Bookbuilder’s Report: Uncovering the History of the Book

Three volumes of Mémoires des Chinois from the Burns Library's Jesuitica Collection, which contains thousands of volumes covering a wide variety of subjects.  Photo by Kerry Burke.

Three volumes of Mémoires des Chinois from the Burns Library’s Jesuitica Collection, which contains thousands of volumes covering a wide variety of subjects. Photo by Kerry Burke.

As the Bookbuilders of Boston intern for the 2011-2012 academic year, I have the privilege to work with the Burns Library staff learning the ins and outs of a special collections library and the book trade. This semester, my time was concentrated in the cataloging department under the instruction of David Richtmyer and in the conservation lab with Barbara Adams Hebard. Through processing the Burns’ Jesuitica collection, learning about conservation issues when dealing with rare books, and a trip to the Hynes Convention Center for the annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, I have learned a lot about the history of the book in a few short months!

When Barbara approached me with a pair of clasps which were detached from a book, I seized the opportunity to travel back in time to the Incunable Era, ca. 1450-1500 AD, to study their origins. The Incunable Era represents the decline of illuminated manuscripts and the beginning of printed books using metal type. Many of these printed books still incorporated elaborate manuscript initials and illustrations until artisans mastered the ability to include intricate woodblock engravings for printed illustrations. Furthermore, the method of binding remained largely unchanged. Despite the production of paper pages, binders still continued to prepare books with heavy boards and clasps that originally served to help vellum pages hold their form. Although they technically serve no purpose, the intricate designs of the bindings and clasps represent the symbolic and financial value that a book encompassed in the early Renaissance.

These pictures are of the clasp as seen through the Scanning Electron Microscope.

These pictures are of the clasp as seen through the Scanning Electron Microscope.

My first questions to answer when working on the clasps were “What are these clasps made of?” and “Do they represent materials manufactured during the Incunable Era?” Barbara contacted Dr. Greg McMahon of Boston College’s Clean Room on the Newton campus and he graciously offered his support and the lab’s resources. On one sunny October day, I ventured to the Clean Room and suited up in a white plastic one piece suit, to complete this materials analysis. After examining one of the clasps under a high-definition Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), we used the energy emitted from the electron beam to determine the chemical composition of the metal.

This graph shows that although the clasps are brass, other elements are incorporated in its structure.

This graph shows that although the clasps are brass, other elements are incorporated in its structure.

As shown in the accompanying graph, these clasps are undoubtedly brass. The presence of many other chemical compounds in the sample including iron, magnesium, aluminum, silicon, phosphorus and chlorine left room for more questions, however. Dr. McMahon pointed out that while these chemicals may be byproducts of corrosion, they could also be lingering from the slag or, more simply, the production of the brass itself. Unfortunately, research into the production of brass in the fifteenth century yielded no obvious answers to its place of origin.

With the same questions in mind, Barbara pointed me to a website that Scott Husby, former Conservator at Princeton University created to exhibit fifteenth century printed books in original bindings. His collection includes incunables from libraries all over the United States (although he forgot to include Boston College’s 75 volumes!)  and represents the diversity of design by region. Perusing through the website, I was easily able to eliminate many European countries as possible origins for these clasps based on style. After a long time searching, I finally stumbled upon a book in the San Marino Library collections with clasps which looked identical to our lone pair! After contacting rare book librarian Stephen Tabor at the San Marino library, I found out that these clasps were typical of clasps designed in the “Maria” motif.

Scott Husby had determined that the printer of the book matching the style of my clasps was Anton Koberger. Originally a goldsmith in Nuremburg, Koberger gave up his career in metalworking and became a publisher, printer and bookseller. He was a very successful businessman, expanding his enterprise to employ over a hundred workers and increasing his contacts to countries all over Europe (all this and he still had time to father 25 children!). David Richtmyer taught me how to do a command search in Quest (the BC Libraries online catalog), narrowing the limits of my search to incunables printed in Nuremberg from 1450 to 1500. As it turns out, we have six of Koberger’s incunables, a very impressive collection!  Could one of these be the accompanying volume to our clasps?

In this photo, observe the matching detail between the clasp and its corresponding piece on the binding!

In this photo, observe the matching detail between the clasp and its corresponding piece on the binding!

Robert Williams ’14, conservation assistant, Barbara, and I investigated the incunable collection at the Burns Library, there locating the five volumes that I had found listed in the Quest catalog. Unfortunately, none of Koberger’s incunables were a match.  Unrelenting in our search, we examined the other incunables in our collection one-by-one and finally found the accompanying volume! This book, Auctor operum sequentium was published in Basel, Switzerland by Johann Amerbach.

Why do books from two different printers have such similar clasps?

Here you see the book Auctor operum sequentium complete with its clasps.

Here you see the book Auctor operum sequentium complete with its clasps, BR65 .A31 1492 Oversize.

During the Incunable Era, the production of books was often in the hands of many different craftsmen. The text block was completed by a printer and sold “as is.” Only wealthier patrons would then have that text block bound by a binder. It is likely that a binder would obtain the clasps and other materials needed for binding from a metalworker or other craftsmen. Therefore, the similarity of the clasps used by Koberger and Amerbach may indicate that the clasps were originally made in the same metal workshop. This distribution of work clearly makes it difficult to pinpoint the complete history of a book- a text block printed in Italy could later be bound by a binder in Germany who obtained his materials from France!

Despite using material analysis, I couldn’t with that information alone determine what book the clasps belonged to:  a close examination of our personal incunable collection led to a satisfying end to my conservation project. Finally, the clasps were re-united with the volume to which they had been attached all those years ago!

  • Catherine Macek, John J. Burns Library Bookbuilders of Boston Intern and Boston College, Class of 2012

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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2 Responses to Bookbuilder’s Report: Uncovering the History of the Book

  1. Jeremy Clarke, S.J. says:

    Cathy, fantastic work! Who knows how many other such discoveries will be made among our 75 volumes of inculables. Great to see the Jesuitana collection being made more widely known too and thanks so much for helping with that. Well done! jeremy, s.j.

  2. ubayedtanvir says:

    It’s just great! It will help to make other such discoveries.

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