Balancing the Books in Rare Books

As the old Sam Cooke song goes: Don’t know much trigonometry Don’t know much about algebra, Don’t know what a slide rule is for But I do know that one and one is two, And I do know something about early printing and history. And books of firsts are always fun. So there is much to love about Luca Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita (Summary of arithmetic, geometry, proportions more »

Unearthing an 18th-Century Librarian-Gardener

Rare book cataloging can require some detective work. A recent case for me involved a record of ancient coins in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, transferred to the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library for cataloging from the National Museum of American History’s National Numismatic Collection. This is also a tale of how a book can reveal unexpected histories.

Looking Closely: Two Women in Book History

The Smithsonian Libraries does not contain an overwhelming number of notable bookbindings in its collections. Unlike some other research institutions, fine or interesting covers are not a collecting focus or reason for acquiring a title. Many of our books have had a hard life, well-used over the decades by staff and researchers in the museums’ departments. These survivors have often been rebound in library buckram (sturdy but oh so boring) or been more »

The Wondrous Winter Wonderland that was 16th-Century Sweden

An entry into this magical season can be gained through the Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples) by Olaus Magnus, first published in Rome in 1555. It is a work greatly valued by Smithsonian curators and researchers and other scholars, since the author – a true Renaissance man – wrote down his geographical, anthropological and naturalistic observations of a land unknown to much of Europe of the time. In more »

Salad Days (and Months) in Rare Books

My salad days, when I was green in judgement This common, if well-worn, phrase first appeared in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra of 1606. At the end of Act One of the play, recalling a youthful affair with Julius Caesar, Cleopatra refers to a time of innocence, silliness or indiscretions. Since May is National Salad Month, let us celebrate the greens by looking at the work of another Englishman, John Evelyn (1620-1706). His more »

Did a Cat Help Decorate this Binding?

  The style of book binding above with mottled leather is called Cat’s Paw, appearing to have had little inked feline foot pads walk over its covers. But no, this design is actually made with various types of stains and colors, applied in the binder’s workshop without the aid of a willing cat accomplice. The Internet was leaping a couple of years ago with accounts of evidence of a no-doubt confident and more »

Charting the Chesapeake from a Civil War Map

Familiar with its waters, I was delighted when an early chart of the Chesapeake Bay, entitled Map of part of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware of 1861, appeared in my cataloging queue. But then who doesn’t like looking at old maps? Getting absorbed in what is fanciful, long-gone or merely changed, and finding remnants of the well-known from a long association with the landscape. And reading any map on paper doesn’t happen every more »

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