Written by Steven Szegedi
Archivists dream of working on a daily basis with, oh, personal correspondence from John F. Kennedy perhaps, or maybe digitally converting fragments of an unknown film from Georges Méliès’ film studio, or maybe just discovering a new photo of Emily Dickinson. The reality is that we often are busy with other, more commonplace things. There are institutional records to re-house, internship students who need guidance and supervision, inventories to compile, and requests for digital copies of Board of Trustees meeting minutes that simply must be finished today. The opportunity to work with the sexier historical ephemera is not a daily, nor even a monthly, reality for most of us. Yet sometimes fortune does smile upon us…
In honor of National Archives Month I’d like to profile a recent donation to Dominican University.
The Dominican Sisters of Racine, Wisconsin (who are celebrating their sesquicentennial) quite kindly offered Dominican University some rare books which were deaccessioned from their collection earlier this year. (Again, thank you!) Initially the books were incorporated into a Graduate School of Library and Information Science summer class exercise in descriptive bibliography. The Racine Sisters apprehended the potential and need for more academic, investigative work on the books’ behalf and generously presented the collection of 34 books to DU’s Archives and Special Collections in August.
A donation like this is certainly one to celebrate, owing to the treasures and delights within. The books’ publication dates range from 1695 to 1925, with the majority of them dating from the 18th century. Among the 34 bound volumes are 29 publications which appear to not be catalogued at any institution in the United States, though a few of these, including August Wilhelm Ambros’ Bunte Blätter Skizzen und Studien für Freunde der Musik, have a digital facsimile (of Albert Einstein’s copy?) in the Hathi Trust. This doesn’t definitively mean that these books have no brethren in America, just that there are no catalog records extant; what is notable is that for about five of the publications there is no record at all among Worldcat’s nearly 1.9 billion bibliographic holdings records.
The books themselves are in wonderful shape, and are mostly German editions of Christian and Dominican texts. Some are unique printings, some exhibit beautiful woodblock and copperplate prints, and others are tantalizingly filled with loose ephemera. The book that elicited the perhaps most interest among the descriptive bibliography students is a particularly rich example of an emblem book, an incredibly popular book form from centuries past which may seem quite unusual to us today.
In addition to the interesting texts, the books are by and large modestly yet beautifully bound as well. Many of them retain the original metal clasps used to hold the volumes shut. None of them are in perfect condition (owing primarily to their obvious use) which in my estimation adds to their appeal – how easy it is to fantasize about those who commissioned the bindings, for whom the work was so important that they simply had to dip into the text a few times a week, perhaps carrying the book on trips outside the home, who could not imagine a day without reading some lesson from the book… These are bindings which give priority to study and use, and are not meant to be unopened monuments for the bookshelves.
I must confess that the most rewarding aspect of compiling the inventory so far has been the unrecorded works, and especially the mystery of one of the original owners of at least three of the books. Her name was Barbara Blasius, and she lived in the late 1700s. Her name is written in two of the books and appears on a rather intriguing pamphlet discovered tucked into a copy of Johann Christian Elias’ 1780 edition of Kern aller Gebett, oder andächtiges Gebeth-buch. Both clasps are still extant on this book, a simple, tooled leather binding with metal studs near each of the clasps. These clasps are, in this case, the key to establishing the codices’ provenance for each is engraved with a bit of information. The upper clasp has Barbara Blasius’ name impressed upon it, and in the lower one the initials B.G. and the date 1783, very likely the binder’s initials and date of the binding.
Tucked into the book, between its final pages and the index, is this tiny little pamphlet:
So far I can find no information about this Brotherhood of God (possibly a lay religious society), or any other evidence of their pamphlets. This one, as you can see above, provides one more bit of information about Barbara Blasius as she has signed her name “Von Schweig”, implying perhaps that she hails from this tiny farming community in Bayern, Germany. The pamphlet was first composed in 1684, which leads me to wonder if any of her ancestors were members as well? Now this is the kind of research that led me to work in an archives in the first place!
(If anyone knows about the Bruderschaft Zettel or is a descendant of Ms. Blasius, please do let me know)
There is much yet to be done with the collection; though modest in numbers clearly the books do not lack for intrinsic interest. My own work in coming weeks will be to catalog the books. I plan to leave any further work to our students and to outside researchers. Tempting though it may be to lose myself in the wilds of the research, I am happier still to invite you to the Archives for some conversation and I’ll turn over the pleasures of the research to you. Now if you’ll excuse me, in the meantime I have a few thousand unidentified slides in need of my attention.