June 2018 Archives

July 4, 1776 Document Heads to Auction

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Just in time for Independence Day, Yonkers, New York-based auction house Cohasco is offering a piece of history dating from the early days of the founding of the United States. “According to the Library of Congress, about seventeen documents exist with dates of July 4, 1776, most relating to or signed by George Washington,” said Cohasco owner Bob Snyder. “We have what we believe is one of the earliest known documents of the modern United States [dated July 4, 1776] that names a specific African-American.” Perhaps of equal interest is that the item offers a glimpse of race relations in the United States over two hundred years ago.                                                                                                                

In something of an ironic coincidence that this arrest warrant bears the same official date Americans celebrate independence, this document accuses a man named Cuffee Dole of theft.  Here, Mr. Dole is accused of stealing “one Eight Dollar Bill of the Continental Emission” on March 31, 1776, from a soldier near George Washington’s Cambridge headquarters. Ultimately, this paper trail runs cold as to what happened next in the case of Cuffee Dole, but historians believe the charges were dropped.


Who then, was Cuffee Dole? Here is where the story gets interesting. Born free in Boston in 1739, Dole was sold into slavery as a three-year-old by his nurse for $40 to Captain Dole of Gerogetown. Dole lived with the captain and his family until his early twenties. Then, according to local lore, Dole’s duplicitous nurse felt remorse and summoned Dole to her deathbed where she confessed to selling him into slavery as a child. Dole bought his freedom in 1772 and he lived thereafter as a free man, working on farms and performing other work in and around Boston. Dole even enlisted for two tours of duty with the Continental Army. After the war, Dole purchased twelve acres of land in Georgetown, MA, for $650, where he lived until his death in 1816. In his will, Dole requested that he be given a decent burial, but the local deacons were divided on whether he should be buried in the church graveyard next to white congregants. The deacons agreed that Dole’s remains could be interred at the church where he had prayed daily for years, but on the condition that his stone be set in the back of the graveyard. Today the stone bears an epitaph that reads, in part, White man turn not away in disgust. Thou art my brother, 
like me akin to earth and worms.”


The warrant, signed by Justice of the Peace Aaron Wood, is in good condition with some staining and edge chipping. Price estimates are available from Cohasco upon request.


Now through July 24, this and over 400 other items are up for auction. Cohasco doesn’t accept online budding, so interested parties must either call in their bids 1-914-476-8500 or email info@cohascodpc.com.

  

Image courtesy of Cohasco

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While a crowd formed a line waiting for entrance into the Bodleian Library’s excellent new Tolkien exhibition, the gallery directly across the entryway was quietly waiting for its treasures of women’s history, suffrage, and achievement to be revealed to the curious. 

  

The exhibition, Sappho to Suffrage: Women who dared, marks 100 years since passage of the Representation of the People Act, and covers 2,000 years of history, beginning with second-century fragments of Sappho’s poetry on papyrus and highlighting 80 books and objects showcasing stories of women who stand out for their daring work, adventuring spirit, creative gifts, and impact on history.

  

There are exceptional works on display, from a ninth-century poetry manuscript, “The 36 Immortals of Poetry,” turned to an illustration of Lady Ise, one of the five women poets included; to the handwritten leaves of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (in which she notes where to begin chapter two in the margin); and the only known surviving copy of Suffragetto, a formidable-looking board game that pits suffragettes against the police to gain entry into the House of Commons--it was produced by the militant British Women’s Social and Political Union to raise money for the suffragette campaign. 

  

In addition to Jane Austen’s notebooks, the exhibition has other famous literary luminaries’ work. There are also manuscripts and notes by groundbreaking scientists, including the French royal midwife Louise Bourgeois, and politcial campaigners including Mary Wollstonecraft. A beautifully embroidered book by a young Elizabeth I that she made for her stepmother is displayed next to the work of famous women bookbinders. 

  

The attention to Tolkien at the Bodleian is much deserved, but the stunning brilliance of women’s contributions on display right across the hall is worth equal, if not more, consideration, for how many women we constantly forget and have to rediscover are on display right next to the ones we never forget, reminding visitors of the depth and excellence of women’s contributions to history and how often they are overlooked. 

  

The exhibition was curated by Professor Senia Paseta, co-director of Women in the Humanities, and History Tutor at St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford. It remains on view through February 3, 2019.

  

Image: The only known surviving version of the board game Suffragetto. Courtesy of the Bodleian Library

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Allie Newman of Smithsonian Libraries in Washington DC:


0IMG_4142-ed.jpgWhat is your role at your institution?


I am the Library Technician of the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History Rare Books, part of Smithsonian Libraries and located in the National Museum of Natural History. Although my job title sounds relatively straight-forward, what I particularly love about my role is that no two days are alike: I’ve done everything from transcribing a 15th century manuscript passage for a rocket scientist, to finding the provenance of a specimen associated with Teddy Roosevelt for an ornithologist! My more run-of-the-mill duties include staffing the reading room, fetching materials, and fielding research questions, but also extend to packing and shipping rare books and maintaining our workflow as a book moves from conservation to cataloguing to digitization.

 

How did you get started in rare books?


I have always had a deep love of both books and “old stuff,” so it feels like my start in rare books was somewhat inevitable. But my bachelor’s degree in Linguistics at the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk!) really made the pieces start fitting together for me. I was particularly interested in the historical development of the English language, which meant that I was looking at a lot of scans of manuscripts in Old and Middle English. Growing up, I was a bit of a Renaissance art snob, and tended to ignore medieval art somewhat, but looking at it through a bibliographic lens was like flipping on a light switch! Desperate to do more work with manuscripts and early printed books in person, I came across the Material Culture and the History of the Book Masters of Science (MSc) program at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, which leads me to the next question...

 

Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?


I have two rare book related advanced degrees, which go hand in hand: the Material Culture and the History of the Book MSc is what made me a book historian and medievalist, but my Information Management and Digital Preservation MSc from the University of Glasgow is what made me a rare book librarian. Having access to the outstanding special collections of both universities allowed my love of manuscripts to bloom, as well as my understanding of the context in which the collections exist today.

 

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?


