Monday, July 30, 2012

Rare Books CSI

Dealing with rare books, our job can seem a little bit like that of a detective and a little bit like a scientist. We have to track down clues and then piece together what information we can, while maintaining objectivity and without embellishing the facts. Take an enigmatic book in our collection. Two different works are bound together in one binding: a 1688 Treatise on Japanning and a publication of the French National Convention from 1793, printed in both French and Arabic. What are these two works doing together, how did they come to be in our collection, and what’s the story behind the French publication?
The manuscript label says one thing...

The first two questions have to do with what’s called provenance. If we know who the former owner was, that information goes into the record. This can be the person who gave it to us, or the person whose name figures on a bookplate. In this case, the volume has a manuscript label: “A specimen of the Arabic character, with the French translation by C.F. Volney printed at Paris.” However, the label conflicts with the information on the title page. The title page says “Translated into Arabic by P. Ruffin, secretary-interpreter of the Republic, printed by order of the National Convention, by L. Langlès, guardian of Arabic, Persian, Tartar-Manchu manuscripts for the National Library.”

...but the title page says something different.

When we make a catalog record, it’s important to be objective. That means we report the information that is present in the item, but we can’t draw conclusions. So, each of these people is included in the catalog record, under a heading known as “associated name.” But who were these people, and what did they have to do with the document? Rare-book catalogers take a couple of steps to identify names when they crop up. The first is to check in the Library of Congress Name Authorities, and the second is to look at a dictionary of biography, like Michaud’s Biographie Universelle

The Biographie Universelle contains entries for all three. While dated and partial, they provide evocative portraits.  Langlès comes off as a mediocre scholar who avidly sought fame and participation in prestigious projects. Ruffin was a talented linguist and diplomat who served successive French governments faithfully in the Middle East. And Volney was a controversial and strongly anticlerical author, celebrated for a variety of works both on the Middle East and wider historical and political theories. Significantly, Volney was also an associate of Franklin’s, and spent time in the United States at the turn of the century. 

This last detail suggests Volney might be the missing link. To try to establish this, the next step is to consult some in-house resources. When the Library acquires books, they are given accession numbers, which contain a numerical component and a letter, which identifies the item’s size format. But in this case, the Accession Records don’t provide any useful leads. Instead, only the Treatise on Japanning is listed.

Luckily, the Accession books are not the only resource. The Board also held regular meetings, and acknowledged gifts at those meetings. So, taking a look at the minutes, we see the following entry in the Minute book from a Directors meeting on June 2, 1796:
“The following books were presented by Mr. C. F. Volney:
1.      A specimen of the Arabic language in Arabic Characters, with a French translation. Folio pamphlet.
2.      Memoires sur diverses antiquities de la Perse, par A. J. Sylvestre de Sacy 4o
3.      Odes, Cantites et Poessiés diverses de B. Rousseau. 4o.
4.      Simplification des langues Orientales, par C.F. Volney. 8o.
5.      Christie’s Revolution of France, in answer to Burke.”
Thus we can establish that Volney brought this copy to the U.S. during his sojourn at the end of the 18th century and that he gave it to the Library Company, along with the other items. Since Volney was a linguist and the author of several books about the Middle East and eastern languages, it is not surprising that he had the pamphlet in his possession. In fact, when the pamphlet was written, it contained express instructions “…that each assembly member receive six copies, and that it should be translated into every language.”

The Committee that wrote the text wanted it widely disseminated because it laid out some fundamental principles about freedom and the rule of law:
These sacred principles and eternal truths should drive all citizens:
A nation should never be ruled by the whims of some transient power that cedes to every passion; instead, laws ought to be the sole authority.
Laws exist to guarantee the free exercise of rights. This precious guarantee is what Man is seeking in political association, which provides him with a form of government that contains the citizen within the bounds of his duties.
Any action that hinders the free exercise of these rights, is a crime against Society.
Individual liberty must only be limited at the point where it infringes upon the liberty of others; and it is up to law to recognize and delineate these limits.
Property must be sacred. Far from the systems governed by sloth and immorality, which diminish the horror of larceny and establish it as doctrine! Law must uphold property rights, as it must also ensure all other rights of citizens.
But who should establish the Law? The sole will of the people, though the representatives to whom they have delegated this power.

