Tag Archives: scholars

Mini-collections within the BLC

The Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection (BLC) comprises many smaller collections.  In the process of cataloging, we’ve come to recognize the bookplates of Pietro Gerini (d. 1939) and Pietro Buoninsegno (fl. 1802-1814), for instance, as dozens of their libretti found their way into Howard Mayer Brown’s hands.  There are less formal groupings as well, such as the many early-18th-century oratorios performed at the Oratorio di San Filippo Neri in Bologna, many of which were published by Costantino Pisarri.

Two interesting collections-within-the-collection of this sort are now making their way through the workflow.  The first consists of dozens libretti performed in at the Regio Ducal Teatro in Milan from 1698 through at least the 1750s, organized chronologically (BLC 712-760).

There’s no indication in the pieces themselves who might’ve put together this collection, but it is prodigious in scope and will serve scholars well.


The second mini-collection is pithier.  The ten libretti BLC 632-641 (titles and call numbers below) were used as the basis for new productions in Florence, mostly at the Teatro del Cocomero.  That is to say: they are full to the brim with alterations.  Many of these are made directly in the text, changing title page information and cast lists or altering text and stage instructions.  Some of the changes are so extensive, however, that they burst from the page, with slips of handwritten text pasted in or entire sheaves of alterations sewn up into a messy, wonderful package.  The most jam-packed of these is Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636) La Mariane.  The printed libretto was for a production at the Teatro di S. Angelo in 1724; the new production was at the Teatro del Cocomero in 1726.

Changes to the title page of La Mariane. Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636)

The cast, of course, changed.

Changes to the cast list of La Mariane. Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636)

Many of the additions and alterations are pasted in, like the folded slip on the left in the image below.  On the right is a leaf that has been inserted.

Insertions pasted down and sewn into La Mariane. Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636)

Indeed, in BLC 636, there is a veritable pile of loose sheets which have been inserted and then the whole package sew together–not for use, but to keep everything in one place.

La Mariane -- more loose sheets, some folded. Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636)

I can’t wait for someone to work on this little collection and reveal all of its secrets.   Someone has!  William C. Holmes’ Opera Observed: Views of a Florentine Impresario in the Early Eighteenth Century.  The third appendix is dedicated to these annotated libretti (plus one or two more).  From this desk in Collection Services, it is easy to forget that, although the BLC has not been fully cataloged, it has been available — and mined by scholars — for decades.

Spreading the word: connecting scholars with primary sources

On Saturday I had the great privilege of speaking about our French pamphlet cataloging project at the annual Center for Renaissance Studies Consortium representative meeting at the Newberry Library.  The Center for Renaissance Studies develops and facilitates programming that connects scholars with the Newberry’s vast collections of late medieval, Renaissance, and early modern materials.

I briefly described the four core collections of French pamphlets that are part of our cataloging project and showed images of many representative examples.  I heard an audible gasp when I mentioned how many items we have cataloged in fewer than three years: 22,300 (and still counting!).  The collections in aggregate span the 16th to the early 19th centuries and cross many different genres including funeral orations, political discourses, broadsides, plays, songs, and satires.  Because of the breadth and volume of these pamphlet collections, scholars have a deep and rich treasure trove of primary source documents with which they can approach research from a variety of perspectives, including social and political history, biography, and  literary criticism.

Several representatives approached me or contacted me after the meeting to share their enthusiasm for the research potential of our pamphlet collections, whether for their own research or for that of their colleagues.  To view records for all of the cataloged items within a particular collection, click the links below.  Bonnes recherches!

French Revolution Collection (FRC)

Louis XVI Trials and Execution Collection

Saint-Sulpice Collection

Collection of publishers’ prospectuses, catalogs, and other materials

“Bella assai”: notes from the opera, Rome 1720

The Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection (BLC) has yielded another gem — a snapshot of the 1720 opera season in Rome through the eyes of two opera-goers.  The first libretto is Tito Sempronio Gracco, performed at the Teatro Capranica (Case ML50.2.T585 S33 1720, BLC 431).  Throughout the work, someone has made marginal comments, mostly complimentary: “non dispiace” (not displeasing);

"Non dispiace." Tito Sempronio Gracco, p. 24. Case ML50.2.T585 S33 1720 (BLC 431)

“bella assai” (rather beautiful);

"Bella assai." Tito Sempronio Gracco, p. 55. Case ML50.2.T585 S33 1720 (BLC 431)

“bella, bellissima, non puo essere meglio” (beautiful, most beautiful, couldn’t be better).

