“Tern around whin possible,” suggested the sat-nav.
“But you told me to turn right at that junction,” I complained. We all talk to our sat-navs, don’t we?
Ken, my Aussie-voiced sat-nav was silent. (I’d got fed up with the previous incumbent, a very refined lady I called Penelope so I downloaded Ken, really just so I could swear at him without feeling that Penelope would burst into tears and complain to Mummy I suppose.)
I was five and half hours and 460km from home on the outskirts of Seville. I had a further four hours and 400km of driving in front of me and that Australian idiot had sent me up a dirt track so I could crawl behind a Spanish cart, presumably being drawn by a Spanish donkey which was hidden up front in the clouds of dust.
It all started with a ‘Hello how are you’ email from a very old friend who told me that she’d sold up everything in England and was now a ‘near neighbour’ living in Spain. I was very interested because this old lady has been collecting children’s books since she was a child herself and I’d been itching for a chance to have a look at her collection. In response to a cordial welcome to the Iberian peninsula from me she said that she had packed up her whole library and shipped it out to Spain with her and that I’d be welcome to ‘pop over’ and have a look at it. 1800km round trip? Pop over? Absolutely!
Ah-ha! A turning. Quick reverse into it and we’re off again. This time I’m going to insist that if Ken tells me that there’s a ‘Roit tern ahid’ I’m going to want confirmation in writing on a road-sign too.
As it was so far and also as my old friend was not happy for me to take any books away we’d agreed that I would bring the computer and scanner with me and set up shop at her place while I harvested material for DP. I had no idea how long all this would take, one page at a time, so I warned my wife that we may be living apart for quite a long time! One good thing though, I knew that Lindy wouldn’t expect me to dress for dinner so I wouldn’t need much in the way of clothing. Also we were just getting into summer in Almeria so shorts and tee-shirts would cover the body satisfactorily. Little did I know…
I finally pulled up at a very grand gateway, “You hiv reeched your distination.” Thank you Ken. The sun was setting as I drove up the drive to the house, parked and stepped out. It was freezing! Like all deserts, Almeria is baking during the day and fiendishly cold at night. So much for shorts!
Lindy came to the door wearing what appeared to be two dressing gowns. She had aged a lot since I had last seen her and seemed lost in the folds. “Come in, dear boy,” she said. “You’ll freeze out there. Did you bring anything warmer to wear? No matter. I’ll find you something of Bill’s.” She led the way right through the house into a tiny kitchen which was dominated by a huge stove which seemed to vibrate with the heat it was throwing out. Soon I was muffled up and smelling distinctly of mothballs in a sweater and slightly tight trousers which belonged to Bill, her late husband.
She produced a bowl of hot soup from the pot which was simmering on the stove. It was early evening so I said that I’d like to set up my computer this evening and make a start on any books I found first thing in the morning.
I was led into a huge dark room. “I seldom come in here at night,” said Lindy. “That’s why I haven’t bothered to replace most of the bulbs as they blew.” In the light of the two remaining lamps I could see that all the walls were lined with book-cases about ten feet high. Above that were windows on three sides of the room. “This used to be the counting-house,” Lindy said. “It was where the day labourers would stand in line to receive their wages. It’s the biggest room in the house so I thought it would be ideal to house the library.” There were thousands of books. The ones nearest the door seemed to be modern paper-backs but further off in the gloom the older books looked dark and dusty. What struck me was the variation in size of those old tomes. In places a second shelf had been fitted half way along an existing line of books to take two rows of smaller ones. The end result was a feeling of complete disarray. Not at all like a lending library with neat standard shelf sizes and careful labelling. Tomorrow I was just going to have to start at one end and work my way round the room. We cleared the books off a big table that stood in the middle of the room and I found a power outlet that I could plug my extension lead into. Lindy produced a reading lamp and a short search found a working bulb for it. All set for tomorrow.
Lindy said that she was an early riser and liked to take herself off to bed to read rather early in the evening. I was happy with that plan as there was not much more I could do that evening and I was feeling a tad jaded after my ten hour drive.
The next few days followed the same routine; find a book, check that the publication date was earlier than Jan 1923 (therefore out of copyright), and then check that it hadn’t been claimed by someone else at DP or had already made it into Project Gutenberg. Once past those hurdles it’s just a matter of sitting down and scanning the book right through. There were a few snags. No Internet connection in the library so I had to work from a stored list of books already cleared for DP. The move from a moist cool climate to the brutal climate of Almeria had not been kind to the books so most were very brittle and the pages were likely to drop out. The worst ones were simply bundles of pages held between their separated covers and tied together with string. Some of the books were priceless and have now made their way to the safety of Project Gutenberg. For example, there was a first edition of The Sleeping Beauty, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
The really high point of my trip happened when I found an old manila folder containing the three ‘Baby’ books by Walter Crane. The manila envelope had saved them from further damage but the pages were so fragile that I spent a whole afternoon just working on those images. You can see the results here:
I never did get to end of Lindy’s library. I stuck it out for six days. It was pretty clear from the start that I could only make a small dent in her collection. The sizzling days when the only comfortable clothes were just a pair of shorts and frigid nights when my fingers became too stiff to safely turn the pages of a priceless book all became too much for me. In the end I had to admit defeat and just be grateful for the wonderful books I had found. The opportunity has passed now, I understand that Lindy’s library was broken up and sold off the following year and that she has moved back to England. In any case another year in that environment would have rendered most of the older books too fragile to handle. But still, we managed to preserve some of the gems from her collection so that children in years to come will be able to enjoy the books that she did when ‘she was a child herself’. Thank you Lindy.
For other books that Mebyon scanned during his time at Lindy’s house, see here.