Just a couple of weeks ago, the Rochester Institute of Technology announced that a group of students had discovered a palimpsest using an imaging system that they developed. As they examined a fifteenth-century manuscript leaf using ultraviolet-fluorescence imaging, they discovered ‘hidden’ layers of text. Take two minutes and watch this cool discovery!
It’s that time of year, and sure, buying a book for a bibliophile is generally a good idea, but it can be tricky to pick just the right thing. So we’ve pulled together a short list of “gifty” books that we’ve reviewed this year or that have been highly recommended.
First, the tactile new edition of Pride and Prejudice (Chronicle Books, $40), published earlier this fall. Aside from its beautiful cover (with its allusion to the 1894 Hugh Thomson peacock edition) and elegant blue endpapers, this volume contains interior surprises: pockets bound in containing nineteen gorgeous replica letters from the text. Recreated to appear authentic to Jane Austen’s time, each intricately aged, folded, and tucked away note offers the reader an opportunity to put herself in the characters’ shoes. The execution of this idea is so artful and well done — brava to curator Barbara Heller and her team of calligraphers!
For the Sherlock Holmes fan who might have everything, try Conan Doyle’s Wide World (Bloomsbury, $28) written by Andrew Lycett and published earlier this year. Says Barbara Basbanes Richter, it’s a “tantalizing” compendium of the author’s travel writing with a stunning decorative cover and two illustrated sections.
Similarly, Shakespeare fanatics might not yet have this one on their shelves: A Shakespeare Motley: An Illustrated Compendium (Thames & Hudson, $19.95), aptly described as “a delightful cabinet of Shakespearean curiosities,” and profusely illustrated. Published in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
What is your role at your institution?
My official job title is Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts here in Linda Hall's History of Science collection. I do a little bit of everything, from outreach and instruction to cataloging to collection development. Having started my job in the midst of the pandemic, I have yet to do any face-to-face work with researchers, but I have been a part of some fun remote reference calls. I've also begun working on a project with Linda Hall's incunabula, revising our catalog records and making entries into the Material Evidence in Incunabula database. Broadly, my role is to support the ongoing work of the department, in collaboration with fellow Bright Young Librarian, Jason Dean.
How did you get started in special collections?
I had my first taste of special collections in a class session when I was an undergraduate. At the time, I was a Philosophy student, and I had never really thought about the book as anything other than as a vehicle for text. Needless to say, that one visit to special collections completely blew my mind. I remember sitting and staring at one of the Elzevier duodecimo editions of Descartes and thinking, for the first time, about what the experience of reading it would have been like in the seventeenth century. That exposure to the material culture of the book prompted me to sign up for the Book History class that Ruth Rogers teaches every other year at Wellesley. It was such a well-designed introduction. Every session took place in the reading room using books from the collection, except for sessions we would have with Katherine Ruffin in the book arts lab. In addition to a fantastic crash course in the history of handpress books, I got to make paper, cast type, set type, and then ink and print a broadsheet, which I still keep in my office.
Though I had initially registered for the class for fun, I started to realize that something significant was happening to me while working on my first independent research project using a book from the collection. I threw myself into the work in a way I had never done before, like I'd gone into a trance. I would arrive when the reading room opened and left when it closed. That summer, I was lucky enough to be hired as the collections assistant. That first taste of professional experience confirmed my growing suspicions; I decided that, if I had a ghost of a chance of doing this kind of work for the rest of my life, I was going to take it. Both Ruth and Marian Oller, the assistant curator, were extraordinarily supportive of me, and together we worked on a plan for how I should approach my career. Their early confidence in me is what really got me started. Without their encouragement and mentoring I absolutely would not be where I am now.
Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?
I began my masters in Book History at the University of St Andrews in 2013, which, at the time, had a Material Bibliography/rare books cataloging component taught by Bright Young Librarian Daryl Green. My masters thesis led me to continue at St Andrews for my PhD, working with the book history group there. After finishing my PhD in 2018, I started my MLIS at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign through their online program. I have been taking classes part-time while working, but should be finally, officially credentialed this time next year!