I have changed my answer to this question three times - from the first manuscript I got to handle by myself in the reading room of the University of Edinburgh, to the first time I held in my hands a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio at the University of Glasgow, and to the privilege of spending one-on-one time with the incomparable Hunterian Psalter - but the manuscript I keep going back to is Edinburgh MS 39, a c. 1430 English book of hours, use of Sarum. The intricate and distinctively English border decorations make every page of this manuscript candy for the eyes! It also features a 1958 rebinding by the English bindery of Douglas Cockerell and Son, the work of which is one of my chief research interests. The sympathetic rebinding in exposed oak boards is wonderfully charming and compliments the aesthetic of the manuscript beautifully. To me, it is the Platonic ideal of an illuminated manuscript.

 

What do you personally collect?


I collect pre-1900 miniature books, as well as normal-sized books that show interesting aspects of the history of the book, especially bindings. I also collect postcards of books and libraries! I’m beginning to sense I’m a bit of a one-trick pony...

 

What do you like to do outside of work?


As you might have guessed from reading some of my above answers, my research interests reach far and wide beyond the boundaries of natural history, so I like to do a lot of independent research outside of work! Right now I’m working on an article about Douglas Cockerell and Son, and how their work impacted the history of book conservation. I also maintain a very active personal-professional social media presence on Twitter and Instagram, both under the username @book_historia. In my spare time, I do a quite frankly unreasonable number of jigsaw puzzles.

 

What excites you about rare book librarianship?


Is it cheating to say “everything?” But really, from the most mundane circulation tasks to the fanciest donor relations events, I love caring for and sharing our collection. Working with objects that have outlived their creators many times over really brings home the temporary nature of our roles as caretakers of heritage, and the importance of introducing the next generation to their significance. One of my favorite things in the world is seeing peoples’ faces light up as they enter our reading room for a tour for the first time, or when I open a book to a beautiful plate for them.


The same goes for witnessing the unbridled joy of a researcher that finds what they need! An aspect of natural history rare book librarianship in particular that excites me to no end is the fact that Smithsonian curators are using our old books to do new science. The rule of priority, as described in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, states that the oldest available (i.e., published) name of an animal taxon is the correct formal scientific name; simply put, the oldest published valid scientific name of an animal is the one that has priority when describing the animal. This means that our collection gets a nice workout when scientists are looking to name a new species, and we get to see a lot of happy faces!

 

Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?


One of my passions as a book historian and rare book librarian has been, and continues to be, access. The special collections field has come so far recently in trying to make itself more visible to researchers beyond those that occupy the ivory towers, but I think it has a long way to go. The book world is at a very interesting crossroads at the moment between digital and physical, although I think the dust is beginning to settle somewhat; I hope that special collections continue to take advantage of using digital tools to provide access to physical books and increase general awareness of special collections libraries as a resource. Social media is one of these tools that I am particularly vocal about, and I’m lucky enough to be a member of the Smithsonian Libraries’ social media working group, which maintains a fabulous presence across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr, just to name a few platforms. Making the effort to meet potential researchers where they are counts for a lot, particularly if the researchers are a bit nervous about using collections for the first time.


But taking it a step further, I hope that the underlying biases against what were once seen as “non-traditional” users of special collections continue to dissipate. Increased access means bringing in new audiences who have never had the opportunity to make use of our collections, and may therefore use them for research or inspiration in fields beyond what some of us are used to. Nothing pleases me more than the collection being used in a productive manner, even if that manner is unfamiliar. In order for special collections to survive and thrive in the future, we need to embrace these new audiences and treat them with the same respect as we have always treated our researchers. I am excited to see where these emerging avenues will take us!

 

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?


The Cullman Library holds rare books relating to the divisions of the Natural History Museum, which means our beautiful plate books of bugs, birds and botany get a lot of play. But we also hold a number of works relating to the Department of Anthropology, including a wealth of 19th and early 20th century material in Native American languages. Although their content sometimes reflects a disturbing colonialist attitude towards indigenous peoples, the books are an incredible linguistic resource for the language revitalization of groups that have traditionally been oppressed, as well as for linguists and anthropologists interested in the development of language and the cultures that surround it.

 

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?


We have two new fabulous exhibitions opening in the fall! The first, coming this October, is titled Game Change: Elephants from Prey to Preservation, and traces the shift in public attitudes about elephants from the big game hunting of the 19th century to the critical conservation concerns of today. The core of the exhibition is items from the book, manuscript, and photograph collection of Russell E. Train, the founder of the World Wildlife Fund and second administrator of the EPA, which is now housed in the Cullman Library.


The second Smithsonian Libraries exhibition, opening in November, is the culmination of our 50th Anniversary year of celebrations, and is called Magnificent Obsessions. Since the Smithsonian’s founding in 1846, the Libraries have benefitted from passionate book collectors who developed specialized libraries on their topics of study, from design to wildlife to aerospace engineering. The gifts and bequests of these donors have helped develop the Smithsonian Libraries into a world-class resource, and this exhibition is focused on telling the collectors’ stories through the volumes they acquired. With such a variety of books to choose from, this is going to be an incredible show!



[Photo credit Paul Newman]













Initially released to theaters last year, Pressing On: The Letterpress Film becomes available on DVD & VOD today. Pressing On is a feature-length documentary that begins with a simple question: “Why hasn’t letterpress died?”

PressingOn_DigitalPoster_ExclusiveSmall copy.jpgPressing On is artfully composed and includes some great interviews with ‘old-timers’ and the new generation of printers that is benefiting from their knowledge and putting it to work. It is reminiscent of the 2009 film Typeface, which focused its attention on the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum (whose director, Jim Moran, is also interviewed in Pressing On). Pressing On is broader in scope -- spotlighting, for example, the Platen Press Museum in Zion, Illinois, and Nashville’s Hatch Show Print -- yet shares the sensibilities and sympathies of Typeface, and, well, letterpress lovers everywhere.

See for yourself by watching this trailer:

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film - Trailer #2 - Exclusive VOD from LetterpressFilm on Vimeo.



Image courtesy of Bayonet Media

very busy auction week coming up.

