Throughout this week, we have explored many facets of preservation in the archives.
From considering the importance of TIME in the deteriorated photographs of Chester Rice from our Clara E. Sipprell Papers and the collected and digitized WSYR recordingsof over 50 years of local history,
To recognizing the work of the photojournalist, Margaret Bourke-White, and acknowledging the RISK inherent in failing to preserve and digitize her photographs, negatives, and recordings,
To understanding that every item that is considered for preservation or digitization is a result of making a JUDGEMENT call, with special attention paid to the Pope Leo XIII cylinder recording,
And to realizing that there are UNKNOWN qualities to discover in any recording or object we are able to restore, as was found in the E. Thomas Billard cassette tape recordings.
Today, we turn to a final consideration in the preservation process: VALUE.
How do we define “value” in the archives? Culturally and historically significant materials may have a value assigned or ascribed to them. Sentimentality or nostalgia can also determine the value of an object, particularly for individuals or members of a community.
The photographs, films, and documentation that make up SCRC’s University Archives holdings are a key method by which staff, faculty, students, alumni, and the broader SU community can situate themselves in a certain time and place on campus, or in a historical moment of founding or protest, understanding or growth.
And textiles and memorabilia, everything from pennants and beanies to football jerseys, provide a tangible connection to the past. Maintaining the integrity of the artifacts we value through preservation extends the longevity of these materials, and increases connections to our shared history.
Below, SCRC Director Petrina Jackson, speaks on the importance of preservation in the archives.
This post features videos from our Syracuse University Audiovisual Collection (Syracuse University Audiovisual Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) and images from our Syracuse University Photograph Collection (Syracuse University Photograph Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Syracuse University Memorabilia Collection (Syracuse University Memorabilia Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Ernie Davis Collection (Ernie Davis Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Edna Ruth Howe Papers (Edna Ruth Howe Papers, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) part of the Special Collections Research Center’s University Archives collections.
The notion that incredible discoveries, hidden gems, and items thought to be lost to the ages are suddenly discovered in archival repositories is a rather romantic ideal that doesn’t frequently play out in the day-to-day operations of a special collections repository.
Audio is one area, however, due in part to the many different and sometimes obsolete mediums that exist, that lends itself to making unknown discoveries, as occurred in the digitization of the E. Thomas Billard cassette tapes. Billard was a Syracuse University MBA graduate and Vietnam War veteran who traveled abroad and exchanged “letters home” to his family in Central New York by recording and re-recording over the same cassette tapes.
The recordings of Billard’s tapes can be found on SCRC Online. Listen below for a clip of Billard’s trip to Australia, where you can hear the ambient noise of a train moving in the background of Billard’s voiceover.
And read on as SCRC’s Audio Preservation Engineer, Jim Meade, discusses some of the major audio formats and equipment at the Belfer Audio Lab, and how digitizing and preserving these records can lead to unexpected discoveries and recovery of lost or damaged content.
The Billard tapes were digitized using this cassette deck among others. This cassette deck is a consumer-grade machine because professional decks have not been manufactured in decades. We use this model because it features an azimuth screw that allows for adjustment of the playback head alignment. Not all cassette decks have this. It was this feature that allowed us to retrieve recordings from the Billard tapes previously thought to have been erased. The Billard family reused cassette tapes, recording over audio letters to send replies between the USA and Vietnam. Because the erase heads on their tape recorders did not align exactly, we could retrieve the “lost” audio. The sound quality is poor, but intelligible.
These MCI open reel machines play back a number of different tape configurations contained in the collections. These machines were acquired from MCI in the early 1980’s when the Belfer building was first opened. Actually, our preservation studio is still called the MCI room! These machines are now obsolete, the company having ceased manufacturing in the early 1980s. Parts can be difficult to come by after 40 years, making maintenance of these machines increasingly difficult.
The Archeophone, created in 1998 by French audio engineer Henri Chamoux, is a modern machine specifically designed to play back the many different sizes and types of early cylinder recordings, dating from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Cylinders produced during these years ranged from tiny cylinders inserted into talking dolls, to quite large concert cylinders and everything in between. Without this machine, we would need to keep and maintain an array of players to reproduce all the different cylinder types produced and sold between the late 1880s and 1929. This modern device also allows playback with a lightweight, modern tonearm, far better for maintaining the condition of fragile cylinder records than the original players. Henri produced around 40 of these machines, two of which Belfer acquired in the 1990s. The rest are in audio archives across the world, as well as with some wealthier collectors.
