There are treasures hidden in plain sight both inside and outside the Conway Public Library - and there are often interesting connections between the two.
Recently twilight loomed after I helped close up the library and I chanced to glance back towards the clock tower. Silhouetted against the Maxfield Parrish blue sky were the branches and distinctive ephemeral leaves of one of a pair of large red oak trees that flank the northern corners of the Conway Public Library lawn.
You may ask, how do I know it’s a red oak when seen after dusk and in shadow? Well it’s because the leaves of the red oak are not as ephemeral as most other deciduous trees. Used in this way, “ephemeral” refers to the fleeting and transient changes in nature and the passage of time as we move through the seasons.
These trees retain a scattered shotgun like pattern of a handful of dry brown leaves still hanging on to their craggy branches throughout the winter and into the spring. In a way, they are a reminder of the previous Autumn. You can actually see this phenomenon in some of the more observant works of the White Mountain painters where they also served as a symbol of life, death and rebirth.
The term “ephemera” is used by archivists for items in the collection that were only intended to be used or enjoyed for a short time. It comes from the Greek "ephemeros," meaning “lasting only one day, short-lived.”
Trying to preserve these items is a real challenge. A good example are newspapers. Usually printed on cheap, highly acidic and degradable paper, our large collection of newspapers can end up taking a lot of space and we try to protect them by storing them in acid free boxes out of the light, changing humidity and dust of the main room.
However, due to the principle of “inherent vice” the acid in the wood pulp based paper is actually on an unstoppable course of self-destruction. As a result, a book that is over two-hundred years old printed on cotton based paper can often be in better shape that last year’s Conway Daily Sun.
One of the treasures within the Conway Public Library’s Henney History Room is the The History of New Hampshire by Jeremy Belknap. Our copy of volume 3 was published in 1812 and includes timeless advice and information on secrets of nature and science. However, these insights are hidden in the Dewey Decimal dedicated history section, 974.2 Bel NH HHR.
While the paper on which it was printed preserves well, the then popular style of using “f” in the place of “s” was an ephemeral fad, making it hard to read in its original state (click on images to enlarge).
While the rhetoric in his introduction to the chapter on trees is about science, the reality and substance of his commentary is on the uses of the trees themselves. He talks about four species of oak and three varieties of red oak in New Hampshire and outlines their uses during the period for tanning leather, keels of ships, barrel staves, and writing ink.
The iron gall ink he describes was used with quill pens like the one topping the weather vane in the first picture above. Here etymology has met entomology through dendrology.
In a future blog we will track the oak inside the building and explore a different language of decorative motifs.