  

First, a quick survey of the five Aristophil sales this week: on Monday, June 18, Aguttes sells Beaux-arts, œuvres et correspondances, in 324 lots. Highlights are expected to include an illustrated Van Gogh letter (€250,000-300,000) and a second Van Gogh letter at the same estimated price, and Henri Matisse’s 1947 Jazz (€100,000-150,000). Tuesday sees two sales of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, at Drouot (96 lots) and Aguttes (116 lots). In the first, a collection of Paul Éluard’s letters to his first wife could sell for €300,000-400,000, and the manuscript for Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Maudits Soupirs pour une autre Fois (pictured below) is estimated at €250,000-300,000. At Aguttes, the top-estimated lot is a manuscript of Victor Segalen’s Stèles (€100,000-120,000).

celine.pngTwo music sales on Wednesday, June 20: Musique, de Jean-Sébastien Bach à Boulez at Ader (151 lots) and Musique, de Lully à Stravinsky at Aguttes (176 lots). At Ader, anticipated highlights include a manuscript fragment of a Bach cantata and a complete Beethoven signed manuscript (both estimated at €150,000-200,000). In the final sale of the week, a Mozart youth serenade manuscript could sell for €120,000-150,000.

  

Also on Tuesday, Lyon & Turnbull sells Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps & Photographs, in 432 lots. Richard Bowdler Sharpe’s monograph on birds of paradise rates the top estimate, at £15,000-18,000. Quite a few other interesting lots of ornithology and natural history more broadly. 

  

On Wednesday at Bonhams London, Fine Books, Manuscripts, Atlases & Historical Photographs, in 296 lots. Henry Popple’s twenty-sheet engraved map of North America could fetch £30,000-50,000, a notebook containing drafts of several Edward Thomas poems is estimated at £30,000-40,000, and a particularly fine copy of the first impression of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone rates a £25,000-35,000 estimate.

  

Dominic Winter Auctioneers sells Printed Books, Maps & Documents on Wednesday, in 535 lots. Items to watch include Bloch’s Ichthyologie (the first six parts bound in three volumes), estimated at £15,000-20,000, and an album containing 216 Hogarth etchings and engravings (£5,000-7,000).

  

A third sale on Wednesday is University Archives’ auction of Autographed Documents, Manuscripts, Books & Relics, in 266 lots. As usual with these sales, a fascinating array of notable things, but a large archive from Disraeli’s secretary Algernon Turnor is estimated at $40,000-50,000, and a ledger containing records of mail sent and received from Fort Bridger in 1860-1861 could sell for $30,000-40,000.

  

On Thursday, Swann Galleries sells Revolutionary & Presidential Americana from the Collection of William Wheeler III, in 229 lots. This catalog is definitely worth a browse for anyone with an interest in the field. Potential top lots include a May 3, 1776 pay order to express rider Jonathan Park and a Thomas Jefferson letter as Secretary of State to the governor of Maryland relating to the Genét affair (both estimated at $20,000-30,000), and a February 26, 1780 letter from George Washington to Nathanael Greene ($15,000-25,000).

  

Finally, also on Thursday, Dominic Winter Auctioneers holds a Modern Literature & First Editions sale, in 366 lots. This sale includes a number of children’s, fine press, and illustrated books, as well as toys, games, and film posters. A first issue of Casino Royale is estimated at £10,000-15,000, and a near-complete run of Matrix could fetch £2,000-3,000.

  

Image credit: Drouot

Q&A with Contemporary Artist Yuko Shimizu

When the Folio Society needed a contemporary artist for its recently published volume of medieval Japanese Fairy Tales they went straight to Yuko Shimizu, an award-winning illustrator and educator based in New York City. No, Hello Kitty fans, this is not the same Shimizu who created the iconic mouthless, bow-wearing white cat, but she is a great talent in her own right. Named “One of the 100 Japanese People the World Respects” by Newsweek Japan in 2009, Shimizu has racked up accolades for her work as a graphic illustrator for DC Comics, The New York Times, Wired, as well as designing for the Gap, Target, and Pepsi. In short, Shimizu has found the sweet spot for artists living by their craft. During a recent trip to Europe Shimizu graciously answered a few questions about her Folio Society commission, her work process, and what she hopes readers will learn from this project.


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Of the 170 stories in this collection, were you familiar with any of them from your own childhood in Tokyo? Were there any that were new to you or that surprised you? “Monk’s Jokes,” for example, surprised me.


The author, editor, and scholar Mr. Tyler has deeper knowledge in Japanese history and classic literature more so than much of the population from Japan, I must say. These stories are not your typical Japanese folktales. These are well-researched and legitimate old stories that most people in Japan have, sadly, forgotten. 


Just like kids who grew up with Disney versions don’t know the real Snow White story, or how Little Mermaid ends in original book, the stories I grew up are similar, but also very different from the original stories in this book. I only knew a handful of stories, and even those handful had different twists, endings and teachings from the kids book versions I grew up with. I was constantly amazed reading the book.


How did you research this project?


I am fluent in both Japanese and English, so it made my research easy. I looked up the specific things that are mentioned in the story, mostly on Japanese websites. I did visual research as well as reading written materials. I don’t use Japanese on everyday basis, but for a project like this one, my language skill comes in handy.

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You’ve worked on a range of projects, from magazine covers to children’s books. What made illustrating a book of medieval Japanese tales different? Or is there a similar process for every illustration project?


In fact, every project is different. I used to work in a corporate office setting, and I had to quit because I really couldn’t deal with having same/very similar routine every day. I lost track of time. I couldn’t remember something happened a year ago or five years ago. I love illustrating, because every project starts from scratch, and each needs its own process from the start to the finish, which is different from any other projects that are previously done.


Your work is a combination of ancient and modern techniques: calligraphy brushwork that is digitally edited, creating a refreshing and unique aesthetic. Your other work often has a more edgy feel, but Japanese Tales runs more traditional. Could you talk about your decision to stay away from a more contemporary look? Also, the endpapers and cutout clamshell case are silvery and divine.

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It’s more shifted toward traditional, because the project and the subject called for it. These are very very old stories, much older than Shakespeare. So, they call for being treated as such. I like the edgy looks, but not everything needs to be edgy either. But of course, though the images look mostly traditional, they are also made with very contemporary technique, and I hope these drawings become bridges between the old world where those stories were created and the contemporary readers who are reading them now.


I can’t take credit for how beautiful the book design is. My art director at Folio Society, Raquel Leis Allion designed them, and it was a huge surprise to see the amazing attention to the smallest of details. I love how gorgeous the book and slipcase design came out!


Did you have a favorite illustration or character? The double-page spreads of “The Invisible Man” and “The Dog and his Wife” are my favorites.


I like them all for their own different reasons, but it is true The Invisible Man was the most labor intensive of the set.


What do you hope your illustrations will teach readers about Japanese stories and the culture they come from?