Steel wire is one of the more unusual formats in our collections. Originally invented in 1898, it essentially works like tape, but sound waves are stored as magnetic fluctuations on steel about the thickness of light fishing line. The format was not commercially viable until the late 1930s and was used mainly for dictation purposes. This Webster Chicago machine was completely reconditioned at Belfer. It was used to digitize 13 wire reels containing the voice of Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson dictating her memoir. Due to a lack of a functioning period wire machine, the recordings had lain unheard in the George Eastman Museum in Rochester for years until a collaboration with Belfer resulted in digitization of the wire reels.
These equipment racks contain obsolete tape players and specialized EQ, or “tone shaping,” units. Some of these EQ devices are increasingly popular in modern recording studios due to their analog tonal characteristics, and command increasingly high prices in the vintage equipment market.
Above are two of Belfer’s phono record turntables. The nearest is a Technics SP 1015 from the 1980s, and one of the few high-end players that will play 78rpm discs, of which we have 370,000 in our collections. In the background are vinyl LPs awaiting digitization.
The image and recording featured in this post are from our E. Thomas Billard Papers (E. Thomas Billard Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.
The Archives Preservation Countdown coverage continues on Sound Beat this week. Make sure to check out their episode on the E. Thomas Billard cassette tapes today!
You would be forgiven for thinking you were looking at some kind of holy relic if you glanced quickly at the box below from SCRC’s collections. Between the latched leather carrying case, complete with embossed lid, and the crest stamped on the top of the cylinder inside, there is an attributed value given to this object by the company that produced and sold it in 1903.
This cylinder, which is part of the Belfer Cylinders Collection, contains a recording of Pope Leo XIII singing “Ave Maria,” a snippet of which is included below.
The Belfer Cylinders Collection contains over 20,000 cylinder recordings, 12,000 of which are unique titles, and only about 1,600 of which have been currently digitized. Deciding which of these titles is best-suited for prioritized preservation consists of a challenging series of judgement calls, often based on the limits of time and funding available, meaning that many cylinders continue to deteriorate in the meantime.
Below, Jim O’Connor discusses making his own judgement call, in choosing to feature this particular cylinder for today’s blog post.
On the Topic of Belfer Cylinder Recordings
By Jim O’Connor, Sound Beat Producer
I don’t know why I have been so particularly drawn to this cylinder recording of Pope Leo XIII. With American Archives Month in mind, I considered choosing several sound recordings at Belfer Audio Archive and Laboratory, trying to identify one that, in my opinion, best exemplifies the need for archives in general. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one little recording, but I daresay the 1903 cylinder recording of Pope Leo XIII fits the bill. This isn’t, I don’t think, lapsed-Catholic guilt: Beyond the historical interest of the artifact, the pope was a force for change in the Roman Catholic Church in ways that provided direct benefit to researchers.
In a letter dated August 18, 1883, Pope Leo XIII wrote an open letter to the Prefect of (what used to be called) the Vatican Secret Archives, the Librarian of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Vice Chancellor announcing the opening of the Archives to researchers. This move provided researchers with access to an estimated 50 miles of shelving in the Archives.
It’s only one of the ways Pope Leo sought to modernize the Church, and I know this through Patty Giles, with whom I had the genuine pleasure of sharing virtual “coffee” with at one of the SU Libraries’ excellent Random Coffee events. Beyond her work as a Library Technician in the Department of Learning and Academic Engagement, Patty is a PhD Candidate in Religious Studies. Before that she earned an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School with a focus on religion and art. In Patty’s words:
Pope Leo XIII served as the head of the Catholic Church for a quarter-century, from 1878 until 1903, and, as such, he was the first pope to have his voice recorded. This recording was made on two cylinders at the Vatican on February 5, 1903, by inventor and entrepreneur Gianni Bettini, who also recorded Mark Twain and Benjamin Harrison, among other individuals of renown. Through his company, the Société des Microphonographers, Bettini of Paris, would lease the rights to Columbia for release in the U.S. SCRC holds the French Gold Moulded Bettini cylinder. The title, “Prière Prononcée par S.S. Leon XIII et Recueillie au Vatican le 5 Février 1903,” translates as “Prayer delivered by H.H. Leon XIII and recorded at the Vatican on February 5, 1903.” On the recording, Pope Leo recites the “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary) in Latin, as well as a Benediction. In the case of the Catholic Church, the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a ceremony within the mass in which the priest blesses and dispenses the Eucharist.
