Blake’s Prints: 1789 Songs of Innocence by William Blake

By Sheridan Bishoff, Public Services Assistant

A woman is seated on a chair with two young people leaning over a book held in her lap, while whimsical tree branches curl and twist up from the right of the page forming the title, “Songs of Innocence.”

Title page from Songs of Innocence

I am an Art History graduate student at Syracuse University, so it is always an exhilarating experience to stumble upon a work of art while working in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University Libraries. SCRC holds a diverse group of rare books, including a 1789 edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. In 1794, Blake expanded Songs of Innocence into its final version Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794). Together, they show the two contrary states of the human soul.  

The pages of our volume were removed from their binding and matted for preservation. My introduction to Blake’s Songs of Innocence came when I was asked to number the matted plates. The pages of Songs of Innocence contain a collection of poems and works of art copied from copperplate engravings and then hand-painted. I saw great care placed into each etching when I was observing the book. While prints are considered a means of duplication, every color wash by Blake gives a different life to his artwork. Some editions explore various ranges of light and shade, expanding beyond expectations of local color.

Largely dismissed in Blake’s lifetime, his work is now considered an important example in the history of English poetry. The popularity of Blake’s writing today has led to easy access of his poems in print and online. However, it is not always easy to see a full range of watercolor washes and prints integrated with his poetry.  SU’s Songs of Innocence contains unique relief etched impressions with color choices unlike other editions created during the late eighteenth century.  Today, there is even an online William Blake Archive that allows you to compare the different artistic decisions. For example, the Blake Archive contains a copy of the 1789 Songs of Innocence that is currently held at the Yale Center for British Art

When comparing Yale’s to our version from the same publication year, there are striking differences in how Blake colored each individual copy. Our edition contains darker lines from the original print while Yale’s has golden undertones. Several of our prints also depict a vivacious wash of a red to blue as seen in the lower half of “The Ecchoing Green.” That poem in Yale’s copy does not contain this coverage or vibrancy of color on the lower half of this poem.

Figures merrily playing and resting beneath a full tree fills the upper frame of the page, while the lower half of the image portrays “The Ecchoing Green” poem with two children and vines undulating through space.

“The Ecchoing Green” from Songs of Innocence

Similarly, there is a variation in the overall tone of the poem“Infant Joy.” SU’s copy of the poem places a blooming flower against a soft blue. The background leads the observer to place the plant in an environment, against the blue sky. Yale’s copy of “Infant Joy” instead contains a flattening range of colors through the sparse application of blue and green. This minimal use of tone alters the audiences’ perception of space. The use of color in Yale’s “Infant Joy” therefore becomes less of a whimsical birth and more ambiguous in its surroundings.

Whirling green vines swirl up to the rood bloom that holds a small fairy and women in yellow with a baby on her lap.

“Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence

Blake’s skill as a craftsman and printmaker is evident in his integration of text and image in Songs of InnocencePoetry creates its own visual language just as pictures do. Poetic words form a world in your mind, and Blake provides a form to that world by interweaving the words prominently among the color and forms of his poems. As seen in “Infant Joy,” the poem is placed amidst the fluid growing form as the first letter softly touches the curving neck of the blossoming plant. The leaves bend to complement the space the plant holds, creating an integrated composition. There are examples of poems that have more separation between word and image. Even in these separated images, such as “Spring” and “The Little Boy Lost” (see below), Blake fluidly activates the space of words with intricate details of wispy trees and dancing vines. Reading Blake’s poetry in mass production, only existing as words, loses some of the complexity of his original integrated compositions. 

“Spring” from Songs of Innocence

A small haloed boy in the darkness of a looming tree, runs with arms straight out to the left of the image with the poem on the bottom half of the page surrounded by winged figures.

“The Little Boy Lost” from Songs of Innocence

It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with this rare work of art.  If you are interested in viewing this work, visit the Reading Room at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center.

William Blake’s 1789 edition of Songs of Innocence referenced in this post is part of our rare books collection (Rare books, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).


Additional Sources

“William Blake,” from the Poetry Foundation,

The William Blake Archive,


This post has been revised 7/15/2019 to reflect an updated description of printing technique.

Q&A with SCRC’s New Director Petrina Jackson

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your new role in the Special Collections Research Center?

I am from Cleveland, Ohio, home of Lake Erie and part of the “North Coast” of America. I am a hopeful Cleveland sports fan with a great appreciation for an underdog story.

