Rare Books

The Quest to Unlock an Ancient Library

“The idea is that you’re not just conserving the image digitally—you can actually restore it digitally,” Seales explained, in his earnest, go-getter way. The potential struck him in 1995, when he was assisting Kevin Kiernan, an English professor, on a digital-imaging project involving the only extant copy of “Beowulf,” the medieval masterwork, which is in the British Library. The manuscript was damaged in a fire in 1731. The Kentucky team used a variety of techniques, including one called multispectral imaging, or MSI—developed by NASA for use in mapping mineral deposits during planetary flyovers—to make the letters stand out from the charred background. The basic principle is that different surfaces reflect light differently, especially in the infrared part of the spectrum. Inked letters will therefore reflect at different wavelengths from those of the parchment or vellum or papyrus they are written on.

From The Quest to Unlock an Ancient Library - The New Yorker

Some public libraries home to rare and valuable treasures

When it comes to where one might find rare works of art or valuable historical artifacts, most people think of museums or perhaps the Boston Public Library, particularly after the high-profile “loss” earlier this year of valuable prints by Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt that were ultimately found 80 feet from where they should have been filed.

Many would be surprised to find, housed amid the book and DVD collections in many local public libraries, historical treasures ranging from the rare and valuable to the curious, such as Woburn’s swatch of the wool coat Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated.

For the most part, local libraries are not in the business of actively collecting historical artifacts, but rather have amassed a hodgepodge of donated items of historical value and interest, said Jake Sadow, statewide digitization project archivist with the Boston Public Library.

From Some public libraries home to rare and valuable treasures - The Boston Globe

Girl in the Moon: Rare books gifs - John Dee, volvelles, apples and things

Culture Themes is a twitter account that organises monthly themed days on Twitter, primarily for museums. This month it was museum gifs - #musgif - and I put together a couple for the RCPmuseum account from some of the star objects from the RCP's forthcoming John Dee exhibition.

To make the first three gifs, I set up the department camera on the department tripod and took a series of photos, stop-motion animation style. Then I layered up the individual images in Photoshop (other editing software is available), cropped them, resized them and saved them as gifs. To make the last, I took a pre-existing photograph and played about with it in Photoshop.
It was quicker and easier that I thought it would be, and I'm delighted with how well the gifs show off the materialty of the books.

From Girl in the Moon: Rare books gifs - John Dee, volvelles, apples and things

From Steamer Trunk to Rare Books Collection

Perusing the Frauenzimmerspiegel raises many questions about gender roles assigned to men and women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It also speaks to the public and private place of women in a patriarchal society at that time and how more enlightened thinking slowly began to redefine these roles into civic models.

From From Steamer Trunk to Rare Books Collection | Unique at Penn

ISIS Commits Libricide in Iraq

Artnet.com reports on the burning of 8000 rare texts and manuscripts by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

X-ray technique 'reads' burnt Vesuvius scroll

There's rare books and then there's even more rare scrolls. From the BBC:

For the first time, words have been read from a burnt, rolled-up scroll buried by Mount Vesuvius in AD79.
The scrolls of Herculaneum, the only classical library still in existence, were blasted by volcanic gas hotter than 300C and are desperately fragile.

Deep inside one scroll, physicists distinguished the ink from the paper using a 3D X-ray imaging technique sometimes used in breast scans. They believe that other scrolls could also be deciphered without unrolling.

The work appears in the journal Nature Communications.


Marginalia as Gold Dust

From the New York Times (scroll about halfway down to Found in the Margins):

In the last few months, foundations have given out hundreds of thousands of dollars to support research on the scribbles in the margins of old books.

Johns Hopkins University, Princeton and University College London have received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to partner on a database, “The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe.” It will focus on 16th-century marginalia from the writers Gabriel Harvey, Isaac Casaubon and John Dee. Earle Havens, a library curator and professor at Johns Hopkins, said in an interview that the three “could not open a book without a pen in their hand.”

“The Archaeology of Reading” will result in searchable transcriptions of the annotators’ outrage, gossip, cross-references to other books and uncensored colloquial reactions. Harvey’s annotations are particularly revealing; he longed, futilely, to overcome his humble origins as a rope maker’s son and become a prominent legal figure.

Lisa Jardine, a professor at University College London, said that in Harvey’s marginalia, “You watch him move up the social ladder, but then he can’t straddle the final hurdles.”

Volumes marked up with handwriting used to be described as “dirty books” among dealers, she added. But in the modern age of words mostly appearing online, marginal notes can actually increase value. “Now they’re gold dust,” she said.

Now on View at the Library of Congress, One of the Four Surviving Copies of the Magna Carta

Via the Washington Post: A yellowing piece of parchment covered in Latin, the Magna Carta now on view at the Library of Congress is as charming as a tax form. Hey, no one ever said cornerstones of constitutional law and civil liberty had to be pretty.

Magna Carta (experts drop the preceding “the”) got off to a rough start. When King John signed the “Great Charter” in 1215, on a field near London, he had no intention of appeasing its authors, barons who chafed at too-high taxes. But because they’d captured London, the king had no choice, says Nathan Dorn, curator of “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor,” a new exhibit at the Library of Congress.

The barons made at least 41 copies and sent them to every county in England. The document on view is one of four surviving copies; the original is lost.

Boston Archivists Demand Patience

A copper box sealed for over 113 years inside the head of a piece of statuary, a lion, at the Old State House in Boston has finally been opened.

Inside... there was a surprise book with a red cover...but we don't know the title or contents. Historians deem the book and other contents of the box too fragile to be quickly examined. They will need to be examined in a temperature and pressure controlled environment.

The society first learned of the possible existence of the time capsule three years ago from the great-great-granddaughter of Samuel Rogers, a craftsman who had worked on renovations to the building and was believed to have placed the box in the lion's head and catalogued its contents. A 1901 article from The Boston Globe surfaced later, alluding to contents of a copper box "which will prove interesting when the box is opened many years hence."

More from ABC News.

Moving Day for Priceless Historical Documents

From the New York Times a fascinating look at how invaluable historical documents and artifacts are secured while in transit.


Subscribe to Rare Books