It is a good thing Bettini made the recording when he did: Pope Leo would die in July of the same year at the age of ninety-three. It is because of this moment in history, not the Pope’s death itself, but the paradigm shift that it signals, that I ultimately chose this cylinder as a symbol for the importance of preservation. The home phonograph was a relatively new phenomenon at the turn of the twentieth century and, as such, the very concept of a recorded voice hadn’t had long to settle culturally.
Bettini’s recording of Pope Leo was released months after his death, prompting advertisements the like of, “Science Triumphs Over Death: The Living Words of Pope Leo the 13th.” I can only imagine the response from devout Catholics on hearing the Pope’s voice, crackling through the imperfect medium, resolute in purpose, from beyond the grave.
The audio clip featured in this post is from our Belfer Cylinders Collection (Belfer Cylinders Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.
The Archives Preservation Countdown coverage continues on Sound Beat this week. Make sure to check out their episode on the Pope Leo XIII recording today!
The Holy See. Leone XIII: Epistola, Saepernumero Considerantes. http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/it/letters/documents/hf_l-xiii_let_18830818_saepenumero-considerantes.html.
“Science Triumphs Over Death!: the living voice of the late Pope Leo XIII.” Columbia Records Cylinder Label, 1903.
Margaret Bourke-White was known for taking risks. An American photojournalist and war correspondent, she shot the cover photograph for Life Magazine‘s first issue in 1936, beginning a professional relationship that continued for several decades of the magazine’s publication and her career. Bourke-White traveled across the United States during the Great Depression and she extensively chronicled the Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre during World War II. She photographed the social and industrial conditions of Soviet Russia in the early 1930s, the first foreign photographer to do so, and she documented guerilla warfare in Korea during the 1950s. Wherever she went, she seemed to train her photographer’s eye to major events of the 20th century. And, most of her accomplishments can not only be denoted as “the first female” photographer, but indeed, as simply, “the first.”
In 1937, her sometimes-collaborator and later-husband, Erskine Caldwell, carried flashbulbs in his pockets so that the pair could document the Depression-era American South for their first collaboration together, You Have Seen Their Faces. In 1946, on assignment for Life Magazine, she held three flashbulbs herself, when she took, possibly, her most famous photograph: Gandhi spinning at his wheel.
Margaret Bourke-White’s collection of photographs and recordings, held at SCRC, is one of several collections that has been identified as part of SCRC’s preservation plan with NEDCC. The visual and audio collections of the American photographers, Jackie Martin and Clara Sipprell, were also identified as part of this preservation endeavor. Below, Michael Dermody discusses the preservation project and Jim Meade touches on the challenges of preserving the deteriorating lacquer disks in the Margaret Bourke-White collection.
On the Topic of Lacquer Disks
By Jim Meade, Audio Preservation Engineer for Belfer
Lacquer discs, such as those in the MBW collection, are also known as acetates or transcription discs. These discs were used to make instantaneous recordings in radio production and recording studios from the 1930s to the late 1950’s. The arrival of tape recorders in the post WWII period made lacquer discs largely redundant. However, they are still used today in the production of vinyl records.
Lacquer discs consist of a thin aluminum plate covered with a cellulose nitrate lacquer coating and look much like regular vinyl records. This lacquer coating is soft enough to be cut on a recording lathe and hard enough to be played back instantly on a normal record player. The discs are sturdy enough to withstand several plays, but the sound quality deteriorates quickly with repeated playing.
Lacquer discs are among the most fragile and at-risk sound recording formats we have in our sound archives. Over time, unstable storage conditions can cause the aluminum substrate to flex due to temperature fluctuations. The aluminum expands and contracts at a different rate to the cellulose nitrate lacquer coating, causing the two to separate. The lacquer can crack and flake off the aluminum core, rendering the discs unplayable. This process is called delamination.