Illustrations are the doorway to lead the readers into actually reading the books. I hope my images help them in that sense. Reading the actual tales, you really learn about the tradition, history and the customs of Ancient Japan. I am a Japanese, and I still learned a ton from them. I hope the readers will enjoy the process of reading, and learning and discovering something new from them.


Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu for The Folio Society’s edition of Japanese Tales. Courtesy of the Folio Society.

At auction in New York earlier today, the Portland Audubon -- the double-elephant folio of Audubon’s Birds of America once owned by the dukes of Portland -- sold for $9.65 million.

Screen Shot 2018-06-15 at 1.31.19 PM.pngOne of only thirteen copies left in private hands, the Portland Audubon was last seen at auction in 2012, when it sold just shy of $8 million. Because of its vibrant illustrations and full morocco binding, it is considered “undoubtedly among the very finest” copies of Audubon’s masterpiece, according to Christie’s. The bidding today started at $6 million and proceeded cautiously to $8.3 million, selling with premium for a total of $9.65 million. Thus is does not break the record for Birds of America, still held by the Hesketh copy sold in December 2010 for the equivalent of $11.5 million.

-To read more about how the proceeds of this sale will be used: https://www.audubon.org/news/a-rare-copy-audubons-birds-america-heads-auction-benefit-conservation

-To read more about John James Audubon’s personal history: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-cm-audubon-birds-america-20180531-story.html

-To read more about the birds featured within: https://www.christies.com/features/Little-citizens-of-the-feathered-tribe-Audubon-Birds-of-America-9171-3.aspx

Image courtesy of Christie’s

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Brenna Bychowski, a catalog / metadata librarian at the Beinecke Rare book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.


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What is your role at your institution?


I’m a catalog/metadata librarian in the Rare Book Cataloging Unit at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. We are responsible for the cataloging of printed materials, both new acquisitions and items from Beinecke’s backlog. We approach the definition of “printed materials” expansively, including monographs, serials, cartographic materials, graphics, printed music, recorded music, realia ... essentially all materials that aren’t digital or manuscript (and even then, there are exceptions). As a cataloger, I create bibliographic descriptions of these materials so users can find them in our online catalog. This not only includes providing relatively basic information, such as accurate title, author, publication, and extent statements, but also supplying additional access through subject and genre description, as well as copy-specific information, such as provenance. When describing a mass-produced monograph published this year, cataloging work can be relatively straightforward. But often the most interesting materials to work with present descriptive challenges. They might require more detailed description, such as the collation statements we create for early hand-press books, or they could lack many of the standard descriptive elements, such as ephemera that does not have a title, or a publisher, or any discernable date or location. Doing the research to fill in these gaps or figuring out how to craft an accurate, useful catalog record for an unusual item is what keeps me coming back to my desk every day. Our work is behind-the-scenes and often invisible, so it’s also rewarding every time I hear that a researcher found new or unexpected sources as a result of my cataloging.

 

How did you get started in rare books?


As with many special collections librarians I know, I fell into the field sideways and completely by accident. I spent a summer as an undergraduate doing research at the Newberry Library in Chicago, and while I dreamed about being able to work at a library with such amazing materials, I didn’t realize that special collections librarianship was its own area of practice. Then, when I began library school at Indiana University, Bloomington (where I took advantage of their dual degree program to also earn an MA in History), I planned to go into reference in an academic library, to help teach undergraduates to do research. But one of my classes took a trip to visit the Lilly Library (IU’s exquisite special collections library) and within a few weeks I’d e-mailed the head of public services at the Lilly, asking if she would be willing to take me on as an intern. She kindly agreed, and over the course of a semester I curated two exhibitions, answered e-mail reference questions, gave exhibit tours to groups of fifth graders, spent a week in archival processing, and generally immersed myself in the collections. My internship led to jobs as a reading room attendant, a page, and a student assistant to the manuscripts archivist, as well as volunteering for one of the rare book catalogers. With the addition of the excellent special collections classes offered by my program, I quickly knew I wouldn’t be as happy in any other kind of library. When I started applying for special collections positions, it was my cataloging skills that got me interviews and, eventually, a job. Once I began cataloging professionally, there was no going back to public services, though I try to channel my cataloging knowledge into reference, education, and outreach whenever I have the chance.

 

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?


With all the incredible books I’ve worked with over the past few years, I could make an extensive list. But I’ll go with The Growth of Industrial Art, put out by the Government Printing Office in 1892. It’s a massive book (51 cm tall) and lavishly illustrated. Each page traces the historical development of a particular invention through drawings of that invention, with many of the illustrations taken from applications to the U.S. Patent Office. It covers everything from furniture to musical instruments to farm equipment. There’s even a page dedicated to “cork extractors” that includes a drawing of a man pulling a cork out of a bottle with his teeth, before advancing to more modern (and more efficacious) corkscrews. When I had the chance to catalog a copy, I was about six months into my first professional library job, at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., and up to that point I’d primarily been copy cataloging 21st century materials. Working with The Growth of Industrial Art was the first time that I was so taken with the book I was cataloging that I devoted a little more time to it than was strictly necessary. It absolutely delighted me (and still does).

 

What do you personally collect?


I have two main book collecting areas. The first is volumes of folk tales and fairy tales. I had a fabulous English teacher in eighth grade who did an entire unit on different versions and retellings of Cinderella that turned me on to the incredible power of these stories, and that year, I bought my first copy of the Brothers Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I now have an array of tales from throughout the world, though I’m still weak in non-Western traditions. My collection also includes modern adaptations (representing a drop in the bucket of the riches available), which range from picture books to Y.A. novels to stories aimed at adults.


My second focus is editions of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which are the two books I’ve probably read more than any others in my life. Half the collection is translations, acquired with generous assistance of friends and family on their travels. The other half is English-language, where I usually look for editions with added scholarly content (e.g. the various editions of Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice) or with illustrations other than the originals by John Tenniel.  My collection also encompasses a handful of non-monograph Alice-iana, including an oversized deck of playing cards with notches in the sides for building card houses and an audio dramatization on both cassette and LP.


I also have an ever-increasing collection of vinyl records. Classical music is among my favorite genres, and there are many wonderful recordings that never made the transition to CD or digital. But I also enjoy the intentionality that putting on a record brings to the experience of listening to music. It especially encourages me to appreciate an album in its entirety, rather than just a handful of favorite songs shuffled into disparate playlists.

 

What do you like to do outside of work?


