THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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4 posts categorized "Digitisation"

23 November 2015

1267 Shots Later

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The Stefan Zweig Collection of manuscripts, donated to the British Library in 1986, has been described as ‘the most important and valuable donation made to the Library in the 20th century’.  The manuscripts are not those of Zweig’s own works but a selection of the autograph manuscripts of great composers, writers and historical figures which Zweig collected throughout his life.  A catalogue of the music manuscripts was published in 1999 and these have all been digitised. Now it is the turn of the literary and historical manuscripts. A digitisation programme was begun in early 2015, and nearly all of the manuscripts can now be viewed via the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts catalogue. A printed catalogue is due for publication in 2016, and the full catalogue descriptions will also be found online. In this post,  Pardaad Chamsaz, a collaborative PhD student working on the collection, considers the challenges involved in digitising Honoré de Balzac’s proof copy of his novel Une ténébreuse affaire, with its myriad corrections and editions.

When the first marked page of the corrected proof for Balzac’s Une ténébreuse affaire (British Library Zweig MS 133) prosaically gives its title, author and status as “épreuves”, we may linger on this last word, as it signals both its stage in the writing process as well as the “test” that its reading threatens. This innocuous page sits on top of a pile of over 600 sheets, both typed and handwritten, where the typescript is aggressively handled and manipulated, so that the physical struggle for the work is eternalised on the underbelly of its published variant.

  Balzac Folio 1
The unassuming first leaf of Une ténébreuse affaire

This unassuming opening faced the Imaging Studio team, as Une ténébreuse affaire was delivered for digitisation earlier this year. They were all too aware of the “test” they were about to embark on. Indeed, translations for épreuve include equivalents such as “hardship”, “ordeal”, “trial” – words not inappropriate to the task at hand. Once the conflict of logistics around when to attempt the digitisation was resolved (the difference between the “let’s leave it until the end of the project” and “let’s get it out of the way” schools of thought – both implying trepidation), the photographer entered the proof, labelled by its collector, Stefan Zweig, as a ‘Höllenlabyrinth von Korrekturen’, an infernal labyrinth of corrections.

Zweig MS 133 f 18r
The ‘infernal labyrinth’ within: f. 18 of Une ténébreuse affaire

Zweig considered the proof as a key document in his collection that could provide immense insights into the secret of literary creation. When Zweig purchased the item in 1914, he wrote in his diary that as soon as he saw it in the famous Parisian antiquarian bookseller, Blaisot, he bought it ‘lightning-quick, rashly, greedily, in spite of feeling like I might have overpaid’. Now, the library’s Zweig MS 133 is one of the most unique and complete examples of a Balzac corrected proof outside of the Spoelberch de Lovenjoul collection in the library of the Institut de France in Paris.

This mass of workings around the detective novel’s ever more complex intrigue, contains printed pages of uneven lengths and widths overlain with thick handwritten corrections, often with an indecipherable set of symbols linking old and new text. The reader will find slips of paper glued onto some pages to indicate replacement text, as well as, from the very beginning of the “labyrinth”, around 200 inserted small leaves of manuscript additions. It was rumoured that Balzac would go through this correction process 10-15 times for each work, and Zweig was in awe of how Balzac’s physical work was so tangible in these proofs.

Just as Zweig senses the artist wrestling with their art, like Jacob with the angel, the photographer fought with our corrected proof, unfolding its pages, pinning it down (for the count), before focusing the camera (one, two…) and shooting it still… only to turn the page and for the battle to recommence. ‘Jedes Blatt ein Schlachtfeld’, every page a battlefield, in the words of Zweig. Weeks of labour, in Balzac’s rewriting, in Zweig’s reading, in our digitizing. If the corrected proof opens a door onto the workshop of the writer, where, in the stroke and the trace of the ink, we experience the fugitive presence of the hand manically at work, we should retrace our digitisation in the same way and detail the actions behind the stillness of a photo.

Balzac pinned down
Balzac pinned down  (photo: Pardaad Chamsaz)

Balzac resisting
Balzac fights back (photo: Pardaad Chamsaz)

 
Balzac digital
Balzac captured on the Imaging Technician’s screen (photo: Pardaad Chamsaz)

With the majority of the manuscripts in the Stefan Zweig Collection now digitised and available online, we are presented with an awkward idea: the unique material object, with which Zweig experienced the writing process, has lost its materiality through its digital cloning. No longer the actual trace, the photograph becomes, in the words of Sonja Neef, an ‘imprint of a trace’, a step away from the unique encounter. In the same way as Zweig draws attention to the “underground” compositional stages of writing, perhaps, by re-embodying the digitisation process, we can give the screen shot the texture it deserves.

