Other Collection Highlights

I’m in the process of putting together a report of the results of the project. In the meantime, I thought I would share some more of the interesting items that I encountered while performing the survey. I have little more than basic bibliographic information on these items. At least five languages are represented in the collection, so most of the time I can’t even read the text. My comments here are cursory and represent the information that I could glean just by examining either the item or its illustrations.

In a collection of travel literature, I think it is fitting to show some travel-friendly reading. In the past year, it seems that every ebook reader has touted mobility as a big feature. Well, books have provided super-mobile reading for over 400 years! Here are two of the smallest items from the collection of European travel literature at the RBC. When I snapped these pictures, I didn’t have a ruler to illustrate the size of each volume – so I used my cell phone as a visual reference. The first is a volume from 1619 by Pomponius Mela, titled De sitv orbis libri tres


The text size is a bit difficult to read, but it would fit in your pocket better than a Kindle! The next tiny item is The Hibernian Atlas from 1775 by David Williamson.


This item is really amazing.  It describes the counties of Ireland and features tiny, colored maps (one example below). All text and illustrations are completely done in manuscript. The pictures do not do it justice – I apologize for the blurriness.


Deviating from the topic of tiny books, another book in the collection caught my eye because of the evidence of its reception and use.  The bibliographic information I have from the survey says it is a volume from 1646 by Commelin. The work documents voyages by the Dutch East India Trading Company and the native peoples, animals, and vegetation that the sailors encountered. The title page appears below. At some point in this volume’s long life, the illustrations have been censored. The engravings depict the native peoples in their traditional dress. Images showing women with exposed breasts have been heavily inked. The ink is now a dark brown color. The two images below will illustrate this method of censorship.


Highlight006On certain pages, offending images are gone. I cannot determine if they were physically removed from the page by the censor or if this is the result of ink corrosion. Engravings with these lacunae were later repaired with paper.  The white shape on the following image is an example of one of these repairs.



Sea Monsters

I think I’ll take a moment away from talking about surveys and book structures to share one of the greatest things I found while looking through the maps in this collection. Before modern cartography, it was a common practice to decorate the water on maps with illustrations of dolphins and other sea creatures. Judging from engravings that appear in other parts of the collection, I think a lot of these sea monsters are actually the artist’s interpretation of sharks and whales. Considering first hand accounts of large sea creatures were probably just a glimpse of teeth or a tail – it’s really no wonder that a lot of these things end up looking more like dogs or dragons.

One particular volume in the collection – a 1586 text by Lucus Janszoon Waghenaer titled Speculum Nauticum – is in wonderful condition and is absolutely filled with maps featuring these sea monsters. I really enjoyed these things, so I’m inserting a few images of them below. This volume is not all that much younger than the Carta marina, and while these particular monsters aren’t as colorful, they are just as fascinating.







Common Conditions: Part 2

Following my post on textblocks, I will now move on to describe some commonalities in the condition of bindings in the collection. The vast majority of the items in this collection are bound in leather. They range in size from atlas folios (~30 inches in length) to 32mos (3.5 inches in length).  Many are bound onto cords – exhibiting the characteristic bumps across the spine. Some have had the leather of the spine replaced, others have been repaired with book cloth. Several volumes in the collection have been rebound, but many remain in (probably) their original binding. I will revisit this topic in a forthcoming post on repairs.

During the survey, my first focal point for evaluating the structure of a given volume was the spine. Books smaller than folio-2 are shelved upright in the stacks at Wilson library. In this position, the faces of the boards are relatively protected. While the edges and corners of the book may be bumped and torn, this damage presents a minor threat to the overall stability and usability of the item. Over the course of the survey, I began to notice very common features in leather volumes from this time period. These characteristics could depend upon the size of the volume and the forces to which it has been exposed; however, it is important to remember that some of these items have existed for 500 years – so the exact causes are unknown.

This first volume has a characteristic “wedge” shape. The exact causes of this condition are unknown to me; however, I can guess that over the book’s life, environmental factors have introduced moisture to the textblock and binding. Moisture could cause the paper to swell where unrestrained by sewing or the boards to warp in such a way that the fore-edge ends up thicker than the spine.  Jan also suggested that this shape could be the result of too little sewing or thread that is too thin. The image of the tail end of the book below will illustrate.


Another commonality in leather bindings of this period is splitting of the leather where the boards meet the spine – otherwise known as the outer joint. I’ve noticed several volumes in the collection have minor splitting at the endcaps. While endcap damage could be caused by a reader improperly removing an item from the shelf, it often probably indicates other structural issues. Once the joint is separated at the head and tail, it may be only a matter of time before the rest of the leather in the joint gives way. This depends upon the type of leather and the book’s storage conditions over time. The image below shows a book with splitting in this fashion. Unfortunately, this item has been treated with an unidentified plastic coating (giving it a bit of a shine), which resembles a product called “Liquid Leather”. This coating was probably applied in an attempt to halt further damage, but Jan reports that it is nearly impossible to remove. This limits the possibilities for future conservation treatment to the item.