Favorite rare book / ephemera that you've handled?
This is very nearly an impossible question! When I'm spending any amount of extended time in the stacks, it seems like I fall in love with a new book every day. I've been feeling that way particularly acutely this week, since I'll be getting out five of our Ratdolt editions for a virtual class. But if I absolutely must pick, I keep coming back to a tax form, printed in 1543 in Lyon by Denis de Harsy that I worked on at the Archives Municipales de Lyon.It was part of an edition of 800, printed as the city reorganized its tax system in the midst of a broader effort by the French royal government to revise its revenues. It is an early example, particularly for France, of a printed bureaucratic form, and it is exactly the kind of functional, ephemeral print that fascinates me. Part of why I love it so much is how unlikely it is that it survived in the first place. In fact, before I found that copy, I had been ready to write off the edition as lost. Another reason comes from where it survived, bound up in a volume with a few hundred manuscript tax forms collected in the same year. So we see this new approach to managing bureaucracy next to the manuscript conventions it would eventually replace, treated much in the same way because it was still the same kind of document. I love things that blur the lines between manuscript and print culture, especially print that is meant to do something, be completed by hand, or serve a function (outside of reading) in ordinary life.
What do you personally collect?
I'm afraid I've moved around a little too much in the past ten years to do any serious collecting in my own right. Most of my collecting energy goes into my work! My personal library is mostly either practical books for research, or sentimental things that I enjoy. I'm a bit of a pack rat when it comes to ephemera I find out in the world, which started when I was a teenager picking up interesting fliers at shows. Otherwise, I just try to keep on hand books that I'll want to refer back to and editions that I like. Now that I'm more settled, maybe I'll finally get my dream collection of printed forms off of the ground, but, for now, my personal collection development policy is guided by whatever catches my eye and the zine publishing patterns of artists I like.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I taught myself embroidery a few years ago and I like to make cross-stitch projects for friends. I'm really pleased with my most recent one. It’s a "hell is other people" sign for my friend’s entryway, and I made the border from a few different images in a nineteenth-century German pattern book. I also really love movies and I have an ever-expanding list of things I want to see. A few years ago, as a joke, I decided to watch 500 movies in 500 days. I have a bad track record of letting things that I start for fun take over my life, so I finished the project but not the sprawling "to watch" lists I made for it. As a sort of outgrowth of our film habits, in quarantine my girlfriend and I started working on the concept and scripts for a horror series that may or may not ever see the light of day. Regardless of what ends up happening with it, it's been exciting to exercise some creative muscles! And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our two beautiful, insane cats: Buster and Fredson Bowers.
What excites you about special collections librarianship?
I think one of the really incredible aspects of our job is how accessible it can be. Working with physical objects gives us so many opportunities to connect with people. A book is a familiar piece of technology -- more or less everyone has an idea of what a book can do - but books are intimate in addition to being functional. It’s very meaningful that books, almost more than any other household object, tend to survive in the long term. Presented in that kind of a context, a person doesn’t need much background to start to understand the value of what we do or to feel connected to a book in front of them. There is also a wonderful, demystifying effect when we explain books in terms of the mechanical processes that made them. It can transform something that might otherwise seem dry or intimidating into a technical marvel, the product of a dynamic, chaotic, crowded workroom. Nobody needs to feel intimidated by what we do or feel excluded from it. In the words of John Overholt, everyone is “special enough for special collections.”
On a more personal level, I also love the ambidextrousness of our work. One of the early things that helped me decide to pursue this as a career is the opportunity we have to learn new things. It is a joy every single day to get up and do a job where curiosity is rewarded.
Thoughts on the future of special collections librarianship?
