A year and three lockdowns into the pandemic and our old way of working has fractured, the ‘new normal’ has become the merely normal. Working from home means we have had to find new things to do, or new ways of doing old things. In this blog post I reflect on my experience of writing about rare books using only some rather unprofessional pictures on my phone camera, and a lot of good internet resources.
Last month I wrote a blog post about two books in the Jesuit Antiquarian Book Collection. They were two copies of the same text, Libellus Sodalitatis: Hoc est Christianarum Institutionum Libri Quinque, in gratiam sodalitatis B. Virginis Mariae, which was written Frans Coster (1532-1619), a Flemish Jesuit. The post dived quite deeply into the histories of these two volumes, looking at the different but very similar images used by their printers on the title pages, and using these as a springboard to discover a little about northern European book production and use in the late C16 and early C17. I was reasonably pleased with the result, especially given that I and the other archivists in the Jesuits in Britain Archives are working from home, so I had no access to the books themselves.
Had I written the blog post with the books beside me on my desk in the archives office, I would doubtless have written a very different piece. I realised I could write this one when scrolling through my camera roll.
As part of the cataloguing process, I tend to use my phone to take photos of books or parts of books, especially if there is something a little out of the ordinary. These are intended as aide-memoires, not really for public consumption. I had originally taken the photos of one of the books because the binding is unusual and I wanted to explore further where it had come from. I also took a picture of the title page, and one of the second book which was similar but not the same. These pictures then sat on my phone for many months while lockdown two happened. To be honest I had rather forgotten they were there but in the middle of lockdown three I found them again and realised that there was a germ of a blog post in them. I wrote about the previous owner of one of the books, an institution which had written its name on the title page, the printers which had printed the two different books in two different cities, and the processes by which the images were made. I made suggestions about the relationship between the two printers and the printing history of these books, all sparked by the few pictures on my phone.
I could also compare the title pages of the copies of the two books in the Jesuit collection with the title pages of other editions of the same work. Different editions of the book have been digitised by the Hathi Trust, by Google Books and many other images of the title page are available online. So, I had lots of material to compare with the title pages of the two copies in the Jesuit collection, and could make a comparison of the similar but not identical image used on them all. The wonderful Plantin-Moretus Museum has vast digital resources which were useful, providing yet another version of the woodblock image. A very specific and useful bibliography, Dirk Imhoff’s Jan Moretus and the continuation of the Plantin Press, is available online and helped me to sort out some of the different editions and issues of the book. While I usually do some online research when I write a blog post, it tends to be a minor part of what I write. If I’m writing about the books with the books in front of me, I tend to do a lot of direct observation of the books and less from secondary sources. For this blog post, the access to excellent digital resources was a key factor in what I could write.
As well as online research, social media came in handy. I used Twitter to ask a question about one of the books - the first time I had done this for a blog post. This led me to the British Library rare books team, who were extremely helpful about the binding of one of the books, and confirmed what I thought about its provenance from Regensburg in Germany.
Of course, I can’t say what I might have written if I had had full access to the Jesuit Antiquarian book collection, but I feel it might have been a much broader piece, placing these books into the context of the collection. I would have looked at the whole of the books rather than just the title pages and front covers and I might not have focussed on these two books but instead a different selection, perhaps including many more books and taking a broader perspective. For instance, we have a good number of other books published by Plantin-Moretus in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and I might have compared these to each other. As it was, I had the photos of our two books and I drew the threads of the blog post from them.
All of us who work at the Jesuits in Britain archives have had to change the way we work in the last year. Our Deputy Archivist has written an excellent blog post about this, explaining that we have found new ways to work and taken opportunities to catch up on projects we normally struggle to find time to complete. And we find we are not alone in this – other archivists have written reflectively during the third lockdown about what they have been able to do remotely or with limited access to the archive. Pragmatically they have had to accept that there are some tasks that can't happen during lockdowns. The Archivist of the Brimingham Diocesan archives put it very well in a recent blog post:
"So what have I learned? I’ve learned that you can only do as much as you can; if the infrastructure and technology isn’t there, then there is nothing you can do about it."
For me, the technology that I had – my photo roll – allowed me to write something which I think was interesting. What have I learned from this? Take more photos, and take better photos, even if they are only intended for personal use; they may end up with a wider audience. Keep all photos taken. On a broader level, make digitisation a priority. This will not only allow us archivists to work more effectively from home during any future lockdowns, but will also increase access for researchers and all who are interested in our collections. And when we are back in the archive and special collections, carry on with the cataloguing, as it is the catalogue which truly gives access to our collections.