Swedish Blog #4: The Story of an Amazing Library (Dallas Smith)

March 25, 2009

Written in the town of Strömsund, some six hours or so north of Stockholm

Through a referral by my Reno Swedish friend, I was given contact to the director of Stockholm’s famous Karolinska Institute’s medical library for historical texts. The Karolinska Institute is a research center that also houses the meeting that chooses the Nobel prize in medicine each year. Thus, it is one of Sweden’s premiere institutions, that is known for its research in healthcare. For collectors and experts in antiquarian books, its library of old medical texts, the Hagströmer Biblioteket, is recognized as one of the world’s best.

I met Owe (pronounced “uva”—long u) and Irene at a bus stop near Christian’s apartment. Together, we took the bus a short distance to the library. It is located in an unimposing three story building, which also houses the Karolinska faculty’s private social club. We entered the locked building, then went through another locked and alarmed door into the main library, and then finally through another locked door into the inner chamber which houses the most important historical books. It was like entering the inner sanctum of cathedral of sacred texts. Owe informed me that he had recently given a similar private tour to Bill Gates. So I was in good company.

It is impossible to speak of the library’s unique contents without explaining Owe’s incredible work as curator of the collection. The library would not exist in its present highly organized state without Owe’s efforts. The problem is that, even in the relatively generous financial state of Sweden, no one wants to invest in an old library. Most people (and institutions) prefer to invest in creating new, state of the art libraries. And so this historical library lies out of the way in a building set for demolition within the next couple of years. The future location of the library, as well as its eventual fate when Owe retires (he’s in his 70’s) is uncertain. I’ll address this challenge later in this blog.

I’ll give a necessarily brief description of my two-hour viewing of the library’s books. Owe presented the books in chronological order. His earliest books date from 13th century Italy, predating Gutenberg’s printing press. The books are in Latin and Greek and were hand painted and inscribed. The covers were wooden, covered in pigskin, many carrying the seals and impressions of their various rich and royal owners. They embodied the medical knowledge first documented by the Greek doctor/philosopher Galen (born in Rome in the 1st century AD). Galen’s medical texts dominated medical belief and practice for almost 1500 years.

The Renaissance and the invention of the printing press resulted in more books than ever before. And yet, they were still very much hand-made and personalized by their publishers, authors, illustrators, and original owners. The books often had heavy wooden with metal latches which could be used to lock the books shut. I can’t remember all the names that Owe introduced me to…I simply felt like a naïve youngster being introduced to a whole new world of antique books.

Moving into the 1700’s, we viewed the books belonging to Sweden’s most famous scientist, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, i.e. the nomenclature used to this day to describe genus, family, and species distinctions in both zoology and botany. I held the books that Linnaeus himself had studied (mostly in Latin), which included his personal notes written in the margins (in both Latin and Swedish).

There were impressive examples of medical texts from the late middle ages, which contained hand painted illustrations of human organs that had been studied by dissecting human cadavers, often by robbing graves, since dissection of corpses was certainly frowned on by religious believers of the day. I was amazed at the detailed accuracy of the paintings and their accompanying medical texts.

Moving ahead into the 19th century, Owe has an original edition of what Owe termed “the single most important scientific book of all time”, an original edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

There were numerous other ancient books which Owe showed me. It was all rather overwhelming. I took photos of many of them. But the photos don’t really show the details or give the textures of the books. They are just a reminder for me of a very special day and these academic treasures, which I was so privileged to view.

Having coffee and sweets after the viewing of the books, Owe and Irene told me of how they had helped collect the books, preserve and restore then, and organize the collections into a library. They have been scanning the title pages of all the books into digital form for scholars to get an idea of what exists in the library. They rescued many old books that otherwise might have been destroyed by time and neglect. Indeed, one of Linnaeus’s personal workbooks was found in the musty basement of a doctor’s house. This book alone is probably worth millions, or perhaps it is simply priceless.

Then we talked about the challenges of planning for the museum’s future. It had been scheduled to move into a new facility to be specially built for it in Stockholm. However, the worldwide trauma of September 11, 2001 cancelled the building plans. And so the library has languished, relatively neglected by the Karolinska administration. Owe has organized exhibitions from New York to Tokyo of some of the more famous books. And yet, the current museum is not really open to the public. There is no space for scholars to examine the thousands of books in the collection. Certainly, there are many undiscovered secrets to be found in this amazing collection. But there needs to be a physical facility that matches the importance of the books themselves.

And then I had a brainstorm: I might act as a catalyst to facilitate a potential collaboration between Owe and my friend Anders, who is the head of Sweden’s top mathematical institute. [Sample conversation: Me-“Anders, tell me about your work.” Anders-“I can’t. You wouldn’t understand anything about it.”] I had had a conversation with Anders at our dinner two nights previously, about the fact that the Math Institute has its own historical library of mathematical texts. In fact, Anders had visited Google headquarters in California, to see if he could interest Google in preserving/supporting this library, since (according to Anders) Google owed its success to mathematical formulas derived from the books in his math library. But unfortunately, Google wasn’t interested. And so, I had the idea of introducing Owe and Anders, so that they might explore combining their resources into a grand historical library of science. [Besides collecting medical books, Owe also has collections from the fields of dentistry, pharmacy, zoology, botany, etc.]

I was able to introduce them to each other at Mynta’s concert that very evening. Owe is going to give Anders the same tour that he gave me. And Anders will give Owe a tour of the mathematics library. I love it that I could come in from outside and connect two great people who might be able to do great work together. Let’s see what the future brings.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

After last night’s concert in a small village auditorium, the thermometer in the van showed minus nineteen degrees Centigrade. I don’t know exactly how cold it was [Ed note: 7.8 degrees below zero, Fehrenheit], but Fazal was screaming that this was the coldest time of his life…something to tell his grandchildren about…the frigid times touring with Mynta (before global warming changes everything). Indeed, this part of Sweden has had more snow this year than usual. All the lakes are frozen over. There’s ice-fishing, something I’d heard about but never seen. And there are show-mobile tracks to be seen across many of the lakes.

Today, I was driving the van, when we happened to run into a routine Swedish police traffic control. It was the first time I ever had to show my international driver’s license. It was also the first time in my life that I ever had to blow into a Breathalizer, to see if I had been drinking. I had had one beer the night before, so there was no problem. The policeman checked the trailer and ran the license plate through the computer to see if Christian had any outstanding tickets or warrants. (He didn’t.) The policeman chose to let it slide that a couple of guys in the back of the van did not have their safety belts on. He complimented me on my Swedish.

I’ve really been working to use my Swedish. I’ve participated in an interview live on the radio, and have given interviews to newspaper reporters in Swedish. [Part of Christian’s preparation for the tour was to send press releases to all the local newspapers and radio stations where we would be performing.] I speak Swedish at every concert to introduce the Indian classical duo that I play with Fazal at every concert. And now that Mynta is playing my piece, Seven and a Half, at practically every concert, especially the school concerts, I lead the audience in counting to seven and a half, which is good for audience participation/involvement.

Mynta’s tour is more than half over. We’ve been working so steadily that I haven’t had as much time to blog as I might have preferred. Baring unforeseen circumstances that might give me something different to write about, my next blog will deal with details of the tour from the musician’s point of view.

Best to all from Dallas in Sweden

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