Bringing Knowledge to the public: a 19th century forger and a 21th century digital library

Circulation of knowledge has taken many forms in the course of human history. The predominance of digital media at the turn of the 20th century has often been compared to the invention of printing in the Renaissance, because of the way the spread of knowledge and information has been revolutionized.

We are long past the time when the survival of literary works depended on the laborious copying of manuscripts. Though those of us in the library world are more than positive that the form of the physical book is as relevant as ever, we are at the same time the most ardent promoters of access to culture and knowledge through the world of digital media.Today more than ever before, digital access is of major interest for scholars, researchers and the general public, and a top priority for educational and cultural organizations.

The Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, actively contributing to the ever growing demand for free access to digital materials, hosts several digital projects, which aim to highlight different aspects of Greek culture, namely literary, intellectual and maritime history. Such projects include Travelogues (digitized and fully documented graphic materials found in travel accounts of journeys to Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean) and the most recent website of its Digital Archives.  The Foundation is one of the first organizations in Greece to have adopted the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), while all digitized materials are included in the platform of the Greek National Documentation Center. The Foundation’s digital collections are fully accessible free of charge.

The Foundation’s Historical Library holds over half a million items and more than 10,000 volumes of early printed books as well as a large number of other rare materials. In an effort to participate further in the creation of the large intangible library, the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation also created a Digital Library. It contains selected editions, mainly from the Special Collections, with the aim to make available rare and significant editions that are not yet available elsewhere on the internet and to complete important series that are only partly digitized. We aspire to continue enriching the content of the Digital Library prioritizing, in addition to the above, items of particular interest in terms of their provenance and other copy-specific characteristics.

Bordone B., Isolario di Benedetto Bordone nel qual si ragiona di tutte l’isole del mondo, con li lor nomi antichi & moderni, historie, favole, & modi del loro vivere, & in qual parte del mare stanno, & in qual parallelo & clima giaciono (Venice 1547).

The first items that were selected to be digitized belong to the collection of P. C. Laskaridis, one of the most complete collections of travel and historical literature of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greek world in general. It counts in total over 3,000 items from the late 15th to the early 20th century. Rare editions of unique beauty, which often include intricate illustrations and maps are available on our virtual shelves.

Καλλιγάς, Π. – Τριανταφύλλης, Σπ., Δίκη Ιωνά Κινγ ενώπιον του Αρείου Πάγου : Αίτησις αναιρέσεως (Αθήνα 1846) = Calligas, P. – Triantafyllis, Sp., The trial of Johas King at the Supreme Court of Greece – Appeal (Athens 1846)

The most recent addition to the Digital Library includes a collection of rare Greek 19th century pamphlets, from the library of Constantine Th. Dimaras, a prominent Greek scholar and historian. Greek pamphlets, interesting specimens of 19th century production of books in the Greek language, usually survive in few copies and some are even unique, “sole survivors” of their print run. Usually unimpressive and printed in poor quality paper, they nevertheless disclose important aspects of the political, social and intellectual life of their era. 

For the purpose of this presentation we have selected an example that brings us back to the manuscript tradition and the unparalleled excitement of discovering long lost works of antiquity. But there is a twist to the story.

The pamphlet in question survives in only four known copies (according to the most comprehensive study of 19th century Greek bibliography, that of Philippos Iliou and Popi Polemi). It is an “Angelia”, an advertisement of an upcoming edition of a work on hagiography. Only 7 pages long, printed in very thin, poor quality paper, one would think it’s a run-of-the-mill item with nothing to interest today’s reader.

And yet, it’s part of the infamous legacy of one of the most controversial personalities of the 19th century, a “genius who deceived Europe”: Constantine Simonidis.

Trained in calligraphy from a young age, Simonidis visited the monasteries of Mount Athos from where he seems to have stolen some manuscripts as well as blank parchment leafs. 

In an era when the European countries had discovered the idea of cultural heritage and had started amassing objects of the past, Simonidis offered to buyers, in Greece and abroad, a wealth of Greek manuscripts. 

Along with selling the stolen manuscripts, he exploited his talent in calligraphy to create a plethora of fake ones. But here the plot thickens: they were not just copies of existing manuscripts. In fact, a lot of his works contained texts created by himself. He claimed to have discovered extremely important texts and authors, who in fact never existed, usually describing a glorious past and claiming that newer inventions, such as the steamship or printing, had already been invented and used in Antiquity. As Alexandros Rizos Rangavis, a contemporary scholar, writes with biting irony, “this lucky person discovered … all of California’s worth of the purest gold of ancient literature!”.

Despite the fact that his fraud was finally revealed, first in Greece and then abroad, Simonidis had managed for many years to deceive scientists and sell his creations to large European libraries and private collectors. Until today, it is not certain whether all of his forgeries have been uncovered.

He even falsified his own life, as not only did he write a laudatory (self) biography under the pseudonym Charles Stewart, but he reportedly announced his own death from leprosy in 1867, when in fact he died in 1890. Or 1902. We will probably never know for sure. 

In the digitized text of the “Angelia”, we find an example of Simonidis’ claims that newer inventions have much earlier beginnings. He claims to have found a manuscript of the work of Dionysius of Fourna on hagiography (a real work) that contains an additional passage that had, until then, remained unpublished. According to Simonidis, this addition attributes to the Byzantine painter Panselinos (whom he dates to the 6th century AD, p. 3) the invention of “heliotypia” (literally sun printing, a form of photography), which he claims had much better results than his contemporary daguerreotype (p. 5). In fact, the passage in question is Simonidis’ own addition to Dionysius’ text. The idea of heliotypia was just another product of his imagination. 

This story reminds us once again that things are not always what they seem. Behind a lauded historic discovery, an ingenious fraud might actually be hiding – a rare but certainly not unheard of phenomenon. Meanwhile, objects of the humblest exterior often bear witness to unexpected and exciting stories from the past. Thanks to the new possibilities of digital media, we are able to share our stories far and wide.

Angeliki Papadopoulou, Kleopatra Kyrtata, Dr Vera Andriopoulou

Special Collections, Historical Library, Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation

Mystery solved: a long-lost Spanish Vocabulario (ca. 1492-93) comes to light at Princeton

By Eric White, curator of Rare Books, Princeton University Library
(this blog was reposted with permission by the author)

Alfonso de Palencia, Universal vocabulario (Seville, 1490), EXI Oversize 2530.693q

Many of the most important discoveries in the study of rare books are the results of fruitful collaborations. In this case, we were confronted by an anomaly: Princeton’s copy of the first printed Latin-Spanish dictionary, Alfonso Fernández de Palencia’s Universal vocabulario en latín y en romance, vol. I (Seville: Paulus de Colonia, 1490), which lacks its title page and introductory ‘argumentum’, begins and ends with single printed leaves from an entirely different book  a Spanish-Latin dictionary printed with a slightly larger fifteenth-century typeface:

Universal vocabulario (1490, video)

Whereas these stray leaves seem to owe their survival to having been recycled as binding waste that served as protective endleaves for the Universal vocabulario of 1490, there is some question as to how they became available to the eighteenth-century binder, and whether they may have been selected for their lexicographical content. However, a more central mystery remained to be answered: what exactly was the dictionary that provided these long-forgotten fragments?

The first fragment, blank on its recto, consists of a short ‘Prologo’ in parallel Spanish and Latin, dedicating a new dictionary to Queen Isabella of Castille and Leon, Aragon, Sicily, and Granada. The second clearly belongs to that dictionary: it contains the Spanish terms Apuesta–Arcaz on the recto and Arco–Arreboçar on the verso (77 terms in total), each with brief Latin definitions that occasionally cite passages in the works of Virgil; the heading ‘dela letra A’ appears in the upper margins. After inconclusive consultations with several experts, the first breakthrough came from Oliver Duntze at the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke in Berlin, the leading research center for the cataloging of fifteenth-century European printing. Duntze was able to provide an almost certain identification of the printers: the types precisely matched those of the Seville press of Meinhard Ungut und Stanislaus Polonus, specifically the state of their types used in 1492.

