Folger digital image collections, part 1


So, speaking of techonology, the Library has recently opened up a very cool new tool: you can now search the Folger’s digital image collection from the luxury of your own computer! It’s fun for playing and fun for research–although, really, is there a difference?


Our whole collection isn’t digitized, of course. But there are some real gems in there. All the images that I use in this blog, for instance, are in the digital collection. Things end up in our digital collection via a couple of different routes. Sometimes a researcher requests specific images for use in a project: our photography department, headed by Julie Ainsworth, takes photos, and those get placed in the collection. Sometimes Library staff requests images for our publications, including our website and online exhibitions. Works also get digitized for use in the classroom, for instance for use in the undergraduate seminars and the Folger Institute’s paleography classes.


There are also some larger initiatives to digitize parts of the collection. Most recently, and spectacularly, the Library digitized all pre-1640 Shakespeare quartos in our collection (with the exception of the few that weren’t in condition to be photographed). I should repeat that: all pre-1640 quartos. Not one copy of each imprint, but all. How excellent is that? Really, extraordinarily excellent. And I’m not just saying that.

To find out more about accessing the digital image collection, either via the Folger’s website or by installing Luna Insight software, see our information page. Once you’re in the collection, you can browse, you can search for specific authors or works, or you can search by keywords. It can take a bit of playing to find things (the keyword searches are matched to the catalogue entries, and not necessarily to what is in the image). But I love what I find, even when I’m looking for something else. And when you do find something you want to work with, you can even download it!

(You’ll see that you have the option of accessing Insight via your browser or by installing client software. It’s definitely worthwhile installing the software–there is lots of stuff that you can do with the software that you can’t from the browser, like accessing only the Shakespeare Quarto project. There are more options for downloading, too, like exporting a raw html page. More on those toys next time.)


So what’s the image above? It’s something I found while browsing the collection and it seemed apropros for this post. It’s a detail from a 1700 edition of Johann Comenius’s Orbis sensualium pictus, a book best described by the continuation of its title in English: Comenius’s Visible world. Or, a picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein . . . for the use of young Latine scholars. This particular picture is a detail showing a scholar at work in his study. What are the numbers in the picture? They’re keyed to the English and Latin vocabulary words that are illustrated! I’ll show more from this book in a future post. But for now, you can find information about the book in our online catalogue. And you can find the picture itself by doing a data field search for it in Luna Insight with the image root file number 7988; you can see the full page in image root file 1386.


The beauty of the digital image collection and the public’s access to it are the results of the hard work of some key Folger staff: Julie Ainsworth, Head of Photography; and Jim Kuhn, Head of Collection Information Services. Kudos and thanks to both of them, and the many others, who made this happen.


And to all of you, happy playing!

more on book technologies, or, “the book is like a hammer”

Just after my last post, a few more items related to books and technologies came across my radar. (Okay, most of those items were in the Sunday New York Times, but I do spend a lot of my Sundays reading the newspaper.) Some quick mention of them here, then.

First up was an opinion piece by James Gleick about digital books and traditional publishing. There’s been a lot of gloom and doom about the end of the book. Most of it is ridiculous: books are not dying, they are not about to disappear. But there are some things that are definitely shifting: book sales are down (though I’d say that has less to do with competition from digital texts and more from poor publishing and bookselling practices, in which there has become less and less room for individual taste and outliers) and textbook costs are ridiculously high. What I like about Gleick’s piece is his recognition that books are two things: physical objects and texts.

As a physical object, the technology of books is brilliant. The Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device joke from an earlier post gets at exactly how amazingly books do their job. As Gleick puts it,

As a technology, the book is like a hammer. That is to say, it is perfect: a tool ideally suited to its task. Hammers can be tweaked and varied but will never go obsolete. Even when builders pound nails by the thousand with pneumatic nail guns, every household needs a hammer. 

He’s not interested in fetishizing the book as an object, but in recognizing its utilitarian value:

Now, at this point one expects to hear a certain type of sentimental plea for the old-fashioned book — how you like the feel of the thing resting in your hand, the smell of the pages, the faint cracking of the spine when you open a new book — and one may envision an aesthete who bakes his own bread and also professes to prefer the sound of vinyl. That’s not my argument. I do love the heft of a book in my hand, but I spend most of my waking hours looking at — which mainly means reading from — a computer screen. I’m just saying that the book is technology that works. 

But Gleick also points out that there are some texts that are better delivered through a different technology. Encyclopedias are at the top of his list, and phone books. The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the best example of a book that delivers its text now extraordinarily well digitally–the OED would not be as flexible and wide-ranging of a tool as it now is if it only existed in its multi-volume, occasionally published paper form.