On the Topic of Photograph Preservation
By Michael Dermody, Digital Preservation and Projects Coordinator
The Margaret Bourke-White photo preservation project emerged from a much larger effort to develop a comprehensive preservation plan for the hundreds of thousands of photographic prints and negatives held in the collections of SCRC and the University Archives. Beginning in 2014, this comprehensive effort made a systematic assessment of existing facility environmental and storage conditions. It was clear from the initial analysis that significant efforts would be required to secure the long-term preservation of the priceless, unique, and highly at-risk collections in the Libraries’ care.
Subsequently, the Libraries initiated two major initiatives to advance that long-term preservation plan:
A major photo collection digitization and archival treatment project done in collaboration with preservation experts at the NEDCC in Andover, Massachusetts.
The design and construction of a purpose-built facility—MOD2—to provide environmentally-sound storage conditions for photographic prints, negatives, and other highly-sensitive collections. This facility would be an addition to the MOD1 offsite storage facility on South Campus.
With an overall commitment of over $700,000 dollars from SCRC budgets, the NEDCC project began in 2017. The Bourke-White component of the project is now complete, while work on digitization of the other collections involved is on schedule to finish by the end of 2021.
Beginning in 2015, work on design and planning for the MOD2 specialized storage facility made significant early progress with a substantial investment of planning funds from the University. In collaboration with Libraries’ staff, outside consultants and the University’s Campus Planning Design and Construction office, VIP Architectural Associates produced a complete and final set of Construction Plans issued in 2016. Funding for construction of the MOD2 facility remains in development at present. As physical materials return from the NEDCC packed for frozen storage, the Libraries is urgently working to develop a provisional storage plan while we continue to advocate for funding for MOD2 construction.
The audio clip featured in this post is from our Margaret Bourke-White Papers(Margaret Bourke-White Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.
The Archives Preservation Countdown coverage continues on Sound Beat this week. Make sure to check out their episode on Margaret Bourke-White today!
In 1967, WSYR issued the following message, an interruption to their scheduled broadcast:
Much like the famed Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” Halloween broadcast of 1938, this warning was merely a test and did not reflect an actual state of emergency. In both cases, raising the alarm, even a false alarm, however, incited people to pay attention and take notice in a way that they might not have otherwise.
Archives are often seen as a means of freezing time, of trapping or preserving materials in amber, of extending the life of dusty books and records for eternity. In reality, though, there is a ticking clock counting down the amount of time left every time you enter an archive. You can only hear it faintly, because, for many records, it exists in a time that still seems far in the distance. But you cannot turn back the clock, because more time is not guaranteed for archival materials without proper preservation.
If you are looking for an example of such an occurrence, look no further than the deteriorated photographs of Chester Rice from our Clara E. Sipprell Papers. Although we can still view the subject of these photographs, some negatives in the collection, have deteriorated past the point of usability.
Proper storage, care, and digitization can all be effective means of prolonging a document’s existence. If SCRC had not collected and digitized the WSYR recordings of over 50 years of local history (1930-1981), or made efforts to preserve the Sipprell photographs, a larger amount of this history may have gone unheard and unseen.
Read on asDigital Preservation and Projects Coordinator Michael Dermody speaks to the importance of preserving the audiovisual heritage in the archive:
This post features an audio clip and image from our WSYR Collection (WSYR Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) and images from our Clara E. Sipprell Papers (Clara E. Sipprell Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.
The Archives Preservation Countdown coverage continues on Sound Beat this week. Make sure to check out their episode on archives preservation and the WSYR Civil Defense Broadcast Recording today!
By Grace Wagner, Reading Room Access Services Supervisor
We’re posting our wrap up a little early this month, because next week, we will be celebrating American Archives Month with a five-day series on preservation in SCRC’s collections. The series, a collaboration between The Living Record, SCRC’s blog, and Sound Beat, will cover preservation of different audio and visual mediums from some of our most valuable and vulnerable collections. In the meantime, here’s a wrap-up of all the latest from SCRC in the month of October, including some Halloween and election selections from our collections!
