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Imaging rare, unusual, and intriguing objects at the Brown University Library

September 6, 2012

Curios are valued for their oddness or rarity, and are generally locked away for safekeeping. Digitizing Brown University Library’s unique collections affords Digital Production Services staff contact with curious artifacts on a daily basis, which can present technical challenges for digitization or description. Items featured here are singled out for their unique properties and for the methods used to digitize them.

Top banner image: in-situ portrait capture in the McLellan Lincoln room, John Hay Library; alphabet stone engraved by John Howard Benson.

Historia de la villa imperial de Potosí

September 15, 2014 by | 0 comments


Historia de la villa imperial de Potosí by Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela

Colonel George Earl Church (1835-1910) was commander of a Rhode Island regiment during the Civil War, an engineer, and well known for his explorations into South America. In 1912, the John Hay Library was left his personal library of over 3,500 volumes of economic, historic, geographic, and descriptive studies of South America. One of these volumes, an 18th century manuscript purchased by Church from a Parisian book dealer in 1905, is perhaps the most important item in the collection.


Representation of astronomical phenomena from the mine of Asiento de Porco, Bolivia. January 13, 1553.

The Historia de la villa imperial de Potosí chronicles life in the Bolivian “Imperial City” of Potosí, once the largest city in the New World and home to its most lucrative silver mine.1 The manuscript is the “primera parte” of the complete work and records the dramatic social and political unrest of the city, the incomparable riches of its famous hill, greatness of its magnanimous people, its civil wars and memorable cases. Potosí has been vividly described as a “riotous  and gaudy civilization” 2, “proud and opulent, pious and cruel, torn asunder by dissension.”3  Illustrations included in the manuscript portray the metallurgy work of the city, its topographical features, and historic events.

In 1965, in celebration of the bicentennial anniversary of the University, the 1,200 page manuscript was published for the first time in its entirety and in the original Spanish. Now, as the University marks its 250th year, we are pleased to announce that the rare Libro Primero of the Historia de la villa imperial de Potosí has undergone treatment at the New England Document Conservation Center, and a digital version is now available in Brown’s Digital Repository, as part of the Latin American Travelogues collection.

Prior to treatment, the leather binding was degraded and the boards were detached. The pages of the manuscript were dirty and many pages were torn, especially along the edges. The paper was heavily stained and marks in ink and pencil appeared throughout the text. Once the volume was collated and disbound, the pages were washed in a solution of ethanol and filtered water, and sized with gelatin. The fly leaves were deacidified, tears were mended with Japanese kozo paper and wheat starch paste. After digitization, the volume was sewn on linen cords with linen thread, bound in goat leather, and housed in a drop-spine box.



Treatment photos courtesy of NEDCC

  1. Special Collections of the Brown University Library : A History and Guide.
  2. Lewis, Statement concerning the contents of the « Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosí. Journal de la Société des Américanistes, 1936; pp. 401-404.
  3. Phelan, The History of Potosi of Bartolome Arzans y Vela. The Hispanic American Historical Review, Duke University Press, 1967.

Streamlining Broadsides

September 5, 2014 by | 0 comments

Over the past year, Digital Production Services has been working on the digitization of one of the Brown University Library’s extensive collections of broadsides.  The Rider Broadsides Collection (named for Sidney S. Rider, the Providence bookseller, publisher, and antiquarian from whom the collection was purchased and then subsequently donated to the university) is the largest privately owned collection of materials related to history of Rhode Island. It’s been a great opportunity to see firsthand such historic materials, and the broadsides themselves have been largely straightforward to digitize.

Just one of many historical documents that DPS has digitized as part of the Rider Broadsides collection.

And the ability to digitize these materials efficiently is important when undertaking such a large project; were the materials all fragile, oversize books with foldouts, digitization could easily take years. But the Rider Broadsides have two important qualities that allow for high quality and high speed digitization: they are mostly flat materials, and many of the broadsides are approximately the same size. Books, for instance, with most setups require constant focus adjustments since the distance from the camera to the page changes as one moves through the books. Likewise, materials with size differences require the camera to be raised or lowered (and then refocused) to accommodate these variations and provide the best quality image. The Rider Broadsides, though, allowed us to set the camera height and focus at the beginning of a session, and then digitize a full day’s worth of work without requiring substantive changes in our setup (spot checks for focus and exposure are always made).