I’m not going to go into the agreement that Google has struck with the Authors Guild, which is where Gleick goes. But Gleick makes some good points that just as the technologies for delivering text and information change, it does not necessarily mean that the technology that is the book disappears. Indeed, perhaps it means that the purpose of that technology–to deliver text–can take on a new life and reach a new audience. Books want to be read. I have a hard time being against new ways of making more texts reach more people.

So if Gleick focuses on the technological purpose of books as text and information delivery systems, elsewhere in the Times, the Style writers suggest the value of books as objects to be objectified. In their gift-giving guide (perfect gifts for less than $250!!), books crop up twice as great holiday presents.

First is the recommendation that “Old best sellers are affordable first editions. Assorted titles from $50.” It’s helpfully illustrated with a photo of Rabbit is Rich, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, and Mona Lisa Overdrive (no information is provided on whether we should infer we should stick with dead, or nearly dead, white men, or if other best-selling authors will do).

Second, and much more weird, are “Classics that are a snap to read. Book covers painted on wood, $150, by Leanne Sharpton” with pictures of The Call of the Wild, The Master and Margarita, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, and Oliver Twist. I’m not sure what to make of them, or of the juxtaposition between the $50 first editions and the $150 wood blocks. Read one, I guess, and display the other. Although I suspect the editors have in mind displaying both.

Personally, if I’m going to be buying a book as an object, I’m going to go with a purse. Caitlin at Rebound Designs turns old, unwanted books into purses. It’s the ultimate pocketbook! I have one that features square dancers, but there are a wide variety from which to choose, and she’ll even do custom orders. Plus, if you want, she’ll give you the guts of the book along with the purse made from its covers. Now that’s technology!


book technologies

Digesting turkey hasn’t been helping with my processing thoughts for this blog, so I’m going to do the classic blog thing of directing you to some other blog posts:

At Mercurius Politicus, Nick Poyntz has a great post on “Information technology and early modern readers“, thinking about bookshelves and the ways in which the organization of books in physical space shapes their use. He looks at the libraries of Montaigne, Cotton, and Pepys, each of which were organized differently and suggests different ways in which those libraries were processed. Nice quotes from these early modern scholars and great links to more images.

A less scholarly approach but more visually lush take on libraries can be found at the reoccuring “bookporn” series at A Historian’s Craft. Post #19 has some great shots of the library at St John’s College, Cambridge, with its fabulous call number indexes. (Of course, I’m partial to the Folger, both the Old Reading Room and the New Reading Room.)

Over at d i a p s a l m a t a are some fabulous images from a couple of Renaissance anatomy books. They’re not just any anatomy books, however, but flap books, the kind where you lift the flap to see what lies beneath the skin, or muscle, or skull. The images themselves are great. But they are also a prompt for some thoughts on the challenges on digitizing early modern books; an earlier post on vovelles touches on this thread as well.

[Corrected: Yes, for those of you who caught this post when it first went out, there was a typo in the post title; it's now corrected, thanks to blogging technologies!]

chains & ephemera

Two different and opposing examples of print today, both of which respond to some of my earlier thoughts about the material presence of books and their durability or lack thereof.

The first is what I think of as a book with a seriously material presence: Thomas a Kempis’s Works printed in Nuremburg in 1494 and bound in a contemporaneous pigskin binding with beautiful blind tooling, heavy brass corner bosses, clasps, and an iron chain.

Now that’s a book! And not one you could take with you on your travels, either. But, of course, that is one of the reasons it has survived: it is heavily armored. (More details in our catalogue.)

My other example is its opposite, something that I find amazing it has survived at all: a newspaper from September 1648 called The Moderate (although its user has renamed it as The Immoderate Rogue). It’s just one sheet of paper, no binding, no protection, no nothing. And yet here we have it.

I like this, too, for what it shows about the early modern printing press. It’s an uncut sheet, printed in a quarto imposition. There are four pages printed on this side of the sheet of paper; flip the sheet over, and the remaining four pages are printed. What you get, once you’ve folded the sheet in the right order, is a 4-leaf (or 8-page) pamphlet. Below is the numbering for the order of this newspaper, were you to fold and cut it.

