Chronicling Discovery: The Online Journals of Rare-Book Collectors

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Curators of rare books are finding that blogging gives their discoveries greater exposure, an example of how virtual work can support even the most tactile of pursuits.

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What gives a rare book its allure? There are the books' physical aspects: The quality of its paper or vellum, the colors of its illustrations, the craftsmanship of its binding. There's also the books contents, not just its text but any marginalia left by earlier owners. But beyond those aspects of the book as an object, there can also be the intrigue of a particular book's story -- where did it come from, where did it sit for years lying unnoticed, how was it eventually found. And that last part, that moment of discovery is what rare-books curators and researchers are documenting online as they go about their work, creating a neat record of that aha! moment, and giving them a space to present their object as something more than just the object, something more than an entry in a card catalog can convey.

In an essay written jointly, Daryl Green and Brooke S. Palmieri tell the story of how a blog entry by Palmieri led Green (then the rare books cataloguer at the University of St. Andrews_ to the book, and, eventually, to St. Andrews' acquisition of it. In the entry, Palmieri described how she realized that a mostly unremarkable copy of a tractate on the authority of the pope contained rare and valuable notations by Hartmann Schedel, a turn-of-the-16th-century German physician, author of the Nuremburg Chronicle, and consumate book collector. She wrote:

While I was spending my first moments with the book, what I call 'the socializing process' (like they do with dogs at kennels) wherein I basically prod and leaf and sniff around without really reading anything, I noticed that the top quarter of the bookplate wasn't pasted down. So I turned it over without any resistance or damage and blamo:

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Was that the Hartmann Schedel? Of Nuremberg Chronicle fame? Luckily in our reference collection (which I am in the process of cataloguing on LibraryThing) we have a copy of Adrian Wilson's Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle and it includes several samples of Schedel's rounded handwriting. The Ex libris as well as the annotations throughout were a perfect match.

The web has done a great job of showcasing old manuscripts and opening them up to far more people than could have ever seen them in a pre-digital age. What Palmieri and Green's essay points to is that it can show more than just the objects -- it can reveal the process through which those objects come into view. And in doing so, it enriches an obscure field, one obsessed with old, physical things -- a field that on its surface seems nearly the opposite of the ephemera-ridden, intangible Internet. But even a field so focused on objects has its stories -- stories which the Internet is perfectly suited to capturing.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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