However, once the regular size materials had all been digitized, we moved onto the oversize materials, which present more of a challenge. There are just shy of 400 1-Size broadsides, which vary in size from 12″ x 16 ” to 18″ x 24″ (give or take 1/4″). While this may not seem like such a wide range, going from the smaller size to the larger requires us to either reset everything for each shot (including special compensation for vignetting on the larger materials), or to shoot everything as if it were the largest size. The problem with shooting for the largest size object is that we’d be compromising resolution: as the camera moves further from the object, resolution decreases. We had shot all the regular materials at 600 ppi (at full size), so one of our goals is to maintain as much resolution as possible. So we had to devise an approach to digitizing these materials that would maintain the efficiency as well as the quality that we had achieved with the regular-sized broadsides.


Each of the four groups of broadsides, separated and labeled by size and camera settings.

The answer was to separate out the broadsides by size, and create a specific and easy-to-replicate camera setup for each size range. After going through every broadside, I came up with four size categories: 12 x 16, 14 x 19, 16 x 21, and 18 x 24 (all in inches). All the broadsides fit into one of these size ranges, which allow us to maximize resolution for each size. With a fixed set of size ranges, I went about determining the camera setups. Using just a tape measure and camera target, I plotted where on the camera platform a specific size would fall. I them focused the camera on the target, to see precisely where the camera needed to be to cover the entire image area while in focus. I noted the maximum size of an object for that image area, the resolution that could be achieved, and the height that the camera required (this number is taken from the mounted rail on the camera platform). I made labels for each set of broadsides, which I had separated onto different book trucks.

I also made tape labels for each size range that I affixed to the camera rail. This way, regardless of the person working in the camera room that day, and regardless of which group of broadsides they were working on, all the photographer needs to do is check the label on the stack of broadsides to determine the image size, find the corresponding label on the camera rail, move the camera to level with the label, focus, and shoot. We have digitized hundreds of broadsides so far, and this has turned out to be useful not just for effective digitization, but also for easier retrieval of paged materials.


Details of signage and camera rail markings.

Circus Poetry (“While traveling with a circus almost had a fallin’…”)

July 31, 2014 by | 0 comments

The Harris Broadsides collection in the John Hay Library contains many poetry ephemera (limited edition posters, broadsides of various sizes, letterpress printed cards). Below is Leonard N. Lawrence’s poem “O Syndia…” (c. 1905), printed in purple all-caps, which seems to have been typeset or stamped in haste. Additional circus-related artwork will be on view August 1, 2014 – February 22, 2015, at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum‘s new Circus exhibit.

"O Syndia O My Syndia Bane" (c. 1905)

“O Syndia O My Syndia Bane” (c. 1905)

Inside the Lost Museum

July 17, 2014 by | 0 comments


Detail of an interior view of Brown University’s Museum of Natural History, c.1871-1894

This year, visitors to the Brown University campus have the opportunity to visit a museum that no longer exists; a museum that was systematically dismantled when the cabinet of curiosities approach to the display of natural history fell out of vogue, and after its founder, John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-1894), dropped dead on the building’s steps. In 1891, the museum was viewed as a “showpiece of the University,” 1 but this sentiment would not last. In his 1905 plea for University funds to support the museum, Professor Albert D. Mead, added that “the reasonableness of spending money for the dusting and rearranging of the miscellaneous curios of a university junk shop for the gratification of a few straggling sightseers is, we readily admit, not obvious.” 2 Over time, the orphaned objects of the museum were scattered and forgotten; the majority of the collection was eventually discarded in the University’s dump by the Seekonk River.

jenks copy

John Whipple Potter Jenks


Today, the Jenks Museum of Natural History and Anthropology (1871-1894) has been resurrected and re-imagined by “The Jenks Society for Lost Museums,” a group comprised of students from the Center for Public Humanities at Brown, students from RISD, faculty advisors, and the artist Mark Dion. During the spring semester, the society tracked down remaining fragments of the original collection, re-envisioned Professor Jenks’s office, commissioned art objects based on lost artifacts, and installed the exhibit at the museum’s original home in Rhode Island Hall. At the project’s core sit questions about the permanence, or rather impermanence, of collecting and preservation.

Photographic evidence of the museum, as it was, can be found in the Brown University Archives. The Images of Brown collection holds seven interior views of the museum’s floor-to-ceiling displays, offering a window inside its eclectic space. The detailed image viewer allows for zooming in on a plethora of zoological specimens. The collection also includes a carte de visite of Jenks himself, taken in Florida where the naturalist collected many artifacts for the museum at Brown.

The Lost Museum will be on display in Rhode Island Hall (Brown University, 60 George Street, Providence, Rhode Island) through May 2015.

Read more about The Lost Museum:

  1. Wilson, J. Walter, The Jenks Museum at Brown University. Books at Brown, Vol. XXII, 1968; Brown University Library, p.41
  2. Ibid, p.54

A more typical look at the camera room

July 11, 2014 by | 0 comments

Since I often concentrate on more involved or difficult setups, I thought it might be good to take a look at a setup that we are most likely to encounter at DPS on a day-to-day basis. This image shows an album of watercolors depicting the uniforms of European soldiers from 1791-1808, and represents just one of the over 25,000 digitized objects from the Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, one of the foremost American collections of material devoted to the history and iconography of soldiers and soldiering. This is our basic reprographic setup: our digital back is mounted on a specialized lens; and two softboxes (only one pictured) are positioned at the same angle to, and equidistant from, the shooting platform.


We have multiple ways that we can approach digitizing a bound volume. Depending on its size and condition, we have different book cradles that we can use to either provide non-invasive, gentle support to a fragile book, or to lightly press open and flatten the pages of more robust, tightly-bound items. Because this book was relatively small, and bound very loosely, I chose to simply lay it flat on the platform (which is covered in 1/2″ thick foam core) and use a foam wedge to support the opposite side of the book. To keep the foam in place, I used a covered brick placed directly behind the foam. Here, the image (from the reprographic camera’s point of view) shows that I’m photographing the back of an illustration; we generally photograph both the front and back of all our materials.


We also make sure to include a target in each image. You’ll notice I’m using a medium-sized target made by Image Science Associates here, sitting atop a thin wood block. It’s important to keep the target in focus as I move through the book, which means that the target must be the same distance from the camera as the page that I am photographing. We use a variety of tools to make sure the target and page are the same distance from the camera – foam, wood blocks, etc., – and you can see my extra, smaller target as well as additional blocks I have at the ready as I move through the pages of the book.

I should note that while this is a more typical setup, each object presents its own set of requirements to both care for the actual item but also produce the best quality, most viable digital image possible. Some are certainly more straightforward than others, and some come with surprises like folds that won’t settle or rippling pages. Our setup will start basically the same (support the object, correct focus and lighting) and then we move, with adjustments here and there, to the final product.


The Accordion Player

June 26, 2014 by | 0 comments

The month of June was designated National Accordion Awareness Month in 1989, which makes 2014 its 25th anniversary. Highlighted below is a pen and wash sketch drawn by Horace Day (1909–1984) during World War II, part of the Brown University Library’s Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection. The Brown Digital Repository currently features over 130 of Day’s artworks.

"Accordion Player"

“Accordion Player” by Horace Day

Images of the Great War

June 12, 2014 by | 0 comments

Over 25,000 prints, drawings, and watercolors from the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection have been digitized and added to the Brown Digital Repository, a portion of which feature World War I subject matter. Events surrounding the centennial of World War I (1914-1919) mean that some of this artwork will be displayed in public exhibitions. In April, an exhibit titled “Images of the Great War: The European Offensives – 1914-1916, World War I Prints and Drawings from the Anne S.K. Brown University Library” opened at the President Woodrow Wilson House in Washington D.C. The exhibit presents multiple perspectives on the war, and was co-curated by Peter Harrington, curator of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, and Stephanie Daugherty, curator at the President Woodrow Wilson House. Peter Harrington feels that the significance of the thirty-five prints and drawings on exhibit is that “they offer an interesting contrast between those produced for the home front, often for commercial purposes, and the images created by the soldiers themselves.” Among the prints created for commercial purposes is this colored plate after the Dutch propaganda cartoonist Louis Raemaekers, depicting three French infantrymen guarded by a German soldier. The image was published in London for the British Weekly “Land and Water” and can be viewed in The “Land & Water” edition of Raemaekers’ cartoons.

Read more about the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection prints highlighted in the exhibit (on view through August, 2014) here and on the Brown University Library News blog.

French Prisoners of War, c. 1914-1915, by Louis Raemakers.

French Prisoners of War, c. 1914-1915. Louis Raemaekers.