News | September 11, 2023

New Project Focuses on How the Baskerville Typeface was Created

Cambridge University Library

Baskerville punches housed at Cambridge University Library

'Small performances' will allow researchers at Cambridge University Library to step back in time to look at the creation of one of the world’s most popular and enduring typefaces, Baskerville.

A second project at the library looking at the secrets contained within sacred texts of some of the world’s major religions has also been funded via large grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The Baskerville typeface is familiar to billions of readers and users of standard computer software across the world. However, the story behind its creation by John Baskerville (1707-75) is much less widely known in spite of the fact that he was England's foremost printer, and what he called his "small performances" in typeface design "went forth to astonish all librarians of Europe". 

This interdisciplinary project aims to make a substantial contribution to the history of printing technology while ensuring this is a living process that will continue into the future. At its heart is the exceptional collection of typographic punches designed, cut, and used at Baskerville's workshop in Birmingham, which are owned by Cambridge University Press & Assessment and now held at Cambridge University Library. Baskerville served as University Printer. 

Individually engraved in steel, punches were the first of three stages in the manufacturing of metal type - one that posed challenges in both materials and design - and therefore they preserve otherwise inaccessible information that can be unlocked through scientific study. Researchers hope that this work will transform understanding of the collection of Baskerville punches and benefit current industrial and craft applications, as well as educational projects.
The second project is 'Hidden in Plain Sight: Historical and Scientific Analysis of Premodern Sacred Books'. According to the library:

At the heart of most religions are their sacred texts. Across the ages, sacred books have been venerated, but also heavily used, and even modified to accommodate new religious cultures and sensitivities. Buddhist sutras were inserted into sculptures, while Qur'anic verses were sealed into West-African amulets, never to be opened. Bibles have been treasured and displayed, but also mutilated, with texts and images blotted or knifed by reformers or members of opposing religions. Little is known about the transformations of premodern sacred books, which have often gone unnoticed by scholars and wider audiences alike.

The project will help address this lack of knowledge by using a range of innovative technologies rarely used within historical studies. Complex technical imaging, 3D microscopy, Micro-CT scanning, DNA analysis and a range of spectroscopic methods will reveal hitherto unnoticed traces of the way sacred books and talismans were used, modified, and venerated.