COVID has brought into sharp relief what is and is not accessible in our collections when reading rooms are closed. While not all of the conversations between researchers and librarians have been productive or thoughtful (i.e. that infamous why can’t you make a universal catalog tweet), there is a lot of good, critical attention being paid to institutional priorities, description, and digital resources. When digitization priorities are governed by the same sort of focus on high points that has plagued collection development in the past, we exclude a lot of the good work that has been done to diversify collections. And beyond more straightforward questions around what is and is not digitized, or what is lost in creating digital facsimiles, I am looking forward to what I hope will be a renewed focus on description. This needn’t only cover copy-specific features like bindings and readership evidence, but can look more broadly at subject headings, references, or other animating details that can point users in new directions.
Also, and this is by no means a new trend, I am excited about the growing momentum around diversity the field, both in terms of the books we collect and the people who work in special collections libraries. It has been gratifying to see our field respond to national conversations about race and racism, particularly when those conversations go beyond “collect more people of color.” What I hope we will see in the near future is a concerted effort to reassess not just collection development policies, but also to take a critical look at internal institutional practices that push librarians of color out of the field.
Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you'd like to draw our attention to?
This has been said before, but Linda Hall's astronomy collection is pretty unbelievable. It's an area of deep strength in the collection that consistently amazes me. It extends from the classics of western astronomy, often in interesting and important copies like our fine-paper Siderius Nuncius, to nonwestern print and manuscript books, to books that demonstrate women’s interaction with and contributions to the field. One of the coolest recent acquisitions in that last area is really two things: a set of cards to teach basic geography and astronomy, printed in 1795 in London, and the other is a manuscript book that copies a number of images from those cards, though possibly a later edition. The manuscript was compiled in 1841 by a woman, Charlotte Brooke Pechell, as a study tool, and is a great example of not just popular astronomy and education, but a cool case of print and manuscript interacting!
Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?
With COVID rates being what they are, there are no plans for exhibitions in the library for the foreseeable future. We do, however, have a brand new digital exhibitions page as of this August. Right now, it includes 18 exhibitions from the past 30 years.
Some of our materials are currently on loan for exhibitions outside of the library, if you are in the Kansas City area and want to see them in person. The deck of cards and the manuscript I mentioned previously are at the Toy and Miniature Museum, where they are part of a really interesting exhibition on gender and STEM toys. That will be on view through September 2021. Our copy of Dürer De symmetria is at the Nelson Atkins Museum alongside some of his contemporaries in a show about Renaissance figuration through January of 2021. We've also leant the volumes containing extinct birds from our royal octavo Birds of America for "Audubon and the Anthropocene" at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, which ends this coming November.
The 1940 voyage to the Sea of Cortez (now the Gulf of California) undertaken by novelist John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts has long stirred our imaginations. Only the year before, Steinbeck had published The Grapes of Wrath, while Ricketts had issued Between Pacific Tides, an ecological study. The two were great friends, and their plan to sail the Western Flyer down to Mexico and cowrite a book about the journey worked, for the most part.
The following year, their collaboration, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, appeared. Comprised of a narrative log and a 328-page catalogue of sea creatures, it is a book perhaps less well known in the Steinbeck canon than among those interested in the history of modern environmentalism. But ten years later, after Ricketts’ death, Steinbeck had a shorter version of the book reissued under a slightly different title — The Log from the Sea of Cortez — and with only his name as author. Scholars can only guess at the reason for this literary slight.
In 2014, the wooden boat Steinbeck and Ricketts had commissioned for their trip, docked and decaying in Port Townsend, Washington, became an object of debate. Some wanted to restore it, others wanted to install it a showpiece in a hotel. As we reported in 2018, a foundation is funding its current restoration, with plans to begin sailing again next year.
