval accounts of how they were used in the classroom, but I had never seen one. Very few survive: most were thrown away right away or fell out of the book in which they were stuck at some point. It was sensational to find and hold the tiny strip, half the size of a smart phone, knowing it was not meant for me to see.

Link to English new piece on this find: http://www.hum.leiden.edu/lucas/turning-over-a-new-leaf/news/postitnote.html

You've blogged about some medieval book designs that are, my modern standards, unusual. The dos-à-dos and chained books are examples. Is there any medieval bookbinding features or book production processes that you would like to see revived for modern books?

The modern book *is* already very medieval in its appearance. Many things we take for granted - running titles, page numbers, the dimensions of the page - were, in fact, taken over from medieval books by Gutenberg and his fellow printers, when they introduced the first printed books in the mid 15th century. Since you mention the dos-à-dos books, what I love is how precisely such books were produced for a brief period in the 1960s by Ace, the publisher of Sci-Fi books: read the one novel, flip the book and read the other. How medieval!
Link to a Flickr gallery of Double Ace books: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13313279@N04/sets/72157625097539125/
Which blogs or Twitter accounts would you recommend that our readers follow in order to learn more about unusual manuscripts, rare books or medieval history?

First and foremost, there is the Medieval Manuscripts blog of the British Library (link): they post very frequent and their posts are entertaining and accurate. Not to be missed. The blog of my own research project (link) provide discussions on various aspects of medieval book culture, aimed at non-experts. We post once a week. The online go-to place for news related to anything medieval is medievalists.net; from there you find a wealth of resources and entries to their various social media. Sarah Peverley from Liverpool University (@Sarah_Peverley) has a great image stream with different themes. Johan Oosterman, a medievalists from Nijmegen, also has a great image stream. Elaine Treharne from Stanford (@ETreharne) tweets images, news and thoughts. On her blog she provides stimulating pieces on books; it also includes her "Beowulf in a hundred tweets", which she recently did. Will Noel, Director of The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, has a great blog that presents hi-res free images of medieval books accompanied by great descriptions. A great Tumblr is that of the University of Iowa, Special Collections (link). They recently compiled a list of other Tumblr blogs on pre-modern books (here). Lastly, @SexyCodicology has a great Tumblr and maintains a good blog which contains, among other things, a map with access to all digital manuscripts available online (highly recommended).

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Haha! I almost thought I was at the wrong website. I went on a fragment hunt with Kwakkel in Rolduc. And Jenny Weston is awesome. (To the left of Kwakkel in the picture. Awesome to see this. :)
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