Happy Halloween and Election Season
By Nicole Westerdahl, Reference and Access Services Librarian
This adorable bat sipping Bacardi in front of a full moon is found on a postcard in our Erskine Caldwell Papers, accompanying a recipe booklet for “Bacardi and its many uses” (spoiler alert: they’re all rum-based cocktails). The fruit bat has been part of Bacardi’s logo since the company’s founding in 1862 and is still used today. Happy Halloween!
Martin Van Buren caricature metamorphosis card
“Attack ads” have a long history in US politics, and this caricature metamorphosis card of 8th US president Martin Van Buren by artist David Claypoole Johnston is a fine example. This card was produced in 1840 during Van Buren’s re-election campaign against William Henry Harrison, whom Van Buren defeated in the previous presidential election. The card depicts a smiling Van Buren with “a beautiful goblet of White House champagne.” Pull the tab, and Van Buren’s eyes roll back, his mouth grimaces, and his MVB goblet transforms into “an ugly mug of log cabin hard cider” labeled WHH—a reference to Harrison’s opponents’ depiction of him as a provincial candidate more interested in drinking hard cider than running the country. Harrison embraced this depiction and transformed it into his own log cabin campaign, ultimately defeating Van Buren and becoming the 9th US president.
SCRC in the News
10.7.20: University Archives footage and photographs used in the Office of Multicultural Advancement’s program “The Syracuse 8: Then, Now and Forever Orange.”
10.15.2020: Courtney Asztalos presented to the Plastics Pioneers Association during their virtual annual Fall meeting with an annual update about the Plastics Collection.
10.15.2020: Meg Mason, Courtney Asztalos, and SCRC Curatorial intern, Krystal Cannon, collaborated on creating, filming and editing a video tour of the Traditions exhibition for Orange Central. Jim Meade contributed to audio mastering.
10.20.2020: Pan Am 103 Archivist Vanessa St.Oegger-Menn presented at SAA’s Archival History Section meeting this year and a recap of the presentation is discussed in Archival History News this month.
Learn more about the SU’s history, leaders and libraries – all at your fingertips! SCRC’s latest three exhibitions are now available online:
Special acknowledgements go out to Meg Mason, Sebastian Modrow, and Vanessa St. Oegger-Menn for reworking their extensive curatorial input for an online audience. The online versions of the exhibitions would not be possible without the expert help found within our IT department, especially Sarah Pohley, Suzanne Preate, and Daniel Rice – many thanks!
Call for Submissions
A reminder that the Syracuse University Archives is seeking to record and preserve the personal responses of Syracuse University students, faculty, and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Take a look at our website page on this project for more information.
The image featured in the header of this post is from our Erskine Caldwell Papers (Erskine Caldwell Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.
I am co-president of the George Fisk Comfort Society, a graduate student club for art history students at Syracuse, and, before this semester, I was not aware of who I was representing. George Fisk Comfort (1833 – 1910) was a liberal arts scholar and museum founder from Berkshire, New York. He brought the world of museum collections and exhibits from Europe to the American hub of New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in Syracuse at the Everson Museum of Art (formerly the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts). As a museum studies and art history student, I am interested in the history of museums and their collections and I have visited and researched artworks at the Met for many years without knowing anything about one of the founders of the institution. In light of the racial injustices continuing to taking place in America, museum professionals La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski created the Museums Are Not Neutral movement in order to change the ways that museums are visited, curated, and protested in order to build community and question the traditional role of the museum and museum educators.
Because of my interest in the Museums are Not Neutral movement and the growing cases of racial injustices in this country, I was compelled to learn more about the founding of the Met and the Everson through an exploration of Comfort’s papers. I researched the George Fisk Comfort Family Collection held at the Syracuse University Special Collections to try and piece together information about the history of institutions he co-founded and relate my findings to the present. In reading Comfort’s views on the value of art, museum collecting policies, and staffing and hiring practices, I found myself reflecting on the current practices and policies of the Everson and the Met and considering how they have both upheld and diverged from Comfort’s views in recent years.
Comfort was quick to adopt the European model of museums, as he brought back knowledge from his overseas travels to America. Comfort first encountered the European model of a museum when he spent five years traveling and studying in Europe in the 1860s, focusing his studies on the aesthetic culture of Europe. Comfort returned to the United States with new ideas about art and museums, and taught the first aesthetics course in America at Allegheny College. He also taught at Syracuse one year after its opening and helped to instate the College of Fine Arts, becoming the first Dean of the College of Fine Arts, and making Syracuse the first university in America to offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the fine arts. During his active years, he helped found the Everson and the Met, and published a book titled Art Museums in America, where he outlined his vision for museums and museum education.