And now, Arion Press has again renewed our interest in this tale. Eighty years after the famous excursion, the San Francisco-based press has published a letterpress “hybrid” edition of Sea and Log. This handcrafted, fine press edition incorporates reclaimed wood from the Western Flyer and illustrations by the renowned wood engraver Richard Wagener, as well as an original map and endpapers by artist Martin Machado. The edition is limited to 250 copies in three binding options, however the most expensive Variant and Deluxe editions are already sold out. The Limited Edition, pictured at top, is “bound in striated pearlescent cloth with deep red coral paper sides imprinted with a starfish motif derived from Wagener,” according to the prospectus. It retails for $2,200. A limited number of Western Flyer prints are also available.
Zwiggelaar Auctions in Amsterdam will hold a three-part sale this week: Part I (Children's books, Literature, Old books, Manuscripts, Cookbooks, Amsterdam, Topography) on Monday, November 30, in 565 lots; Part II (Topography, Atlases, Comics, Asian arts, Fine arts) will be held on Tuesday, December 1, in 560 lots; and Part III (Photography, Sports, Chess books, Picture postcards, Erotica, Various) will be sold on Wednesday, December 2, in another 559 lots.
A sale of Music, Continental Books and Medieval Manuscripts at Sotheby's London ends on Tuesday, December 1. The 116 lots include a painted miniature by Simon Bening on vellum, laid down on wood, dated to the 1530s–40s (£150,000–200,000). An incomplete but substantial copy of the 1482 Bologna edition of the Hebrew Pentateuch, the first book printed with the Hebrew text fully vocalized, is estimated at £120,000–150,000. This copy contains indications that it was used as a model for copying Torah scrolls. A four-page August 1818 letter from Franz Schubert to his brother Ferdinand could sell for £80,000–120,000, while a series of 62 letters and postcards from Hermann Hesse to Stefan Zweig over the period from 1903 to 1938 is estimated at £60,000–80,000. The auction house describes this as "perhaps the most significant collection of Hesse's letters ever to be offered at auction."
At Chiswick Auctions on Wednesday, December 2, 370 lots of Books & Works on Paper. A rare copy of the first edition of Giambattista Vico's Scienza Nuova (1725) is expected to lead the sale, at £8,000–12,000. A first printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) is estimated at £6,000–8,000, while a signed first edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with ephemera from a "Moonlight Signing" event is estimated at £4,000–6,000. A nearly-complete run of the Almanach de Gotha could sell for £4,000–6,000. There's also a lovely 18th-century Spanish embroidered binding, estimated at £1,500–2,000.
On Thursday, December 3, Books and Works on Paper at Forum Auctions, in 305 lots.
Also on Thursday, PBA Galleries sells Fine Art – Photography & Prints, in 350 lots. A copy of the 1943 Albert Skira edition of Rabelais' Panagruel, with 180 color woodcuts by André Derain and an additional suite of 144 prints, is estimated at $20,000–30,000.
Arader Galleries will hold their December sale on Saturday, December 5. The 183 lots include a number of Audubon Birds, as well as important maps and survey drawings.
As our readers will already know, the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth is being celebrated this year. In our fall issue, we surveyed nine noteworthy Beethoven collections/repositories around the world, one of which is the Library of Congress (LOC). For today’s Video Friday, enjoy this new 9-minute video released by the LOC in which the Library's Stephanie Akau speaks about the manuscript sketches for Beethoven's op. 131 string quartet held at the Library of Congress.
For Fine Books & Collections subscribers, the painting above will look familiar. George Catlin’s 1838 depiction of the Seminole leader Osceola appears on the cover of our winter 2021 issue, which lands in mailboxes this week. One of our feature stories recounts how and why a lock of Osceola’s hair and a related manuscript were pulled from auction earlier this year after issues regarding its sale were raised by Native Americans.
