Modernity and reproduction: seductive motorcars, rebellious robots and friendly trees

ModernityWhat does the organization “Men of trees” and the woman who campaigned for birth control, Marie Stopes, have in common?  Perhaps surprisingly the answer is the eugenicist Reginald Ruggles Gate, who was the first husband of Stopes and a member of this tree planting society.   It was this fact that first provided the spark for author Angus McLaren to set off on a journey looking into sexuality and modernity.

Looking at popular literature, films, and public debate from the 1920s and 1930s, alongside the work of biologists and psychiatrists, McLaren discusses the way the mechanistic ideas of modernity were turned to ideas of sexuality and reproduction, and the conversations and discussions that ensued.

“While American science-fiction writers were obsessed with extraterrestrials, rocket ships, and death rays, the British were hypnotized by the possibilities and pitfalls of harnessing biological change.” p. 5 (Introduction)

We are shown how man’s relationship with the environment and ecological issues became intrinsically intertwined with that of eugenics and modernity.

“A large and eccentric cast of characters including seductive motorcars, rebellious robots, friendly trees, and timorous test-tube babies populate this brief study.  Its goal is to better understand why in a remarkably short space of time modernizers (of a variety of stripes) succeeded in advancing the arguments that the protean forces of sex and reproduction had to be subjected to planning and control. They, of course, did not win the debate – it is still going on.” p 6 (Introduction)

McLaren, Angus (2012) Reproduction by design: sex, robots, trees, and test-tube babies in interwar Britain.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
ISBN: 9780226560694
Classmark: PR478.F87.M2 (ASSL)

Rare Book School at the University of Virginia

Our Rare book Cataloguer went to America this summer to attend Rare Book School, read all about his adventures here:

Special Collections and Archives / Casgliadau Arbennig ac Archifau

This summer I had the exciting opportunity to study at the prestigious Rare Book School (RBS) at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Each year RBSRBS runs a wide range of courses on antiquarian books, manuscripts and special collections, offering  librarians, rare book dealers and conservators the chance to be taught by some of the world’s leading experts in the history of the book. Courses are intensive and last for five days with students attending from 8:30am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Library tours, bookstore visits, evening lectures and other bookish events also take place throughout the week.

Founded at Columbia University in 1983, Rare Book School is now based in the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library. RBS classes are kept small, usually just 10-12 students, to ensure that everyone can get their hands on the books, and entry to courses is highly competitive. This year there were more than…

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What do we do when the students aren’t around?

Actually it doesn’t really matter to a cataloguer whether its term time (erm or semester time), because it doesn’t effect our work load.  We carry on regardless of the time of year, though we do have some flows and ebbs that are related to students – such as making sure all the multiple copy textbooks get out on the shelves as quickly as possible.  I am amazed by how many people do ask me if I get the summer off though (if only!) – however, this seems to be a generic question for anyone who works in any capacity for a university.  Just because undergraduates aren’t being taught during these summer months doesn’t mean the University grinds to a halt though!

This week, however, one could perhaps quite legitimately ask what the cataloguers are doing, because this week is when our library management system (Voyager) is being upgraded.  It is a good week to take time off, because you can’t get on with the main part of the job, but its also a good week to catch up on all those tasks you put off because they aren’t cataloguing.

There is some obligatory desk tidying, and email sorting (both of which I have yet to get round to); this week I also intend to write a selection of blog posts (ready to use at a later point), type up some notes on an archiving project, create lists of some genetics books waiting to be catalogued for the Human Genetics Historical Library project that the genetics professor wants, start revamping the cataloguing manual which is several years out of date now, catch up with staff development activities, finalise arrangements for a training session I’ve organised for next week, and several other bits of administration work.  That’s just me, my colleagues will have their own jobs, which for some also mean working on the institutional repository ORCA.

Eragny PressToday I also created a Pinterest account for the cataloguing department too.  Its going to feature the occasional pictures of us and our surroundings, there will be some library infographics that are fun, bookplates we find while cataloguing the rare books (in SCOLAR), private press printing devices, interesting book covers, fun things inspired by books – you get the picture!  Why not follow our boards.


Death and humans

DeathWhen you pick up a book and it has chapter headings such as “The edible dead”, “An unexpected vampire” and “A skeleton illuminated by lightning” you can pretty much surmise you are not going to be in for a dry reading experience.  The buried soul: how humans invented death by Timothy Taylor (who also wrote The Prehistory of sex) is a scholarly yet entertaining adventure through the archaeology of death and how we humans have regarded it and interacted with it throughout our time on earth.

“When did humankind become intelligent enough to formulate the idea of the soul? Tim Taylor’s search for an answer combine cutting-edge science, personal insight and scholarship, and spans the entire period from our prehistoric evolution to the present.  It is an extraordinary journey through vampirism, cannibalism, near-death experiences, modern-day human sacrifice and mummification.” note the publishers on the back cover.

With plenty of interesting stories and examples we learn how differently death has been, and is, regarded by different societies and individuals. Even just dipping your toe into this book will probably also make you think about your own attitude to death.

Taylor, Timothy (2002) The buried soul: how humans invented death. London: Harper Collins.
ISBN: 9780007291472
Classmark: GT3150.T2 (ASSL)

Blasphemous art – shocking or thought provoking?

A thought provoking and interesting book that crossed my desk this week was ‘Blasphemy: art that offends‘ by S. Brent Plate.

Art, historically, has often been the cause of controversy. Works considered blasphemous were destroyed or banned, those viewed as obscene and not to public taste, banished.