Based on the content in his papers, Comfort was open-minded to the art that these institutions would collect and display, and he was interested in commissioning contemporary artists and facilitating loan exhibitions to show the progression of art from objects in American collections. Many scholars at this time were interested in the old masters, whereas Comfort did not care about the label, he just wanted good art. In Art Museums in America, he stated, “By commissioning only mature and first-class artists, we can form a gallery of the rise and progress of painting and of the many schools of this branch of art.”
In his essay about the Development of the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, Comfort said of the Everson and other smaller-scale museums outside of large cities, that they were to rely on reproductions such as photographs, engravings, and casts of objects to build their collections as they could not obtain the famous masterpieces as easily as the heavily endowed institutions like the Met. In a turn of events, the Everson is currently selling one of its masterpieces, its only Jackson Pollock painting, in order to obtain works by lesser-known and more diverse artists. This is a big step for the future of the museum to build its collection in two key ways: to represent the local community and to reflect on the issue of race in America. Although Comfort enjoyed his masterpieces, I think he would have been proud of this feat. That a smaller museum like the Everson was able to own an American masterpiece, and decide to de-accession it for the betterment of the museum’s future and collect different kinds of masterpieces speaks volumes. Comfort believed that museums should represent the growth of their communities by “illustrating the history of the origin, the rise, the growth, the culminating glory, and the periods of decline and decadence… true art is cosmopolitan. It knows no country; it knows no age.”
This year is the Met’s 150th anniversary, and to celebrate there is an exhibition titled, Making the Met: 1870 – 2020, that exhibits 250 objects that were collected within the museum’s first decades. The objects are from all over the world and span millennia. The non-Western art in this current exhibit is intended to be understood outside the lenses of exotica and orientalism, which was how it was supposedly displayed and understood in the earliest exhibitions, according to the curators of the exhibit. For years, museums predominantly functioned with wealthy white men acting as the stewards of the art of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, a set-up that has largely remained intact to this day.
Art and cultural institutions like the Met have been heavily critiqued in the past decades, especially recently in terms of racial injustice and hiring practices. BIPOC voices have been largely excluded from these spaces for many years. And, although some women were employed by the Met in its early years of operating, they were not included in board of trustee meetings or welcomed at the higher level of operations, as a photographs and documentation from the initial proceedings of Metropolitan Museum of Art meeting of 1869 in the George Fisk Comfort Family Collection can attest. For the first time in its history, the Met has just hired its first full-time Native American curator years after Native American art has been displayed with the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. This act shows that museums are slowly evolving with the pushback from the public. Similarly, the Everson’s plan to buy and exhibit art by BIPOC artists is a small but important step towards true neutrality in institutions. As institutions move forward and take steps to change their collecting and hiring practices, it remains uncertain whether these spaces can ever fully decolonize.
Through the George Fisk Comfort Family Collection, we can understand the basis on which museums and cultural institutions were founded in the nineteenth century. The George Fisk Comfort Family Collection helped inform my understanding of the Museums Are Not Neutral movement in terms of museum history. The fact that the Met was attempting to diversify how the typical European museum functioned proves how someone like Comfort served as a good advocate for change and stewardship in the 19th century. As the Met looks to its past and the Everson roots itself in the present for a better future, one takeaway for cultural institutions should be how to rally for their own communities. Changes in diversity and inclusion start internally with staff, collections, and exhibitions. It is only once these changes are addressed that institutions can move forward from their colonial ideologies to become truly neutral.
The George Fisk Comfort Family Collection (George Fisk Comfort Family Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of our University Archives collections.
By Sebastian Modrow, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts
In early 2019, SCRC acquired a Renaissance edition of the works of Bernard of Clairvaux. Printed in 1508 in Paris by Jehan Petit, it was later illuminated and apparently put to good use as indicated by its frequent marginalia. It also came in a contemporary pigskin binding. The chosen author of Petit’s 1508 edition, Bernard of Clairvaux, probably doesn’t make anyone’s top 10 associations list when it comes to the Renaissance, as he was, in fact, neither a classical author nor a Renaissance mind, but instead, one of the most influential spiritual leaders of the Middle Ages. Knowing this, you might question why a French Renaissance publisher would bother to publish his works. Like other contemporary publishers, and following in the footsteps of Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible, Petit chose religious subject matter for his printing, a subject popular among monastic and scholarly settings alike. So, who is this Bernard and why should we care about him?
