The Secret (Past) Lives of Library Books

The following is a post by Meghan Wilson and Cindy Connelly Ryan, preservation science specialists in the Preservation Research and Testing Division, with Marianna Stell, reference librarian in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Given as tokens of affection, discarded as outdated, scribbled upon because a pen was dry, annotated heavily as part of a scholarly project: every book has a story beyond its text. This fall, staff members in the Preservation Research and Testing Division at the Library of Congress have been helping curators and scholars to uncover traces of those stories, and to share the discoveries on a global scale as part of the Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) project, a freely-available online database hosted by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL).

Awarded an internship with MEI, Martyna Grzesiak, former Kluge Fellow and current Graduate Student at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, reviewed nearly one hundred books from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division printed in Venice before the year 1501. Consequently, PRTD’s research has also focused on Italian incunabula.

Provenance history in the MEI project includes both tracing the chain of ownership and also the history of the material components of the book, such as its paper, parchment, binding, and repairs or additions. This broad understanding of provenance may seem unusual, but learning more about these material features assists with a robust understanding of the book trade at the beginning of printing history. For this reason, the research team took some images of the watermarks in an edition of Dante’s Commedia printed by Vindelino da Spira in 1477, one of the first German printers in Venice

A watermark is a type of craftsman’s mark. Papermakers in this period, who constructed paper from a soup-like slurry of old rags, used wood-framed wire moulds to form the individual sheets of paper. Watermarks are symbols that are woven into the paper-forming mould, resulting in a thinner pulp layer over these wires. The watermarks are distinctive to individual papermakers, and, for specialists, even to the specific moulds used by the specific papermakers. The location of the watermark is an indication of the format of the book, and it provides book historians with information about the size and orientation of the original leaf on which the printer impressed the text.

Black and white image showing the repeating vertical lines of the paper’s mould structure, and a line-drawn image of a bull in side profile.

Watermark from Dante’s Commedia, printed by Vindelino da Spira in Venice in 1477, imaged with transmitted light. The watermark looks slightly distorted due to the book’s tight binding and restricted opening. Credit: Meghan Wilson

PRTD’s imaging in transmitted illumination captured a watermark depicting the head and body of a bull in vertical orientation. The body displays in profile and the head in a front view. A very similar design appears in the Piccard online database of watermarks, another useful database for book history lovers.

Martyna and the staff in the Rare Book and Special Collection Division asked for spectroscopic assistance with seven incunabula whose ownership marks could not be discerned. Institutions and collectors now view marks of wear and readership as being a valuable attribute of a book, but collecting fashion and scholarly interest have changed. Collectors in previous centuries often preferred “clean copies” and new, fancy bindings. Many owners took measures to try to wash away or minimize inscriptions in their books. Like new homeowners eager to repaint their homes, book owners throughout the centuries have preferred to blot out or scrap away the marks of previous users. Each of the seven of the books contained scraped, erased, or strike through marks on the flyleaves and pastedowns, obscuring previous owners’ names. In an attempt to render the text more legible, the damaged and defaced areas were captured with multispectral imaging and processed with principal component analysis (PCA). Challenging texts included cases where the original ink and cross-out ink were the same (e.g. both iron gall ink) and thus had nearly indistinguishable spectral characteristics. Additional difficulty arose in cases where the text had been scraped away to such a degree that there was no chemical signature remaining in the paper to be detected. Recovering these obscured texts helped to establish earlier stages in the books’ provenance history.

Above, color image of paper with faint traces of pale brown ink above and below one printed line. Below, the same region rendered in black and white, with the faint lines now as clear and legible as the printed text.

An example of successful revival of obscured text. Top: Color image, bottom: PCA processed image. Detail, Divina commedia Danthe Alegieri fiorentino. Dante. Venice, Matteo Capcasa, 29 Nov. 1493. Credit: Meghan Wilson.

Above, a line of writing heavily crossed out with thick, dark brown ink. Below, the same line with the obscuring marks lightened enough to read the underlying text.

An example of successful revival of obscured text. Top: Color image, bottom: PCA processed image. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili : vbi humana omnia non nisi somnium esse docet : atque obiter plurima scitu sanequam digna commemorat. Venice, Aldus Manutius, December 1499. Copy 4. Credit: Meghan Wilson.

Black and white image of two lines of handwritten text, which show scrape marks and partial or complete loss of ink on most of the letters.

Example of heavy scraping away of ink. Detail, Colonna, Francesco. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili : vbi humana omnia non nisi somnium esse docet : atque obiter plurima scitu sanequam digna commemorat. Venice, Aldus Manutius, December 1499. Copy 3 (Vollbehr Collection). Credit: Meghan Wilson.

One volume contained an extra surprise – tucked deep into the gutter was a pin! This small copper alloy pin, about 25 mm long, may have been used to secure a head covering or garment, as part of a hand sewing project, or possibly to seal shut a folded note or letter. Or was it used as an improvised bookmark? Whatever the case, it escaped the readers’ notice and was left in the book.

Close-up image of the gutter of a book with a pin tucked into it, and dark smudges on both leaves near the head of the pin.

The pin in-situ. Staining of the paper from contact with the metal pin is visible on both adjacent pages. Dante’s Commedia, printed by Vindelino da Spira in Venice in 1477, Credit: Martyna Grzesiak.

Some sections of the pin appeared brighter and more clearly golden-hued, and we wondered if the pin was originally gilded. Elemental analysis by x-ray fluorescence (XRF) showed that no gold is present, though. The pin is made of a copper-zinc alloy with traces of iron and nickel, with no significant difference between the head and the shaft. Small peaks for sulfur, calcium, and potassium with variable intensity from site to site suggest that the white patches are paper fiber picked up from the book’s pages, and that the black areas are copper sulfide corrosion patches.  Examining the pin through the microscope shows that the head of the pin was formed by coiling the end of a thin wire, and that the wire of the head and shaft was formed by pulling through a drawplate. (Here is a demonstration of that process, and a recreated medieval wire drawing setup). Taken together, these clues suggest a pre-18th C date, and possibly a female reader who lost the pin.

In the words of RBSC Reference Librarian Marianna Stell, “Learning alongside our researchers is one of the privileges of working for the Library of Congress. Being a steward of the Rare Book Collections involves being a conduit for ideas and for access.”  The combination of technical and professional skills that have come together to inform this research project about the material history in Venetian incunabula has been a remarkable experience for all the specialists involved. Book history is an interdisciplinary and multifaceted area of study with wide-ranging social implications. The non-invasive analyses of these seven fifteenth-century imprints shed new light on the previous owners and readers of these books, revealing details of the journey that these volumes have taken before reaching the Library shelves in Washington, D.C.

This is only one of many kinds of questions that materials analysis can answer about collection items – you can read about some other recent projects in past blog posts!


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An earlier version of this blog identified an incorrect catalogue link for the third image, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili : vbi humana omnia non nisi somnium esse docet : atque obiter plurima scitu sanequam digna commemorat. Venice, Aldus Manutius, December 1499. Copy 4.

One Comment

  1. Roberto Fabian Casazza
    January 11, 2023 at 10:25 pm

    Congratulations, Martina, and collaborators, for these fascinating discoveries. Only by means of this kind of work, those books can speak again. Thanks also for the clarity of the blog content.

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