European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

Introduction

Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

05 August 2022

A Bibliographical Mystery Solved

A while ago I was alerted by a colleague to a German item in our collections that appeared to have no catalogue record. It was bound with a list of books censored by the Austrian Empire in the late 18th century, so when I ordered the volume up, I assumed that the uncatalogued item would be something similar, perhaps even a continuation of the previous list.

However, when it arrived, it was obvious that, although only a fragment of a larger work, it was not at all similar, let alone related, to the other work in the volume. It began with a half-title page bearing the title ‘Zusätze, Verbesserungen und Druckfehler’ (‘Additions, improvements and printing errors’), so it was obviously an appendix to a larger work, and from the first two pages of text it was clear that the larger work was a guide to a spa town.

Two pages of text from an unidentified fragment

Opening of the mysterious fragment (818.d.9.(2))

Since the town was not named anywhere in the few pages of text, it might have been impossible to identify the place and therefore the book. However, a long-ago cataloguer had obviously had a better knowledge of spa culture than I did as there was a pencil note reading ‘K Carlsbad’. The letter K was used in the British Museum Library to indicate that an item had been catalogued, and the word after it denoted the heading used for it in the catalogue. So this was presumably a guide to the famous spa at what was then known as Karlsbad (anglicised as Carlsbad), and is today Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. From the look of the typeface and the style of writing – and based on the date of the other item in the volume – it seemed likely that it dated from the late 18th or early 19th century.

Half-title page with a cataloguer's note

I knew from the pencil note that there had been a catalogue record made for the fragment, so went to the version of the printed catalogue published between 1979 and 1987 (known as BLC) to check it out. Perhaps it had been one of those odd records that had somehow fallen off the radar when the printed records were converted to an online format. But there was no heading in the catalogue for ‘Carlsbad’. There was one for the German spelling ‘Karlsbad’, which was a cross-reference to ‘Karlovy Vary’, but there was nothing there that could conceivably match the item in question.

So I had to go further back in time, to the first general catalogue of the British Museum Library, published in the 1890s and known as GK1. Here there was a heading ‘Carlsbad’ with a number of mainly anonymous works listed, including the item in hand. However, the record didn’t get me much further in identifying the book the fragment came from, describing it simply as ‘a fragment of some work on the mineral waters of Carlsbad’ with a speculative date of 1803.

Catalogue entry for an unidentified fragment

At this point I had two options. I could either create something similar to the GK1 record on our current catalogue, giving approximate details and date, or I could see whether I could find an item that would match our fragment by searching online and create a fuller record. I thought I would try the latter and turned to one of my all-time favourite websites, the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalogue, which can be used to search a wide range of German and other library catalogues. By typing in ‘Carlsbad’ along with other keywords that might conceivably appear in the title of a German travel guide I found various possibilities, and the increasing availability of digitised editions enabled me to check for matches in most cases.

I was on almost my last attempt when I finally found what looked like a match in the collections of the Austrian National Library. Ironically, this copy didn’t have the ‘Zusätze, Verbesserungen und Druckfehler’ to make a direct comparison, but by cross-checking the corrections and additions with the page references from the original given in our fragment I was able to confirm that I had indeed found the right book, and to create a full catalogue record for it with a note explaining that we only hold a small part of the whole.

Engraved title-page of 'Ansicht oder neueste Beschreibung von Carlsbaad wie es jetzt ist'

Engraved title-page of the complete work, from a copy in the Austrian National Library

Although I’m rather proud of myself for having solved this little bibliographical mystery, I doubt anyone will ever know why two such different items ended up bound together. But at least the fragment that we have is now identifiable.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

28 July 2022

Ukraine Lab: British Library workshop

The Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and the Ukrainian Institute is currently running Ukraine Lab, an online residency for six emerging writers based in the United Kingdom and Ukraine (or displaced by the war). Sasha Dovzhyk, curator of Ukraine Lab, writes:

The ongoing successful resistance to Russia’s war of aggression on an unprecedented scale has made the value of Ukrainian knowledge and experience undeniable. The urgency to learn from Ukraine is now existential for the rest of the world, and Ukraine Lab presents such an opportunity.

Working in cross-cultural pairs, the participants of Ukraine Lab will produce creative nonfiction pieces tackling global challenges in the areas of modern warfare, disinformation, and environment through the prism of Ukraine. Ukraine Lab is supported by the British Council as part of UK/UA Season.