The date ‘ca. 1492’ was a good match for the status of the royal dedicatee, Queen Isabella (1451–1504), who took the specified title of ‘Reina de Granada’ only after the capture of that territory in January of that year. However, the text contained in these leaves, including the royal dedication, did not match up with any known Spanish dictionary printed during the fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries. None of the bibliographical tools at our disposal or the book historians we consulted could provide an identification of the edition that was the source of these stray leaves; we began to suspect, as had Frederick Vinton, the librarian who oversaw the acquisition of the volume in 1873, that they represented a previously untraced edition – and a potentially important discovery.1

A turning point came in February 2018, when Dr Cinthia María Hamlin, a specialist in medieval literature from Secrit-CONICET (Argentina’s National Scientific Research Council) and the Universidad de Buenos Aires, visited Princeton University Library’s new Special Collections Reading Room and requested to see several early Spanish books. During her visit I inquired whether it would be a distraction to ask her opinion of the mysterious leaves in the Universal vocabulario of 1490. She quickly became fascinated by them, knowing that one does not encounter pages from an unidentified fifteenth-century Spanish dictionary every day. We agreed that the problem deserved much further research, both for the benefit of European printing history and Spanish linguistic history.

Working from digital images upon her return to Buenos Aires, Hamlin investigated the mysterious dictionary, eliminating all of the candidate texts by Antonio de Nebrija and Fernández de Santaella and analyzing the linguistic characteristics of the limited sample of word definitions that the fragments provided. Within a little over a month she made a startling breakthrough. Following up on a suggestion offered by her colleague Juan Héctor Fuentes, she discovered that an anonymous fifteenth-century Spanish-Latin Vocabulario, known only from a manuscript at the Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (MS f-II-10), matched Princeton’s printed fragments nearly word for word.2

Thus, Hamlin and Fuentes hypothesized that the long-lost Vocabulario
represented by the fragments, datable to 1492-93, was the first Spanish-to-Latin (not vice-versa) vocabulary ever printed, preceding Nebrija’s first Salamanca edition (variously dated between 1492 and 1495, but most likely 1494-95). The two scholars’ discovery has been introduced in the co-authored ‘Folios de un incunable desconocido y su identificación con el anónimo Vocabulario en romance y en latín del Escorial (F-II-10).’ Romance Philology 74/1 (Spring 2020), 93-122, and will be developed further by Hamlin in ‘Alfonso de Palencia: autor del primer vocabulario romance-latin que llego a la imprenta?’ in Boletín de la Real Academia Española (forthcoming in 2021).

After further research, Hamlin concluded that the anonymous author of the Escorial Vocabulario, and, therefore, that of the previously unknown printed edition preserved in Princeton’s binding fragments, was none other than Alfonso Fernández de Palencia (1423–1492), the author of the very same Universal vocabulario of 1490 into which the mysterious Princeton leaves had been bound. As Hamlin notes, Palencia’s Universal vocabulario has many of the the same ‘authority’ quotations, highly similar definitions (especially for toponyms), and several of the terms have the same grammatical explanation and thus almost certainly are the works of the same author. This important discovery, too, will be explored in greater detail in Hamlin’s forthcoming article.

Fifteenth-century Spanish printing of any kind is difficult to come by in libraries outside of Spain. It is even more remarkable to have located traces of a previously unknown Spanish edition of that period. Moreover, it is a signal accomplishment to have been able to resurrect an unknown printing of a previously anonymous work of such importance, in vernacular Spanish, and then to augment our knowledge of that text with both a long-lost royal dedication and a convincing identification of its author, one of the most influential Spanish humanists of the fifteenth century. The fields of printing history and Spanish linguistic history have profited mightily from the collaboration that solved this bibliographical mystery.

More about Princeton’s Universal vocabulario of 1490 (EXI Oversize 2530.693q):
The book consists of vol. 1 only, covering letters A-N. Its gilt red-dyed goatskin binding is probably 18th-century Spanish. The earliest known owner was Richard Heber (1773–1833), the English bibliomaniac; this copy was offered in part 2 of the Heber sales, Sotheby’s (London), June 1834, as lot 4689. In 1873 it was purchased by the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) along with an important collection of old books and Reformation pamphlets owned by Dr. Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg (1802–1872), a noted philosopher and philologist at the University of Berlin and father of a famous surgeon. It is possible that Trendelenburg bought the Vocabulario at the Heber sale of 1834, but there may have been unknown owners between 1833 and 1873.


Frederick Vinton, the Librarian of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), inscribed the second fragment “This is a great curiosity. It is part of a Spanish Vocabulary entirely unknown to Bibliographers and must have been printed about the same time as this of Palentia in which the Latin precedes the Spanish.”

2 Gerald J. MacDonald, Diccionario español-latino del siglo XV: an edition of anonymous manuscript f.II.10 of the Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Transcription, study, and index (New York: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 2007).

Old meets new: Chapbooks as digital scholarship resources

By Dr Anette Hagan and Dr Sarah Ames, National Library of Scotland

Following our first blog post about special collections as data at the National Library of Scotland, this piece highlights the uses of a specific collection in the National Library of Scotland: chapbooks printed in Scotland.

National Library of Scotland Chapbooks collection

Our collection of Scottish chapbooks is available in a IIIF viewer on our Digital Gallery. Sorted by subject from accidents to wit and humour, there are over 3,000 chapbooks to whet your appetite. They belong to the Lauriston Castle Collection.

But what are chapbooks? They are cheap little publications made from one folio sheet, or even only half a sheet, which was printed on both sides and folded into 8, 12, 16 or 24 pages. The paper was coarse, the type and the woodblocks that were often used on the title page were second- and sometimes third-hand, and the ink was cheap too. Known also as story-books, little pamphlets or stall tracts, chapbooks were produced in millions of copies across the British Isles from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Chapbooks formed the staple reading diet of the common people, but they were also popular with the educated orders of society. The majority of Scottish chapbooks contain songs, and the others have entertaining, didactic or devotional texts: histories, humorous stories, last words on the scaffold, catechisms and prophecies galore.

Chapbooks were sold for a penny a piece on the street and at fairs and markets, from the printer’s workshops and in coffee houses. Itinerant pedlars known as chapmen bought them wholesale from the printers and sold them on their routes through the country. Through this web of distribution, chapbooks were available in provincial towns and villages as well as farmsteads no matter where they had been produced. They were printed in English, Scots and Gaelic, though only a handful of Gaelic chapbooks survive today.

Because they were so fragile and often went through many hands, their survival rate is very low: a lot are only extant in one or two copies, and we know of hundreds if not thousands of titles only from printers’ testaments and inventories.

Using chapbooks in digital humanities projects: from music to computer vision

We released the Scottish chapbooks collection as a ‘dataset’ in late 2019 on the Data Foundry website. Given the broad timeframe the collection spans, and its extent , this collection holds exciting potential for computational use, enabling changing patterns in language over time to be explored, or providing enough data to begin training a machine learning model.

Chapbooks on the Data Foundry

Turning chapbooks into music

One of the first to explore this collection was Dr Shawn Graham (Carleton University, Canada), who spotted the release of the dataset on Twitter. He began experimenting with the collection by creating topic models of the data – a form of statistical modelling which identifies broad themes or ‘topics’ within text – and he detailed the challenges of working with digitised collections, such as the size of the datasets and the quality of OCR

Tweet with initial topic mode of 3000 chapbooks

This topic model identified broad themes, which can be interpreted as ‘love’, ‘war’ and so on… and also ‘messy OCR’. From this, Graham turned the data into music: a sonification (musical data visualisation) of the chapbooks collection, assigning different topics to different musical instruments – far beyond the realms of what the Library had imagined the chapbooks would ever be used for!

More information about this project can be found on the Data Foundry projects page, which links through to Graham’s blog.

Chapbooks meet computer vision

Farmer’s Son or, the Unfortunate Lovers. Glasgow: Printed by J. & M. Robertson 1803
NLS shelfmark L.C.2837(30)

In 2020, Dr Giles Bergel (University of Oxford) was appointed as The National Librarian’s Research Fellow in Digital Scholarship 2020-21. For his project, Bergel is exploring the illustration within the Chapbooks dataset. Following on from the work of the Bodleian Ballads project, this project is using computer vision to ‘match’ images and explore their reuse across collections.

