Saturday, December 10, 2011


"... good satire is an exceedingly rare commodity. More than ever, the creation of the ridiculous is almost impossible because of the competition it receives from reality." -- Robert A. Baker (in A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown)

Recently a well-known online book database yielded the following dealer's description of a book being offered for sale:

"Pages are Aged, Yet Clean. ... Paperback : soft cover edition in good or better condition, some slight wear to edges, as normal for age of book. Overall good copy of this title. Excellent read. A good book to enjoy and keep on hand. Or would make a great gift for the fan / reader in your life. (Excellent Self Help Reference Guide To Get You Out Of a Slump, Into New Place, Prosperity, Awareness Or On to the Next Project, Gain Meaning And Usefulness For Your Life. In Depth Insights in to your Personality and your Ability to Change Yourself. Personal Empowerment Growth...)"

One feels sure that the author of this description was being far too modest. It's obvious that this book cures writer's block and suppresses any reality-based inhibitions. Should you desire a copy, here is a specimen of the same title, a little Catholic missal from 1961:

To our fans/readers we wish Christmas felicitations and a New Year of Prosperity and Personal Empowerment.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


"The report of my death was an exaggeration" -- Mark Twain

It's not often that rare book curators in an academic library receive phone calls from students' parents, but last week a surprised Curatrix found herself the recipient of warm telephonic thanks from the mother of a CUA student. What had Curatrix done to warrant this long-distance gratitude? Save a kid's life? Return a lost cell phone? Offer a particularly riveting classroom session? Alas, she can claim no such heroics; she had merely hosted a sale of used books.

In an age when books are about as welcome as space junk hurtling towards earth, a book sale might seem a foolhardy enterprise, the resulting parental gratitude out of step with the times. Few libraries continue this long-standing method of income generation. After all, it's so much work. But this labor may, it seems, have some benefits beyond revenue. During its 24 hour sale, this tiny department received over 300 visitors, the majority of whom were students, and a large percentage of these undergraduates. They came with all sorts of interests - architecture, political science, John Henry Newman, Italian poetry, Slavic literature, children's books. Many had only a couple dollars to invest carefully in bibliographical treasures. Some were repeat customers - kids we've watched grow over the four years we've been holding the sale. But all had one thing in common - evident enthusiasm for reading and for books.

By coincidence, this event took place during the very same week as a nationally televised pronouncement by columnist Evan Thomas that American undergrads spend their four years in college stacking beer cans. Nobody argued with Mr. Thomas; it's easy to be cynical about the state of higher education in this country when statistics show that many students emerge from college virtually unchanged. The recently-published study, Academically adrift, demonstrated that student apathy and lack of rigor characterize a cross-section of American academe.

Yet we all know that there are, there must be, exceptions to the dismal statistics. And to us it seems remotely possible that some of those exceptions showed up last weekend with crumpled dollar bills to buy our old books. To us those kids seemed precisely the exceptions we all wish for in our classes - students who are informed, engaged, thoughtful, and possessed of a sense of humor. But we wondered, what could possibly account for such anomalies? It certainly couldn't be the books....

Happy All Souls Week.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


“Much scholarship depends on devoting a disproportionate amount of attention to relatively small details” -- James Thorpe, Principles of textual criticism.

In most library cataloging, even with the exacting standards applied to rare books, the small details which may provide grist for a scholar's mill are often omitted from bibliographic descriptions, either for reasons of economy or through the cataloger's non-comprehension of unfamiliar or even perfectly baffling elements. Further, it is currently thought that the recording of details is unnecessary, given the certainty that every page of a book will soon be digitally captured, allowing a scholar to see at a glance those unique features which might require hours of painstaking work for a librarian to describe in words.

In the vast majority of library cataloging records, physical features of a book have usually been overlooked, with stress laid on the information needed for retrieval of a given text. Only in the last three decades have rare book catalogers begun to develop protocols for recording and making retrievable the physical features of books, most notably with the RBMS Thesauri of ALA's Rare Book & Manuscript Section. Provision is now made for recording binding characteristics, former owners' names, and other visible features of a book. But even so, some elements such as marginalia, dog-earing, shelf-marks, and other evidences of provenance may not make the cut. Sometimes these features elucidate the book’s history but just as often they are difficult to describe and may raise more questions than they answer, leading the cataloger on an exciting if time-consuming chase after names, literary allusions, and mystifying abbreviations, all of which might be evidence of some sort for scholarship of some kind, but probably a kind unrelated to the text of the book.