"Bella, bellissima, non puo essere meglio." Tito Sempronio Gracco, p. 56. Case ML50.2.T585 S33 1720 (BLC 431)


These charming comments could very well be about the text and not the performance, but that seems less likely in light of the second annotated libretto.  In Tito Manlio (Case ML50.2.T583 N67 1720), performed the same year at the Teatro della Pace, the same commenter (same hand and similar descriptions) is joined by another, who seems more focused on the music.  While they never comment on the same passage, they do seem to be in a conversation of sorts.

On p. 43, Listener 1 comments on Tito’s “bellissimo recitativo” (beautiful recitative). Just above, alongside Lucio’s aria, Listener 2 comments (in Neapolitan) “O che portiento” (Oh what a marvel)*.

"O che portiento." Tito Manlio, p. 43. Case ML50.2.T583 N67 1720 (BLC 451)

Listener 2 proves to be the more trenchant of the two.  On p. 56, again commenting on a passage by Lucio, he writes “E di questa che ne dite ò ò ò” (And what do you say about this, ho ho ho).  Is Listener 1′s “Bonissima” (very very good) a reply, or simply a comment on the following aria by Manlio?

"E di questa che ne dite ò ò ò." Tito Manlio, p. 56. Case ML50.2.T583 N67 1720 (BLC 451)

Chiming in again regarding the last scene, Listener 2 writes, “Quanto spiccan’ in q[ues]t’aria m[ise]r Lucio, e miser Decio capitan de’ Mamalucchi à à à à à” (How they over-articulate in this aria, Mister Lucio and Mister Decio, captain of the Mamelucos, ha ha ha ha ha).

"Quanto spiccan' in quest'aria miser Lucio, e Miser Decio, capitan de' Mamalucchi à à à à à." Tito Manlio, p. 70. Case ML50.2.T583 N67 1720 (BLC 451)

Almost all the notes by our wry second commenter pertain to Lucio, sung in this performance by Gaetano Fracassini from Verona.   It’s also interesting to note that one of the marginal comments (“mediocre,” p. 49) regards an aria that has a replacement a the end of the libretto; I wonder which version was really performed?

*Italianists: I’m reading that “chi” as “che,” since I can’t make sense of “who” in this context.  Thoughts?


Learning “purely by chance” from the Brown Libretto Collection

One of the delightful aspects of working behind the scenes in a library is the opportunity to lay your hands and eyes on large swaths of material.  If a scholar in open stacks is like a kid in a candy store, a cataloger is a kid whose job is to assay every piece of candy in a given box (and one box after another).  For the Brown Libretto Collection (BLC), Jennifer and I are cataloging libretti in batches of fifteen. We’re also peer reviewing each others’ work, so both of us are seeing every single libretto being cataloged.  In addition to being a real treat and a great learning experience, this process has the potential to unearth interesting information, and I have my eyes open for things that might be useful to my musicologist friends.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed something peculiar in the libretto of Vologeso re de’ Parti (Case ML50.2.V65 S35 1759), performed at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence in 1759.   In the cast list, the dancers’ names are arrayed in a circular diagram.  I’ve never seen such a thing in a primary source, though it does bring to mind the sort of illustrations used by scholars of opera seria to express the hierarchy of relationships between and among characters.

Cast list for Vologeso re de' Parti. Case ML50.2.V65 S35 1759 (BLC 74)

I consulted with two of my colleagues, specialists in 18th-century music for the stage, and they’d never seen such a thing, either.  An anomaly, perhaps?  Well, yesterday I found another example.

Cast list for Enea e Lavinia. Case ML50.2.E53 G84 1789 (BLC 279)

In Enea, e Lavinia (Case ML50.2.E53 G84 1789), a 1789 performance at the Teatro Rangone in Modena, a certain group of the ballerini are listed in a circle with the description “a perfetta vicenda” (“purely by chance,” i.e. not by order of importance), and this explanation confirms the implicit meaning of such an arrangement.  For a genre as shot through with hierarchy as opera seria—both in its plots and character structure and in its performers jockeying for social and professional status—the circle is a strikingly egalitarian symbol.  German dramatist August von Kotzebue sheds light on this very issue.  In describing a particular opera seria performance in Florence, he is unable to identify an outstanding dancer by name.  This situation was unusual enough to demand an explanation.

The reason of my not being able to give the name of this lady with certainty proceeds, from a singular species of vanity or jealousy among the Italian singers and dancers.  When several lay claim to equal distinction, the director, to avoid giving offence, is obliged to have their names printed in a circle or a cross, so that a person cannot know where to begin reading; and a notice is subjoined of perfetta vicenda (“perfectly equal”), though this is scarcely ever true.

I find it interesting that both of my examples pertain to dancers and that Kotzebue’s specific reference is to a performer in a pantomime.  Could dancers possibly have been more vocal than singers in their complaints about top billing?  In any event, these circular cast lists index, in their own small way, the complex social negotiations that were the real fabric of opera as produced and as experienced in the 18th century.

Anyhow, no earth-shattering discoveries yet, but at least one interesting tidbit that was news to some scholars.  I’ll keep on the lookout as we continue cataloging and will share more highlights in later posts.

Researching the late French Revolution

Last week Judith A. Miller, Associate Professor of History at Emory University and currently the Audrey Lumsden-Kouvel Fellow at the Newberry Library, presented a colloquium at the Newberry on her book project on the late French Revolution.  Judith examined events of the French Revolution after the Reign of Terror, drawing on numerous textual and visual sources, including printed speeches and paintings of the era, to highlight themes of stoicism and other philosophical currents permeating the rhetoric of this politically tumultuous time.

In addition to presenting her research, Judith also described her experiences as a researcher working with the Newberry’s collections, most notably the French Revolution Collection (FRC).  This collection contains many pamphlets that are not available or accessible elsewhere.  Judith described her excitement over discovering resources that she never knew existed and how these new discoveries necessarily affected her research.

Particularly gratifying for our project team was her gratitude for the accuracy and thorough subject analysis in our catalog records.  While digitization of printed texts dramatically improves access to these materials, supplying subject terms is still an essential step to facilitating access to research materials, whether or not digitization is possible.  As a cataloger, I often wonder whether the items I catalog are going to find their way into the hands of researchers or whether the catalog records I create will simply slip into the information ether.  I am so pleased that our team’s efforts have proved so fruitful for Judith and other researchers.  Judith and I have had several opportunities to collaborate during her fellowship: I have offered her assistance with strategies for searching the Newberry’s online catalog while she has provided suggestions for enhancing our catalog records.  Her fellowship could not have happened at a better time!

This cataloging project has underscored for us that efficiency and thoroughness in cataloging are not mutually exclusive.  Since early 2010, we have cataloged 20,373 pamphlets (17,553 in FRC alone) with full catalog records and thorough subject analysis thanks to a team of dedicated catalogers, many of whom had no prior library work experience.  Among these thousands of primary source documents are speeches, histories, satires, songs, commentaries, treatises, art, and ephemera ready to inspire and shape the work of many researchers to come.

Adventures in Cataloging

While nestled within the cozy walls of a barren conference room in the Newberry Library, shivering from the subarctic temperatures of what might be the coldest air conditioning system found in a 19th century building, I was asked at the end of my interview if I had heard about the opening for a job as a cataloging assistant for the CLIR French project. Initially not taking this as a good sign as to my future employment with the Newberry for the job I had just interviewed for, I politely (and probably with a hint of sadness and defeat in my eye) said that I had heard about it, but not until after I had already applied for the job for which I had just finished the interview. Thinking that the lovely women who interviewed me were trying to console me with this prospect of another job that I could apply to instead, saying that it sounded “more up my alley” and something that might be “more interesting to me,” I kindly entertained their suggestions, telling them that although this job seemed like an amazing (and almost unheard of prospect for a graduate in French literature who does not want to immediately continue on with a PhD or teaching) opportunity, I did not think that I was going to apply because I did not have any background in cataloging or library science of any kind. I’m actually pretty sure that I had little to no clue as to what cataloging even was or what catalogers did, but for the purpose of not sounding completely oblivious (and unknowingly offensive to all the hard working catalogers out there—this stuff is tough!), we will just say instead that I had a “hazy” idea.

To make a long story short (despite my urge to mimic both the language and the length of the pamphlets that I am privileged to read on a daily basis), I interviewed for, and actually succeeded in getting the job as a cataloging assistant on the CLIR project. I have to say that I have never been so happy! Not only because this was something new and exciting, and a different way to put my French language skills to use, but it was also the opportunity to get back at all of those fancy engineers and medical students who always scoffed at my “useless” humanities degree (take that, you meanies! I dare you to prove to me that you have as much fun at your job as I do at mine!). All joking aside, I entered into this project knowing absolutely nothing about cataloging (and embarrassingly and unfortunately, not that much about the French Revolution—I should have known skipping that time period during my master’s examination would come back to haunt me), and although I have only been on the project for just about three months now, I feel like I have learned a tremendous amount of very valuable and applicable knowledge in a very short amount of time.