Beyond this point, anything is conjecture. In the same way a scientist can establish correlation but not causation, a cataloger can’t fill in the blanks. The Treatise on Japanning and the National Convention’s address were pamphlets in the same folio-size format, so at some point they were bound together. Someone added the manuscript label identifying Volney, but we have no way of knowing who, or at what point, or what sources they consulted to come up with the label, or whether they could read French (and it’s doubtful they read Arabic).
The ornately designed Arabic portion printed in two colors.

Despite these gaps, the pamphlet is still a fascinating artifact. The committee writing it clearly felt what they had to say was very important, and went to a lot of trouble to produce a visually striking edition. They probably hoped it would end up in the hands of foreign diplomats, but instead here it is on the shelves of a research library, providing us with a window onto the French Revolution.

Edith Mulhern
Digitization and Reference Assistant

Monday, July 23, 2012

Songs of the 19th Century

As a Library Company intern, I am used to going into the stacks and seeing books such as copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Dr. Benjamin Rush’s copy of the account of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. I am also used to seeing 19th-century books—some bound in cloth, others in leather, and still others with plastic details or even some fashioned from mother of pearl, clearly meant to be displayed as well as read. With a glance beyond the covers, these beautifully bound books seem to carry comparably less weight than Common Sense or the account of 1793—these are household manuals, lessons and grammars, and popular novels—but they represent a historical fact which is difficult to obtain from a textbook. It is the fact of the owners of the books, and not only what stories and knowledge they cared about, needed, or were told they needed, but what they cared about seeing every day.

Cover of sheet music book from anonymous gift, ca. 1857-1865
Similar inferences can be made from the collection of 19th-century sheet music I have been working with over the past month. This collection was an anonymous gift to the Library Company, and one of my jobs, with the help of Rachel D’Agostino, Curator of Printed Books, was to sort through the music and take inventory in order to better understand this collection. What unites most of the volumes in this collection—apart from a few piano exercise books and anthologies of works by particular composers—is that they are personal expressions and interpretations of society’s trends and concerns at the time in which they were compiled. For example, it shows that even during (and in the long years before) the Civil War, when the nation was splintering apart, people still turned to music for entertainment, and perhaps solace. “The Vacant Chair,” a song lamenting the loss of a son in combat during the Thanksgiving holiday, vividly represents this, as do many other songs present in some volumes from the 1860s, such as early versions of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Illustration from sheet music book, ca. 1824-1844
The more miscellaneous elements of the musical collection, after examination, become telling in themselves. In any given volume in this collection, one may find comic songs (and, in some cases, minstrel songs); marches and arias from well-known European operas (such as Bellini’s Norma, which premiered in 1831); works of the breathtaking talents of 19th- century greats destined to be remembered, such as Mendelssohn and Schumann; popular ballads sold in bulk from prominent publishing houses (some of the music of which was set to poetry, such as the Romantic, spiritual words of Shelley); waltzes, gallops, and polkas; and many examples of the mazurka, which, in the earlier half of the century, Frédéric Chopin used to advance the cause for Polish nationalism. The collection shows that music was a backdrop to many aspects of 19th-century American life, both public and national and private and personal. It is suspected that some of the books may have belonged to the family of noted lawyer and American Civil War diarist George Templeton Strong, whose support of the Union may be reflected in certain Civil War songs, but whose family’s other tastes seem to run to pieces by great composers such as Schubert –contained in volumes titled “Kammer-Musik,” or “Chamber Music,” kept by what seems to be a well-traveled and cultured son— and ballads to be practiced, sung, taken in, and enjoyed in the salon, perhaps in the company of other amateur musicians.
Such a musical melting pot not only tells us what the owners of the bound volumes liked to play and share, although, as any present-day musician or lover of music can assert, that is very important too. This music could give us a clue as to how individuals and families dealt and engaged with events happening in their world, from the almost all-encompassing Civil War to other more transient interests in 19th-century America. With music becoming a more accessible form of expression for many people in the 19th century, it is imperative that we look to it for answers to questions or concerns of the times as we would look to other available means of expression, such as writing. Like the rest of the books in the Library Company stacks, music offers its own stories of history from the ordinary people who lived with and through it.