Just as the magazine was going to press, we were interested to note another repatriation story in the news wherein Florida’s Seminole Tribe was able, after a protracted battle, to compel a policy change at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). In an effort to reclaim their ancestors’ remains, the Tribe pressed for an update that will allow native groups to reclaim human remains and funerary objects based on their own oral tradition and tribal knowledge even if the NMNH archaeologists had previously, and imprecisely, labeled them as culturally unaffiliated. According to the Seminole Tribe of Florida, this includes approximately 1,496 Seminole ancestors exhumed in Florida, as well as sacred objects, such as potsherds, arrowheads, bone tools, and wooden effigies.
“The NMNH holds vast collections of human remains that have been refused repatriation for nearly 30 years,” Domonique deBeaubien, collections manager and chair of the repatriation committee, commented in a press statement. “Until now, there has been no legal mechanism to return those ancestors to their homelands. That transition can now begin.”
Tina Osceola, member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Associate Justice for the Tribal Court, and member of the repatriation committee, said, “The revised policy has been a long time coming and generations overdue. As our Tribe continues to seek the return of our stolen ancestors, we will continue to work on behalf of Indian Country to pass better laws that can help to return more ancestors, funerary, and sacred objects. I hope that the nation and world will shift their beliefs that our culture and people are only valuable when owned, displayed or studied.”
Just as the UK’s writers’ homes museums were gearing up for the Christmas season, they have been forced to close again as part of renewed coronavirus lockdown restrictions through December 3. Among them is Jane Austen’s House at Chawton, Hampshire, which had already weathered the first major lockdown and a roof leak (supporters have been asked to sponsor a roof tile to help with the costs).
The house is providing a package of online alternatives to visiting in person called Jane Austen’s House From Home which features a short but enjoyable virtual exhibition called Jane Austen’s Artful Letters which has been supported by the Art Fund. These look at the part that letters played in both the work and life of the author including a four-line poem-letter written by Austen to her friend Catherine Bigg in 1808, and advice on how she would have written and folded her letters. There are transcripts of the letters and video performances too.
Elsewhere on the site is a new 360° virtual tour of the cottage which allows you to navigate around the rooms at will and stop to ‘look’ at various objects including the table where she wrote. In addition, for younger visitors (and cat lovers) there is A Cat’s Eye Audio Tour of the site which is led by the museum’s cat.
A rather less busy week coming up in the salerooms, but here's what I'll be watching:
Also on Tuesday, 143 lots of Rare and Important Items at Kedem Auctions in Jerusalem. Estimated at $50,000–80,000 is a large archive of nearly two thousand commercial and legal documents from the Moroccan-Jewish Assaraf family of Fez, Morocco. A partial copy of a 1492 Naples edition of a commentary to the Mishnayot is estimated at $60,000–100,000.
Doyle holds a sale of Rare Books, Autographs & Maps on Tuesday: the 322 lots include a copy of the 1603 edition of John Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essayes with the armorial of Elizabeth I on both boards ($25,000–35,000). The lid from an Apple II Plus computer, signed by both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at the release event for the Macintosh computer in 1984 is estimated at $20,000–30,000. A mixed edition set of Christian Zervos' Catalogue Raisonné of Picasso's works could sell for $10,000–15,000. A second octavo edition of Audubon's Birds rates the same estimate.
On Wednesday, November 25, Forum Auctions holds a sale of Books and Works on Paper, in 303 lots. Four Fleece Press publications, including one of 40 special copies of Dearest Joana, is estimated at £500–700, as is a Jimi Hendrix autograph. A second edition of William Rabisha's Whole Book of Cookery (1673) is estimated at £400–600, the same estimate given to John Guillim's A Display of Heraldry (1632) and a copy of Ted Hughes' Five Autumn Songs for Children's Voices, one of 37 copies signed by Hughes with a verse in manuscript.
On October 23, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts announced Sara Langworthy as the winner of this year’s MCBA Prize. This recorded hour-long event offers the chance to see some of the best in contemporary book arts and to hear a thought-provoking conversation between Langworthy and writer, curator, and historian Betty Bright.