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Scaliger professor Erik Kwakkel is leaving: “Making discoveries is the most exciting aspect of my work”

After eight years, Professor Erik Kwakkel is exchanging Leiden University for the University of British Columbia, where he will become Professor of History of the Book from 1 August.

It’s a long time since the sound of turning pages could be heard in Erik Kwakkel’s house. This might sound strange for a book historian, but for the past month his belongings – including all his books – have been on the way to his future home in Vancouver, Canada. At the end of 2016 Kwakkel was appointed as a full professor in the Scaliger Institute for a period of five years, but after just over 18 months he is already leaving. He explains that in Canada he will have even more opportunity to fulfil all the potential of his love of book studies.

At the iSchool for Library, Archival and Information Studies, which offers education in managing special collections, libraries and archives, he will not only conduct more research, but will also teach students about the documents they are managing and how special collections can be used. This was also one of the goals of the Scaliger chair for ‘Special Collections’ in Leiden, together with teaching and conducting research. Kwakkel’s innovations included pop-up exhibitions and bringing ‘the book’ to high schools. He also wrote a blog and made frequent use of Twitter, which allowed him to reach a larger audience and inspire their interest in books and medieval manuscripts, his specialisation. He will now be able to transfer this knowledge – which he thinks everyone working with special collections should have – to professionals. 

‘Make everything in special collections available in digital form’

There are good reasons why he does so much with digital media. For instance, he would like to see many more academics tweeting about their research. But the most important reason, which he will also promote in Canada, is digitisation. “My favourite topic! Everything in special collections must be digitised.” This is not yet the case in many parts of the world, and it can be very expensive to obtain digital images of old books. He sees this as an obstacle to making that material freely available. “If – like me – you’re trying to reach the largest possible audience, it’s obvious that it must be done with the best licence, in the highest possible resolution and free of charge.”

Digitisation should therefore be part of the regular library budget, instead of a source of income, in his view. But this needs a real culture turnaround, because the situation at the moment is: “The bigger the library, the bigger the collection, the more splendid the manuscripts, the more people want images of them and the more money you can make from them.” 

The value of book research

According to Kwakkel, his field of study is similar in many ways to modern technologies. ‘Old books’ are not only our society’s memory, they also tell the story of how our present-day information processing originated. “An iPad is essentially no different than a wax tablet, on which you could also write and erase.” By pointing out these parallels, he is also trying to emphasise the importance of book history. “Your phone has specific dimensions for a reason, we have a specific way of looking at screens, browsing on the internet or making bookmarks. You perform specific actions to obtain specific information.”

Most remarkable manuscript: the mediaeval iPad

During his time in Leiden, Kwakkel made discoveries on a regular basis. For instance in 2010, when he was working at the Institute for Cultural Disciplines, he found the first medical handbook. He can still be surprised by what he comes across in library vaults. A truly remarkable example of this is the folding book. It consists of folded pages that you unfold to make bigger, and was hung from your belt with a special strap. “Then you could open it and take a look through the year, because it often contained a calendar or almanac. In fact, it’s just like a mediaeval iPad from around 1450, which enlarges things.”

Leiden University Library, VUL 100 C. Foto: Erik Kwakkel

Kwakkel discovered that Leiden had one of these when he read about it in a book on mediaeval folding books. “It’s a dynamic machine, which lies on your hand and works. I immediately wrote and tweeted about it.” Making discoveries is what Kwakkel identifies as the most exciting and enjoyable aspect of his time in Leiden. “I’m really going to miss it, because where I’m going there are nowhere near as many manuscripts.”

Kwakkel is looking forward to his new job: “As a researcher and because of the funding system, you always work in large blocks with a clearly charted path, but now I’m starting out on a path that as yet is unknown. At the moment, I think that’s fantastic.” He also wants to study a broader area, for instance including the incunabula: the earliest printed books, from before 1 January 1501. “I actually know very little about them, but I’ll have to cover them in my teaching. So I’ve already started reading up on them.”

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