The Man and His Works
Bernard of Clairvaux was born in 1090 into an aristocratic family in the Dijon region of Burgundy (France). He was to become one of the most influential leaders during the High Middle Ages, not only of the young Cistercian Order, but of the Catholic Church in general.
After the death of his mother in 1107, Bernard sought the counsel of Stephen Harding, abbot of Cîteaux Abbey, establishing a relationship that would ultimately lead Bernard to abandon his literary studies and ecclesiastical career and to join the monastery in 1112. This monastery had been established only a few years prior in 1098 by Robert of Molesme in the ‘Burgundian wilderness’ in an attempt to reform and re-focus the Benedictine order on the spiritual life in imitation of Christ. Instead of reforming the old order, however, the movement led to a split with the Benedictines, and Cîteaux emerged as the mother house of a new order, named accordingly, the Cistercians.
From 1112-1115, Bernard immersed and distinguished himself in theology and and explored his own spirituality, developing a leadership potential that Abbot Harding recognized and acknowledged with the mission to lead a small group of Cistercians to found a daughter house at Clairvaux, situated in the border region of Burgundy and Champagne. In the years following the founding of the house at Clairvaux, and forced, in part, by his deteriorating health, Bernard retired to a small hut, which gave him the time to not only focus on his spirituality, but also to produce his first writings, such as his “Praises of the Virgin Mother.”
Writing became a way for Bernard to contemplate, in solitude, God’s great mysteries and then to share his experiences and insights with the world. This attests to his over 300 letters and sermons, many of which center around the imitatio Christi (the imitation of Christ). Not all of his writings, however, were of a contemplative nature. With his Liber ad milites templi de laude novae militiae (“Book addressed at the Knights Templar on the Praise of the New Knighthood,” written between 1120-1136), Bernard directly entered the debate about the justification of the existence of warrior-monks where he positioned himself in the affirmative.
Bernard was also one of the most prominent promoters of the disastrous Second Crusade (1147–49), which illustrates that as much as he liked to withdraw from the world and contemplate God’s mysteries, he found himself instead at the center of the events of his age. Five popes relied on his counsel, church- and other councils invited him as mitigator and as a representative of the old contemplative approach to the holy scriptures, as reflected in probably his most famous work, his “Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles.” Bernard grew increasingly weary of the rise of Scholasticism as it developed at Europe’s cathedral schools and its rationalizing approaches to Christian doctrines.
He must have, indeed, been a person of great charisma and great oratorical skills, a fact that is also reflected in his writings and that would earn him the title doctor mellifluous, because his instructions to the faithful were always ‘flowing sweet as honey.’ Bernard was canonized on January 18, 1174.
Despite the prevalence of scholastic texts during the High and Late Middle Ages, Bernard’s spiritual message maintained its appeal inside and outside the Cistercian order. He is, for example, the final guide for the protagonist of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and it is at his intercession with the Virgin Mary that the true nature of God is revealed to Dante’s protagonist. The Renaissance scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his The Art of Preaching, praised the charming and lively eloquence of Bernard’s style, so it should be no surprise that his works were printed throughout the Renaissance. To one of these editions we want to turn now.
The Publisher and his edition
Our book in question is based on the edition of Bernard’s works by André Bocard and was printed by Jehan Petit (c. 1470-1530). Petit was one of the key players of the French book trade during the transition from the Incunabula Period into the 16th century and one of the four official stationers of the University of Paris. Petit’s business would develop into a large-scale publishing enterprise, contracting multiple printers at the same time for his projects. Over the span of his career (1493-1530), this amounted to over 1,000 different volumes, many of which were – unsurprisingly, for an official university bookseller – mainly of scholarly interest and mostly in Latin. He published our Bernard of Clairvaux edition in Paris on March 31, 1508.