I am passionate about music (see the vinyl collection above), and it’s a rare moment when I don’t have something playing in my apartment (metal for baking, Disney for cleaning, anything and everything for reading...). Additionally, I practice multiple kinds of needle work: cross stitching, knitting, crocheting, and periodic attempts at shuttle tatting. I’m also a jigsaw puzzle aficionado, and the card table in my living room tends to cycle between in-progress puzzles and sprawled out stitching projects. In more social recreation, my friends and I enjoy arranging bad movie nights. We pick a movie that looks entertainingly terrible and then try to find a cocktail recipe that thematically goes with the movie. We’ve had movies fail, and cocktails fail, but I don’t think we’ve yet had both fail together.

 

What excites you about rare book librarianship?


Quite simply, I love the materials I handle every day. Whenever I think I’ve seen everything my job has to offer, a surprise comes across my desk. Whether it is a Venetian incunable from 1487 or a souvenir postcard from Rialto, California in 1910, with a manuscript note discussing the weather, the sender’s new embroidered shirtwaist, and the price of eggs, there’s always something that draws me back into the history and the human connection of the items I catalog. When I describe my job to non-librarians, I like to say that working in special collections, as either a practitioner or a researcher, is like spending time in a museum where you’re allowed to touch things. Rare book libraries treasure and nurture the intersection of materiality and intellectual content, and I find that the intermingling of, and occasional tensions between, these two facets of our collections drives and inspires the work that we do.

 

Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?


As our society is increasingly embroiled in struggles over the validity of competing facts and the narratives spun from those facts, all libraries are ever more necessary to level the playing field for free and open access to information. But special collections libraries are uniquely situated to provide access to the primary sources of our shared past. To fully embrace this role, however, we must be inclusive and broadly encompassing, in what we collect, the stories we use our collections to tell, and who we tell these stories to. As I know from all my interactions with my fellow special collections practitioners, our field is filled with the passion and talent to find these diverse materials and to make them accessible to the present while preserving them for the future. Special collections are for everyone, and we should strive to ensure that all facets of our work, from acquisitions, to cataloging, to outreach, send this message clearly and unambiguously. This goal is a challenge, but it’s one the field is increasingly embracing to wonderful result.

 

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?


I’m currently cataloging a fascinating collection of books and serials relating to the history of spies and the intelligence profession. It was collected by Walter L. Pforzheimer, who worked with the OSS in World War II and eventually became a lawyer for the CIA. The materials cover a range of topics and genres, including plays about Benedict Arnold, French pamphlets about the Diamond Necklace Affair, German monographs on the social implications of outlawing prostitution in Berlin, and even one book that was mysteriously blank after the title page. Prior to working with this collection, I would never have guessed how many journals, magazines, and newsletters the intelligence profession has, and many of these titles have not been previously cataloged. I created an original record for a CIA newsletter a few weeks ago, and when I told my boss, he said, “Maybe there’s a reason it hadn’t been cataloged before...” But the CIA hasn’t come to take me away yet, so I think my cataloging is safe?

 

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?


The current exhibition at the Beinecke is called Text and Textile. It highlights what I mentioned before, how special collections libraries are perfectly placed to explore the intersection of materiality and content. It examines the importance of textiles in literature, labor history, and fashion history, using materials that span the Beinecke’s collections. It also features printing on textiles and paper as textile.


[Photo by David D. Driscoll]














Summer is just about here, and for many people that means at least a few days of vacation, preferably with a tome or two in tow (sorry). If you’re in need of a recommendation for a great book about books, here are four new arrivals -- two fiction and two non-fiction -- that I heartily enjoyed.

Dante JPG.jpgThe Dante Chamber by Matthew Pearl

  

Readers of FB&C will be familiar with novelist Matthew Pearl from Nick Basbanes’ profile of him in our summer 2016 issue, and many will also recall his bestselling 2003 debut, The Dante Club. Now, fifteen years on, Pearl delivers another riveting Dante-inspired thriller, this time set in merry Old England in 1870. And while The Dante Club murderer drew from Dante’s Inferno for inspiration, the culprit in this case envisions a new Purgatory. Poets to the rescue! Christina Rossetti corrals Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes to help her find her brother, painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who has gone missing. Full of historical detail but never dull, Pearl’s new novel is, in a word, killer. Dare we await Paradise?

Lost for Words 1.00.44 PM.jpgThe Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

  

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to own every edition of every book by a particular writer...” We couldn’t agree more! The Lost for Words Bookshop seems to masquerade as a light bookshop tale, but plumb the depths and some grim themes emerge. Loveday Cardew is a twentysomething clerk in a used bookstore in York, England, who goes to great lengths to hide her past, which included a long stretch in a foster home. Just as she begins to let her guard down, maybe even fall in love, books from her childhood begin to surface at the shop. Less a standard mystery than a dramatic novel whose characters have deep dark secrets, it is relatable and charming.

Selling cover.jpgSelling Dead People’s Things: Inexplicably True Tales, Vintage Fails & Objects of Objectionable Estates by Duane Scott Cerny

  

Over twenty-eight chapters of varying length and subject matter, readers will literally ‘laugh out loud,’ while reading this memoir of life in the antiques business by Cerny, co-owner of Chicago’s Broadway Antique Market. He pairs behind-the-scenes dirt on the antiques biz with his nitty-gritty experiences in ‘picking’ and scouting. Cerny is a fantastic storyteller, and while his tone is somewhere between entertaining and downright zany, some of the chapters are nonetheless oddly endearing, e.g. one about a childhood experience visiting the house of neighbors who hoarded religious relics (and were rumored to have a connection to Mussolini) or his quest to buy a two-headed taxidermied lamb.   

medieval_bodies.jpgMedieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Harnell

  

Go ahead and judge this book by its spectacular dust jacket -- or its decorative endpapers, numerous illustrations, and ribbon bookmark. In scholarly and engaging prose (akin to Christopher de Hamel’s Meeting with Remarkable Manuscripts, another favorite of ours) Hartnell demystifies the Middle Ages by examining the physical and the figurative body, from head to toe. Abundant illustrations of manuscripts, paintings, and relics surprise and delight at nearly every page turn. It isn’t right to call this book a beach read because it’s too handsome to handle with greasy or wet hands, so take this one elsewhere, ideally on a flight to Florence.    