Pardaad Chamsaz  Collaborative Doctoral Student

References:

Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von gestern. (Frankfurt, 1955). F10/3573

Oliver Matuschek, Ich kenne den Zauber der Schrift: Katalog und Geschichte der Autographensammlung Stefan Zweig, (Vienna, 2005). YF.2006.a.13265

Sonja Neef Imprint and Trace: handwriting in the age of technology (London, 2011). YC.2011.a.14184

 

30 October 2013

In search of the lost palace in Białowieża National Park

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We are all so switched on to social media these days that we sometimes forget how recent a development this has been. Every so often, when I go into Facebook, I am confronted by wonderful photographs posted by the Białowieża National Park, a nature reserve in the primeval forest straddling the Polish-Belarusian border. Known for being the last place in Europe that bison still live, the reserve hosts scientific conferences and is a popular resort for walkers and cyclists, as well as for people who simply come to look at the animals and enjoy the enveloping quiet of the forest all around.

But just a decade ago, Białowieża was all but unknown outside Poland and certain scientific circles, and its web presence was negligible. At that time, I was involved in researching the history of the place – originally for a friend’s book (Greg King, Court of the Last Tsar, BL shelfmarks YC.2006.a.13165 and m06/.22031); but we gathered enough information for a long magazine article and finally a website.

Białowieża Park started life as a hunting ground for the Lithuanian and Polish kings, and the forest’s (few) inhabitants enjoyed a tax-free status on condition they looked after it. In due course, following the partitions of Poland, it fell into the hands of the Romanovs, who set about restocking a forest now much damaged and depleted by invasions. Tsar Alexander III, a particularly enthusiastic huntsman with solidly bourgeois tastes, built himself a massive lodge there in the 1890s, transforming the simple estate into an imperial park, complete with outbuildings and landscaped grounds. Polish presidents and Nazi viceroys used it later, but the palace was damaged in World War Two and subsequently torn down. Today, the scientific study centre stands in its place.

Hofmarshalhouse - JA

The Hofmarschal’s House, one of the remaining outbuildings (©J.Ashton/C.Martyn)

The estate gets odd mentions in memoirs and histories of the late imperial period – particularly of Nicholas II’s reign – but practically nothing was written about it in detail. It took Greg and me some time to even work out where it actually was, but both of us have a particular interest in architecture, and were fascinated by the first picture we saw of the turreted behemoth that had been Alexander’s palace.

Getting to Białowieża  in 2004 proved a reasonable challenge. There was no direct route by public transport from Warsaw, and the resulting car trip took many hours longer than anticipated, mainly due to farm vehicles passing very slowly along the little roads. On the other hand, it was very peaceful and relaxing! The town of Białowieża, two uneven roads lined with wooden houses, has probably not changed greatly since Tsarist days, save for the addition of two modern hotels. The park opens from the end of one street, and in its gatehouse – one of the few remaining traces of Alexander’s gothic fantasy – was an exhibition on the history of the palace. In Polish, of course.

Bialowieza JA

The trip yielded vast numbers of photographs, both of the estate today and of the estate as it was, and they are visible – with some from other sources – on the website we eventually put up,  laying out the contents page in a plan of the Palace Park. A BL colleague assisted with translating Polish sources, to produce what is still, we think, the fullest collection of information on the Palace available in one digital resource.

 The Palace in its heyday

These days, of course, there are plentiful photos of the whole estate on the net, and a boutique hotel cashing in on the Tsarist connection has opened in the disused imperial station. There is a direct bus from Warsaw and lots of websites in English. But I don’t think anyone else has recreated the park’s layout online or published lists of the Palace’s rooms! Nor, to our continuing frustration, have floorplans ever surfaced in any published resource or in any archive from St Petersburg to Białystok.

About a year ago, I was contacted by a descendant of the Palace’s architect, Nicolas de Rochefort, who was also seeking information about his (now) obscure ancestor. I offered to send him copies of the photos and plans I had, but ultimately could not find the CD they were on. So, M. de Rochefort, if you’re reading this – I’m sorry, and I hope that soon you can make the trip too!


Some more BL resources on Białowieża Palace:
Białowieża, carska rezydencja, by Swietlana Czestnych, Karen Kettering (LF.31.a.3514)
Saga Puszczy Białowieskiej, by Simona Kossak (YA.2003.a.20990)
Białowieża : zarys dziejów do 1950 roku, by Piotr Bajko (YF.2004.a.2209)

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

13 September 2013

One Conference - Two Views

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The regular WESLINE Conference took place at the beginning of this month, attended by a number of staff working with the British Library's West European collections. Here two of them give their impressions of the event.

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1. The Cataloguer's Tale

The WESLINE Conferences are that rare opportunity to hear from and mix with other librarians working with Western European languages and the September 2013 two-day event at Balliol College, Oxford was no exception.

The packed programme of events (full details can be found on WESLINE’s website) lived up to its promise. On the first day we heard about the future of modern language collection management and different initiatives being driven forward, such as the use of COPAC CCM, which can be used to identify and compare the holdings of major UK research libraries in particular subject areas. This topic led smoothly into the future of librarians working within modern languages, raising the familiar issue of restructuring, and gave the results of a questionnaire sent to Wesline members earlier this year to examine the extent of their language expertise and how their responsibilities lie within their own institutions.

Blogging, a now indispensable tool on library websites, was discussed in detail, particularly interesting for those of us who read blogs but have not yet ventured into this world as bloggers! Talks on contemporary Brazilian film and on Franz Kafka and his manuscripts completed the very full day.

Day two began with a section entitled ‘Lost voices’ which encompassed librarians working in little-known or background fields. We had two very interesting talks on the small but thriving area of Celtic Studies, and another on the role of the science librarian –  all of which emphasised the need for linguistic expertise in their daily work.

The discussion then moved to a topic dear to my own heart, as for the first time at a Wesline conference, cataloguers were featured. Speakers from the foreign language cataloguing teams at the British Library, Cambridge University Library and the London Library certainly gave a voice to a group of librarians who often feel hidden yet who also require a great deal of linguistic expertise when coping with the intellectual rigours of subject work, deriving records, RDA, and Authority Control.

Further talks coverd the ways in which the work of subject specialists is changing, often to take on extra linguistic areas in which they actually do not have expertise, as budget cuts bite. A very informative talk on the thorny issue of open access followed, and the last session featured speakers introducing Europeana, a digital European cultural heritage library bringing together resources from museums, archives and galleries, and The European Library, which was established in 1997 as a joint web portal of 48 European national libraries. The Director of Oxford’s Electronic Enlightenment Project then described the project’s work  to collate scholarly correspondence of the Enlightenment era and create an electronic biographical dictionary.

The conference ended with a presentation on western manuscripts and rare books held in the Bodleian Library followed by various tours; mine was to the fascinating Taylor Institution Library to see the western European language collections.

To finish - the conference dinner in a Spanish restaurant should not be ignored as it provided another opportunity to socialise with colleagues from other institutions as part of an extremely well-run conference. For this we have to thank Nick Hearn, French and Russian Subject Specialist, and Joanne Edwards, Subject Consultant, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, Taylor Institution Library, Oxford, who organized the conference with such dedication and efficiency.

Patricia Tiney, Western European Languages Cataloguing Team

2. The Curator's Tale

Having heard my colleagues speak reverently about the Wesline conference I felt a great sense of anticipation and excitement going there myself for the first time and I must say I wasn’t disappointed!

For me the best thing about conferences is the people I meet and hearing their stories about life and work. I made some very good new contacts with whom I hope to stay in touch for a long time. Funnily enough, the most surprising conversations I had were with some of my own British Library colleagues! Shows you what a change of environment can do for internal relations, as well as for external ones.

  Another perk of going to conferences is that you get to visit places you would otherwise never have a chance to explore. Balliol College is such a place. Not only could we wander in and out without having to pay, but we stayed in rooms around the quads (I learned a new word!) and had our meals in the dining hall, surrounded by portraits of former Masters of the College such as Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan and the British Library’s own former Chairman Sir Colin Lucas.