A third type of damage that came up regularly as I was surveying items was splitting of the inner joint. This damage occurs to the paper of the endsheets on the inside of the cover where the board attaches to the textblock.  While damage to the endsheets can sometimes parallel damage to the leather, inner joint splitting is more likely the result of basic use over time. The image below shows an example of a split inner joint.


In this type of book structure, the sections of the textblock are sewn onto cords that are laced through holes in the boards. As deterioration to the binding continues, eventually the cords could be the only thing holding the boards on. Handling a book in this condition is risky because labeling from the spine or pieces of the leather from boards are more likely to come off. Should the cords finally break, the boards will be totally detached – as in the item below.


While the first set of images came from octavo and quarto sized books, the item above is a folio sized volume. This format is much larger and the textblock and boards are much heavier. In some cases, the boards are made of wood and are very thick and heavy. As I surveyed volumes of this size (and larger), board detachment appeared to be more common. This could be due to the extra force exerted by the weight of the boards and textblock.

I have also noticed that the front board attachment tends to be in worse shape than that of the back board. I hypothesize that this occurs because the front joint experiences considerably more use than the back joint – the typical reader picks up the volume and opens the front cover to find their place. After repeating flexing of the joint for a couple hundred years, the leather at the front of the volume will be weaker and more prone to damage than at the back.

A Note on Collection Size

Back in my post on The Pilot, I noted that the original Excel spreadsheet listed 201 items in the collection. Now that I have accounted for all the additional volumes for each title, the final count comes in at 303 items. While most of the titles listed came in sets of 3 or fewer volumes, there were some whoppers. For example, one of the titles listed, Description de L’Egypte, is an 18 volume set (about half of which are massive, massive plate books) housed in the Wilson reading room. These books were some of my favorite to survey because they are full of the most amazing engravings of people, objects, and ruins in Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. Some of these engravings can be viewed through the digital collection created by ISIS in association with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina found HERE.

The view if Ptolemaic temple in Antaepolis (Qau el-Kebir) in Egypt

The view if Ptolemaic temple in Antaepolis (Qau el-Kebir) in Egypt

Common Conditions: Part 1

Having all but finished surveying the items in the collection, I thought it pertinent to create a series of posts that explore certain states of condition that occur consistently and predictably for materials from this area and time period. I will start from the inside of the book and work my way out. In the first episode of the series: the textblock.

One of the fields in the survey I have conducted describes the repair needed for an item’s textblock as either “none”, “minor”, or “extensive”. The distinction between minor and extensive was based on the ratio of pages needing repair to the total number of pages in the volume. Because all of the items in this collection were printed before 1800, a common characteristic throughout is strong, high quality paper. Therefore very few of the volumes surveyed exhibited more than a few tears. One particularly common site of damage to the pages, however, is due to one of the selection criteria for the collection: fold out maps and illustrations. The volume pictured below, a 1674 work edited by Henri Justel describing European voyages to Africa and the Americas, shows one of these maps folded into the pages as the reader would encounter it.


A close look at the bottom left corner of the folded section (near the gutter) will reveal a large tear running in to the page. A different view of the same volume with the map unfolded appears below – better illustrating the damage.

textblock02This particular map, when unfolded, is approximately six times the size of a normal (quarto sized) page in the book. Anyone who has used a large road map will recall the difficult (and sometimes violent) process of unfolding and re-folding large sheets. At times the size and nature of the folds are not immediately obvious, leading the user to pull too soon or in the wrong direction and tear the page. This complicated process is only made worse if the map you are trying to view is tipped into a book! Items in this collection consistently exhibit tears in the same position as in the example above due to the stress placed upon the paper. Damage to these foldouts also regularly occurs along the folds and at the point where two folds cross.

Many items in the collection have been repaired at some point in their lives. The map in the folio-sized 17th century Dutch volume below was separated along several folds in the past, rendering it unusable. When the volume was rebound, the map was backed with a piece of white textile.


Only a trained conservator can judge if this repair will ultimately prove beneficial for the condition of the map; however, I can say that the benefits of this  material are that it acts as a strong substrate for the pieces of the map, while being flexible and thin enough to fold flat. Faced with an item in similar condition, the library’s conservators would probably not choose to carry out such an extensive treatment because they would anticipate more careful handling by patrons.The image below illustrates that same map unfolded.