But don’t stop there! Here are 9 more summer reads of bibliophilic interest, as featured on our summer issue’s Q&C page:

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

Anywhere That is Wild: John Muir’s First Walk to Yosemite, edited by Peter and Donna Thomas

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions by Alberto Manguel

Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan by Ted Scheinman

The Infinite Future: A Novel by Tim Wirkus

Pasta for Nightingales: A 17th-Century Handbook of Bird-Care and Folklore by Giovanni Pietro Olina

Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow

Confessions of the Fox: A Novel by Jordy Rosenberg

Readers’ Liberation by Jonathan Rose

Images courtesy of the publishers

A big week in the book-auction world, with a set of Birds of America on the block this Thursday.

  

At Bonhams New York on Tuesday, June 12, Fine Books and Manuscripts, in 287 lots. Top-estimated lots include an autograph manuscript of Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto” ($250,000-350,000); a c.1489 Basel edition of Aesop, the first printed in Switzerland ($60,000-80,000); a first edition of Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum ($50,000-80,000); and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, extracted from the First Folio ($50,000-80,000). Audubon’s autograph manuscript of the description of the Crested Titmouse for his Ornithological Biography is estimated at $10,000-15,000.

  

PBA Galleries sells 205 lots of Rare Books & Manuscripts on Thursday, June 14. Among the expected highlights are a signed copy of the 1972 George Allen & Unwin edition of The Lord of the Rings ($8,000-12,000); the 1858 volume of The Zoologist containing the second printing of Darwin and Wallace’s first papers on natural selection ($8,000-12,000); and a complete set of Dickens’ Christmas Books, all first editions ($7,000-10,000).

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Christie’s New York will sell The Portland Audubon on Thursday, June 14, at 2 p.m. This is a truly great copy of Birds of America, being sold by the Knobloch Family Foundation; it last sold at Christie’s on January 10, 2012, for $7,922,500. It is estimated at $8-12 million this time around. For the many Audubonophiles out there (myself included), this will be the one to watch this week. Following the Audubon set are 212 additional lots of Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts, Including Americana, and there are definitely some great lots in this part of the sale as well: a 1468 illuminated portolan atlas on vellum ($1.2-1.8 million), a first edition of Audubon’s Quadrupeds ($200,000-300,000), one of just six known proof copies on wove paper of the Stone facsimile of the Declaration of Independence ($200,000-300,000), and a Shakespeare Second Folio ($150,000-200,000). There’s also a copy of the first issue of MacWorld, signed by Jobs and Wozniak ($40,000-60,000).

  

Image credit: Christie’s

We heard the sad news earlier this week that antiquarian bookseller William (Bill) Reese passed away. “He was universally acknowledged to be the greatest American antiquarian bookseller of his generation, known for his expertise in Americana, color plate books, natural history, exploration, literature, and the history of the book, and also widely celebrated as a man of uncommon graciousness, generosity, humor, and decency,” writes fellow bookseller John Schulman on the ABAA blog. (Full obituary here.)

Reese.jpgI snapped this picture of Bill at the 2014 Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, where a lucky group of Brown University undergrads was getting a lesson in rare books from him.  

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Readers may recall a story posted back in December about the Albertine Prize, an annual award co-presented by jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy that recognizes American readers’ favorite contemporary French fiction translated into English. The reading public was invited to vote at Albertine’s website, and pretty much stuff the ballot box with their favorites.


This year’s five nominees included:

  

Incest by Christine Angot, trans. by Tess Lewis, Archipelago Books
Compass by Mathias Enard, trans. by Charlotte Mandel, New Directions
The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis, trans. by Michael Lucey, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, trans. by Helen Stevenson, The New Press
Not One Day by Anne Garréta, trans. by Emma Ramadan, Deep Vellum


Interest in the prize was drummed up on April 10 when LitHub’s editor-in-chief Jonny Diamond, The New Yorker’s H.C. Wilentz, Albertine’s director Tom Roberge, and others shared their favorites.


The winner of the $10,000 prize was finally revealed to a packed house on Wednesday, June 6, with French literary critic and la Grande Librarie host François Busnel and translator Lydia Davis. The grand prize went to Anne Garréta’s Not One Day (Deep Vellum, 2017) translated by Emma Ramadan. Garréta’s twelve vignettes exploring memory and desire was originally published as Pas Un Jour in 2002 (éditions Grasset) and awarded the prestigious Prix Medicis. The winnings are split between author and translator and assure the book greater exposure to an English-speaking audience. Congratulations to the winners!

  

Photo courtesy of the French Embassy of New York

angel3.jpgWhen Barbara Slate was breaking new ground as a woman writing and illustrating comic books she wasn’t aware she should be saving the associated drafts and paperwork that went into creating her work. Then she met Center for Book Arts founder and distinguished book artist Richard Minsky, and he encouraged her to save everything. Now he is releasing a catalogue in preparation for the sale of the archive of her work, a project 30 years in the making that documents a crucial and often overlooked history in comic books -- the work of women artists in mainstream comics and the history of girl readership.

  
Minsky said of Slate’s relevance, “From her creation of Ms. Liz, the liberated woman character who first appeared on greeting cards in 1976, to her recent political cartoons on social media, Barbara Slate has been in the forefront of communicating strong role models to girls and women of all ages.”
  
Now, because of careful stewardship, Slate’s archive takes up 35 cubic feet of space, includes copies of her published comic books and work including scripts, layouts, editorial comments, drafts, revisions, original art, press clippings, ephemera, and digital materials. It also includes many unpublished works, screenplays, and commissioned projects, and even a pair of roller skates.
  
Before Slate’s groundbreaking Angel Love, a comic that ran in DC Comics from 1986-87, comics marketed for teen girls and women were focused on traditional values and aspirational lives like Betty and Veronica, which Slate also wrote and drew, and superheroes like Batgirl and Wonder Woman.
 
But Slate’s Angel Love was an unusual comic; it was, she explained, “full of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. When it came on the scene there was nothing like it that dealt with things going on for real in girls lives.” Unlike Betty and Veronica, Angel Love didn’t avoid sex, tragedy, abuse, difficult family relationships, divorce, or other challenges facing young women growing up. The series was the first by a mainstream comics publisher to tackle these topics, and, as a result, Slate’s work faced both condemnation and critical acclaim, and was labeled for mature readers without the Comics Code Authority Seal. One of the results of Angel Love was honest fan mail from teens telling her that it had made a difference in their lives, that she represented their lives, and that they’d found an honest storyteller in her, and therefore a friend -- this fan mail is a part of the archive.
 