Petit’s opulent but elegant printer’s device connects the publication with his workshop. Half a century after Gutenberg’s first Bible edition, the printed book had come a long way. Still, we can detect reminiscences of the medieval manuscript tradition of which Paris was one of the most productive centers: The elaborate so-called gothic type face evokes the ‘feel’ of the handwritten book as do the illuminated and woodcut initials. However, as seen with the printer’s device, the use of woodcuts is not limited to initials.
When turning the title page, the reader will in fact encounter the most impressive woodcut illustration in our Bernard edition showing the Virgin and Child flanked by St. Bernard and St. Malachy (see below).
SCRC’s copy contains a total of 456 leaves and measures 38.5 x 26 cm (15” x 10 1/8”). It is bound in beveled wooden boards wrapped in blind-stamped pigskin (‘blind’ meaning the impression is not colored), consisting of various lines and floral motives. Brass corner guards and brass bosses (metal studs) lend extra protection to the cover. Bookbinders and conservators usually refer to these protective elements as book ‘furniture.’
The book is held together by two brass fore-edge clasps. Leather tabs on the copy’s fore-edge marking the beginning of Bernard’s individual works within the edition, as well as marginalia in contemporary hand, attest to the frequent use and systematic study of our copy during the late Renaissance period.
This early 16th century edition of Bernard’s works is a perfect example of the longevity of the medieval manuscript tradition in the history of the early printed book: While Petit executed many initials as woodcuts, he decided to also leave space for illuminations on the first page of each of Bernard’s major works in this edition, indicating the required initial with a small letter in the center of the gap.
Only one of the many potential initial illuminations is executed in our copy, but it is an important one: It appears at the beginning of the copy on the first recto after the title page. It is embedded into the vita of St. Bernard of Clairvaux that precedes this collection of his works. The illumination in question represents a very elaborate “B” extending over eleven lines which, in this position, is the initial letter of the word “Bernardus,” the subject of the vita and author of the works edited in this volume.
The Largest Book Worm in the History of the Book?
The close study of a rare book reveals information not only about its maker and their edition of a book, but also about its use and place in a collection. Parts of the cover boards and the text block of our copy are perforated with holes, bearing witness to the fact that there are two kinds of book worms – the metaphorical and the real ones. Two of these holes, however, clearly stand out due to their large size and position right in the middle of the top part of the back board. On the outside of the binding, they are also enclosed by a brown circle that makes them stand out even more.
The double hole and its brown circle are likely remnants of a chain clasp that was once attached to the book’s cover for security purposes. In a world without electromagnetic library security systems, medieval and early modern librarians found other ways to prevent the theft of the objects in their care, objects we have to keep in mind, that even in their own days, represented items of considerable monetary value.
This attachment combined with the book’s content, suggests a monastic or university context (the publisher was one of the official stationers of the University of Paris!). During the medieval period, books were first chained to reading desks, known as lecterns, and – as collections and storage facilities evolved – later also to bookshelves, this was a practice that continued into the early modern period. One of the few preserved ‘chained libraries’ can be found in England at Hereford Cathedral. It should be noted, however, that Hereford’s books are stored with the fore-edge facing outwards and the chain clasp attached to the long side of the cover board. How to account, then, for the position of the clasp hole on our Renaissance edition? The simplest answer seems to be that our book was stored differently, bringing us back to the aforementioned chained reading desks, a type of library furniture that also survived well into the early modern period. In order to imagine our book in its earliest context, I would suggest to ‘visit’ the library at Walpurga’s Church in Zutphen, Netherlands, one of the five intact chained libraries featuring prominently an arrangement of said reading desks. An easy but informative read on chained libraries interspersed with pop culture references can be found on Ricke Elaine Ballard Gritten’s blog called Ricketiki.
But, since the book’s spine shows lettering in its head compartment, it can be assumed that this book was at least at some point stored on a bookshelf with its spine sticking out.
The creation of every text has its context and so does every printed edition. By examining an individual copy, we can learn about a reader’s engagement with a certain text. The History of the Book is about the physicality of this engagement. It is my hope, however, that this glance at an over 500-year-old edition of an almost 900-year-old text corpus was able to demonstrate how every copy is not only a part of the History of the Book but how every copy has its own ‘life,’ its own history, which it will tell us if we are willing to listen.