There are days when it's good to be me. (No, really!) And I had one of them last week. After pigging out on an assortment of outstandingly good frozen custard from Ollie's at the annual meeting of the Friends of the NIU Libraries (on whose board I've served for the past year), I literally got a chance to touch some history--some history that I helped get for the library.
Let's go back a few months to the end of the spring semester. At the end of a fiscal year, the library will often have some money left over--savings from purchases that turned out to have bigger discounts than anticipated, book purchase funds that weren't fully spent, and the occasional gift that comes in and can't find an immediate use. When that happens, all the librarians (and anyone else who wants to put an oar in) are asked to submit prioritized lists of "expensive purchases." "Expensive," in this context, means an item that costs more than $250, if I remember correctly: the sort of thing that even libraries have to think twice about adding to the purchase order, unless they're the University of Illinois or Yale or Harvard.
After the requests come rolling in, a committee is formed to go over the requests and recommend funding priorities, and the library will work its way down the list, buying things until it runs out of available money. The lucky ones get their items, and the unlucky ones have to wait another year, or try to find a less-expensive source, or come up with some extra cash. But we're usually able to get quite a lot off the wish-lists. This year, I got picked for the committee. We met and did our job, and the money was duly spent.
One of the items on this year's list was a cuneiform tablet dated to around 2000 B.C.E.--and costing around $2,000. Some members of the committee balked at spending that much for an item that's about the size of a large postage stamp and which nobody at the university (to our knowledge, anyway) can even read. I, on the other hand, thought it was a fantastic idea, and argued successfully to keep it on the list. It was duly purchased and now lives in our rare books and special collections area. And after the Friends meeting, the RBSC librarian let me hold it. Right there in my own little hands, this chunk of baked clay with wedge-shaped indentations all over it--and I do mean literally all over it--front, back, and all four edges all bore some kind of marks.
You know the feeling you get when you take out a family heirloom and look at it? Multiply that a few hundred times, and that's the feeling I had while I held that scrap of human history between my fingers and turned it around and around and looked at it, wondering who had written it and for what purpose, what it said, and how it had managed to survive for four thousand years.
It's true that there's little real practical use for this tablet at NIU. We don't have a big classics program, and neither is the history department known for its focus on the ancient world--particularly in that part of the Middle East. Sure, nobody on our faculty can read the thing. What of it? I'm sure we can get someone from the Oriental Institute in Chicago to tell us what it says--though I'm not sure that won't kill just a little of the mystery, especially if it turns out to be little more than somebody's tax receipt or a laundry list. (Though wouldn't that be cool, too?)
I'm sure many of the same arguments could be made about just about any item in the library's collections. It doesn't do to waste money, but I don't feel the funds we spent to buy this little tablet were wasted--far from it. There are bigger issues to consider than sheer utility. There's the "Oooh!" factor--and that's very big for something like this. Cuneiform tablets aren't something you're likely to find in many libraries, and they're fairly rare in museums too, unless you're talking someplace like the Louvre or the British Museum. Cuneiform is among the first forms of writing ever to be discovered. Every book, every journal article, every database that involves text that NIU's library now owns traces its lineage back to something very much like this little clay tablet--and that's an important lesson to teach to our students, for many of whom books are something of a novelty, much less something that had to be written out by hand and then baked to preserve it.
It's not likely to be something that the library staff hand out to just anybody, though I'm quite sure it will be featured in a number of displays and classes, and probably go out to local schools and community libraries as part of our outreach programs. But at least a few of us will get to handle this relic from long ago and far away--and for a few minutes at least, I got to be one of those people. And that was a good day.