Newspapers were not designed to last through the ages. They were meant to be read and used and perhaps passed on. As with other types of popular printed material, the more heavily they were read, the fewer of them survived for us to study today. The current exhibit at the Folger focuses on the history of newspapers. It’s a hugely informative and interesting exhibit. You can see it at the Library itself through 31 January 2009; you can also check it out online and listen to the audio tour.

almost as good as a book

I’ve now read Virginia Heffernan’s column in today’s New York Times Magazine multiple times, and I am no less confused by it than when I began. Her focus in “Pump Up the Volume” is the Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader. And her basic point seems to be that it is almost as good as a book. This is why I’ve had to read the column multiple times. That’s her point? It’s almost as good as a book? That’s really what her description keeps coming back to. One of the great things about the Kindle, Heffernan insists, is that it is so un-electronic, so unlinked to the internet:

Unlike the other devices that clatter in my shoulder bag, the Kindle isn’t a big greedy magnet for the world’s signals. It doesn’t pulse with clocks, blaze with video or squall with incoming bulletins and demands. It’s almost dead, actually. Lifeless. Just a lump in my hands or my bag, exiled from the crisscrossing of infinite cybernetworks. It’s almost like a book. 

And I thought, what?

A bit later, she continues this vein:

A sustained encounter with just about any good book on the Kindle is a rich, enormous, demanding, cerebral event. It’s like reading used to be — long ago before anyone had ever seen the brightly backlighted screens of laptops, cellphones and iPods that, when activated, turn everyone’s personal field of vision into layers of garish light and sound, personal Times Squares. 

And again, I thought, hunh? Why don’t you just read a book? But nowhere in the column does she really answer that question. She’s thrilled to be on a plane flight with her new Kindle and is looking forward to being away from the beeping buzzing world of hyperconnectivity. So why doesn’t she read a book on that flight instead of her Kindle? I realize, of course, that the entire premise of Heffernan’s column is digital culture, and that reading a book perhaps wouldn’t be the way to go in that context. But I am still surprised that it’s not even a question that is addressed.

Okay, on one last delve into her column, I see one attempt at an explanation of what makes Kindle preferrable to a book:

As I said, the Kindle feels insular and remote from the wild world of commerce and buzzing data swarms. But the fact that it’s connected to the Web sort of — it has to be, right? Or how else could I download all these books? — makes the Kindle somehow better than a book. Because while I like a few hours on an airplane, I can’t say I want to move into a locked library carrel and never visit the Internet again. 

So I guess that answers my question: the choice is between nearly lifeless electronica and locked into a library carrel.

I’ll leave aside what that says about how we might feel about libraries, and the inability to simply turn off our PDAs. Instead, I’ll use Heffernan’s column as a jumping off point to thinking about books as technology.

There’s a joke that has been circulating for a while about this fabulous new technology for reading–easy to operate, portable, compact. Have you heard about it? It’s the Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device! (You can read the full, original joke by Marielle Cartier in the Abbey Newsletter.) I prefer Medieval Helpdesk version from the show “Øystein og jeg” on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in 2001. It’s been circulating on YouTube for a while now, and still utterly on target, both for its spot-on satire of helpdesk agonies and for the ingenious way the codex did revolutionize the techonology of reading.

the Holocaust and libraries

A friend shared a recent article with me from Der Spiegel that touches directly on the subject of books and owners and their emotional and historical connections. The piece, “Retracing the Nazi Book Theft,” examines the legacy of the Holocaust for German libraries: thousands of books that were stolen from Jewish owners and that remain in the collections of German libraries.

This photo (from the article) is of Detlaf Bockenkamm, a curator at Berlin’s Central and State Library who been tracing the former owners of books stolen by the Nazis. Here he is standing with some of those books, part of the Accession J section, consisting of more than 1000 books acquired by the Nazis “from the private libraries of evacuated Jews” and then integrated into the Library’s collection.

Just as paintings were systematically taken and claimed by the Nazis, so too were books and other cultural and valuable items. The stolen books have gotten significantly less attention in the media, however, perhaps because they are less spectacularly valuable than some of the paintings, perhaps because we are less used to thinking of books as important objects. But the repatriation of such paintings and books is less about their material worth and more about their emotional and memorial resonances:

Nevertheless, Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann believes that museum employees and librarians have an obligation “to devote particular attention to the search for those cultural goods that were stolen or extorted from the victims of Nazi barbarism.” Neumann points out that, more than just “material value,” what is at issue here is “the invaluable emotional importance that these objects have when it comes to remembering the fates of individuals and families.” 

You can read the article for more information on how the search is going. It’s painstaking, as you might imagine. Even aside from the reluctance of many libraries to focus on the task, there is the difficulty in going through the sheer volume of accession records, of looking through individual books for traces of their former owners, and then searching for those owners or their relatives today.

Given my recent posts on the social transactions of books, the timing of the Spiegel article reminds me that books bear witness to history in ways that are much larger than just a daughter’s inheritance from her father, or a mother’s gift to her son. And it opens up questions, too, of libraries and their obligations to books and owners. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about libraries–what libraries do, about the tension for rare book collections between preserving the past and making it accessible. I’ll post more about that in the future.