Jill Hanley
Library Company of Philadelphia Volunteer Intern

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


The beginning model for Roly Poly Doll
A big trend in the art world is found-object art, as is using trash to create new things. I find that because my upbringing involved shopping at thrift stores and reusing everything and anything, this is a natural way for me to work. For the pieces I am making for the Library Company, I have used several found objects, although you might not realize it when you see the works.

For example, in my Roly Poly dolls, the counterweight that forms their base structure is made up of pieces from a set of broken computer speakers. They provided the right weight and shape, and so were perfect. Bits and pieces from manufactured toys, such as wheels, as well as sewing patterns for stuffed toys and dolls, have played a significant role in my constructions as well.

Copper dress and aluminum body for Dancing Fox

Metal and wood, when salvaged from the trash or finished construction sites, are wonderful cost-effective multi-purpose design materials. Fox example, the copper dress on my Dancing Fox is made from roofing scrap from a construction job my dad worked on a few years ago.

Figures for mechanical-motion tiger toy

And the wood used to build the boxes of my recently started mechanical-motion tiger and voting bear are scraps from a sculpture I made last semester.

Reusing and repurposing in art is really a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Jesse Lentz
Moore College of Art ‘13
VCP Artist-in-Residence Intern

Friday, July 13, 2012

21st Century Maps Inspired by Library Company Collections

Down by the River Wards Map by Mark Adams and Jason Killinger of Eyes Habit available at:
We were recently visited by Mark Adams and Jason Killinger of Eyes Habit, who were interested in viewing our map collections to gather inspirations for a map they were creating focusing on Philadelphia’s river wards.  In their words, “Topography is one area of interest, and this was our take on a neighborhood that we find very intriguing, both currently and historically. Simply put, it was an exercise in organizing data that we find to be valuable in an aesthetically pleasing way.”  Above is the map they ended up producing for Eyes Habit, their design collaborative, where they have applied their design skills as well as their screen printing abilities to produce a beautiful three-color map.
Philadelphia in 1886 (Philadelphia: Burk & McFetridge, 1885).
Maps viewed by Adams and Killinger during their visit included the above 1885 bird’s eye view map of Philadelphia, showing Philadelphia’s vertical landscape portrayed on a traditional map, with a richly illustrated border depicting the storefronts of businesses that most likely paid advertising fees to be included. Created before aerial photography, other than from hot air balloons, it is fascinating to imagine how they might have constructed this bird’s eye view. 

Those interested can purchase Eyes Habit’s limited edition screen-printed map by visiting here:

The next Eyes Habit map, focusing on South Philadelphia, will debut at South Philly’s 7th Annual Car Show & Street Festival to be held on Sunday, July 29, from noon to 5pm.  More information on the festival can be found on the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District’s Web site:

Nicole Joniec
Print Department Assistant & Digital Collections Manager

Monday, July 9, 2012

Tin Toys and Pulley Animals: My First Month as a VCP Intern

Roly Poly Bunny based on Schoenhut's 1900 patent

Toys inspire me. They always have, even back when I thought all their creators were probably dead. I like things that move and things that you can interact with as a viewer, whether they are in the fine art world or in a toy store.
Roly Poly Cat based on Schoenhut's 1900 patent

When I first came to the Library Company with my class in the spring, I was shown the Schoenhut circus toy catalog from 1917. I had an inspiration to create works based on it and the other toy-related materials in the library’s collection representing each decade of the period 1850-1950. My professor told me to apply for an internship, and I sent off my resume and cover letter that day. I was so excited when I was offered the Visual Culture Program internship.

Sketches for toy sculptures in progress
Aluminum Elephant based on tin toys produced by the Philadelphia Tin Toy Manufactory

So far I have spent much of my time drawing and reading. Besides the actual materials in the collection, I have also found that the Internet has been a great tool for researching what toys best represent each decade of my period. As part of this research, I have had to make decisions about which ones to use as models for my sculptures, and have been particularly interested in the differences among toys according to the social class of their intended consumers. For instance, steam-powered tin toys versus hand-made corn cob dolls. At this point in the summer I have one decade completely finished, and three others almost done. In the end, each of ten decades will be represented by one or more sculpted toys, including pulley animals.

I feel so welcome at the Library Company and have learned so much even in the short time that I have spent here. It is exciting to be at a place that holds so much knowledge and so many resources. 

Jesse Lentz
Moore College of Art ‘13
VCP Artist-in-Residence intern