Oleksandr Khvostenko-Khvostov’s set design for Mob

Oleksandr Khvostenko-Khvostov’s set design for Mob (adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel They Call Me Carpenter), 1924. Mystetskyi arsenal, Kyiv, Ukraine.

As part of the project, the writers took part in an online workshop with Katie McElvanney, curator of Slavonic and East European collections at the British Library. We encouraged the participants to engage critically and creatively with the Library’s rich Ukrainian collections, and to record their responses to some of the items they encountered.

Front page of Ukrainian Peace News

Front page of Ukrainian Peace News, no. 3/4 (London, 1987). ZK.9.d.258

Jonathon Turnbull (United Kingdom)
Cultural and environmental geographer at the University of Cambridge researching the return of nature to the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone

From original copies of CIA-sponsored radical newspapers born from the Chornobyl nuclear disaster to a traditionally-bound book celebrating the history and culture of the Hutsuls, the British Library’s Ukrainian collections are packed with gems. Equally well-preserved are the stories behind these items, whose histories were richly conveyed by Katie McElvanney, curator of Slavonic and Eastern European collections. In the collection, we can trace the history of Russia’s imperialistic attempts to erase Ukrainian culture and language, an endeavour which is more apparent than ever since February 24th 2022. But equally, we can find the perseverance and strength of the Ukrainian resistance to Russian imperialism. We were shown, for instance, a rare pocket-sized edition of Taras Shevchenko’s famous poetry collection Kobzar, published in Geneva and designed to be easily smuggled into Ukraine at a time when Ukrainian language was prohibited by Russian colonialism. Some editions were even disguised as cigarette papers to avoid detection. Items like this remind us of the power of literature, poetry, and other documentary forms in fostering community, protecting culture, and enabling resistance. It was a privilege to access such items and to learn about their history from Katie McElvanney who gave a wonderful insight into the British Library’s Ukrainian collections.

Front cover of Mariika Pidhiryanka’s children’s book, Brysko, huska i lysychka

Front cover of Mariika Pidhiryanka’s children’s book, Brysko, huska i lysychka [Munich, 1949]. Awaiting shelfmark

Olena Kozar (Ukraine)
Journalist, editor, and copywriter

The book that stood out for me was Mariika Pidhiryanka’s children's book, Brysko, huska i lysychka, published in 1949 in a displaced persons camp in Germany and doodled by a kid’s hand. I couldn’t help thinking back to a cramped school library which I frequented and where doodling in books was strictly forbidden. Of course, it was. But after all, what else can bring a book to life and closer to us if not a mischievous message sent through time? I hope that the young reader of Pidhiryanka’s book didn’t witness or remember World War II and doodled care-free in a world where the evil was defeated. I salute you, little monkey, from the new Europe, torn apart by a new war. The evil came back but we are fighting.

Title page of the British Library’s copy of the 1881 Kobzar

Title page of the British Library’s copy of the 1881 Kobzar (volume one). 1451.a.42.

Kris Michalowicz (United Kingdom)
International volunteer and writer focusing on Eastern Europe

I was struck by the wealth of history and human experience contained in the collections. The eclectic range of items made a powerful impression on me, and made my connection to Ukrainian history all the more vivid. One item that stood out to me was the portable copy of Shevchenko's Kobzar, designed to be smuggled. It highlighted the ingenuity, determination, and bravery Ukrainians have needed to preserve their culture across the centuries under the threat of imperialism.

Page from Poetics of Endangered Species: Ukraine with a pelican

Page from Poetics of Endangered Species: Ukraine (Kyiv; Tallinn, 2007), YF.2017.b.1282

Kateryna Iakovlenko (Ukraine)
Luhansk-born visual culture researcher and writer exploring cultural and artistic transformation during the war and violence

I have always been fascinated by library collections: how they are formed, how curators distribute and catalogue books. It was interesting to observe how carefully the staff treated each book as a separate independent story. But among all that Katie McElvanney spoke about, I was most inspired by the collection of environmental sound recordings. While we grow up surrounded by the sounds of birds, frogs, and animals, it seems that nothing can change, that they will always be with us. Unfortunately, however, climate change and wars affect the environment. Some plants and animals are on the verge of extinction. For this reason, it's crucial to preserve them by all possible means.

Cover of the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm

Cover of the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm by ‘Ivan Cherniatynskyi’, Kolhosp tvaryn: kazka, with an introduction by George Orwell. ([Munich, 1947?]) 12593.f.40.

