Skip to Main Content

Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Letters to the Editor

The Humanities: Alive and Well
Congratulations on a wonderful spring issue. I read it once, and then went back and read it again. The articles were concise, informative, and fraught with human interest. And for those who believe that Homewood consists primarily of 140 acres of science labs, the spring issue made it quite clear that the study of humanities is alive and well and flourishing at Hopkins.
Steve Asher ’69

But Wait, There’s More
It was inspiring to read about Christopher H. Lee ’74 in the Spring 2010 issue of Arts & Sciences. The article did a wonderful job of demonstrating the local developmental benefits of his entrepreneurialism, as well as his vision in making a Johns Hopkins college education accessible to Baltimore City’s best high school graduates through the Baltimore Scholars Program. As the former director of the East Asian Studies Program, I wanted to point out that he and his wife, Susan Ginkel, have also generously supported visiting faculty, which has enabled our program to offer several classes in areas that are not covered by our full-time faculty.
Kellee S. Tsai,
Vice Dean, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Graduate Programs,
Professor of Political Science

To Touch or Not to Touch
Editor’s Note: Some readers of “Touching the Past” (Spring) were surprised to see photos of bare-handed students touching centuries-old books from the university’s rare books and manuscripts collection, and they wondered, Why no latex gloves? Earle Havens, curator of early books and manuscripts in the Sheridan Libraries’ Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts, kindly responds:

There have been some in the rare book and manuscript world who insist on the use of white cotton gloves in the handling of rare materials. However, the balance of conservation science has demonstrated that, while not ideal, the use of such gloves actually threatens the materials far more than bare hands due to the decreased tactile sensitivity that they invariably cause, particularly in the handling of fragile paper, parchment, binding materials, etc. As a curator, I always make a point of washing my hands clean of the natural oils that accumulate on my palms and fingertips before handling these materials for any length of time.

It is difficult for students to appreciate the work-intensive hand processes of making books and manuscripts in the distant past without actually handling them as they were intended to be used, quite literally, through their physical “manipulation” (a word derived from the Latin manipulus, denoting hand-held bundles). Books, when closed, are not terribly useful to students and researchers, as you can well imagine, beyond the aesthetic qualities of their bindings. We prefer instead to care for our books with an eye toward use, setting a good example by carefully handling the materials, and training students to do so as well.

What is more, most forms of human oil deposition on rag-based paper are reversible with the help of modern conservation science (and the Sheridan Libraries possesses a full-scale modern lab and distinguished conservators dedicated to that work). [Such efforts are more easily accomplished] than the work of trying to fill in paper loss or mending tears where clumsy gloved hands might have chipped away at frayed edges or exacerbated subtle weaknesses in the paper.

The ultimate purpose of these books, their very reason for being at Johns Hopkins, is so that they may be used in the service of teaching and research: dual themes and purposes that professors Walter Stephens and Christopher Celenza constantly emphasize as they educate undergraduates and train the next generations of scholars.

Your question, if anything, reminds me just how mysterious and fascinating the residue of the distant past can be in its power to inspire questions and create new opportunities to learn. It shows that if we listen and attend carefully to these collective remnants of long-past eras, we can still hear their voices speak to us and teach us, straight through the long shadows of history.