Even a quick scroll through Minsky’s preview of Slate’s archive demonstrates what a significant piece of comics history Slate’s work represents, particularly since Slate worked both in alternative and mainstream comics. She drew traditional characters as well as girls and women who represented women that hadn’t been seen in comic books before -- a refreshing addition when so many women featured in comic books are a kind of dreamgirl stereotype and the representation of a male comic book artist’s fantasy. 
  
A limited edition of the Barbara Slate catalogue is available for pre-order. And those lucky enough to live in New York and want to learn how to make graphic novels can take her course at Cooper Union this June. 
  
Image courtesy of Barbara Slate

Our Bright Young Librarians series continues today with Sara Trotta, librarian at the Congregational Library and Archives.


BYLTrotta redux.jpgWhat is your role at your institution? (And please introduce our readers as well to the Congregational Library, as some may not be familiar).

 

I’m the Librarian at the Congregational Library & Archives. We’re a small staff, so everyone does a little bit of everything, but I’m primarily responsible for our published materials. I catalog our printed material, support research within the collections, and plan outreach activities. Currently, I’m managing a collection-wide inventory and a processing project to provide better description to some of the institution’s core collections relating to mid-20th-century denominational merger and the published reports of a variety of 19th-century benevolent societies.


The Congregational Library & Archives was founded in 1853 as a library for Congregational ministers and has evolved into a research center collecting material on the history of the Congregational church from the Puritans to the present incarnation of the denomination in the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the Conservative Congregational Christian Churches. The history of Congregationalism is intimately bound up with early American history and the social movements in which Congregationalists actively participated such as abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage.


How did you get started in rare books?

 

When I was an undergraduate at Boston University, I took a course in modern American poetry;  the professor brought us to the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center so we could look through the personal papers and rough drafts of the poets we were studying--Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop. For the first time, I felt like I was participating in a larger scholarly understanding of the material I was studying and like my work was serious enough to warrant a glimpse behind the curtain.


At Simmons, I took a course on the history of the book with Sidney Berger. His enthusiasm for the topic was infectious, and I was hooked. As my capstone project, I interned at the Congregational Library, assisting with the cataloging of local church history material and answering reference questions. I had the good fortune to graduate just as my supervisor moved on to a new job and was offered the position of Assistant Librarian.


Where did you earn your MLS/advanced degree?

 

School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College

 

Favorite rare book / ephemera that you’ve handled?

 

This question is so difficult because I find something new and wonderful in the stacks several times a week. One of my favorite things that I’ve come across is a copy of “The Theological Works of Thomas Paine” previously owned by someone who clearly hated Thomas Paine. Nearly every page contains angry marginalia, including the frontispiece where the caption “Thomas Paine” is followed by “aka the devil.” I love getting a glimpse into a book’s past lives and seeing how its previous owners interacted with it.


What do you personally collect?

 

I’m a casual collector of books on folklore, fairy tales, and urban legends. I’m fascinated by the way what are essentially the same stories get told over and over again just with different window dressing. What stays constant and what gets changed and why? I’m particularly fond of books with interesting publishers bindings.Outside of books, I collect magnets from my travels.


What do you like to do outside of work?

 

I like to spend my free time reading, doing yoga, and painting old furniture. I also have a soft spot for kitschy tourist traps. Last year, a coworker and I drove up to Portland, Maine, to go to the International Cryptozoology Museum.


What excites you about rare book librarianship?

 

Special collections are inherently expansive. Every item in the collection can be engaged with on a variety of levels--its content, the physical object, all of the markings of its previous owners and the stops it made along the way to finding its place in our collection. There is always another thread to follow and something new to learn.


I love that I have the chance not only to share all the weird and wonderful things I find at work with people who are as excited by them as I am but also to show people that rare books are part of a shared historical record and this history belongs to them too. The Library is situated not too far off of Boston’s Freedom Trail, so we have a fair amount of people who wander into our reading room, which is open to the public, to ask about some of the more well-known items in our collection. They’re often surprised when I ask if they’d like to take a look and offer to bring the item down for them. I love that I’m able to feed people’s curiosity and show them that their curiosity alone is a good enough reason to use our material.


Recently we had a group of middle schoolers come through for a confirmation class. I had brought out some Bible story trading cards from the collection to show them and was surprised by how interesting they found them. They were very excited to tell me about the trading cards their church printed and later sent us a pack to be added to the collection. I love that this job gives me the opportunity to facilitate this dialog between past and present and help others see themselves reflected in our collections.


Thoughts on the future of special collections / rare book librarianship?


Without exception, everyone I’ve met working in special collections is incredibly passionate about their work and excited to share it with the world. There are so many conversations taking place about breaking down old barriers and increasing accessibility to and inclusiveness of our collections.  I’m excited about the ways that rare books and special collections can be used to support the practices of public history. People deserve to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the historical record not only because it makes the record more complete, but also they then have a stake in its preservation. I look forward to seeing how our definition of who uses special collections and what is worthy of collecting continue to expand.

 

Any unusual or interesting collection at your library you’d like to draw our attention to?


Congregationalists liked to keep tabs on what other denominations were getting up to, and because the bulk of our printed collection is from the 19th-century, this means we’ve acquired a significant amount of material on Spiritualism, a religious movement based on the belief that it is possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead. We have a host of pamphlets by both advocates and critics which include discussions of Satanic agency and table-turning and discourses on government from the spirit of Thomas Jefferson as told through a medium 27 years after his death. Items from this collection are great to trot out for Halloween, but they also show how these different religious movements remained in dialogue with one another.

 

Any upcoming exhibitions at your library?

 

It’s in the very early stages, but we’re planning an exhibition of the S. Brainard Pratt Collection. Pratt was a local businessman, president of the Bible Illuminators’ Guild, director of the American Congregational Association and avid collector of Bibles and biblical literature. We’ll be celebrating the completion of an inventory of the collection and showcasing conservation work done on two bibles Pratt illuminated himself. This collection boasts some of the Library’s most unique and interesting items, from human bones to a spiritualist bible. Our intern, Brittnee Worthy, has done a tremendous amount of work uncovering the stories behind the items in the collection, and I’m very excited to share them with the public.