By using these methods, the project asks what can be learnt about chapbooks from their illustrations, and explores the relationship between printers, publishers, distributors and audiences.

More information about this project can be found on the Data Foundry Projects page.

Digital humanities and chapbooks

While there remain endless ‘analogue’ research possibilities from materials such as chapbooks, releasing the Library’s Scottish chapbooks as a dataset has given them a renewed lease of life for new audiences, approaches and methodologies. This is enabling computational research into provenance, subject matter and more – all of which would be beyond the possibilities of the human eye, or take more time than a human could manage.

We’re excited to see what approaches and research questions are asked next!

On the left:National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

We are back in business! (Or are we?)

By Angela Dellebeke, National Archives of the Netherlands and
Marian Lefferts, CERL

During the summer months of 2020 we had left the ‘intelligent lockdown’ behind us, Covid numbers were down, life was looking up and we were preparing for re-opening the offices on a larger scale. Sure, we still had to think about how to do this safely and with regard for social distancing but we were all set to get back to our daily routine of actually getting dressed in the morning, busy commuter trains, not-so-great coffee from the machine, lunch walks to blow off steam about something or other… yes: life as we knew it!

As part of the Dutch Ministry of Culture, the Archives are held to rules and guidelines set by the Government in order to get the ‘all clear’ for allowing more people back to work. Mind you, the reading room and both exhibition rooms were already re-opened for the public since June – with the application of all relevant health and safety regulations. In order for all employees to work at the Archives again an extra risk assessment needed to take place. This also entailed a check on how to arrange a safe place to work whilst maintaining the 1.5 meter distance, use of cough screens, face masks, use of gloves, soap and hand wash, paper towels, walking directions in the hall way (one way if possible), posters about dos and warnings about don’ts. You all get the picture.

A lot of hard work was put in by the colleagues from facility management to comply with all requirements and when the plans were drawn up the long wait began. For the one thing that remained was a visit from a so called workplace hygienist to give the stamp of approval. This ‘stamp’ was mandatory! The only thing that lacked was a government body that knew where to find this person. We could not invite them over since not even the people who came up with this stamp of approval had any idea who they were talking about. It made for some necessary humor during meetings of the crisis team. Had anybody seen or heard from this hygienist already?! When after three weeks there was still no clue as where to find them, we made these suggestions:

The one in the white coat is me, Angela, and a colleague from the crisis management team is in the photograph on the right.

To be fair: the person was eventually found and contacted, and with some adjustments gave their approval. By that time the second Covid-19 wave had hit and currently we seem to be moving towards the 3rd… just know that we are ready when the time comes!

The CERL Security Network recently organised a programme of online meetings, some of it related to our COVID-readiness. We are very grateful that Angela Dellebeke was able to participate in an online conversion about the impact of COVID-19 on libraries/special collections. The other members of the panel were Jacqueline Lambert (Royal Library, Brussels and Chairman of the CERL Security Network), Foekje Boersma (Royal Library, The Hague), Frédéric Lemmers (Royal Library, Brussels) and Andrea Cappa (Biblioteca Nacionale Centrale, Rome). In the recording of this conversation, you can hear them talk about

The KBR Brussels provided staff with a covid-kit, including face masks
  • Lockdown : what actually happens when such an announcement is made? What do you do? Who do you contact, what can be arranged/what can’t?
  • Crisis management: Who are involved, who makes what type of decisions, what topics are being decided on, surprises?
  • Remote work: how is that arranged and what are alternatives if your work is at the location you can’t get to?
  • Communication: with staff, stakeholders, visitors, network partners, other institutions you’ve lent material to or you have their material, i.e. outstanding loans.
  • Social component: contact with staff, issues staff have with coping with the situation as a whole, with working from home etc.?
  • Planning for re-opening: what is needed, what is mandatory?
  • How do you implement Corona measures when working with collections? Some positives to share!!
  • Looking ahead : how are we moving forward… with a 1,5 meter society, are we changing the way we work? Embracing technologies, going back to the way we were?

In a related event, CERL, together with the OCLC Research Library Partnership, organised an information session about the REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project. In the project it is investigated how long COVID particles stay on surfaces. This science-based information informs organisations about how materials can be handled to mitigate COVID-19 exposure to staff and visitors of archives, libraries, and museums. The recording (24 November 2020), slides, and links are posted on the OCLC event page.

Since 2017, the CERL Security Network has organised an annual summer school on security issues. This year we were not able to organise the event in Vienna has we had originally planned. We therefore asked members of the Security Network to record presentations that they gave at previous editions of the summer school, or record a new presentation.

The play list for these recordings is available here, and the presenters made themselves available for an online session where some 25 participants joined the Question and Answer session. The presenters were:

  • Nina Korbu, National Library of Norway – In-house Collection Security
  • Jarle Rui Aadna, Royal Library in Copenhagen – Two independent cultural institutions in one reading room
  • Adrian Edwards, British Library – Missing item processes at the British Library
  • Per Cullhed, Uppsala University Library – Security in the stacks – monitoring and risk assessment
  • Jacqueline Lambert, Royal Library in Brussels – Working with the Quick Audit Tool.

This event was as a first, successful, attempt to organise an online information session about security issues. We hope that in years to come, when we plan to go back to organising real life summer schools somewhere in Europe, these physical events can be combined with online events such as these. Either way, we look forward to seeing you there!

The National Archives in The Hague, with screens on the information desk

More information about the CERL Security Network is available here.

Incunabula in Malta

By Anna Scala, Rare books cataloguer and librarian

The beginning and first steps

For about twenty five years I have been dealing with ancient (or early modern) texts and more specifically with cataloging, revising and sending to the SBN records, relating to the ancient library collection of Syracuse and its Province.

Inc. 42.  Gaio Giulio Solino, Polyhistor, sive De mirabilibus mundi, sive Collectanea rerum memorabilium. Venice, Theodorus de Ragazonibus, 23 Aug. 1491.

Together with some colleagues, during the years 2009-2019, we compiled two catalogues of Incunabula; hence my increased interest in the study of incunabula, found in the National Library of Valletta, which I visited for the first time in February 2020. 60 of those incunabula were already registered in ISTC, but there were 14 incunabula not included in ISTC. At the same time, I started to explore the surroundings of Malta, in order to record incunabula in religious libraries. I have, so far, discovered 20 specimens, but this project in ongoing.

My goal is to produce a catalogue of incunabula in Malta and, at the same time, to complete the relevant records in MEI.

Inc. 30. Guilelmus PeraldusSumma de virtutibus et vitiis.Brescia, Angelus and Jacobus Britannicus, 24 Dec. 1494.

The second journey to Malta and its libraries (July 2020)

27 July 2020

National Library of Valletta

After a long lasting lockdown period we returned to the National Library of La Valletta in order to continue our incunabula studies. The library owns a huge collection of very precious books, enriched by many individual legacies such as the Incunabulum nr. 55 entitled Officium beate Mariae Virginis ad vsum Romane ecclesie, Venice, Johannes Hamman, 1490.

The specimen bears in c.a2r the handwritten owner’s note: Fr. Joseph Zammit dedit et donat. Brother Giuseppe Zammit (1650-1740) was a doctor and a clergyman and chaplain of St. John’s Hospital and Military Order.

Inc. 55 – Horae ad usum Romanum (Rome). Venice, Johannes Hamman, 1490

Carmelite Priory – La Valletta

Anna Scala, P. Alex Scerri and Krystle Attard Trevisan   
The library

The Carmelites came to Malta in 1418, when the noblewoman Margareth of Aragon commissioned the chapel and the surrounding territory of Lunzjata (Rabat) to any religious order that would assume the religious duties coming with it. The Carmelites accepted that offer, founding afterwards several priories in some cities on the island. The convent in Valletta, founded in 1570, hosts a library of great theological interest. Here we can find 8 Incunabula not yet registered by ISTC; many are damaged by biological and chemical factors.

July the 28th 2020

St. Domenic’s Convent, Rabat

Rabat, a town in the heartland of Malta, is rich in history and charm, with an Arabic touch. St. Paul stayed here founding the first Christian community on the island.

