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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.

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.

To the Moon and Back

June 9, 2014 by | 0 comments

Many of the books and objects that my colleagues and I photograph are hundreds of years old, so it’s not unusual for us to encounter materials that have a bit of dust on them. This past April, though, I encountered an entirely new kind: moon dust.


I had found myself in the extraordinarily lucky position of being asked to photograph the ceremony in which retired U.S. Air Force Colonel and NASA Astronaut David Scott gave the flight data files from the Apollo 15 mission to the Brown University Library. These flight records are the only complete collection in the world that has been to the surface of the moon, and it was a remarkable experience to learn about them, and to photograph the ceremony and a selection of the objects. We were all given careful instructions not to disturb the dust on the objects – it being lunar dust and all.

For more photos and information on this incredible collection, please take a look at the Library blog post here.