A case in point is this recently cataloged volume from the Clementine Library.
Unprepossessing in appearance, this book on architectural terminology has been personalized in a variety of ways. The title is scrawled on the cover: Francesco Mario Grapaldi’s De Partibus Aedium (Parma, 1516). The cover also bears, in the same hand, the engaging announcement of ownership: “Melchioris sum” or “I belong to Melchior.”

Goodbye Cruel World
Even more interesting are the two unrelated verse quotations written inside the vellum cover. The first verse reads "Inveni portum spes et fortuna valete / Nil michi vobiscum ludite nunc alios", roughly translated, "I have reached the harbor; farewell Hope and Fortune. To me you mean nothing; now go make sport of others."

The lines are a Latin translation of one of the most famous epigrams (in this case really an epitaph) from the Anthologia Graeca or Greek Anthology. Books have been written on the Anthologia, which occupies five volumes of the Loeb Classics. Once better known than at present, the Anthologia was an important source in European literature from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century. Notable translations into Latin included that by the Dutch legal scholar Hugo Grotius and portions of the Anthologia were translated or mined by other famous literary figures, including Erasmus and Thomas More. In 1518 when the second edition of More’s Utopia was printed in Basel, the volume included the first printing of More's Latin Epigrammata along with a preliminary section of Progymnasmata, containing verses by More and his friend, the grammarian and Greek scholar William Lily (1468-1522). Progymnasmata 6 includes both More's and Lily's Latin renderings of the Greek epigram on Fortune. However it is not the translation by More which was copied into our binding, but word for word the text by Lily, varying only in the medieval spelling michi rather than the classical mihi. It would be interesting to know for certain the source for the manuscript lines, to learn whether the owner of the 1516 Grapaldi book copied into it the published epigram two years later, or whether he relied on a different unknown source.

I am Borage
The second verse is more difficult to decipher but seems to read:
“Ego sum Borago qui[?] tria dona ago / et gratias semper ago et semper viresco, et in omni tempore cresco." ("I am Borage who brings three benefits: I always bring good cheer, I'm always green, and grow in every season.") This little Latin jingle seems to be a fairly accurate description of the herb borage (Borago officinalis), a common blue-flowered plant which grows around the Mediterranean, in Europe and in other temperate climates. The leaves are used in salads and the flowers are among the few naturally-occurring blue species which are not poisonous to humans. Used as a summer spice for wine, borage has been reputed to have mood-elevating properties, and indeed the most common variant of the poem "Ego Borago gaudium semper ago" reflects this belief, as do several vernacular texts. The plant's extracts, now marketed in health food stores, are used to treat arthritis and hot-flashes, and borage is a favorite "companion" plant of gardeners, requiring little maintenance. After five-hundred years the Latin doggerel penned in the old binding is still relevant, and possibly the writer felt it to be a cheerful counterpoint to the epitaph he had written above it. In any case, no researcher looking either for the epitaph or the homage to borage would think to find it by searching for a book on architecture.

On the endpaper opposite these verses are later and more extensive manuscript notations, beginning with six lines of Italian verse and continuing with citations to various topics within Grapaldi's architectural treatise, noting relevant page numbers.
An educated guess places these lines in the period of Albani ownership of the book, and they remain the subject of further investigation.

But a mysterious abbreviated note at the very end of the book on the lower pastedown (which, like the upper, was never actually pasted) seems to be in an earlier (16th century?) hand and is rather more interesting. What does it mean? It may be a date, 5 July. "Completed Jul. 5" perhaps? On close inspection it has the appearance of two pens at work, a light ink with a darker heavier hand superimposed. In any case the presence of the neatly cut out window on the leaf preceding it adds to the mystery. Normally one sees cut-outs of this sort when a signature is clipped from a leaf. But this missing corner seems somehow related to the notation on the next leaf. Perhaps a pattern like this is known in other books, but it is not easy to alert scholars to the presence of such an anomaly, either in a verbal catalog description, or by digital means.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


This portrait, produced by letterpress, is of the inventor of Linotype and was the gift to RBSC of the Oliveira Lima Library, our sister collection at The Catholic University of America. Thanks to our colleagues in the Prints and Photographs Division of The Library of Congress for providing the proper term to describe the process used to create this portrait, known as a "letter picture". Those of us who remember the output of mainframe computers in the 70's have seen computer-generated equivalents of this process, but producing the same result with Linotype must have been a challenge.


only God knew what He was doing. The rest of us have to figure it out as we go, so please be patient.