My Rare Book Cataloging Adventure So Far – A Student Worker’s Perspective

I don’t imagine that “Rare Book Cataloger” is a job most school-age children even know about, much less dream of becoming one day.  When I was in the 5th grade I certainly didn’t.  I was too busy dreaming about becoming an astronaut.  I would never have expected that, 12 years later, I would be shaking hands with the past almost every day by reading and cataloging laws from the early modern period, some of them touched and signed by dukes, revolutionaries, and cardinals.  Then again I also never imagined I’d turn my young fascination with Roman ruins into a classics major studying at an Ivy League university with sights set on a PhD in archaeology.  Rare book cataloging may seem ancillary to that, but without my preparations in Latin and German I could not have handled and read documents that, had I been alive during the time of their creation, I could scarcely have dreamed of holding.  Regan kindly requested that I share my adventures in rare book cataloging so far with you all, and so here is my story.

I am currently studying ancient Greek and Latin in the post-baccalaureate program in classics at the University of Pennsylvania, and traditionally post-bac students are good fits for rare book cataloging due to our prior language work and flexible schedules.  I came to Penn with a B.A. in Classical and Near Eastern Civilizations from Creighton University in Omaha, NE and two semesters each of college-level ancient Greek, Latin, and German.  With these qualifications I earned my position as a rare book cataloging assistant at the Van Pelt Library.  In general I work about 4 hours each day.  The general date range for the material I have worked with ranges from A.D. 1500 to 1800, apparently referred to as the “regular, boring” stuff since by this period printers had generally figured out the rules of their game and there was far less experimentation.

My first assignment was cataloging a bound series of decrees from the French National Convention in 1793.  In the midst of these completely ordinary laws I found a single judgment from the Revolutionary Tribunal ordering the execution of numerous enemies of the revolution, prime among them Georges Jacques Danton.  Curious, I researched further into the matter and discovered that Danton was one of the foremost figures of the French Revolution, and his execution in many ways marked the high-water mark and beginning of the end for Robespierre and the Jacobins.  It was quite a jolt to discover that all of these laws I was cataloging had been passed during the height of the Reign of Terror.  How bizarre it felt to know that every day 28+ people were being introduced to the “National Razor” out front while the National Convention passed laws for things as simple as regulating the price of cheese, or setting up pay tables for public employees.  The juxtaposition of ordinary government business and barbarism is a sure recipe for a surreal feeling.

Having finished the French Revolution decrees I moved on to the much more staid German legal scene with broadsides printed during the reigns of Karl I and Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, both of them dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneburg near the end of the Holy Roman Empire’s tenure.  As if in keeping with the German stereotype these were the most uniform and delightfully formulaic documents I’ve yet worked with.  Even their topics seemed to be formulaic.  As if according to a schedule, every two years or so another cattle plague would sweep the duchy.  One of the most entertaining moments I’ve yet had occurred when I found a decree relating to such a plague published “July 4, 1776.”  It was rather quirky to know that the day the Continental Congress adopted our Declaration of Independence, across the pond the Duchy of Braunschweig-Lüneburg was neck-deep in diseased cattle.

The German Culture Class collection has also introduced me to the world of seals and sigillography.  Oftentimes broadside copies that were signed directly by Karl I and his secretary would bear the ducal seal.  While cataloging seals may be a nightmare processing of minutiae for some, I have greatly enjoyed going in with a magnifying glass and making out the inscriptions and details of Karl’s coat of arms, and entering that into a special 590 note.  For much the same reason I have enjoyed rare book cataloging in general from Day 1.  I love the feeling of organizing things and setting them in order, whether it is describing a seal according to a set formula and putting that description in its right place or fixing a series of errors in an entire collection.  In other words, it feels good to bring order to chaos to help future generations of grad students and scholars.  I have also greatly enjoyed the increases to my knowledge that rare book cataloging has prompted.  Out of curiosity I have looked up the biographies of Karl I and Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand and the histories of Braunschweig-Lüneburg and of the Holy Roman Empire so as to better understand the context of the materials I am working with.  Thanks to this I have increased my knowledge on subjects that fall outside my chosen field of study, and even found surprising places where they intersect.  For example, I discovered that Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand made the acquaintance of Johann Winckelmann, one of the greatest art historians and archaeologists of the 18th century, while in Rome.
In addition to my work on the French and German materials I have also catalogued a series of Italian bando from Bologna concerning its public infrastructure and commerce laws in the 16th-18th centuries.  I went from being stranded overnight in that city’s train station this past summer to learning about its legal history during its time as a member of the Papal States.  These were quite a change-up from the German laws I had become accustomed to, as the Italians were, again as if according to stereotype, neither as neat nor formulaic as the Germans in their titles, document layouts, and contents.  I have also recently begun some work on the Spanish Culture Class collection, where I have run across records of documents from the prolific Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, and the sheer amount of records bearing his name are witness to that fact!

Looking back over my time so far as a rare book cataloging assistant, I must say my experience has been diverse, not just in nationality but also in content.  I have encountered things ranging from the surprising to the expected, and the exciting to the mundane.  I have seen the seemingly inexplicable practices of catalogers before me (why would someone painstakingly write the clearly legible dates of many of the German broadsides again in pencil at the foot of the document?) and no doubt left some of my own that will puzzle future ones (why did he think *that* detail was worthy of a 590 note?).  I have wondered equally how Penn came to be the final resting place for so many of Braunschweig-Lüneburg’s ducal laws, and why it has something called the “Early Printed Binding Waste Collection.”  Each experience has been a fun new milestone on what I believe I can fairly call an adventure, and I am very excited to continue it in the 2013 academic year.

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