Around 1450 Dominican monks coming from Sicily reached this territory. They decided to found their community in that cave where it is said the Holy Virgin had appeared to a hunter. Very soon the Dominicans built a huge church dedicated to the Virgin of the Cave.

The convent’s library hosts 11 incunabula not yet registered in ISTC.

29 July 2020 

Capuchin Central Library, Floriana

My trip to Malta ends with a visit to the Capuchin library in Floriana, a little town near the capital Valletta.

Anna Scala and Rev. Dr. Martin Micalief

The Capuchin Provincial Library, situated at the Floriana Capuchin Friary -established in 1588/59 -, is mostly rich in Theological works and for its Melitensea collection.

The library has only one incunabulum, Ovid’s edition entitled Fasti published in Rome in 1489.

The third part of my trip to Malta was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, but hopefully it will continue soon. See you in 2021, Malta!

500 Years On: Christopher Plantin’s Legacy Today

By Karen Attar, Senate House Library, University of London

Notable both for the quantity and the physical quality of his books, this man and his heirs dominated northern European printing and publishing for over a century. We all accept the importance of Christopher Plantin alongside the Estiennes, Manutius family, and Elzeviers in book history. The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp has carried awareness of Plantin far beyond European Renaissance book historians. The year 2020 is, we think, the 500th anniversary of his birth. Yet Covid-19 and ignorance of his precise date of birth have conspired against Plantin celebrations along the widespread international lines of the Manutius exhibitions and conferences of 2015.

Senate House Library, the central library for the University of London, has never set out to collect Plantin editions. Yet the extent of the Plantin reach ensured its acquisition of exempla across Plantin’s diverse subject matter from various sources. Plantin’s authors came from throughout Europe, and the largely English provenances of the Senate House Library copies add an additional post-production layer to Plantin’s own internationality.

Starting out with maths and science

L’arithmetique de Simon Steuin de Bruges (Leiden, 1585) is among the first Plantin publications to have entered the University of London. The author, Simon Steven (1548-1620) wrote five of the nine mathematical works Plantin printed between 1560 and 1585. This work one is a landmark, making the first announcement of decimal fractions. Our copy belongs to the Library’s founding collection, the mathematical library of the mathematician and mathematical historian Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871), who describes Stevin’s characteristic as ‘originality, accompanied by a great want of the respect for authority which prevailed in his time’. The copy includes not only De Morgan’s note on the front flyleaves but a title page inscription attributed tentatively by De Morgan to Stevin himself: ‘L’autheur donna … a … Monsieur Cornelle[?] … de Groot’.

The books of the classical historian and University of London Vice-Chancellor George Grote (1794-1871) entered the University shortly after De Morgan’s. As a Classicist, it is perhaps unsurprising that Grote owned Plantin’s editio princeps of ‘On the nature of man’, by the fourth-century Greek Christian philosopher Nemesius, Bishop of Emesa in Syria; the first known compendium of theological anthropology with a Christian orientation (Nemesiou episkopou kai philosophou Peri physeōs anthrōpou, biblion en = Nemesii Episcopi et philosophi De natura hominis, lib. unus, Antwerp, 1565). The copy contains Grote’s light annotations. Annoyingly, early marginal annotations have been washed. Less obviously typical of Grote’s interests is Plurimarum singularium & memorabilium rerum in Graecia, Asia, AEgypto, Iudaea, Arabia, aliisq[ue] exteris prouinciis … (Antwerp, 1589), by the leading French naturalist Pierre Belon (c.1517-1564).

Pierre Belon, Plurimarum singularium & memorabilium rerum in Graecia, Asia, AEgypto, Iudaea, Arabia, aliisq[ue] exteris prouinciis … (Antwerp, 1589)

The classical association remains, though, because Belon visited various middle eastern countries between 1546 and 1549 to compare their flora and fauna with descriptions made by classical authors. This edition is the Latin translation Plantin commissioned from his French edition of 1555, with most illustrations copied by Pieter van der Borcht from those in the 1555 edition (the blocks for which Plantin had sold). The copy came to England within the first century of its existence. We have not yet identified the Henry Whyte whose seventeenth-century signature is on the title page, nor the Ayleworth who gave him the book.

Emblems galore

In 1929 Senate House Library was bequeathed the library of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (1837-1914), a Baconian protagonist who believed that Sir Francis Bacon was involved in the production of continental emblem books and that such books demonstrated to the initiated that Bacon was the real author of William Shakespeare’s plays. He therefore owned a fine clutch of early emblem books. As Plantin produced some fifty emblem books between 1564 and 1590, it is hardly surprising that he features. Outstanding examples are Omnia Andreæ Alciati V.C. emblemata cum commentariis (Antwerp, 1577) and Geffrey Whitney’s A choice of emblemes, and other devises (Leiden, 1586).

The former is considered to be the finest of the twelve editions of Andrea Alciati (1492-1550; the first and most successful writer of emblem books) printed by Plantin, with its specially cut illustrations: 197 from 196 wood blocks, larger than those in previous editions. Claude Mignault (1536-1606), the Parisian law professor who edited Alciati’s emblems for Plantin from 1573 onwards, revised and expanded his text for this edition. Whitney’s title is the earliest English-language emblem book and the only English emblem book that Plantin printed. Whitney was in Leiden when he developed the book from a manuscript he had presented to the Earl of Leicester the previous year, which explains the continental printing. Plantin re-used illustrations from earlier emblem books, including Alciati.

History from the London Institution

Senate House Library owes much of the richness of its general early printed book collections to the London Institution, a subscription library in East London whose stock passed mainly to various parts of the University of London when it ceased to operate in the 1910s. This is how we acquired the Anglo-Irish literary scholar and translator Richard Stanyhurst’s history of Ireland down to the time of Henry II, De rebus in Hibernia gestis, libri quattuor (Antwerp, 1584), one of two Stanyhurst works printed by Plantin.

Richard Stanyhurst, De rebus in Hibernia gestis, libri quattuor (Antwerp, 1584)

History – including books and pamphlets on topical events – was one of Plantin’s staple subjects. Whilst Plantin’s connections were orientated far more towards the continent than the British Isles, Stanyhurst, a Catholic convert, made his lists as a resident of Leiden and Antwerp from 1579 onwards.

One library loses, another gains

After the Second World War, English public libraries began to shed their rare books, a movement that has continued ever since. Hence Senate House Library acquired the posthumously published Opera of the linguist Joannes Goropius Becanus, or Jan van Gorp, of Hilvarenbeek (1519-1573) from London’s Hampstead Public Libraries in 1947. The work is remarkable for its illustrations, a mixture of copper engravings and woodcuts, which are drawn from original monuments and depict Egyptian figures unusually accurately. It continues the argument Goropius has propounded in his Origines Antwerpianane, also printed by Plantin, of the supremacy of Flemish as the world’s oldest language: a theory which initiated the study of comparative philology. The former owner of our copy was Hampstead resident Henry Morley (1822-1894), professor of English at University College London. Numerous English librarians know his name from the Henry Morley Building at University College, for many years the home of that College’s School of Library, Archive and Information Studies.

Thinking nationally and beyond

Some Plantin books at the University of London betray their Netherlandish origins. The Thesaurus geographicus, recognitus et auctus by the Antwerpian cartographer and humanist Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) in 1596, printed by Plantin’s son-in-law Jan Moretus (1543-1610) at the Officina Plantiniana after Plantin’s death in 1589, formerly belonged to the Dutch church in London. Two former owners recorded their names in our copy of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa totius theologiae (Antwerp, 1585). They are Philippus Josephus Van Ghindertaelen, of whom we know only that he flourished in the mid-eighteenth century, and J.F. Nelis of Zele, (1793-1867), a pastor in Erwetegem in Belgium and elsewhere, and a biblical editor. Our rarest Plantin book was unknown to Voet in his bibliography of Plantin. It is a 1562 edition of the Concordantiae Bibliorum utriusque Testamenti, Veteris et Novi, novae et integrae, based largely on the Parisian scholar-printer Robert Estienne’s Concordantiae (1555). Our copy retains a sixteenth-century binding of blind-stamped calf over pasteboards, with manuscript waste (possibly from a twelfth-century breviary) reinforcing the spine.

