The Book of Kells is one of the best known medieval manuscripts in the world, due in part to its distinctive insular style and its status as an emblem of Irish national history and identity. Created around 800 AD, the Book of Kells can be found at Trinity College Dublin, where it has been held since the 17th century. Any student of medieval art and artifacts will study the Book of Kells at some point, but how do you study something so unique that it may take time, travel, entrance fees, and maybe even special permissions to see? A facsimile.
A facsimile is an exact copy. In the days before photography, copies of medieval manuscripts for study had to be created in much the same way the manuscripts themselves had been made: painstakingly, by hand, and at great expense. These illustrations could then be turned into prints and distributed widely. These copies frequently reproduce works only in part, prioritizing the most interesting or informative pages. In the 20th century, as photography and later color photography became more common and inexpensive, it became possible to reproduce each page of a manuscript at a low cost, allowing full facsimiles for study available for purchase by any library or individual.
In recent years, technology has allowed for even more complete and detailed facsimiles. Not only is it possible to reproduce the content on each page, even page shape and subtleties of color can be recreated in a way that gives a fuller impression of the object itself. For example, our facsimile of the Book of Kells from 1990 allows classes studying medieval manuscripts, like Nancy Netzer’s Introduction to Medieval Irish Manuscripts, to interact with a material version of the Books of Kells. Alongside high resolution digital images from Trinity College Dublin, the facsimile facilitates comparison between the physical and digital object as well as a more holistic understanding of an item that more closely resembles the experience of seeing the Book of Kells in person.
The Books of Kells, and medieval manuscripts in general, are only one area where facsimiles are useful tools. Other facsimiles recreate items that may have been copied and widely disseminated in their time, but are too fragile or have been lost in too great numbers. Ephemera, for example, can be reproduced as facsimiles to compensate for the extent to which the original objects have been destroyed or lost. The first night Gilbert and Sullivan: containing complete librettos of the fourteen operas contains facsimiles of paper ephemera related to premieres of their operettas, including libretti and programs. These performances, and the paper products associated with them, would have been hugely popular and widely distributed. This facsimile from 1950 preserves the look and feel of items you would receive as a nineteenth century theater-goer. Collecting ephemera from public events spanning decades into one volume provides opportunities to understand the items in relation to one another, inviting comparisons between ephemeral objects that may not have been put alongside each other in their original contexts.
These are only a couple of examples of facsimiles in our collections, and a couple of ways they can be useful to us – what can you find?
-Kate Edrington, Multimedia & Administrative Specialist, John J. Burns Library