 



[Image provided by Sara Trotta]










Readers of our summer issue were treated to a history of the Little Blue Books, written by Steven Cox, the curator of special collections and university archives at Pittsburg State University (PSU) in Pittsburg, Kansas. A full-length biography of the Little Blue Books’ complicated creator, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, was also published this spring. And now, in a bid to keep the momentum going into the series’ one hundredth anniversary in 2019, PSU has put out a call for papers for a two-day symposium called The Little Blue Books at 100: Haldeman-Julius’s Revolutionary Publishing Venture. It is scheduled for March 29-30, 2019.

Little Blue Books.jpgHaldeman-Julius, long a proponent of socialism and free thought, took over the nation’s largest socialist newspaper, The Appeal, in March 1919. Soon thereafter he began publishing inexpensive and immensely popular little books on a variety of topics.

As Cox explained in a recent email, “During the course of his career, which spanned over thirty years, Haldeman-Julius printed and sold an estimated 500,000,000+ Little Blue Books, with over 2,000 different titles..... Haldeman-Julius, with help from his wife Marcet, revolutionized, if not created, mass-market publishing, making his products affordable to all. He also pushed the boundaries of publishing norms by being one of the earliest publishers to publish sexual education information. He popularized the self-help/improvement book, and was among the earliest to decry racial segregation and was the first to publish African-American literature anthologies.” 

PSU invites proposals for individual papers (including undergraduate and graduate-level papers) that explore the phenomenon of the Little Blue Books, and Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. These topics include, but are not limited to:

  
    •    Emanuel Haldeman-Julius
    •    Marcet Haldeman-Julius
    •    Haldeman-Julius’s Publishing and Marketing Measures
    •    The Socialist Press of Girard, Kansas
    •    Little Blue Books as Textbooks
    •    The Writers of the Little Blue Books
    •    Series found within the Little Blue Books
    •    The Legacy of the Little Blue Books
    •    Publishing Aspects of the Little Blue Books
    •    Little Blue Books as Literature
    •    Little Blue Books: Socialist Literature or Open-Minded/Free-Thinking Literature?
 
For more  information, visit: http://libguides.pittstate.edu/Haldeman-Julius_Symposium.
  

Image courtesy of PSU

Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house hosts a sale of Autographs, Manuscripts, and Certificates on Monday, June 4, in 404 lots. A Maximilian Stadler music manuscript has the highest opening bid at €20,000. Much of the rest of the material starts in the low-to-mid three-digits, though.

  

On Tuesday, June 5, Swann Galleries sells Illustration Art, in 257 lots. See Rebecca’s post for a good survey of the original book cover art offered. Other highlights include an original Peanuts strip, “Do you like Beethoven?” (estimated at $20,000-30,000), Charles Addams’ New Yorker cover “Penguin Convention” ($15,000-25,000), Arthur Rackham’s “Danaë and the Infant Perseus” from the 1922 Hodder & Stoughton edition of Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book ($10,000-15,000), and Harrison Cady’s “Peter Rabbit and His Friends,” a 1926 cover for Lady’s Home Journal using characters from Thornton W. Burgess stories ($7,000-10,000).

  

Also at Swann, on Thursday, June 7, Maps & Atlases, Natural History & Color Plate Books, in 397 lots. Audubon’s “Fish Hawk” (Osprey) from the Birds of America could sell for $30,000-50,000, while a subscriber’s copy of the first octavo edition of Birds is estimated at $25,000-35,000. An 1827 map of Virginia, not publicly recorded for sale since 1963, rates a $20,000-30,000 estimate. Some other notable lots from this sale include a collection of ocean liner passenger ephemera and a deck of playing cards from around 1870 with the original box, complete with brass scorekeeping arrows(!); both of these are estimated at $200-300.

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Skinner’s online sale of Fine Books & Manuscripts (noted in last week’s post) continues through June 8.

  

Image credit: Swann Galleries

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A recent trip to the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) to inspect, among other items, a panel painting newly attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, revealed a curatorial trend of removing informational wall panels and captions. This captionless experiment was being played out in the museum’s Renaissance and Old Masters galleries.


“The Museum is working on alternative design approaches that encourage new ways for visitors to interact with and participate in daily uses of the gallery,” reads the WAM website. In Worcester’s Renaissance gallery, informative text has been replaced by interactive iPads and laminated guides stored in hanging bins around the room.


As a museum-goer accustomed to informative text, the absence was jarring--is the portrait on the wall a Vermeer or a Rembrandt? To answer that required firing up the communal electronic device or hoping the plastic info sheets weren’t missing. The experience brought up the question of whether or not informative captions distract from artistic enjoyment and contemplation.

                                                                                                                                    Captions have become something of a controversial topic in the museum world, for reasons ranging from misleading facts to funding concerns to pleasing everyone in an age of political correctness. In a 2015 ArtNews article, WAM director Matthias Waschek expressed great pleasure at removing “that damn piece of paper,” referring to wall labels, allowing works of art to speak for themselves. Yet for those without a degree in art history, properly constructed captions provide welcome nuance and context.


“I guess I’m old fashioned,” said Brazilian art historian, curator, and collector Pedro Corrêa do Lago recently when asked about his preference for informative captions. Corrêa do Lago has amassed over 100,000 autographs, manuscripts, and other handwritten items that span nearly a millennium and which are now subject of a new exhibition at the Morgan Library. The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Correa do Lago Collection showcases 140 jewels from his archives that bear the signatures and handwriting by a who’s who of the world’s creators, performers, and thinkers. (See Nick Basbanes’s forthcoming profile on Corrêa do Lago in the next issue of FB&C.)


Corrêa do Lago wanted viewers to enjoy the exhibition at hand while also understanding the rationale behind the inclusion of each piece. How then, to tie together material hailing from six distinct disciplines in the Morgan’s intimate Engelhard Gallery? To do this, he turned to Brazilian husband-and-wife team Daniela Thomas and Felipe Tassara, the duo responsible for designing the Rio 2016 Olympic Opening Ceremony. At the Morgan, Thomas and Tassara organized the items like rows of cream-white Greek stele; each autograph sheet is raised at an angle, as if on a writing desk, protected only by a thin film of plexiglass, while large-font informative text greets the viewer at eye level. The result is a wholly immersive and informative experience.


“The text is critical,” explained Thomas. “It explains why Pedro selected these specific pieces, and how the power of handwriting can connect us to great people.”

  

Unaccompanied by captions, however, a letter bearing the thumbprint signature of physicist Stephen Hawking or other slips of paper become no more than marks on a page.

  

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Images: (Top) Entry to Morgan Exhibit. (Bottom) A row of autographed pages. Credit: Barbara Basbanes Richter 

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