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Some may remember the deadly book of Aristotle that plays a vital part in the plot of Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose. Poisoned by a mad Benedictine monk, the book wreaks havoc in a 14th-century Italian monastery, killing all readers who happen to lick their fingers when turning the toxic pages. Could something like this happen in reality? Poisoning by books?
Our recent research indicates so. We found that three rare books on various historical topics in the University of Southern Denmark’s library collection contain large concentrations of arsenic on their covers. The books come from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The poisonous qualities of these books were detected by conducting a series of X-ray fluorescence analyses (micro-XRF). This technology displays the chemical spectrum of a material by analysing the characteristic “secondary” radiation that is emitted from the material during a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Micro-XRF technology is widely used within the fields of archaeology and art, when investigating the chemical elements of pottery and paintings, for example.
The reason why we took these three rare books to the X-ray lab was because the library had previously discovered that medieval manuscript fragments, such as copies of Roman law and canonical law, were used to make their covers. It is well documented that European bookbinders in the 16th and 17th centuries used to recycle older parchments.
We tried to identify the Latin texts used, or at least read some of their content. But then we found that the Latin texts in the covers of the three volumes were hard to read because of an extensive layer of green paint which obscures the old handwritten letters. So we took them to the lab. The idea was to filter through the layer of paint using micro-XRF and focus on the chemical elements of the ink below, for example on iron and calcium, in the hope of making the letters more readable for the university’s researchers.
But XRF-analysis revealed that the green pigment layer was arsenic. This chemical element is among the most toxic substances in the world and exposure may lead to various symptoms of poisoning, the development of cancer and even death.
Arsenic (As) is a ubiquitous naturally occurring metalloid. In nature, arsenic is typically combined with other elements such as carbon and hydrogen. This is known as organic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic, which may occur in a pure metallic form as well as in compounds, is the more harmful variant. The toxicity of arsenic does not diminish with time.
Depending on the type and duration of exposure, various symptoms of arsenic poisoning include an irritated stomach, irritated intestines, nausea, diarrhoea, skin changes and irritation of the lungs.
The green arsenic-containing pigment found on the book covers is thought to be Paris green, copper(II) acetate triarsenite or copper(II) acetoarsenite Cu(C₂H₃O₂)₂·3Cu(AsO₂)₂. This is also known as “emerald green”, because of its eye-catching green shades, similar to those of the popular gemstone.
The arsenic pigment – a crystalline powder – is easy to manufacture and has been commonly used for multiple purposes, especially in the 19th century. The size of the powder grains influence on the colour toning, as seen in oil paints and lacquers. Larger grains produce a distinct darker green – smaller grains a lighter green. The pigment is especially known for its colour intensity and resistance to fading.
Pigment of the past
Industrial production of Paris green was initiated in Europe in the early 19th century. Impressionist and post-impressionist painters used different versions of the pigment to create their vivid masterpieces. This means that many museum pieces today contain the poison. In its heyday, all types of materials, even book covers and clothes, could be coated in Paris green for aesthetic reasons. Of course, continuous skin contact with the substance would lead to symptoms of exposure.
But by the second half of the 19th century, the toxic effects of the substance were more commonly known, and the arsenic variant stopped being used as a pigment and was more frequently used as a pesticide on farmlands. Other pigments were found to replace Paris green in paintings and the textile industry etc. In the mid 20th century, the use on farmlands was phased out as well.
In the case of our books, the pigment wasn’t used for aesthetic purposes, making up a lower level of the cover. A plausible explanation for the application – possibly in the 19th century – of Paris green on old books could be to protect them against insects and vermin.
Under certain circumstances, arsenic compounds, such as arsenates and arsenites, may be transformed by microorganisms into arsine (AsH₃) – a highly poisonous gas with a distinct smell of garlic. Grim stories of green Victorian wallpapers taking the lives of children in their bedrooms are known to be factual.
Now, the library stores our three poisonous volumes in separate cardboard boxes with safety labels in a ventilated cabinet. We also plan on digitising them to minimise physical handling. One wouldn’t expect a book to contain a poisonous substance. But it might.
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A changing climate means the frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, flooding, hurricanes and wildfires has become a common occurrence. Temperatures are increasing on the land and in the ocean, the sea level is rising and amounts of snow and ice are diminishing, as greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations have increased. Unfortunately, children and young people are taking the brunt of climate change and this will continue into the future.
Doctors are seeing the serious effects of global warming on children’s health and are concerned that it could reverse the progress made over the past 25 years in reducing global child deaths. Not only that, children are at risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to natural disasters caused by climate change.
A UNICEF survey of children aged nine to 18 in 14 countries showed that children are deeply concerned about global issues affecting their peers and them personally, including climate change. Children across all countries feel marginalised because their voices are not being heard nor that their opinions considered.
Given the enormity of the climate challenge, it is surprising how limited coverage of our changing climate receives in current children’s fiction. The children’s publishing sector is booming. UK sales of children’s books rose by 16% in 2016 with sales totalling £365m. Globally, children’s book sales have risen steadily across all age categories.
Some picture books do explain climate change (such as The Magic School Bus and Climate Change by Joanne Cole and Bruce Degen). And there are plenty of young adult novels that feature dystopian climate futures (such as Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd). But few fiction books for eight to 11-year-olds discuss the issue.
In my view, the lack of “environmental diversity” in children’s literature is just as important as the debate about the lack of cultural and social diversity. After all, children will be responsible for the future protection of our fragile planet, and so their knowledge and engagement are critical.
Stories not only develop children’s literacy but convey beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality. They allow children to move from a position of powerlessness to a position of possibility. Through fiction, children are able to explore different perspectives and actions beyond what they know by living in the story world of characters for whom they care.
Through literature, children can develop a better understanding of global issues and engage in critical inquiry about themselves in the world. And so combining narrative structure with factual information has the power to take children beyond what is on the page. This could allow them to expand their understanding of difficult scientific concepts such as climate change.
As children engage in the printed word, they can be inspired to make a difference in the real world. This is what a group of Portuguese children is doing after watching their district burn because of the worst forest fires in their country’s history. The fires that occurred in June 2017 have been linked to climate change, and killed over 60 people. The children are now seeking crowdfunding to take a major climate change case to the European Court of Human Rights alleging that the states’ failure to tackle climate change threatens their right to life.
When I decided to write my first children’s novel, I never intended it to be an eco-themed book. But given that I am an environmental researcher, it seemed the most natural thing to do. The result is My Dad, the Earth Warrior, a funny story about the relationship between a boy called Hero and his dad who have grown apart since the death of his mother. Then one day dad has a freak accident and wakes up claiming to be an Earth warrior sent to protect Mother Earth. This plunges Hero into an increasingly bizarre and dangerous world.
Climate change can be a dark, apocalyptic issue to discuss in a story to overcome this, I did not make it a central topic but used the changing weather as an underlying theme throughout this book. The persona of the Earth warrior provides an alternative perspective on our relationship with the natural world. At the end of the book, I encourage readers to join the tribe and become Earth warriors. I hope by taking a humorous approach to a serious topic, I can not only engage and entertain children but also inspire them to think beyond the book. This is something that writer and illustrator Megan Herbert has done by teaming up with climatologist, Michael Mann, for their crowdfunded picture book The Tantrum that Saved the World.
We need children to care about the planet if they are to the tackle climate challenge that lies ahead. Storytelling can play a part in raising awareness and inspiring children and young adults to take action and become the next generation of Earth warriors.