Books by Christopher Plantin are part of the history of Senate House Library in the Bloomsbury area of London and of the growth of its collections, as they will be of many British libraries blessed with early printed books. I am writing this as the United Kingdom moves towards severance from Europe. Commemoration of Plantin in the same year reminds us of the strong cultural links between the United Kingdom and the continent, reaching back centuries. Happy anniversary, Christopher Plantin!

Many thanks to Dave Jackson, Senate House Library, University of London,
for producing these images during one of the (short) windows of opportunity
for access to the collections that are granted to us these days.

Dogs in early printed books

by Dr Kathleen Walker-Meikle

Dogs abound in medieval manuscripts, from hounds scampering after hares in the margins (and occasionally finding themselves the target of lupine rage) to full page illuminations in folios depicting pet dogs, guard dogs, hunting dogs, wild dogs, and generally just being very dog-like. Early printed books might have (alas) less planned marginalia but the dogs never disappear. They might appear in hand-painted illustrations, spontaneous doodles on the part of a reader or in printed woodcuts.

In the woodcuts of early printed books, they command the centre of attention or take up a supporting role. An example of the latter is the rather marvellous dog who accompanies the author Jean Gerson (1363–1429), in the guise of a Christian pilgrim, in the woodcut frontispiece to the 1489 edition of his collected works (printed by George Stuchs in Nuremberg). Today the illustration’s main claim to fame is that it arguably Albrecht Dürer’s first work. But the eagle-eyed viewer might be drawn to the loyal hound on Gerson’s left, who valiantly trudges on, loyally following his master. The faithful hound is a stock motif, as the loyal dog was considered the most praise-worthy of all animals. Saint Roch, his leg swelled with plague buboes and exiled from human habitation, wanders around alone apart from a kind dog, who accompanies him (and helpfully sneaks into dining halls and comes back with bread for the saint’s supper). In the same vein, Gerson as a pilgrim is alone, removed from the city, in the proverbial wilderness, but he has a furry companion at least!

Conrad Gessner’s monumental Historia animalium was first printed in four volumes between 1551-1558 by Christoph Froschauer in Zurich. A highly abbreviated version with copiously more woodcuts, titled Icones animalium, was first printed by the same publisher in 1553 (with a second edition quickly appearing three years later).

Image from the Smithsonian copy of Icones animalium, 1560, p. 25. (public domain)

Icones animalium focused on few types of hunting dogs: bloodhounds, greyhounds, and water spaniels, nearly all from England or Scotland. The British dog dominances is due to his correspondent for canine matters: the English physician John Caius (and second founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge). Caius wrote a treatise devoted only to British dogs: De Canibus Britannicis (1570), which was translated by Alexander Fleming in 1576 under the title Of Englishe Dogges: The Diuersities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties (London, 1576). Caius doesn’t only detail hunting dogs but also very diverse dogs, such the ‘Daunser’, described ‘a mungrell kind which are taught and exercised to daunce in measure at the musicall sounde of an instrument, as, at the iust stroke of the drombe, at the sweete accent of the Cyterne, & tuned strings of the harmonious Harpe showing many pretty trickes by the gesture of their bodies’ (!). Dogs fulfilled all tasks, from turning the spits of fireplaces to carrying messages hidden in their collar, and the very spoiled little lapdogs of ladies: “These puppies the smaller they be, the more pleasure they prouoke, as more méete play fellowes for minsing mistrisses to beare in their bosoms, to keepe company withal in their chambers, to succour with sleepe in bed, and nourishe with meate at bourde, to lay in their lappes, and licke their lippes as they ryde in their waggons”.

All the facets of dogs appear in the Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi’s (1522 – 1605) posthumumous work De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri tres (Bologna, 1637), covering subjects as diverse as their emblematic symbolism, their use in food and medicine, monstrous specimens, dog statues and even a selection of rather maudlin Latin epitaphs for beloved pets. This is followed by specialist chapters on rabid dogs, the Melitean dog (a small fluffy dog, kept as pets since Classical times) , the hunting dog, the rabbit-chasing dog, the bloodhound, the fighting dog and even the ‘useless dog’ (de cane inutili), which covered pet dogs, including a woodcut of a rather obese specimen with a fancy collar titled ‘Gaulish dog’:

Ulisse Aldrovandi, De quadrupedibus digitatis oviparis libri duo (Bonon. : Apud Nicholaum Tebaldinum, 1637), p. 560.
(Copy in Google Books)

Finally, dogs are often the centre staged in printed books on the art of hunting.  An excellent example being Jacques du Fouilloux’s La venerie (Poitiers:Marness and  Bouchetz brothers, 1662), packed with everything needed to hunt a diverse collection of game animals, including otters, hares, rabbits, badgers, wolves, deer, badgers, wild goats, and boars. There were also full instructions on breeding the best hunting hounds, taking care of their puppies, training them, the hunt itself, and very detailed instructions on canine ailments. For example, chapter seven of Jacques du Fouilloux’s text explains that to have beautiful puppies, you need a beautiful bitch, and is illustrated by a rather striking woodcut of a bitch looking at her litter of puppies, who are enclosed in a caged barrel. Apart from choose a good-looking dog from the outset, du Fouilloux recommended boiling a stew of mutton with garlic, castoreum (from the anal glands of beavers), cress, and cantharides (Spanish flies) and feed it to the bitch, which would make her (and the dog) keen to mate and produce the desired-for puppies.

La venerie de Jacques du Fouilloux (Poitiers, 1562), p. 19.
(Copy of Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Veterinary advice appears at the end of the book, to treat mange, ringworm, rabies, animal bites (from vipers, serpents, boars, bears, wolves, and others), sore feet, fleas, and ear cankers. George Gascoigne translated Fouilloux’s text into English and it was printed to great success in London in  1575. It used the same woodcuts from du Fouilloux’s book, with a few extra woodcuts thrown in (including one of Queen Elizabeth out hunting, which was replaced by James I and VI in the 1611 edition). Gascoigne also added some commentary to the text, including noting that while wolves were hunted in France, they could not be found in England but he translated the text nevertheless (as he did for the section on bears, which were also extinct).

This post has presented just a small section of early modern canines in printed books, and I leave it to the reader to enjoy discovering many more!

George Gascoigne, The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting (London, 1575).
Image from British Library (public domain)

Dr Kathleen Walker-Meikle ( specialises in the history of animals and medicine. Dogs in Medieval Manuscripts (British Library Publications will be republished in October 2020.

Her books include :

Medieval Pets (Boydell & Brewer, 2012)

Dogs in Medieval Manuscripts (London: British Library Publications, 2020) [republication of Medieval Dogs (London: British Library Publications, 2013)]

Cats in Medieval Manuscripts (London: British Library Publications, 2019 [republication of Medieval Cats (London: British Library Publications, 2011)]. French translation: Chats du Moyen Âge, trans. Laurent Bury (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2013)

The Horse Book: Horses of Historical Distinction (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)

The Cat Book: Cats of Historical Distinction (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

The Dog Book: Dogs of Historical Distinction (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)

The Gennadius Library acquires an exceedingly rare 17th-century Greek book

By Irini Solomonidi, Senior Librarian, Gennadius Library, ASCSA and Stavros Grimanis, Demos Fellow, Gennadius Library, ASCSA

Thanks to a gift of Gennadius Library Overseer Lana J. Mandilas, the Library acquired in July 2020 from the Vergos Auctions a rare Venetian edition of the 17th century.

The book with the title Νικηφόρου Καλλίστου τοῦ Ξαντοπούλλου, Συναξάρια εἰς τάς ἐπισήμους ἑορτάς τοῦ Τριωδίου, καί τοῦ Πεντηκοσταρίου, μεταφρασθέντα εἰς κοινήν γλῶσσαν, παρά τοῦ ἐν ἱερεῦσι ἐλαχίστου, Ματθαίου Κιγάλα τοῦ Κυπρίου, was printed in Venice in 1650 «Παρά Ιωάννη Αντωνίω τω Ιουλιανώ» (Giovanni Antonio Giuliani).

Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus & Matthaios Tzigalas

This edition captures the meeting of two different moments of the Greek literary tradition. The original creator of these texts, Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus, was a learned monk, who lived in Constantinople in the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century, during the so-called Palaeologan Renaissance. It is not by accident that he was the one who reintroduced the genre of ecclesiastical history in Byzantine literature.

Xanthopulus was a skillful orator who frequented the highest circles of Constantinopolitan society. In addition to rhetorical exercises, he also prepared exegetical sermons for the Sundays of the movable calendar of the Church, i.e. of the Trinity and the Pentecost. These constitute the corpus of the 1650 edition of the Synaxaria.

The texts were published three centuries later by the Cypriot learned clergyman Matthaios Tzigalas, who served as minister of the Greek church of Venice from 1630 to his death (1654). In Venice he developed an important publishing activity geared to merchants, craftsmen, and literate Greek speakers active between East and West. He is responsible for the first edition of Ερωφίλη/ Erophile (1637) and the translation of the sermons of Xanthopulus about the Easter cycle into the common language of his Greek-speaking audience. His choice to render the texts into the Modern Greek linguistic idiom, points to the continuities and discontinuities in the mentalities, attitudes and tastes of the emerging Greek communities of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The history of the Giuliani printing press in Venice

The Giuliani printing house in Venice used prominent Greek grammarians in their editorial activities and was particularly important for the production of Greek books before the founding of the printing house of Nikolaos Glykys, a Greek merchant from Ioannina in 1671. From a total of about a thousand Greek books printed in the 17th century, 17% were produced by the Guilani press (170 editions). Their publishing activity started in the late 16th century with Francesco Guiliani, who used as editors Emmanuel Glyzonios and Maximos Margounios, and concluded at the beginning of the 18th century with Balthassare Juliani (Βαλδισέρᾳς Ιουλιανός). The printing house reached its apogee in the 17th century under Giovanni Antonio and Andrea Giuliani.

Giovanni Antonio Giuliani was active during the period 1631-1656, and used as editors Matthaios Tzigalas, Theophulaktos Tzanphournares, Nikolaos Kerameus and Agapios Landos. Andrea Giuliani was active from 1656 to 1690. While the majority of their publications were ecclesiastical in character, Giovanni Antonio and Andrea Giuliani also printed a number of important first editions or reprints of works of Modern Greek literature. The most significant are: the Ερωφίλη [Erophile] of Chortatzes (1637), Ευγένα [Eugena] of Montselese (1646), Οι Ανδραγαθίες του Μιχαήλ Βοεβόδα [Oi Andragathíes tou Michaíl Voevóda] (1638), Οι Πανουργίαι υψηλόταται του Μπερτόλδου [Panourgiai hypsylotatai tou Bertoldou, Modern Greek translation of Sottilissime astutie di Bertoldo of Giulio Cesare Croce] (1646) and Ροδωλίνος [Rodolinos] of Troilos (1647).

The Gennadius Library owns 30 copies of Giuliani editions. The oldest copy is the Θείον και ιερόν Ευαγγέλιον [Divine and Sacred Gospel] printed in Venice by Francesco Giuliani in 1588 and edited by Emmanuel Glynzounios. (Ετυπώθη εν Βενετίαις παρά Φραγγίσκω των Ιουλιανών συνδρομή συνθέσει και διορθώσει Εμμανουήλ Γλυνζουνείου) and the most recent is the Παλαιά Ελλάς περί του αγίου Ρωμαικού θρόνου καλώς φρονούσα, η προς τον Ιεροσολύμων πατριάρχην Δοσίθεον απολογία Αλουσίου του Ανδρούτζη Κυπρίου printedin1713 by Balthassare Juliani.

Twenty-five of the Giuliani editions owned by the Gennadius Library were printed in the 17th century. Eight of them are extremely rare, while two stand out for their importance in the history of Modern Greek literature: Βασιλεύς, ο Ρωδολίνος [King Rodolinos] and Πανουργίαι υψηλόταται του Μπερτόλδου. To these precious acquisitions of Joannes Gennadius we have now added the extremely rare (“rarissime” according to bibliographer Émile Legrand) edition of Συναξάρια εἰς τάς ἐπισήμους ἑορτάς [Synaxaria for the formal feasts].

According to Émile Legrand, the Synaxaria was published by Giuliani in two editions, in 1639 and 1650. Legrand’s Bibliographie hellénique ou, Description raisonnée des ouvrages publiés par des Grecs au dix-septième siècle, mentions only one copy of the 1650 edition in the “Musée britannique.” This most probably refers to the copy now in the British Library collections, which is also cited in Worldcat.  The Heritage of the Printed Book Database [CERL] refers only to a copy at the Bodleian Library (Oxford), while the Greek Bibliology Workshop “Philippos Iliou” cites, in addition to the copy of the British Library, eight other copies in Greek Libraries most of them in monasteries of Mt. Athos: St. Panteleimon Monastery, Monastery of Vatopedi, Mone Dionysiou, Mone Megistes Lauras, Mone Xeropotamou, Mone tou Philotheou, Educational Association of Adrianoupolis Library, and the Onassis Library.


The new acquisition preserves its original paper binding and a handwritten note, witness to its 18th century owner: «1757, Ϊἀνοῦαρίου 30. Ἐστέφανόθη ὅ Σπύρος ὄ μαθήτείς τοῦ διδάσκάλου ἀγίογράφου Πὲλᾶ, τὴν Δηαμάντη, ὁποῦ είχαι ψυχοπὲδα ἠ κυράτζα Σιβίλια. Τον ἐστέφάνοσε ἐφιμέριος ὄ παπά Θεώδορής Μοραήτης, καὶ παράνειμφος ὀ κ. Μαιγκυώρ τοῦ Μπηλαί(;) καὶ ἠ μ.α Σταματοῦλα τοῦ καπετὰν Παναγἠ θηγατέρα καὶ τὸ γράφο διὰ ἐνθἤμειση. Σἐραφίμ Ἰερομόναχος, ὁ κατομέρης ἐστεφανώθη τὴν ὐστερεί Πέμπτη τῆς αποκρέου, τές δύο ωρες της νυκτῶς.»

The excellent conservation treatment of this remarkable rare copy was performed by the expert conservator Nikolaos Karametos in August 2020.

The Golden Age of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, that is, how a library can go virtual during the pandemic times

By Dr Agnieszka Franczyk-Cegła, Ossoliński National Institute, Wrocław, Poland

The Ossolineum Library (Wrocław, Poland) has launched a virtual exhibition entitled ‘The Golden Age of the Jagiellonian Dynasty’ of which the Consortium of the European Research Libraries is an honorary patron: The online exposition, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Polish King Sigismund II Augustus, presents manuscripts, early printed books and artifacts from the period called the Golden Age of Polish culture. The materials illustrate the most important phenomena, events and trends that shaped Polish Renaissance. The items presented at the exhibition are grouped around three narrative sections:

  • the dynasty and state of the Jagiellonians (objects illustrating the biographies and achievements of individual rulers, portraits of kings and queens, their autographs, seals and books depicting the most important events in their lives, phenomena such as Jagiellonian foreign policy, etc.),
  • society and economy in the Jagiellonian era (objects illustrating the multinational character of the population of the Commonwealth and the famous religious tolerance of that period showing from Armenian Statues, Jewish Shulchan Aruch and the first catholic Bible in Polish to the muslim manuscript, so-called Tefsir of the Tatars of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as well as social states, economy, and Jagiellonian money),
  • culture and science (unique early printed books from De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus to an extremely rare occasional publication on the wedding of Bona Sforza).

Due to its universal character, the exhibition is addressed to the wide audience interested in expressions of the Renaissance in Europe. It combines elements of learning and fun thanks to educational quizzes and interactive games. It is accompanied by a concert of Renaissance music. The virtual exhibition is available for people with special needs, including those with disabilities, by e.g. using sign language in media content and audio description.