BalliolColldininghall-Wsl13It almost felt like being on holiday, but this was definitely not the case. Nick Hearn and Joanne Edwards had put together a busy programme jam-packed with talks, presentations and panel discussions. Talking of jam, another BL colleague had gone way beyond the call of duty by getting up at dawn and baking the most delicious little pastries to go with the tea and coffee. The only slightly darker aspect was the weather:  it was far too nice and sunny to be sitting indoors! Lucky for us the speakers quickly diverted our attention from the weather outside to their fascinating talks and presentations.

Delegates in Balliol's dining hall (Photograph by Marja Kingma)

It was interesting to hear how other libraries approach issues like collection development and approval plans. Things that I found particularly useful to hear about were the shifts in collection development in many academic libraries from actively selecting new titles to using automated techniques in clever ways.  A lot needs to be done still before we reach the point where most selection can be left to robots, and luckily the tried-and-tested partnership between librarian and scholar is still going strong, augmented by input from students via tools such as Demand-Driven Acquisitions.

An interesting point was made about the need for subject librarians to know more about existing collections, in order to be better able to identify items for digitization. The COPAC Collection Management Tools project, funded by JISC, seeks to help academic libraries in finding out what is unique in their collections, in setting priorities and in making decisions on what to digitise.  Approval plans, if set up and managed properly, can also help us to make the most of our resources when selecting. In Oxford they seem to work well, and  by no means imply shifting responsibility from the librarian to the supplier.

I have great admiration for the Bodleian's History Librarian Isabel Holowaty, who has made blogging into a truly multi-media and interactive art. She inspired me to think more about how best to blog, so hopefully we will reach more people with our posts!

Marja Kingma, Curator Low Countries Studies

Balliol_College,_Oxford_building
Garden Quad, Balliol College; the conference was in the building to the right.  (Photograph by Tom Page, from Wikimedia Commons

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14 August 2013

Two Italian seventeenth-century female engravers : a recent discovery

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As many of you may be aware, the British Library has been successful in attracting £1.1 million in funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)  for the Italian Academies Project  administered and organised jointly with Royal Holloway, University of London, and in the second phase of the Project, with the added collaboration of a third partner, the University of Reading.

The Project entails the cataloguing and digitisation of the British Library’s rich and extensive holdings of Italian books produced by the Italian Learned Academies in cities including Padua, Bologna, Siena, Naples, Venice, Rome, Mantua and in the principal cities in Sicily where academies were present - Palermo, Messina and Catania, from the period 1525 to 1700.

As is to be expected from a Project of this nature, a myriad of very disparate  subjects and fascinating material, especially illustrations often consisting of original engravings or etchings, can be identified when making this material available to a wider audience through digitisation. Two exciting recent discoveries made by one of the team, Dr Lorenza Gianfrancesco, which are true discoveries, since art historians appear to have been little aware of their existence, is the work of two female engravers working in Venice, Naples and Rome in the seventeenth century.

That female engravers were engaged in this craft, a difficult art and skill to acquire, is in itself, an intriguing discovery since the process of engraving is not one that is normally associated with the fairer sex at this relatively early period. Not surprisingly, very little is known about these two engravers apart from their names – Isabella Piccini (1644-1734) and Teresa del Po (1646-1713).

Teresa Del Po(DVR)

Engraving by Teresa del Po from Progymnasmata Physica (Naples, 1688). British Library 1135.g.15

Teresa was born in Naples and Isabella in Venice. The latter learned her craft from her father Iacopo Piccini (1619?-1686) who was an important and established Venetian engraver in his own right. Teresa del Po, however, is more enigmatic. We do not know, as yet, with whom she learned the art of engraving. As was often the custom at the time, a second or third daughter entered a convent at a relatively young age, and Isabella was no exception, joining a religious order of nuns in Venice.  She continued to receive several commissions from authors and clearly from Learned Academies in Naples while a nun in the convent.

Isabella Piccini (DVR)
Engraving by Isabella Piccini from Poesie Liriche Di Baldassarre Pisani (Venice, 1676). British Library 11429.df.1.

Both Teresa and Isabella were extremely talented and had learned their craft fully. They received commissions to provide engravings to accompany the works of contemporary Italian poetry, architecture and the arts in general and, surprisingly, scientific works too. Both produced works which were highly original, showed great command of the engraver’s art and produced work which can best be described as exquisite or sublime which the reader can judge from the examples illustrating this post. 

Denis Reidy, Lead Curator Italian Studies