As the Director of the Special Collections Research Center, I see myself as a leader, coach, and advocate for our amazing staff and our spectacular collections. It is my responsibility to share the importance of our work as a research library and preserver of cultural heritage materials with not only the SU community, but with Central New York, the state of New York, and the World. It is my goal that we continue to build phenomenal collections, including the stories of marginalized communities to create a more accurate picture of history, while connecting with a variety of audiences to work with these collections.

2. What has been most exciting about living in Central New York?

Wegmans! I am kidding. It is great to be back in the Finger Lakes Region for its beauty, rich history, and diversity. I began my special collections and archives career at Cornell University and was taken by Central New York’s centrality to many social movements, including abolitionism and women’s suffrage. I look forward to exploring social movements and the communities and people, who dedicated their time to them, as well as the impact of ordinary and extraordinary people on the development of the region. I look forward to the living and the work ahead.

3. What do you like to do in your spare time?

No one would be surprised to know that I like reading, especially memoirs and biographies. I find people’s lived experiences, decision-making processes, and leaps of faith fascinating. I also like watching movies of all kinds, but have a soft spot for documentaries and action films with women leads. Reality television is my guilty pleasure. I know, I know. And I could spend hours looking at non-competitive food shows. Watching the creative process and care put into making meals is so satisfying, and I love to eat! I enjoy learning about African American history, art, and culture and find drawing and crafting to be relaxing.

4. Why Special Collections? What drew you to the field?

Special Collections and archives is my second career. After earning my MA in English from Iowa State University, I taught English for seven years at a community college in Illinois. While there, I learned a lot about teaching and mentoring students and gained a great appreciation of the mission of community colleges. However, I thought I might die if I had to continue teaching a 5 minimum course load per semester. I went to a career counselor and librarianship surfaced as a career path. I shouldn’t have been surprised since I always visited with the librarians at my community college. I started requesting and conducting informational interviews with all types of librarians (law, reference, etc.) to find out what a typical day was like, what they enjoyed most about their career, and what was most challenging about being a librarian. One day, I was reading the career stacks and came across a book entitled, Alternative Careers for Librarians. In that book, I read the profile of the Simmons College Archivist, and it was then that I knew I wanted to become an archivist. For those less familiar with the term, an archivist is someone who preserves, provides access to, and promotes records of enduring value. In short, you can call us historical records warriors or guardians of cultural heritage. I contacted the Simmons College Archivist and conducted an informational interview with her. The interview confirmed my decision to pursue archives and records management as a career. I took a leave of absence from my job, pursued a Masters in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives and Records Management at the University of Pittsburgh, and the rest is history. The Simmons College Archivist who accepted my informational interview request is currently the University Archivist at Harvard University.

5. What collection from SCRC do you think more people need to know about?

If I had to select one collection area that I would like people to know more about it would be our 19th and 20th-century social reform collections. These collections cover abolitionism, women’s rights and suffrage, prison reform, civil rights, Native American rights, and more. In these collections, one can see the roots of current day movements like women’s reproductive rights, prison abolition, the fight against mass incarceration, environmental justice, and civil and human rights. The activists, methods, relationships, fractures, and achievements evidence a lineage that we can learn, grow, and improve from even today.

You can learn more about SCRC’s activism and social reform related collections here:

June News Wrap Up

In case you missed it, here is the monthly news wrap up with links to all the latest:

  • June 3, 2019. Petrina Jackson arrived to serve as the new director of the Special Collections Research Center
  • June 11, 2019. Congratulations to our three SCRC staff members on their promotions!
  • June 23, 2019. Announcing our Faculty Fellows who are in residence this month.

Newly processed collections:

News and Mentions:

Jane Krom Grammer: A Golden-Age Comic Book Artist Finally Receives Credit for Her Work

Highlight from June Social Media:

Syracuse University Archives' graduate student worker bee Nicole Wright is processing the Buildings and Grounds…

Posted by Syracuse University Archives on Friday, June 7, 2019

From Clay Tablet to Cyber Space: A Semester Full of Library and Archives History

By Sebastian Modrow, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts

Sebastian Monroe teaching a class, turning pages on a book in the center of a semicircle of students.

Modrow with students examining materials in a class session in SCRC.

The history of libraries or archives could easily fill a whole sequence of courses. During the 2019 spring semester, a group of 12 Library Science students from Syracuse University’s iSchool and their instructor set out (very ambitiously!) to cover the major developments of these two types of information repositories, starting out at the geographic fringes of the Western World (the ancient Near East and ancient Egypt) and moving geographically and chronologically through Europe and North America all the way into the supposed ‘placelessness’ of cyber space. Their quest centered around studying the role and development of libraries and archives in their historical context. The course was called “The History of Libraries and Archives in the Western World.”

While variations of this type of course might address the history of libraries and archives individually, a joint perspective merged into one course has not yet come to my attention. Separate treatment of libraries and archives artificially disentangles a much intertwined history of these two repository types. This entanglement can still be felt today in the collection development of special collections departments, the ongoing struggle for emancipation of archival theory and practice from library management doctrine, as well as the widespread occurrence of employing trained librarians in archivist positions.

Why study library and archives history at all? An obvious benefits of the historical perspective is enabling aspiring librarians, who will engage with the ongoing discussions about the orientation of their professions, to understand the crucial role that libraries and archives play as selective information repositories in a society’s (re)construction of the collective past.  Far from being the once proclaimed pristine and untainted springs of objective information, libraries and archives have come under scrutiny for their ‘curatedness’; that is, for the impact of their collection bias as it relates to the maintenance of power structures over time.  In order to understand “history,” it might not hurt, therefore, to step back for a moment or a semester and – instead of studying Clio’s sources – to study the history of two of her most important source repositories – libraries and archives.

Two students examine rare books in class while Sebastian Monroe looks on.

Examining an original fragment of papyrus and a facsimile, side by side.

During the course, the participants learned that this sometimes confusing relationship goes back all the way to the beginning of textual repositories in ancient Mesopotamia. At the center of the course was a discussion on the centuries-permeating mythology surrounding the Library of Alexandria. Each century, the mythos grew and changed in service of the needs of librarians and historians of the time. For example, it strongly influenced the development of public libraries in the nineteenth century, thereby making the history of libraries and archives into a history of (often very powerful) ideas. The course also traced the relationship between information access and maintenance of power structures from the text repositories of the kings of Assur, democratic Athens, Republican and Imperial Rome, monastic libraries and early modern patrimonial archives all the way to the politics of modern archives and libraries.

A wide view of all of the students in class seated at tables examining materials with their laptops nearby.

The full class working in groups.

Focusing on developments in the Western World was one way to reduce the ground that needed to be covered in this course. The course met at SCRC in order to make ample use of SCRC’s holdings: from cuneiform tablets, a papyrus fragment, medieval manuscripts and early prints to digitized material online. Primary source-based learning brought these future librarians and archivists in (literal) contact with the work of their professional ancestors and allowed a first-hand experience of the physicality and thereby, the organization and preservation demands of bygone information media. When discussing, for example, the content and physical arrangement of Mesopotamian archives, students were able to study original clay tablets aided by secondary literature, archival finding aids, and related metadata from the tablets’ digital surrogates in the database of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). When discussing medieval and early modern library security, a binding bearing traces of a chain lash exemplified the practice of chaining books to shelves and desks. More recently, a card catalog drawer could help students understand the labor of librarians and researchers of the analog age.

As part of their assignments, students gave a presentation on a selected case study of either an important information repository, such as the Library of Alexandria, the Venetian Archives or the Library of Congress, or influential figure, such as Edward Edwards or Andrew Carnegie. A final research paper brought together the students’ understanding of their future profession’s past. Paper topics ranged from “Aristotle’s Library: On Preservation and Information Control” to “Leibnizian Conceptions of the Ideal Library” to “Queer Archives as Agents of Change and Responses to Oppression.”

Two students examine a cuneiform tablet.

While working with rare books and archival materials, students were frequently asked to research and briefly present on pulled collection items. These group project-based in-class assignments, which involved searching for and researching collection materials online, introduced students to the structure of rare book related catalog records and archival finding aids. Engaging students with primary source research methodology gave occasion to discuss the workings of a special collections department, which ultimately proved to be the ideal setting for teaching a course on library and archives history.

My Year with Tolley

By Dane Flansburgh, Assistant Archivist

For the last few years, the Syracuse University Archives has been steadily at work preparing some exciting exhibitions and programs to celebrate Syracuse University’s sesquicentennial. In conjunction with celebrating this monumental milestone, I have been busy processing collections that have significance to the University. The first and most significant of these collections were the Chancellor William P. Tolley Records and William P. Tolley Papers.

Chancellor Tolley served as Syracuse University Chancellor from 1942 to 1969, beginning in the midst of World War II and ending during the Vietnam War and amid the rise of counter culture. Beginning in January 2018, and ending 12 months later in January 2019, I delved into the life and work of arguably one of our finest Chancellors.

