Friday, July 22nd, 2016...3:00 pm

Undergraduates at Houghton, Part II: Material Evidence in Incunabula

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A number of Houghton Library incunables—books printed using moveable type before 1501—were donated between 1955 and 1965 by Ward M. Canaday, member of the Harvard College class of 1907.  Several of those books were deposited in Houghton by Adriana R. Salem before being purchased by Canaday; Cambridge had been the end-point of Salem’s trans-Atlantic journey from France (Walsh 5: 43).  Salem’s father was Federico Gentili di Giuseppe (Walsh 5: 43), whose name is more commonly associated with the restitution of paintings held by the Louvre Museum to his heirs in 1999 (Parisot 265).

Inc 3380.10_booklabels
Booklplates of Adriana R. Salem and Harvard College Library from Inc 3380.10

The circumstances of Salem’s departure become clearer.  The daughter of a Jewish collector, she fled Vichy France in 1940 with her family and eventually settled in the United States (Parisot 264–65).  Her father’s incunabula were accumulated in Europe, but they ultimately migrated across the sea when Salem escaped the Nazi occupation.  It was one of many forces that have contributed to the movement of books throughout Europe and beyond.  An initiative by Dr. Cristina Dondi and the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) attempts to track such paths.

Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) is an online database maintained by CERL.  Enabling the storing and sharing of data, MEI currently holds records for over 18,000 copies of incunabula at more than 200 institutions.  The data entered into each record include general information about the edition (e.g., title, author, printer) from the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue, copy-specific details (e.g., physical dimensions), information about structure and decoration, and provenance evidence.  The type and quantity of data vary, and MEI records draw from multiple sources.  Some details are found in library and sales catalogues, but one also discovers evidence by examining a copy in hand.

Throughout my internship, I have created many new records for Houghton incunables.  Most of these records only contain information that can be gleaned from James E. Walsh’s catalogue (1991–1997).  For a select number of incunables, most of which come from the William King Richardson collection, I inputted more data after examining the books with Noah Sheola.

A basic record consists of sections that are dedicated to copy information and provenance.  If additional owners are known or discovered, new provenance “blocks” can be created.  MEI extracts data from another CERL database, Owners of Incunabula, and this process allows different copies of books to be linked by common owners.  Pre-existing owners are incorporated into MEI records, but new owner records can also be made.  Consequently, I do not only populate entries for books, but I also create owner records when the need arises.  Several books at Houghton have previous owners in common with incunables at American and European institutions.  Different copies or editions of particular texts are similarly widespread, so this database indicates trends across time and space.  Thanks to MEI, there is potential for new analyses that employ temporal and geographical data in ways that are not easily accomplished without a large database.

Parisot, Véronique. “The Gentili di Giuseppe Case in France.” International      Journal of Cultural Property 10 (2001): 264–75. Web.

Walsh, James E. A Catalogue of the Fifteenth-Century Printed Books in the      Harvard University Library. 5 vols. Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and      Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton,      1991–1997. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 97.

Alicia Bowling is a rising senior at Smith College and a summer intern in Early Books and Manuscripts.

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