Spending the Summer with Rudolf Geyer († 1929)
Vacation — we all need one from time to time. I spent mine with Rudolf Geyer. He is no longer with us, but he left about two-thousand books and a lot of notes, and they have been collecting dust for a hundred years in a monastery in Austria. They are uncatalogued and once I heard of it I formulated a mission to investigate what the collection comprises off and to start a digital cataloging project. On my weblog, The Digital Orientalist, I provide details about the technical aspects of this project; what I did on site, what I plan to do in next stages of this project, the technical hurdles to overcome and the surprises I was faced with. Here on Medium I wish to focus only on the experience itself of spending time with Geyer’s legacy.
St. Florian, in its current form, was built in the 17th century, in a baroque style. It is basically a monastery and palace in one. Part of it was for Augustinian Canon Regulars, to live and pray, and part was for the Habsburg Monarchy, to stay for the night and conduct business. The library is one of the highlights, but St. Florian is also a center of music with a world famous organ.
However, you might have already guessed that a real orientalist is not interested per se in the architecture, but rather in the books. And the books that I came for were not in the beautiful part of the library pictured above, but instead in a different room, without ornaments and carved woodwork and in fact without electric light. My little spot for the next four days was this:
Above we see the private collection of Geyer, with many shelves having two rows of books. It has about 1500 individual titles, from book reviews to multiple volume printed primary sources. It was all terra incognita, or perhaps that is slightly exaggerated as somebody before me had made a written catalogue of about half of the collection, all of it being secondary literature.
With the limited time that I had, I decided to only look into the uncatalogued materials. The collection consists of printed materials from the period of about 1850–1920. In some regards it gives the impression of being fairly complete, for example, countless books published by E.J. Brill are included, suggesting Geyer simply got anything they published. Of other publishers Harrosowitz Verlag and the Gibb Memorial Series stood out, though Geyer acquired a very varied bunch of books from all corners of the world. I have seen labels of book sellers from London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Vienna. There are also a fair number of books with their origin from Istanbul and Cairo.
There are also many articles in the collection, individually included. Mostly they are offprints. It was a different time; nowadays authors might not even get a single hardcopy of the journal issue they publish in. A hundred years back, authors would receive a number of hard copies of just their article. Clearly, Geyer was friends with Oskar Rescher, as there are many of Rescher’s articles to be found in this collection.
Without any indication of their importance, some twenty manuscripts are included too. They don’t seem particularly old. I will discuss them later in more detail.
The care and attention gone into his private collection is impressive. Perhaps without television and the internet, Geyer spent caring for his books as a pass time. This is me in front of some of the books. As you can see most of them are uniformly bound. Each of them contains an Ex Libris sticker and many of them also contained information about book reviews of this particular book.
Many of the books were bound beautifully and only a few were in their original cover. All articles also came in a cover, although this was a thinner, paper cover. Below a sample of the covers to be found. As you can see, each book carries a stamp with a number. Interestingly, Geyer’s Ex Libris stickers also show a number, a different one, so apparently there are two numbering systems. I only kept track of these stamps, on the cover, so that entries in the future catalogue can be matched with physical objects.
Among the most impressive books was this all-in-one volume of Zamakhsharī’s al-Kashshāf:
Many of the books seem to have been acquired from book sellers. Others were given as review copies. Some others were given as gifts. And others seem to have been acquired from other individuals, the other person’s Ex Libris carefully crossed out.
Many of the manuscripts bear a white cover. Each cover has a different number and 17 is the highest number I remember to have seen. They may have been made specifically at the request of Geyer, given their topic (poetry) and date (contemporaneous).
One manuscript, differently bound, is older, from the 17th century.
One manuscript had an illuminated headpiece:
Handwritten Arabic is also present in other parts of the collection. For example, I found this, perhaps written by Geyer himself:
The following is also probably his own handwriting, being part of a notebook:
And I also found the following curious specimen; a mix of an actual manuscript and a new notebook, allowing for easy note taking:
Speaking of notes, it is incredible to see the notes of a scholar of a hundred years ago. It gives a very direct sense of their productivity to see all their notes. Thousands of index cards were used by Geyer. Most cards are stored in hand-crafted boxes, each meticulously hand-written.
Among his notes was also a box with notebooks and correspondence. This did not look to be complete.
Interesting stuff from his correspondence includes this postcard, where the stamp is incorporated in the card itself.
Also of interest is that in 1913, he apparently needed backup from his colleagues about his worth as a scholar. From all over the world letter were sent attesting to Geyer’s stellar performance.
The most prized find, in my opinion, are photos of manuscripts. I did not know that already in the early 20th century scholars used photography to copy manuscripts. And here all of a sudden I was holding hundred year old photos of manuscript from Istanbul. I had to suppress the temptation to take one with me.
Putting the catalogue together will decide how precious some of the holdings are. Regardless, spending time with Geyer was a lot of fun. Lastly, a hundred years of dust means very dirty hands!