Phoebe Page (United Kingdom)
University of Cambridge Languages and Literature graduate, preparing for a Masters degree in Political Sociology

I was blown away by the breadth and variety of the collection, spanning so many styles, genres, places, and periods in history. I was particularly struck by the story each piece told, and the layers of experience you could divine from items which must have passed through several different hands, and which still bear the marks of previous owners. We were shown a rare edition of Orwell’s Animal Farm, translated into Ukrainian in 1947 and distributed throughout the displaced persons camps at the end of the Second World War. It was incredible to learn that Orwell wrote a special introduction for the Ukrainian version of Animal Farm, which became a message of hope for Ukrainians in the DP camps. Political independence was a matter of survival for Orwell and for Ukrainians facing Soviet oppression, and that such an iconic author would write a special introduction personally addressed to a tiny audience (only around 2,000 copies of this edition were distributed) is to me incredibly powerful.

Sofia Cheliak (Ukraine)
TV host, Programme director at the Lviv International BookForum, translator from Czech

I was surprised by the approach to the process of collecting items and the very diversity of the Ukrainian collection. I studied Ukrainian Philology (Literary Studies) for my degree and only read about the books that were published by Mykhailo Drahomanov. At the British Library workshop, I was able to actually see them, at least online.

Edited by Sasha Dovzhyk, Curator of Ukraine Lab and special projects curator at Ukrainian Institute London 

19 July 2022

Reporting Victory

As part of the events programme accompanying our current exhibition, ‘Breaking the News’, curators from the European, Americas and Oceania Collections department took part in an online 'Meet the Curators' event to introduce some stories about news media in the countries they cover. This blog post is based on one of the talks given at that event.

‘Breaking the News’ also means reporting events of historical importance. Battles often are. The Battle of Trafalgar was one of the most famous battles in British naval history, worth reporting internationally. On the 21st of October 1805 the victory of the British fleet, led by Admiral Lord Nelson, contained Napoleon’s ambitions to invade Britain. Lord Nelson was mortally wounded during the battle and the official despatch was written by his second, Admiral Collingwood.

How was this event reported in European news? How long it did it take for the ground-breaking news of the victory to circulate, in an age of slow-travelling information?

Cover of Relazione della battaglia navale seguita ne’ giorni 22 e 23 del passato Ottobre 1805

Cover of Relazione della battaglia navale seguita ne’ giorni 22 e 23 del passato Ottobre 1805 nanti Cadice, tra le squadre combinate Gallo-Ispana e l’Inglese (Genoa and Turin, 1805). Awaiting shelfmark

We have recently acquired a very rare Italian account of the battle, a bifolium published in Italy, by the Frugoni printing-house in Genoa and by Carlo Bocca in Turin, in 1805. It is titled Relazione della battaglia navale seguita ne’ giorni 22 e 23 del passato Ottobre 1805 nanti Cadice, tra le squadre combinate Gallo-Ispana e l’Inglese [...]. Not many other copies of this account are recorded in Italy, and this is the only one in the UK.

Trafalgar 3

Last page of the Relazione with a list of the English ships and the imprint details

The account opens with a description of the composition of the Royal Navy fleet against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish navies, followed by a report of the circumstances in which Lord Nelson lost his life. The description is in accordance with Admiral Collingwood’s despatch from the battle, published in the London Gazette on the 6th of November 1805. This proves that the author of this document read Collingwood’s despatch. Perhaps the news arrived by postal ship from Spain to Genoa and from there it was carried by horse to Turin, where it was translated to Italian and then printed. The only thing we know for sure is that this account was published in the same year 1805, so sometimes between November and December.

The age of the Napoleonic wars was the moment communication started to become global; transmitting information and news from various corners of the empires become essential for the European powers.

Trafalgar 2

I would like to draw your attention on my favourite element of this document, which you can see in the image above. This is an illustration showing, by means of typographic elements, the order of battle of the two sides, and their two successive changes of formation, for a total of three positions. I find this a rather clever use of typography, which visualizes Nelson’s strategy better than prints, or his manuscript memorandum that is held in our collections [https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/admiral-nelsons-trafalgar-memorandum].

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections


Further reading
https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2015/10/trafalgar-and-the-death-of-nelson.html
https://www.qdl.qa/en/london-basra-twenty-two-days

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections