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Endless Wonder at Thomas Library’s Special Collections

Hi, everyone! My name is Megan Bobb; I’m a Wittenberg alum (2012), and during my time here I worked at Thomas Library as a circulation worker and later a stacks manager. Now, over three years later, I’m preparing for my second and final year in Kent State University’s online Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program. More importantly, I’m just finishing up a wonderful practicum right here at Witt!

I returned this past spring to look for some books I needed for a rare books class. While here, I ran into Suzanne Smailes, Thomas Library’s head of technical services and the special collections. She mentioned that there was a project that would pertain both to my interest in rare and special collections, and my MLIS specialization in metadata and cataloguing. Each MLIS student at Kent is required to complete a culminating experience, whether that be a practicum/internship, thesis or research project; I knew I wanted to do a practicum, but at the time I had no idea where to begin looking. I was surprised and ecstatic to find the perfect internship so close to home.

For the past ten weeks, I have been privileged to work with Thomas Library’s rare and special materials, which include a vast array of both books and objects. For fans of Warehouse 13, this place is truly one of endless wonder. Suzanne, who was my on-site supervisor, allowed me to choose a sampler collection and two focus collections for which to compile metadata records and images so that these materials could be viewed and promoted online. She suggested several collections that had been previously studied or used, including the lepidopterology collection (see below), and provided a lot of materials I used in compiling metadata records and creating this blog – thanks, Suzanne!

The items I chose are absolutely fascinating, and they represent only a fraction of what Thomas Library’s special collections has to offer. Here’s a small sampling of my favorite items:

A Particular Kind of Canvas: Fore-Edge Collection

RO-FEPaint4It may look like a small painting with an odd frame, but it’s much more. In fact, the canvas is this:


Paintings like these are aptly called fore-edge paintings, since they are applied directly to the fore-edge of a book’s text block. The pages must be fanned to reveal the painting in most cases, although there are paintings that are visible with the book closed. This one, Samuel Rogers’s Poems (1820), is made even more interesting because its fore-edge is already occupied by marbling, seen in the second image above. You can learn more about fore-edge paintings from Phillip Pirage’s “Fore-Edge Paintings” video on YouTube. Thomas Library also has a fore-edge painted version of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto that was bound by Edwards of Halifax, whom Pirages mentions in his video.

Researcher’s Treasure: Lepidopterology Collection

Thomas Library also has an extensive collection of books cataloguing various lepidopterous insects (including moths and butterflies) – several of these include beautiful color illustrations. The illustrations in William Henry Edwards’s The Butterflies of North America (1868) were completed with the efforts of various women artists, including Mary Peart, Lavinia Bowen, and Bowen’s sister Patience Davis Leslie. In his article on this work for the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society, John V. Calhoun writes that “with few exceptions, all the figures on the plates of [Butterflies of North America] were hand-colored” (2013, p. 83). You can find this article, entitled “The Extraordinary Story of an Artistic and Scientific Masterpiece,” via full-text search on Yale’s webpage for the Journal, or directly on PDF from this address. Here is just one plate from Butterflies of North America:

ED-Vol1Plate1CloseCalhoun also wrote articles about another Wittenberg special collections item, Smith and Abbot’s The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (1797), also available from the Journal‘s search page.

Watermarks and Breviaries and Manuscripts, Oh My!: Reformation Collection

If I were asked to choose a favorite collection, I would probably answer with, “The Reformation Collection.” This collection of 15th and 16th century religious texts and commentaries, most pertaining to the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther, was for me the most rewarding to work with. That’s partly because I was able to put to use a lot of what I’d learned in that rare books class I mentioned, and partly because I couldn’t believe that I was handling books that are upwards of 500 years-old (still can’t, in fact). I had a wonderful time finding out as much as I could about the various publishers, printers, watermarks, and other bits of information about these books. These were among the most challenging to photograph, because they are the most fragile, but the challenge was more than worth it.

There were two manuscripts among the items I chose, actually, and the most ornate of those was a mid-fifteenth century breviary hand-written and -illuminated by an author/artist I was unable to identify. The creator used eye-catching gold, blues, greens and reds to illuminate flourishes and decorative letters; and employed rubrication as well. Here are just a couple images of the very well-preserved missal:

6 1450-Illumination17b 1450-Illumination2Close


Left: A hand-illuminated decorative letter, complete with flourishes at the top and bottom of the page.

Right: Red and blue rubrication.


Note: Rubrication refers to the use of distinct ink colors – usually red, but sometimes also blue – to highlight important passages, the beginnings of new paragraphs, and other important parts of a manuscript or text.

Since I have about as much artistic talent as it takes to draw a stick figure, thinking about the time and effort (not to mention the steady hand) required to complete this book is astounding. It certainly makes me appreciate the finished product all the more.

The objective of this project was to bring some of Thomas Library’s amazing special collections to light for the enjoyment and use of others. I hope I’ve contributed to that objective even half as much as I’ve enjoyed being able to work with these beautiful, important documents and artifacts. Thanks to everyone who has helped me with the project or this blog, and/or taken the time to answer any of my plethora of questions. You guys are all amazing, and it was wonderful to be back!

IMG_2239One last picture! One of my favorite prayer books from Thomas Library’s special collections.