Provenance Online Project


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Illegible?: when handwriting gets hard to read

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In recent weeks my colleagues and I at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts here at Penn Libraries have been thinking even more than usual about the art of reading old handwriting as we prepare for a Transcribathon event next Thursday, Dec. 4th in collaboration with the Folger Shakespeare Library. The event will be an opportunity for everyone from those who have no prior experience reading scripts from centuries ago to those with lots of practice playing handwriting detective to come try out the Folger’s new digital transcription tool, developed for their Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) project. People will be learning how to read a range of Renaissance manuscripts, from fairly easy writing, not too different from modern hands, to more difficult scripts for those who want a challenge, and dropping in to transcribe from noon to midnight sustained by food and prizes. (I encourage anyone near Penn next Thursday to join the fun!) As I’ve been thinking about this upcoming event, I’ve also been thinking about the reasons we need to learn about and make transcriptions of the writing of the past, the reasons that once common ways of writing become foreign to us, and the ways the challenges of handwriting create challenges for the Provenance Online Project when the handwriting of the past becomes the only remaining evidence that a particular person once held a particular book in his or her hands or, sometimes, the only remaining evidence that a particular person ever existed at all. When, and for what reasons, does a name simply become illegible? Continue reading


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Mystery Monday: Who Was Anastasia Löwin?

Inc H-135Like the old joke, the page shown above is black and white and red all over.  The main text, a series of prayers printed in black, has been adorned in scarlet.  There is red underlining to highlight important features like the chapter number, and red highlights have been added to certain important letters, such as the capital “C” in “Iesu Christi”, also underlined, on the second line of the page.  The large capital “O”s, which look a little like they are wearing earmuffs, have been added to the start of each of the prayers on the page, each of which invoke a particular body part of Jesus Christ for the reader to meditate on: O breast of Christ, O throat of Christ, etc.

Most notably two words in red have been added to the text.  There is no religious significance to the words, nor do they mark a significant header or division in the text as with the other red markings.  Instead, they spell out the name, Anastasia Löwin, presumably the former owner of the book.  Her name appears in red ink in at least four other places on the book:  on two other pages and, just barely visible, written across the pages on the tail edge of the book (see image below and to the right).  In other places it appears with the variant spelling Anastasia Laÿin.  Continue reading


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Storks and Snakes

The beautiful engraving shown on the right depicts one stork feeding a snake to its mate, who is sitting on their nest.  Around the border of the picture is the Latin motto “Virtus pietas homini tutissima,” (Piety is the most secure virtue for men).  The oval shaped image is pasted to the fly leaf of the Bibliotheca Thuana, the catalog of a 17th century library which has been described on this blog in a previous post.  It might make sense to assume that something like this pasted in the front of a book is some kind of bookplate, just one without an owner’s name on it.  However, this particular paste-in turns out to be a printer’s device, something usually seen printed on a title page or at the end of a book to show who was responsible for printing the book.  It is, however, very unusual to see a printer’s device cut out and pasted in a book as this one is, making its purpose a bit of a mystery. Continue reading


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Mystery Monday: A Sexy Bookplate in a Mirrored Miniature Book

This is the first in the Small Books of September series, highlighting miniature books in the Penn Libraries collection. 

The experience of reading a boIMG_1217ok may often be said to be a reflective one, but seldom is the term “reflective” applied as literally to a book as it can be to the little 18th century volume shown in the image to the left bearing the title, Toujours de l’amour:  Almanach nouveau sur les plus jolis airs (Penn Libraries PQ1989.J36 T68 1792).  This tiny book, produced in the 1790’s in France, and only 3.75 inches high by 2.25 inches wide, has a small mirror attached to the inside of the front cover, which is lined in pink silk and trimmed with gold braid.  The book is just the size of a make-up compact, and it is easy to imagine it serving the purpose of allowing an 18th century owner to discretely powder her nose, or perhaps to catch a reflected view of someone interesting in another part of the room without being too obvious.   And, as you can see, this mirror reflects a sexy little image of a nude lady sitting on a stack of books while an elaborately dressed suitor bows before her, plumed hat in hand. Continue reading


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William Penn and Friends

To the left is an image of William Penn’s (1644-1718) bookplate, which is pasted into the inside front cover of S631 .D57 1634a copy of a 1652 edition of the typically verbose 17th century title:  Samuel Hartlib his Legacie: or an Englargement of the Discourse of HUSBANDRY used in Brabant & Flaunders: Wehrein are bequeathed to the Common-wealth of England, more Outlandish and Domestick Experiments and Secrets, in reference to Universal Husbandry (Penn Libraries, EC65 H2554 651s 1652).  It is easy to imagine the interest Penn might have had in this book as the man who had founded what was then known as the Province of Pennsylvania (land encompassing areas of both modern Pennsylvania and Delaware) in 1681 as a haven for the Quakers, and who had then spent many decades as the proprietor of Pennsylvania overseeing the development of the land.  Hartlib’s book provides an overview of countless aspects of husbandry as practiced in different parts of Europe, offering a comparative approach to provide English readers with new ideas about how to get the most out of different kinds of land, with an appended treatise on the Husbandry and Natural History of Ireland.  Perusing the subject headings of the main text reveal an assortment of topics including:  “Digging, Setting and Howing,” “Smut and Mildew,” “Fruits,” “Vines,” “Dunging and Manuring Lands,” “Silke-Wormes”, “Waste Lands,” and “The Not Improvement of Our Meadows.”  (That last category discusses the great importance of leaving meadows free for the purpose of grazing livestock on good “clover grasse” and other such herbage, thereby being able to make tastier cheeses). Continue reading


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Robert Browning’s Book and a Moment of Friendship

IMG_1132 copyIn 1860 the English poet, Robert Browning (1812-1889) received a book as a gift from his friend and fellow author, Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), who was also friends with the novelist Charles Dickens, the poet Robert Southey, and others.  The image to the left appears to show the spine of this book’s binding, indicating that the book in question is a copy of a 1640 edition of works by the Roman poet, Catullus (c.84-54 B.C.E.) Penn Libraries LatC C2994 640c.  It also indicates that this book was a gift with the words “PRESENTATION COPY FROM W.S. LANDOR TO ROBERT BROWNING” stamped on the leather. Continue reading


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A 17th Century Handheld Library

IMG_0431All of us have become accustomed in the 21st century to holding libraries in our hands on a regular basis.  People walk around routinely with music libraries on their ipods, photo libraries on their phones, and e-book libraries on their tablets and e-readers.  Anyone who owns such digital libraries is also familiar with the sometimes frustrating experience of trying to transfer these digital libraries from one device to another when an old phone dies or it’s time to replace a dated laptop.  Sometimes the attempt to re-create the original library works well, but often there are glitches.  Even if all the music or e-books or photos successfully get transferred to another device (and sometimes things get lost, or aren’t compatible with your new device or software), getting all the digital items arranged as they were on the previous device can be a challenge.  Re-creating a library is not simply a matter of transferring that library’s contents–all the mp3s in a music library–but the structure of those contents–your “Favorite Love Songs from the Decade When I Was 20″ or “Best of Duke Ellington” playlists.

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