Dane Flansburgh standing next to archival boxes in a warehouse.

Standing next to the unprocessed Tolley boxes in January 2018.

When Tolley took over as Chancellor of the University in 1942, the country was in the midst of World War II, and Syracuse University was suffering declining enrollments. Upon taking leadership, Tolley went about establishing a university that met the needs of its student body. In a message to students in 1943, Tolley wrote, “While the war has reduced [Syracuse University’s] enrollment, it has greatly increased our responsibilities.” These responsibilities included preparing young people for war and his administration established war training courses and a Nursing School.

Additionally, Tolley assisted drafting the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or GI Bill, and welcomed thousands of returning veterans at war’s end. Syracuse University continues its commitment to educating veterans based on Tolley’s example. The influx of veterans after World War II spurred exponential growth for the university, and by the time Tolley retired in 1969, his administration had transformed the university from a small private institution into one of the largest universities in the nation.

As I worked through Tolley’s papers and records I developed a deep admiration and respect for him (my coworkers will attest to this – I’d often talk endlessly of the great accomplishments of Tolley and my latest discovery from his materials). There’s a lot to admire about Tolley: his indefatigable work ethic, sincere passion for learning, and unrelenting pursuit of excellence. He cared deeply about Syracuse University, and it showed. He was at times accused of being a micromanager, but he believed that the little details mattered (he once complained in one of his letters to custodial staff that he witnessed too many instances of litter in one of the buildings, and he was uncomfortable with the sloppy appearance that it gave). He had close relationships with many members of the Syracuse University community, including students, staff members, professors, and donors. One student remembered that when she informally stopped in his office to invite him to a sorority event, she was astounded when he welcomed her warmly, and then surprised her by actually attending the event.

Chancellor Tolley reviewing documents in the 1940s.

But more than any other of Tolley’s fine accomplishments and character traits, I was personally drawn to his commitment to fairness and equity.  One of the more treasured items I discovered in Tolley’s papers was a letter from Warren Tsuneishi ‘43. Tsuneishi was a Japanese American student who attended Syracuse University during World War II. In 1943, Tolley quietly admitted to Syracuse University roughly one hundred Japanese Americans from internment camps, including Tsuneishi. The move, at the time, was seen by some as aiding the enemy, but Tolley rightfully argued that the people in the camps were in fact Americans, despite their country of origin.

In the letter, dated July 4, 1983, Tsuneishi wrote, “Your act of moral courage in the face of opposition immeasurably strengthened my own belief and confidence in American democracy. I knew then that despite temporary setbacks under extreme provocation in wartime, the champions of constitutional rights, equity, and fair play for all Americans would in the end prevail.” Tsuneishi stated that he took advantage of the opportunity granted to him by enrolling in an accelerated program at Syracuse University, serving in the United States Army, attending graduate school at Columbia and Yale, and then serving as a librarian at Yale and the Library of Congress. “I recount these accomplishments,” Tsuneishi wrote, “not to boast but to observe that none of these could have been accomplished had you not given me that first chance in 1943.”

I’d like to highlight one more story that emphasizes Tolley’s commitment to equality. In January 1960, the Syracuse University football team defeated the University of Texas at the Cotton Bowl and won the national championship. Days after the event, there were reports that the African American members of the team (including the great Ernie Davis) were subjected to racial slurs and discrimination. The accusations of discrimination included banning the African American players from attending the awards ceremony that immediately followed the game.

Chancellor Tolley’s January 25, 1960 letter addressed to Mr. Harold H. Goodman regarding the events of the Cotton Bowl .

The Chancellor’s office received several angry letters about the perceived slight. Responding to a concerned Syracuse University alumnus, Tolley clarified that when the African American team members were asked to leave, Coach Schwartzwalder, Dean Faigle, and himself left out of protest. In hindsight, Tolley wrote, he wished he went even further and had all of the team leave as well. In the future, Tolley promised, the team would not “return to the Cotton Bowl without assurance of complete non-discriminatory practices.” This instance, like Tolley’s reaction to the Japanese American students during World War II, demonstrates his character.

I sincerely valued my year processing Tolley’s records. He inspired me to work harder and to be more empathetic. I invite the public to visit the Special Collections Research Center to learn more about his life and achievements.

The photos in this post are part of our Chancellor William P. Tolley Records (Chancellor William P. Tolley Records, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) and our William P. Tolley Papers (William P. Tolley Papers, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).