The realisation of the exhibition brought into focus many important issues concerning the questions how the cultural institutions can operate on the web, especially in the times of the pandemic. Modern science libraries not only collect, store and make available books, and conduct and support scientific research, but also undertake a number of activities aimed at disseminating their collections and promoting science and culture in society. These undertakings take various forms, from organising authors’ meetings, exhibitions and lectures to children’s workshops, outdoor painting or city games.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of the universal lockdown in the first half of 2020 have dramatically hampered the traditional educational activities of libraries. Tools such as the Internet and social media, which previously served as an aid to communication with the reader, became overnight practically the only means of maintaining contact with the world outside the library. With their help it was possible to make lectures available to the readers in the form of video podcasts, collection demonstrations in the form of virtual tours or online workshops.

From one day to the next, the competences of many library staff members in the field of project implementation also had to change. The transition from real-life to online activities does not only involve making collections available in digital libraries or publishing promotional materials on dedicated sites, but also other processes, more complex in terms of concept and methodology – and I do not mean the technical side.

This was made clear to us in the Ossoliński National Institute when it came to the implementation of the virtual exhibition „The Golden Age of the Jagiellonian Dynasty”. Going virtual with it was not our first goal. The exhibition had been planned a long time ago as a physical event but the coronavirus changed all plans. Quite quickly everyone realized that thinking like ‘This is just a break. In two weeks’ time we will return to normal work’ was wishful thinking, and the new reality would take longer than we would like. Postponing the exhibition for the next few years was not the goal – after all, the event was supposed to be organised on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Sigismundus II Augustus’ birthday, and this does not happen every year. Nobody was thinking about implementing the exhibition on the net, until the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage announced a program ‘Kultura w sieci’ (transl. Culture on the Web), introduced in order to encourage institutions to take action in the virtual world, as well as to promote and increase the presence of culture in social life through online tools. It suggested the direction of action in this new reality and became the impetus to change the format of the planned exhibition from physical to virtual.

Easier said than done. Specialists with experience in the realisation of physical exhibitions were involved in the organisation of this exhibition, but in practice it turned out that a virtual exhibition requires a different look at the presentation of the collections. The realisation of the virtual exhibition “The Golden Age of the Jagiellonian Dynasty” began with the creation of stories around selected books, manuscripts, medallions, coins and stamps. In addition to the descriptions typically found in exhibitions, the virtual exhibition was accompanied by narrative descriptions explaining the importance of a given object for the epoch. Summarized, they answer the leading question of the exhibition: why was the Golden Age gold? The descriptions, much more detailed than in the case of our normal exhibitions, are of a scientific nature, while the narrative descriptions are of a popular scientific nature, combining the main objectives of the scientific libraries: scientific elaboration of the collections and their presentation in a popularising form. The accompanying presentations (lectures, concert, educational activities) have also been transferred to the digital space giving them the form of video podcasts, an online concert and games and texts available on the portal. The virtual exhibition created in this way does not aim at presenting objects, but at presenting a narrative through objects.

The work summarized in this way seems to be simple, but it was accompanied by a long period of research and discussion about the essence of the virtual exhibition, especially in the context of the relationship between virtual space and real space. Two important issues before planning a virtual exhibition are what to present and how to present it. Most of the virtual exhibitions are connected with objects existing in reality, i.e. they present a digital, mainly pictorial, representation of a tangibly existing object, but there are also those that feature artwork that do not have a real equivalent but have been created on the artist’s computer and, as such, exist in the form of files. Libraries, as they hold many unique manuscript and paper works of art, will have a natural tendency to present those, and not the digital creations.

The issue of the form of a virtual presentation is a little more complex. Going through dozens of museum online exhibitions, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art through to the Museo del Prado and the National Museum of Singapore, has made us aware of one thing: there are as many concepts of virtual exhibitions as there are institutions and galleries. Under the banners of ‘virtual exhibition,’ ‘online exposition’ or ‘digital exhibition’ one can find on the web various forms of displaying objects in the virtual space: Power Point presentations, virtual tours, galleries of 3D graphics mapping the interiors and objects, pages with links to the pages of individual artists, galleries with a photo of the object and a description, files in various formats presenting different elements of the exhibition (objects, catalog records, recordings, advertising, promotional materials), which can be downloaded in zipped form to your own disk. What to choose?

First of all, whatever form of presentation you adopt, you should remember that a virtual exhibition is not an ad-hoc upload of the documentation of a group of objects on a website, just as a real exhibition is not simply lining up a group of objects in a series of showcases. Thus, the exhibit design of a virtual exhibition is not to tell the programmers: ‘Listen, on the right at the top I want a photo and on the left I want a signature,’ just as we do not say to the arrangers of stationary exhibitions: ‘Here in the corner we will give a showcase, and above it a signature and a board with its magnification,’ because we might as well hire an interior designer who arranges furniture in corporations to arrange exhibitions.

In fact, the process of the exhibit design is surprisingly similar in both online and offline exhibitions. The artworks and their juxtaposition have to be arranged harmoniously with their surroundings. Some aspects of installing and launching the virtual exhibition may vary from the ones planned for a exposition in your physical exhibition space, but the idea is the same, e.g. you don’t paint walls in support of the exhibition concept, but you can apply colour to the webpage. The arrangement of virtual space seems to be even more difficult from the point of view of attracting the viewer’s attention than the real space. When we enter the exhibition hall, we look around and take an automatic tour: we look at the object behind the object, approach only the object that has attracted our attention from afar or sit in front of only one object for which we came here and enjoy the fact of communicating with the original.

The virtual exhibition is deprived of all this. We start our tour by going to the portal page or in front of the computer screen, and nowadays more and more often cell phones, and it’s on the way to work, people go home on public transport. The virtual exhibition arranger must take into account that it operates in cyberspace, which cannot be seen as a simple mapping or continuation of real space. Why? What should the curator of a virtual exhibition do, together with the team arranging its space, when s/he hears the words such as those: ‘No matter how beautifully we film the performance, how faithfully we digitally map a given object, nothing can replace the experience of seeing it live’1? First of all, agree with that statement – after all, we are not going to the Louvre to see the latest trends in interactive exhibition, but to have a look at the Mona Lisa (seeing it from behind the forest of heads is another thing, after all we are not the only ones who came up with this idea), and a 3D scan of the image will not replace it. Secondly, to realize that the main purpose of the virtual exhibition is different, and that is to tell a story. The arrangement of a virtual exhibition must serve to emphasize the narrative, because when an offline exhibition defends itself with objects even with an underdeveloped narrative, a virtual exhibition has no such luxury. As a consequence, the most important thing in the creating of a virtual exhibition is to treat it as an individual project in a unique space such as digital space, and not to perceive the virtual exhibition as an addition to a physical exhibition. Thus, we also do the viewers a favour: the attempt to replace the ‘real’ exhibitions only reminds them that they are locked in their homes and deprived of the ‘real original’. The virtual exhibition must be an event in itself, and the actions taken in cyberspace must be different, but related to the real world.

Paraphrasing the definition of an offline exhibition, a virtual exhibition can therefore be defined as the art of exhibiting in a certain virtual space objects that interact with each other and with the surrounding networked reality. The virtual exhibition is a part of digital culture, i.e. culture that uses digital technology and information systems to present its elements and phenomena in the virtual world. Just as digital culture is, according to contemporary definitions, ‘more about conscious and purposeful cultural activity than about objects,’2 so a digital exhibition should be more about a story built around objects than the objects themselves. Libraries seem to have a unique predisposition for this. Their collections are so diverse that often the whole virtual exhibition could be placed around one object. The degree of their digitisation is very high – the activity of libraries in the virtual space was at a high level even before the pandemic, as evidenced by numerous digital libraries, databases, online catalogs, etc. So why not try to adapt cyberspace also for exhibition activities?

1 G. Manginis, Academic director of the Benaki Museum in Athens [in:] Culture at the time of a pandemic,, 29 VI 2020.

2 M. Connor, Curating Online Exhibitions [in:], 13 V 2020.

Provenances from Brazil

By Fabiano Cataldo de Azevedo, Ph.D. (UNIRIO/CERL) with the collaboration of Nathalia Henrich, Ph.D. (The Oliveira Lima Library/ The Catholic University of America)

Since March 2019, I have coordinated with professor Stefanie Cavalcanti Freire the research project A Eloquencia dos Livros: Marcas de Proveniencia (‘The Eloquence of Books’: Provenance) as professor at the Department of Librarianship of the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro – UNIRIO). 