The author of this book considers the religious-political divide and arts’ relationship to authority, covering issues such as censorship and freedom of expression, citing that ‘The boundary between artistic freedom and incitement is becoming ever more blurred…’ 

‘Myra’ by Marcus Harvey

Included in the book are works from 14th century Islamic calligraphy to Theo Van Gogh’s ‘Submission’ and more modern art works such as Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra’ illustrated below.

Plate, S. Brent (2006) Blasphemy : art that offends
London: Black Dog
ISBN: 9781904772538
Classmark: Folio N72.R4.P5 (ASSL)

There’s an ap for that: what’s in a (Welsh) name?


Henry VIII, in whose reign English-style, hereditary surnames began to be used in Wales among the upper classes

As a cataloguer of Welsh books – and, even more relevant perhaps, as a librarian looking after many shelves of books by Welsh authors in Cardiff University’s Salisbury Library – the difficulties presented by Welsh surnames is a subject dear to my heart. How often have I wished for fewer authors called Jones or Williams, who between them make our collection hard to shelve and use!

The modern trend away from Anglicised versions of Welsh surnames offers hope that one day names in Wales will not be dominated by the letters J, P and W (a long story, but this has more or less been the outcome of the end of the Welsh patronymic system). If you want to make your Anglicised Welsh name more Welsh, you have a number of options. You can simply use a Welsh form of the spelling (so Griffiths becomes Gruffydd, Jones becomes Iwan, and so on). Some use a Welsh version of their name in everyday life, but keep the Anglicised form for officialdom. Some have dropped the surname and replaced it with a middle name which then becomes the family name for future generations. Some have adopted a place name, such as the name of a farm. Bardic names, the names by which poets distinguished themselves, were often place names.

Here convention as to how to cite names begins to break down a bit, and from a cataloguer’s point of view has created an inconsistent muddle where sometimes people are referred to by their official, English, name with the bardic name in brackets, whereas others have suddenly metamorphosed into bardic name only. At Cardiff University  we used to follow the pattern of the Dictionary of Welsh Biography (surname, first name, bardic name in brackets). There no longer seems to be any consensus about whose name still follows this order and whose doesn’t. There are many examples in Library of Congress authorities (the versions of names which are nearly always used in library catalogues) of both ways of doing it, including many where the bardic name is the main point of entry (such as Cynan, formerly Evans-Jones, Albert in our catalogue).

Names using “ap”, the traditional marker of the patronymic, are another problematic area. The medieval examples (Dafydd ap Gwilym, Gruffydd ap Rhys) are straightforward. These are genuine patronymics (Gruffydd ap Rhys was the son of Rhys, and so on). The main name is the first name. If there had been a phone book in the fourteenth century Dafydd ap Gwilym would have appeared under “D”. This is what still happens in Iceland to this day, where the first name is what counts, and a family of husband, wife, son and daughter will all have different names.

Modern Welsh “ap” seems to be more ambivalent. There are examples of people who have gone all the way and resurrected the patronymic system (Myrddin ap Dafydd is the son of Dafydd Parri), but others, while embracing what looks at first sight to be a name which would not be out of place in twelfth century Wales, stop short of taking the final step and throwing off the concept of the surname altogether. If married with children, the whole family has the same “ap” name. This is not a genuine patronymic system (it’s probably easier to live with from a bureaucratic point of view though!) The modern “ap” names cause all sorts of difficulties. Should the person’s first name still be the main one? Should it be the last element? or, should they all be called “Mr. Ap —-” and filed and shelved under A? Are Welsh “Ap” names, in other words, like Scottish and Irish Mc/Mac (another source of much distress to librarians)?  Back to LOC authorities for guidance (incidentally, although we can’t expect the Library of Congress perhaps to be fully aware of all the nuances of Welsh naming, it’s worth pointing out that our own National Library of Wales is the source of many of the Welsh authority records). Again, there is not much consistency, although a preference seems to be emerging for the first element of the name to go first (Myrddin ap Dafydd, Hedd ap Emlyn) – but what is one to make of “Ap Glyn, Ifor, see Ifor ap Glyn” appearing just above “Ap Gwilym, Ifor, 1951-“? A trawl down the “ap” list only confirms that there is no standard (and makes you wonder where the term “authority” applies in all this).

Of course, as a librarian, I am biased. I want to get away from hunting through shelves of books by authors whose names all begin with the same letter! I don’t want to have to check and double-check which possible version of the name has been used before! Surely in a small country and with only a limited number of people affected it ought to be possible to achieve consistency. I must say that, apart from the thought of how UK bureaucracy might struggle with it, I’m all for the Icelandic system!

(This post first appeared in a slightly different form on

Have a break – catch Breaking bad

Maybe not the usual offering you’d expect from the Cardiff Business School (CARBS) but if you fancy a break from all that studying why not settle down to watch the fifth and final series of the hit American drama Breaking Bad.

51J4r1Z1pyL__AA160_As I am sure many followers of the series will know, Breaking Bad is the story of chemistry teacher Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) who when diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, turns to a life of crime, producing and selling drugs, with the ultimate goal of securing his family’s financial future before he dies.

According to the DVD container of this final series “Walt’s transformation from well-meaning family man to ruthless drug kingpin is nearly complete … Walt preceeds to make a killing in the meth business until the fruits of his murderous schemes are threatened by a new development in the investigation led by his brother-in-law-Hank.”

You can find this and all of the previous series in Aberconway Library.
Breaking bad (2013). London: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Ask at the information desk