My Rare Book Cataloging Adventure: A Student’s Perspective – The Sequel

Hello again fellow libronauts, and Happy New Year!  A year ago I wrote a post detailing my experiences as a student worker in rare book cataloging.  I had only been on the job for approximately three months when I wrote that.  Now that I have twelve more months of cataloging under my belt, Regan has asked me to write a follow-up, and I am more than eager to share my new experiences and reflections upon them.

Since my first post I have completed my first year of post-baccalaureate study in Greek and Latin here at Penn and am now midway through my second.  Throughout that period I’ve moved desks, had my first experience handling manuscripts, and cataloged many more works.  When I wrote last, I had completed two volumes of French laws from the height of the Reign of Terror, myriad broadsides from the Duchy of Braunschweig-Luneburg, a series of Italian civic ordinances, and an index of Spanish plays.  While this wide swath of materials took me all over Europe at the end of 2012, in 2013 my work has generally kept me in the Germanic world with a great deal of Dutch and German legal writing.

The year began with the long-awaited conclusion of the Braunschweig project (I know that was a great weight off of Regan’s shoulders) and the return of – drum roll for the dread to build – a project known by the very descriptive title of “Big Dutch Things.”  They are exactly that.  Big dusty volumes consisting of acts passed by the national legislative bodies of the Batavian Republic.  I wish I could give you all one single more descriptive title than “national legislative bodies,” but unfortunately history itself puts the kibosh to my preference for preciseness.  The Batavian Republic was a sister republic (aka, complete puppet state) of the French First Republic from 1795 to the creation of the Kingdom of Holland by Napoleon in 1806.  Over that period, the Batavian Republic seemed determined to set a record for the number of differently-named national legislative organs, switching them out seemingly by the year.  They ran through such names as “States-General” and “National Assembly” before finally being superseded by the authoritarian post of “Grand Pensionary” lead by an individual with the eminently Dutch name of Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck. (As amazing as this gentleman’s name is, the coolest Dutch name [literally] I came across in these documents was “Bastien Cool.”  I believe it will be years before I discover a name which beats that one.  It sounds like the name of a character someone needs to copyright.)  Schimmelpenninck was replaced a year later by Napoleon’s brother.  Just as the Braunschweig broadsides inspired me to learn more about the duchy and its dukes, the Big Dutch Things encouraged research into the context surrounding them.  The colorful nature of the period covered by the Big Dutch Things is not always communicated by their contents, which deal with the minutiae of agricultural law, civil government, and travel regulations.  Like the French Revolution laws I’d cataloged the year before, in which utterly mundane matters were dealt with while “enemies” of the Republic were guillotined, the Big Dutch Things served as a poignant reminder of how even in extraordinary times, the ordinary business of daily life goes on.  Perhaps this is one reason we sometimes feel our lives are “boring” or not exciting enough.  Plenty of interesting things are going on in the world, but the routine of our daily lives lulls us into thinking little is going on.

My work on the Big Dutch Things was primarily filling in a spreadsheet with information such as title, publisher’s name, etc.  In an effort to expand my understanding of them (and to pick up a few Dutch words in the process) I added a column to the spreadsheet categorizing the subject of each Thing (i.e., “foreign relations”, “trade”, etc.).  The real heroines of this project, however, were my fellow post-bacc students and coworkers Amy and Melissa.  After I was transferred to another project, they continued to hammer out volume after volume until they too were assigned other work or left Penn.  To continue their education, that is, not to get away from Big Dutch Things (at least not primarily).  The Big Dutch Things project continues to this day, but now under the most capable ministrations of Elsa Varela.

After Melissa finished her post-bacc work and went on to an M.A. at Vanderbilt I inherited her last project, a long series of legal broadsides from the Holy Roman Empire spanning the 16th-18th centuries.  This project was broadly similar to the Braunschweig endeavor, but with two key differences:

(1) These broadsides were empire-wide decrees issued by the sitting emperor.

(2) Many of them were originals featuring the hand-written signatures of Holy Roman officials (most often the stadtholder, chancellor, and two of the emperor’s council).

These materials were both thrilling and challenging to deal with.  Thrilling because they were originals touched and signed by leading men of the time.  Challenging because of the sheer number of signatures.  Up to that point, I had been trained in cataloging printed works.  My biggest decipherment challenge to date had been adjusting to fraktur.  Learning to read handwriting is an *entirely* different ballgame, and one that to this day I still have yet to master.  The saving grace of many of these documents was that stadtholders and chancellors would often hold their positions for years at a time.  Once their names were deciphered, they could be counted on to appear again and again.  The emperor’s council members…not so much.  A great round of applause for Liz Broadwell, and my deep thanks to her for putting up with my constant returns to her desk to ask for her help in figuring out the unfamiliar name of the day.  Towards the end of the project I gained increasing literacy in the foreign language (that’s what it felt like) of old German handwriting, though regardless was still thankful when more documents with printed names appeared.  Regardless, the Holy Roman Empire broadsides represented a wonderful learning opportunity, and as with the Braunschweig broadsides signed by the dukes themselves, the chance to “shake hands with the past” by holding documents once held and signed by the leaders of centuries past is a powerful feeling.  Even a year on, the wonder has not ceased.  It is striking to think that when these men signed these documents centuries ago, they left a relic of themselves in ink that long-outlasted them, and continues to outlast them.  So it will be with our own signatures.

While I finished the Holy Roman Empire broadsides I was assigned to the very cool parchment analysis project.  Researchers at the University of York in England had developed a new non-invasive method for determining the species a piece of parchment originated from.  Penn agreed to send samples from our entire manuscript collection for testing.  I was the sample boy, and with training in the proper care of manuscripts from Amey, Donna, and Marissa I was ready to go.  The collection process involved sweeping the parchment lightly with an eraser several times and bottling the resulting shavings in test tubes.  The shavings would carry enough genetic material picked up from the parchment to allow the team at York to identify the species.  It was a novel and manuscript-safe way of performing species analysis.  Unfortunately, mid-way through the Fall semester the team at York lost their funding, and as far as I know the project is now on indefinite hiatus.  In spite of that this project presented me with my first opportunity for working closely with manuscripts, and my word, what an absolute treasure trove.  I handled, examined, and sampled documents ranging for illuminated psalters to 18th century indentures.  I held and read a handwritten letter by Louis IX of France.  Amey showed me the incredible MS 1066 (name entirely intentional), illuminated with the genealogy of the kings of England on one side, and that of Christ on the other.  Even if the project’s primary objective was not achieved, it still succeeded in broadening my horizons.

2013 closed out with work on the course catalogs of the University of Helmstedt and a steady parade of Dutch civic ordinances from various cities.  Since November this work has been done at my new desk in the new Special Collections Center, which is quite the space.  I remember when I first saw it, I wondered how all of the empty shelves surrounding the desks like fencing would be filled, while thinking “These are professional library scientists, they will find a way.”  Surely enough, within weeks and months of the move, the shelves have filled up quite nicely!  I greatly appreciate the money, work, and time that has gone into the creation of this space, and thank those who planned and built it.  My current project in this new environment is a fun look into old book fairs, consisting of the sales programs of the Frankfurt Book Fair.  As we move into 2014 I continue to be thankful to Regan for this job and for facilitating experiences like those described above, and I look forward to the experiences the new year holds.

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