|Ghost of the Rossell Hope Robbins Library Haunts Cybrary Island|
“A library of wisdom is more precious than all wealth….Books are to be gladly bought and unwillingly sold…. They are worth all that thou hast.”
Richard de Bury, Philobiblion
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.[i]
Chaucer, “The Clerk,” Canterbury Tales
The Rossell Hope Robbins library[ii] is sequestered on the fourth floor of the Rush Rhees Library at the University of Rochester, New York. In the Mount Hope Cemetery just to the east of it one can find the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, for Rochester is a city of abundant heritage, rife with history and remarkable people. One such remarkable scholar was Professor Rossell Hope Robbins (1912-1990) who made this library possible through a generous endowment and the donation of his enormous collection of books on medieval literature.
Rossell Hope Robbins made generous donations to the library
My representation of the Robbins library in Second Life (Talis Cybrary Island) cannot do justice to its warm and impressive interior—adorned with paintings by local artists and reproductions of medieval manuscripts, filled with hanging plants and flowers, and boasting an old carved display case for collections. I have flown all over the grid looking for medieval tables, renaissance bookcases, an “Oblanski” desk, and even an armillary. I have taught myself how to make books out of single prims, how to apply textures and touch scripts. I am indebted to Teofila Matova for letting me rent the space free of charge until January, after which I hope that my efforts will be supported by an extremely modest grant to maintain it thereafter. The authors of Virtual Worlds, Real Libraries: Librarians and Educators in Second Life and Other Multi-User Virtual Environments (Abbey Zenith and Lorelei Junot; pub. Information Today, Inc: 2008) have convincingly shown how educators and lovers of books are flocking to Second Life as a cutting-edge venue and high-tech pedagogical aid. And so I have built this mock-up in a virtual world I had really only come to know in March of this year.
This is the library where the Camelot Project is maintained, and which makes available in electronic format a database of Arthurian texts, images, bibliographies and basic information. Begun in 1995 by Alan Lupack, curator of the Robbins Library, and Barbara Tepa Lupack, it has been built by the contributions of many scholars. It is here, too, that the TEAMS editions of Middle English texts are produced, a project developed in association with the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, and edited by Russell Peck at the University of Rochester. This series offers teachers and students inexpensive editions of Middle English texts that are rarely printed on their own, but which occupy an important place in the literary and cultural canon. The Robin Hood Project, the Medieval Alexander Project and other databases are developed here as well. It is here, too, that talks by invited scholars are sponsored by the Medieval Society of Rochester, the Helen Anne Mins Robbins Lecture series, and recently the University of Rochester Humanities Project. With permission, I often hold special courses on medieval literature in the library conference room where I have easy access to the dictionaries of Old and Middle English and medieval Welsh and Irish and Latin, the Patrilogia Latina and numerous academic journals and manuscript facsimiles, and where I can show my students the Nowell Codex on CD, or Benjamin Bagby’s performance of Beowulf.
Sometimes, when I sit at my carrel in the stacks there, I wonder if I will see the ghost of Professor Robbins in his turtle-neck, gold medallion, gray-cropped hair and stern expression, over-looking my scholarship with disdain. In 1987 (my first, nervous year as an assistant professor), he would often take me to lunch and tell me everything I was doing wrong. I published the essays he disapproved of anyway, but I retain an immense respect for his scholarship and energy, the rich life he led, and the impressive number of books he gave to our library which, at the end of his life, could not be accommodated in his home. My ghostly feelings are partly inspired by his fascination with demonology. Many of the books he donated are about witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy, devils, monsters, hell and other juicy readings from the Middle Ages on up.
Professor Robbins was born In Wallasey, Cheshire, and graduated with honors from the University of Liverpool. He trained in music at the Guildhall School of Music, London, and this inspired his interest in published verse. He wrote his dissertation and three of his earliest books on the English lyric, and published Early English Christmas Carols with Columbia University Press (1961). In 1939, he married Helen Ann Mins, an American teacher and intellectual, who was a guiding force in his academic life, and in 1943 he joined the United States army and served on the War Department of Special Staff, the Education and Information Division at the Pentagon. In the meantime, he co-edited The Index of Middle English Verse with Prof. Carleton Brown (Columbia University Press, 1943); was recommended for the Legion of Merit in 1946; and after the war he wrote Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (Clarendon Press, 1952, 1959) along with 200 articles that made him the leading authority on the Middle English lyric, and political and satirical verse. In 1958 his Encyclopedia of Witchcraft became the leading book in the field, later reprinted by Cornell University Press in 1978 along with forty pages of illustrations. Prof. Robbins was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1958.
Why did such a scholar choose the University of Rochester for his donation? He was courted, along with his generous endowment that keeps our library running, by Cornell, SUNY Binghampton, and the University of Melbourne, Oxford, just to name a few. The UR best satisfied his needs, providing him with an accommodating space, scholars he admired, and a cooperative and efficient Development Office and library staff, as well as proximity to his home in Saugerties, NY. Robbins was fond of his books, which he called his “daughters,” and frequently visited us and them (hence the luncheons, the stern advice).
I have no idea what the ghost of Rossell Hope Robbins will think of my Second Life tribute to a library he started. Perhaps he will stalk through Cybrary Island, peek into its rooms, huff at our ostentatious avatars, listen critically to our talks, dance at our parties invisibly, advise me to fill my rented space with medieval music and demand that our medieval simulations take on the look of real medieval life and work and song.
[i] “For he would rather have at his bed’s head / Twenty books clad in black or red / About Aristotle and his philosophy / Than rich clothes or fiddle or pretty psaltry.”