learning to be wise

It’s that time of year again: another semester and more learning and teaching to be done! In honor, once again, of all of us involved in those activities, here’s a look another book that will help us “learn to be wise.”

Last fall, the book with which I started off the semester was a copy of Lily’s Grammar, the standard Latin textbook of the period. I’m not sure if that book will exactly help you to be wise, although it was certainly used to help you master your early modern Latin. This time, the book I’m focusing on is Johann Comenius’s Orbis sensualium pictus, or, A World of Things Obvious to the Senses Drawn in Pictures. Comenius’s book, first published in 1658 in Latin and German, is often described as the first children’s picture book. His intent was to teach children not only how to read, but how to be wise. That wasn’t an unusual aim for the time. What was new was his method: using pictures of worldly activities and objects to engage his young readers.

Last time I mentioned Comenius, I used his illustration of a scholar at his study to start off my post. Above is the illustration for writing: a table laid out with the implements for and examples of different kinds of writing. On the right side are the various instruments, keyed by numbers in the text to the details in the illustration:

The Ancients writ in Tables done over with Wax with a brasen Poitrel, 1. with the sharp end 2. whereof Letters were engraven, and rubbed out again with the broad end 3.
Afterwards they writ Letters with a small Reed. 4.

As you can see from the picture below, the book uses shifts between blackletter, roman, and italic fonts to differentiate between those things illustrated and between the different languages. (My italics are a small attempt to transcribe the shift between blackletter and roman.)

The text continues on the next page to describe how “we” write today:

We use a Goos-quill, 5. the Stem 6. of which we make with a Pen-kife; 7. then we dip the neb in an Ink-horn, 8. which is stopped with a Stopple, 9. and we put our Pens into a Pennar. 10.
We dry a writing with Blotting-paper, or Calis-sand, out of a Sand-box, 11.
And we indeed, write from the left hand, towards the right; 12. the Hebrews from the right-hand towards the left; 13. the Chinois, and other Indians, from the top downwards. 14.

One of the fun things about this book for me is the descriptions of activities related to book history–there are pages not only for the scholar and for writing, but for paper, printing, the book-seller’s shop, the book-binder, and even for a book. I don’t have images for all of those, but on Google Books you can find the 1887 edition of Orbis pictus, which reuses the 1658 illustrations.

Comenius’s impact on children’s education and book history is huge. His method for engaging children through pictures and narratives about the world around us not only made his book tremendously popular, it has shaped nearly all such books since. His method is wholly familiar to us today–it’s how we routinely teach our kids to read. In fact, what Orbis pictus reminds me most strongly of is Richard Scarry’s stories about Busytown. And let me tell you, as someone whose children love my old copies of Richard Scarry, wow is that a book that appeals to little kids! (You can see a few images from Busy, Busy Town and What Do People Do All Day? on Amazon.)

Comenius’s Orbis pictus starts off with a dialogue between The Master and a Boy which lays out concisely the purpose not only of his book, but of all subsequent children’s books:

M. Come Boy learn to be wise.
P. What doth this mean, To be wise.
M. To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly, all that are necessary.

Comenius’s book is organized not only around A World of Things Obvious to the Senses–or what people do all day–but in an order that makes sense of that world rightly. The book moves from God then the World through all the worldly activities and objects until we reach Gods Providence and the last Judgment.

Naming the world around us to children always means embedding that world in our moral structure, from where we begin and end our narrative to how we describe the activities that take place in the world. It’s one of the qualities that can make children’s books so rewarding to study. Richard Scarry’s steady popularity makes it possible to trace the ways in which children’s books like these reflect our societal worldview–see this great Flickr set for some images comparing the 1963 and 1991 editions of The Best Word Book Ever. Given that my kids read my childhood Richard Scarry, we still name the handsome pilot and pretty stewardess. But I’ve never noticed the screaming lady–something to look forward to the next time my little one drags it out!

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!