From the day that I began right up to now, the training that I have received on this project has been outstanding to say the least. Through the combination of one-on-one meetings, the use of templates, extremely helpful feedback, and a very hands-on just-throw-her-into-the-deep-end approach, I have been able to dive in and not only work with these amazing historical documents, but also feel like I am actually producing quality work. Thanks to the training (and patience) that I have received from those advising me, I actually kind of feel like I know what I’m doing sometimes—not bad for somebody who didn’t even know what cataloging was just three months ago! Additionally, having the opportunity to work on this project has allowed me to take a sneak peek into the world of special collections, something that has always interested me greatly. I have definitely got to have a small taste of what it’s like to work in this field, and it’s a great feeling to know that whichever career path I choose to pursue in the future—library science with an emphasis in special collections, or a PhD in French literature—the invaluable experience that I have gained on this project will serve me very well. If neither one of those career paths pan out for me, at the least I have learned a number of extravagant and imposing ways of signing a document that I have penned. Currently, I have finally entered into the terrifying world of subject headings—wish me luck everybody! I hope I make it out to the other side!
–Signé, your most zealous, loyal, eager, and faithful cataloging assistant-in-training,
Le Chev. A… de G…

Scholars’ visit

Since we spend so much of our time working behind the scenes on projects benefiting researchers and academics whom we rarely get to meet, it is always a pleasure to discuss the collections and our cataloging work at the Newberry Library with the people who are going to use them. For one thing, it’s helpful to hear from researchers about what they are interested in finding within our collections and how they intend to find it—keeping their perspective in mind makes it easier for us to provide user-friendly records with logical access points. For another, although we have all learned a lot about the French Revolution through the sheer number of pamphlets we have read and background research we have done, most of us didn’t come to this project with advanced degrees in French History.  Because of this, we I frequently wish we had unlimited access to experts in the field who could take one look at a pamphlet and tell us exactly what it’s about and in what context it was written.

One recent visit provided us with just such an opportunity. Last month, part of our team was fortunate enough to meet two visiting scholars of the French Revolution who came to take a look at our collection. Although most of the visitors to whom we show our French Revolutionary pamphlets are genuinely interested in them, it was especially rewarding to witness the enthusiastic reactions of researchers who were excited about being able to use our newly cataloged collection.

One of the scholars in particular was able to provide an astonishing amount of information about the pamphlets we showed him from just a cursory look. In fact, after I showed him a recently cataloged satirical dialogue between Louis XVI and the ghostly spirit of Louis XIV, he skimmed a few lines from the beginning, flipped to the final page, and promptly listed several ways he could tell that the pamphlet was an anti-monarchist piece. The intricacies of revolutionary politics and satire, were instantly recognizable to him because of his experience and expertise.

Opportunities to discuss our collection with experts are valuable because they show us that, although it is obvious even to the layperson that this collection is a treasure trove of information about the French Revolution, to the trained eye it contains even more depth and nuance than we could imagine.

Of calendars and public education, counterfeit bills and beekeeping

Assignat from the French Revolution Collection (FRC) - (not yet cataloged)

The Newberry Library presents an informal colloquium every Wednesday afternoon to give staff, fellows, visiting scholars, and friends of the library an opportunity to present their work on virtually any topic.  Last week, some of the project staff presented a colloquium on discoveries they’ve made while cataloging the Library’s French Revolution Collection (FRC) of pamphlets.  Dana, Kate T., Kate S., and David each briefly discussed a particular theme that is well represented in FRC, drawing from selected examples in the collection.  Dana discussed the impetus for creating the French Republican Calendar; Kate T. led us on the slow road to public education reform in Revolutionary-era France; Kate S. demonstrated how to identify counterfeit assignats; and David provided examples of various means of increasing the domestic production of goods during times of scarcity in late 18th-century France, with a particular focus on new methods of beekeeping.

Without a doubt I knew that many audience members would be drawn to the varied and historically significant subject matter of the presentation.  But to my cataloger’s delight, many staff members and scholars in the audience were just as interested in the behind-the-scenes cataloging and processing of the collection as in the subject matter of the pamphlets.  One scholar asked how to locate the FRC pamphlets in the Library’s online catalog.  (Hint: Search FRC as a keyword.)  A staff member inquired whether it was possible to find pamphlets that included maps.  This presentation underscored my feeling that researchers are as much interested in the “process” of a collection as the “product.”

CLIR Scholarly Engagement Study

Yesterday we had a great visit with CLIR Scholarly Engagement Study Team members Gabrielle Dean and Tim Stinson and CLIR Program Officer Christa Williford.

Gabrielle and Tim gave a presentation about the CLIR-funded study aimed at tracking successful aspects of user outreach – specifically with scholars –in the 2009 award-winning projects.  The study is collecting information about the ways in which grantee institutions interact with scholars during the grant period.

After the presentation, the group met with our cataloging project staff, collection curators, Library Services staff and staff from the Newberry‘s Research and Academic Programs.