Another area that often sees a lot of wear and tear on a book are the pages at the immediate front and rear, usually encompassing the half-title (if one exists) and the title page. These pages see the most use – being thumbed through almost every time that the book is opened. Many of these damaged title pages have seen some repair and certain of those repairs are, while well intentioned, somewhat overzealous and potentially harmful.   The example below, a 1664 text by Antoine Biet, illustrates different means of repair accumulating over the life of the item.


The lacuna in this leaf was originally repaired with paper and unidentified adhesive; however, at some point in the volume’s more recent life, additional tears along the edges were repaired with pressure sensitive tape. More than likely, this tape repair was perpetrated when the book resided in the general circulating collection some years ago.

New Worlds, Collection Context

Last week I had the opportunity to examine about 30 items for the survey. In addition, Libby suggested that I read over a book by Anthony Grafton titled New Worlds, Ancient Texts to get a very general understanding of the intellectual value of the items in this collection.

Grafton Cover

The introduction and first few chapters of the book provide a specific view of the time and social context in which these books were written. In brief, the author suggests books printed between 1500 and 1700 in Europe as a result of voyages of exploration document an intellectual shift from book learning to empirical knowledge . Grafton explains that in the year that Columbus departed on his first voyage, it was generally accepted that a very small collection of works were capable of describing the universe and man’s place within it. By 1700, however, the libraries were overrun with volumes of recorded observations that conflicted with the traditional canon (ie the Bible) (3).

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, books were regarded as “the most powerful sources of knowledge and guides to behavior” (9). The earliest encyclopedias attempted to provide a comprehensive list of the intellectual disciplines – many times with one definitive author and volume per discipline (16). Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica, for example, lists Euclid as the author for geometry, Ptolomey for astronomy, and Peter Lombard for theology. Through the translation efforts of the humanists, classical texts were just being republished in the 1500’s (45); the knowledge of the ancient world was new again, neatly organized, and consumed in specific context (24).

Grafton asserts that the discovery of the new world invalidated the biblical history of the development of man (4), and ushered in a new reliance on empiricism for scholarship. Schools began teaching with instruments rather than just books (5). Descartes’s Discourse on Method, published in 1637, is an example of the growing reliance on observation for academics.

While this is just one of the many ways in which this collection of material is academically valuable, it does give me a broad idea of the scope of the collection. Once I have finished surveying the material, I should have the opportunity to get more information on the selection of the individual items from Libby.

The Pilot

On Friday, we completed a pilot of our survey. Jan first selected 11 items from the collection list. After printing blank copies of our survey fields, Jan, Andrea, and I then examined each item and filled in the form. When we had each viewed and recorded every item, we compared our responses.

For the most part, our responses to each survey field were the same. In two instances I marked the condition of the textblock as “extensive” while Jan and Andrea considered it “minor”. It was suggested that I think of the condition of the textblock in context of several factors: damage in proportion to volume size, textblock condition in relation to structural condition, and sewing. First, one must consider the extent and location of damage. It is useful to consider the number of leaves that need repair in relation to the total number in the volume. If this ratio is rather small, then the treatment required can be described as “minor”. For the survey, it is useful to consider the damage of the textblock in light of the “Treatment Level” assigned. I should ask myself, “If a conservator will already need to treat the structure, will the textblock repair be minor or major for them?” Finally, if the sewing of the volume has been compromised, this should be described as “Major Treatment” under “Structure” rather than “Textblock”. While the sewing is technically part of the textblock, it is also structural and the survey is designed in part to identify “who” can do the work. We do not want to confuse extensive textblock repair, that could be completed by a technician, with re-sewing that would probably  be done by a conservator.

In one instance during the pilot, I concluded that a 1/2 leather-bound item with a loose endcap did not need an enclosure. My reasoning was that the volume felt quite stable despite the damage. Jan pointed out that the repair to the endcap could take some time, depending upon its priority and available resources. In the meantime, further damage or loss could occur to the split piece of leather. An enclosure could be created for the item much more quickly and would ensure its stability on the shelf. Jan also reminded me that items with red rot should also probably get an enclosure.

Through piloting our survey, we became aware of certain alterations to be made to our instrument. When I first added the new fields to the Excel sheet, I had placed “Treatment Level” as the first field. This occurred because it was the first field that we discussed. After looking at the items, I realized that “Treatment Level” could only really be determined in light of the condition of the textblock and structure. I therefore felt it more appropriate for this field to appear as the last column in the excel sheet. We also determined that several titles listed in the collection had multiple volumes. Jan suggested that as I encountered these, to simply add another row in the spreadsheet and amend the call number to identify the volume number. At present there are 201 call numbers listed in the Excel sheet; however, because some occupy more than one volume, I will not know the total number of items in the collection until the survey concludes.