In doing so, I decided to create this project with one very straightforward  objective in mind: to identify other activities within this subject in Brazil and to map the scientific production on the subject. Despite expecting that there were people interested in this subject and knowing about single activities, the results have been beyond what I could have imagined.

It is important to contextualize this project within my own research agenda.

For six years I have taught a course on the formation and management of special collections, an area in which there is as much demand as there are doubts. Especially because there is still some confusion regarding the concepts of what is a “rare book”, “old book” and even “heritage in libraries” (although this may actually be a theme for another text). 

Finally, during this period teaching about special collections, it was clear that some topics were always included in the class program, that is, “private” libraries (of an individual) and “institutional” (whose creation nucleus was at the beginning of an institution).The subject of provenance always appeared in these discussions, and always generated  many questions. Of course, the biggest were “how to describe” and “how to catalog”. However, throughout this period, I began to notice that doubts about provenance were not  specifically about them. Rather many doubts stemmed from the absolute lack of training in History of the Book and Analytical Bibliography. Unfortunately, this content was eliminated from the curricula of Librarianship courses over the decades in the 20th century, due to the claim that they were no longer needed and consequently outdated.

I am a graduate and I teach at the first School of Library Science in Latin America. These are courses that try to remain within a humanist tradition, even though many believe that this means “not to modernize”. Therefore, in the last 50 years, Library Science courses in Brazil and other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, for example, have assumed a more technical approach.

Our theoretical guides are David Pearson’s Provenance Research in Book History and his Books As History. The study of provenances is a field within the History of the Book and Libraries. As such, the form of analysis and description requires knowledge of what Dominique Varry calls “Archeologie du Livre”, that is, that of Analytical Bibliography. Without it, even projects involving digitization and digital humanities with provenances are baseless: they are not supported as a method.

In activities where provenance is used to reconstruct the historical narrative of an institution or an individual, we have guided the association with the method of “evidential paradigm”, coined by  Carlo Ginzburg. Because, as we know, by this method the provenances work as “clues” that together, as in a police investigation, can reveal some history.

Therefore, we are not working from the researcher’s perspective, or the other end. In dialogues with Librarian Ana Clara Brandão, curator of a special collection in the area of Law, at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (University of Rio de Janeiro), we have established a reflection that the identification and cataloging of sources can be a very important strategic action in a library.

Librarian Frederick Wilfrid Lancaster (1933-2013) said that when indexing, it was necessary to think about the real and potential researcher. In other words, the first is the one who naturally seeks the library, while the second is not. An example: we live in a field of collections pasteurized by digitization and indexing that are practically identical and often superficial. In the case of a special collection, a type of library that finds itself constantly needing to justify its existence, cataloging beyond the content (which can eventually be found in any other library) can be crucial. This gives the book a different status and attracts the potential researcher. As a strategy, it can also show that a collection is not isolated, and that it can be connected to and complete others.

In this perspective, the project is justified and has developed its activities. Currently, the research team is composed of curators with different backgrounds, ranging from Social Sciences, Anthropology, History, Librarianship, and teachers in areas such as Paleography and Latin, Archivists, Museologists and Restorers from 10 states in Brazil, in addition to the United States, Peru and Argentina.

The project also includes the participation of a Latin expert, Professor Fábio Frohwein, Ph.D. from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro); and recently with the participation of a specialist in Palaeography, Professor Alícia Duhá Lose, Ph.D. from Universidade da Bahia (Federal University of Bahia) and Professor Vanilda Mazzoni, Ph.D. from Memória e Arte (Memory and Art).

The participation of these professionals in the project has been even more positive because what we have discussed and researched has reverberated in actions in the libraries where they  work. Many have improved existing projects and others have created new ones.

I would like to mention some examples of researchers from the project and their work. The first is being developed by the team of the rare books collections of the Biblioteca de Manguinhos/Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Manguinhos Library/Oswaldo Cruz Foundation), one of our most important scientific institutions. The rare books section is developing  an illustrated glossary to support the cataloging of some note fields.

Bookplate and endleaf of Biblioteca de Manguinhos  (Rare book collection from the Library of Manguinhos). The endleaf was created to identify all the bindings made by the Library at the beginning of the 20th century as a reproduction of Plate 60 of the book “The Alhambra“, by Albert Frederick Calvert. Photograph by Fatima Duarte.

The production of this glossary aims to approximate the technical vocabulary and the catalogers. The goal is to improve their bibliographic description work by adding technical scientific vocabulary, minimizing generic or subjective descriptions, and even avoiding errors. For the provenance project by the library of Manguinhos, they are creating specific terms / expressions and also including them in the Glossary. At the National Library of Brazil, there is a group, composed by the restorers Thaís Helena and Jandia Flaeschen, whose objective is to identify the stamps used by the institution throughout its 200 years, as well as some more historic collections, such as the well-known Thereza Cristina Collection (named after the last empress of Brazil). Another group uses provenance to  combat illicit book trafficking. Finally, there is the controlled vocabulary developed by by librarians Rosângela Von Helde and Silvia Fernandes, from the Plano Nacional de Recuperação de Obras Raras (National Plan for the Identification of Rare Books), responsible for the Catálogo do Patrimônio Bibliográfico Nacional (Catálogo National Bibliographic Heritage Catalog).

Provenances from Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil Collection. Photography by Jandira Flaeschen.

More recently, the Oliveira Lima Library at the Catholic University of America has joined the group. Under the coordination of Nathália Henrich, Henry Widener and I are partnering on a cataloguing project of the Camiliana collection that belonged to the library’s founder, Brazilian bibliophile Manoel de Oliveira Lima. The goal is not only to present a collection that has been largely unknown to the public, but also to highlight the provenance marks that make these books, and hence the collection, so unique. 

One of the bookseller letters that negotiated the sale of a collection to Oliveira Lima. Photography by Nathalia Henrich.

At the university I work for (UNIRIO), as a result of a demand from  the Library, I created a method to identify the provenances that work as documents that narrate, build and prove the history of the origin of a collection called “Memory of Library Science” (Memória da Biblioteconomia). The research had the collaboration of some of their own staff and one specifically, Marli Gaspar Bibas, under my supervision, did a research and wrote an award winning work on the history of a copy of the Histoire de l’Origine et des Premiers Progrès de l’Imprimerie (1740).

The librarian Maria Lucia Beffa, director of the Library of one of the oldest law schools in Brazil, (Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo) is developing, with your team, protocols for the description and cataloging of provenances. They have been used for the reconstruction of the library’s own history, bookstore catalogs, record books, stamps and ex libris serve as valuable clues to this historiography.

Annoted book from the Rare Book Collection of  Faculdade de Direito da Universidade de São Paulo (Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo).. Photography by Maria Lucia Beffa.

An important aspect of our work is outreach. We feel strongly that the results of all the amazing research should be shared and publicized. Accordingly, we have supported actions such as seminars and courses on provenance. In 2020, the research project “The Eloquence of Books” had two events scheduled  to bring people together and also discover new research. In April we would have had a One-day Conference in the City of São Paulo, with lectures, technical visits and a meeting with the researchers. And in July we had planned a three-day International Conference on Provenance, including lectures, conferences, workshops and panels. 25 papers were submitted from Brazil and other countries and there were 180 attendees registered. However, with the Pandemic we had to postpone it to 2021. As a way to compensate for the absence of these two events, we are organizing the Web Conference Provenance and Printing Culture that will take place throughout the month of October, with sections every Tuesday and Thursday. There will be about 22 lectures, 4 conferences, 1 workshop and 3 round tables with the participation of researchers from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, United States, Portugal, Spain, Peru and England.

The event is organized by the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, The Oliveira Lima Library at The Catholic University of America (represented by Nathália Henrich) and Fundação Oswaldo Cruz.

We believe that one of the most relevant aspects that the project has raised is, more and more, to clarify that provenance is not a dilettante subject nor  just an aficionado kind of preoccupation. Working with it is fundamental for the security of the library collections, knowing and valuing cultural heritage, and connecting libraries to establish a collaborative force.

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