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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.

Cheese Poetry

April 18, 2014 by | 0 comments

Reproduced below is the broadside “Ode to the Mammoth Cheese…”, an 1802 nine-stanza poem presented to Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) by Thomas Kennedy (1776–1832). The broadside was captured by Digital Production Services in 2008 at the request of a library patron. The poem states that “Cheese is the attendant of a New-Year’s day,” and is dated January 1, 1802.

“Ode to the Mammoth Cheese…” (1802)

“Ode to the Mammoth Cheese…” (1802)

Magnolia Season

April 3, 2014 by | 0 comments

magnoliaThe blooming of the magnolia trees on campus is not far off (believe it or not!). With my thoughts on these long awaited blossoms, I type “magnolia” into the Brown Digital Repository and discover a beautiful 18th century hand colored  intaglio print.  The variety of magnolia represented in the print is known as Magnolia altissima lauro-cerassi folio, flore ingenti candido, Catesb. (commonly called the Laurel-Leaved Tulip Tree or Carolina Laurel) and is named for 18th century naturalist, Mark Catesby. Catesby spent three years documenting the flora and fauna of South Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas in the 1720′s. The tree featured in the print produced its flowers in the garden of Sr. Charles Wager at Parsons Green near Fulham, in August of 1737.  The print was delineated and engraved by George Dennis Ehret (1708-1770), and is part of Joannis Martyn‘s Historia plantarum rariorum 1

According to the Campus Guide to Trees and Shrubs, Brown University is home to three varieties of magnolia trees; Magnolia acuminata or Cucumber Tree, Magnolia soulangiana or Saucer Magnolia, and Magnolia stellata or Star Magnolia. As the days warm, and I walk around campus during the coming month, I will be noting which of the fourteen stages the buds and blossoms are in.


1. The bud of the Flower as it first Appears.
2. The involucrum which encloses the Bud.
3. The Emplalement or Flower-cup.
4. The Flower-cup opening and discovering the Flower.
5. The cup falling of(sic) from the Flower.
6. The Flower-cup as it Appears before it is expanded.
7. The outside of the Apex or summit Represented.
8. The inside of the summit Represented.
9. The Ovary or Rudiment of the Fruit.
10. A Ripe Fruit with the seed falling from their cells and hanging by small threads.
11. A Seed as it Appears in it’s Cell.
12. A Seed falling out of it’s Cell.
13. The Footstalk with the marks where the Petals or Flower leaves were inserted.
14. A Flower fully expanded which is 11 inches in Diameter and has 10 Petals.

  1. The volume is part of the Albert E. Lownes Collection of Significant Books in the History of Science, a collection particularly strong for illustrated materials on natural history.

Avoiding Moiré

March 25, 2014 by | 1 Comment

Because we photograph a great deal of prints and engravings, moiré patterning is an issue that we must consistently keep an eye out for. Moiré patterning often occurs during image capture; it can also happen if you’re viewing an image at a certain magnification, but this is easily addressed by changing the magnification. It’s when moiré patterning enters during image capture that you must address it immediately, since it’s difficult to remove without creating more image artifacts.

Moiré patterning happens when your subject has some type of regular pattern – in our case, this is usually regular lines in an engraving, but can also happen when photographing textures on paper or cloth that have a regular weave to them. When the regular pattern of the subject overlaps with the regular pattern of the image sensor, the moiré patterning is born. It’s usually seen as bands of color, or light and dark.


The two images above are examples of both kinds of moiré patterning. The image on the left, with the black-and-white pattern, happened due to image magnification. This image itself was fine, but viewing it at this magnification was problematic. The image on the right, however, shows moiré patterning that happened during the capture process. You can clearly see the bands of color that, rather than being a function of viewing the image, are actually present in the image itself.

Correcting the viewing problem is a non-issue; one must simply view the image on a different monitor or at a different magnification. Correcting the patterning that happens during capture is actually almost as simple: it’s all about the orientation of the original. Because moiré patterning is a function of the relationship between overlapping patterns, all we have to do to correct this is change that relationship; put another way, we have to change the alignment of the patterns. For this object (from our Rider Broadsides collection), I had been photographing all objects in the collection aligned as relatively straight verticals to the sensor. To correct the alignment, I simply tilted the image so it was crooked in the capture (it’s important that this isn’t a 90˚ tilt, but a more arbitrary tilt). This corrected the problem immediately. Below is the final image, as well as a detail of the most problematic area of the object.


“Absolute money”

March 13, 2014 by | 0 comments

The Rider Broadsides collection, currently being digitized by the Library, contains unique examples of cultural-political ephemera from the 17th–20th centuries. Shown below are front and back views of an “absolute money” bill, c. 1880, spoofing the period’s Greenback movement. (The majority of materials in the Sidney S. Rider Collection — a wide variety of pamphlets, manuscripts, broadsides, ephemera, scrapbooks and newspapers — are related to Rhode Island history.)

Grossinger’s Natatorium

February 26, 2014 by | 1 Comment

When I recently came across an article about the abandoned and overgrown Grossinger’s Resort Hotel, I became fixated on the photographs of the pool within the resort’s natatorium. I recognized the space (but barely) from a collection of ephemera, which we digitized for The Catskills Institute several years ago.


Grossinger’s New Indoor Swimming Pool. “Superchrome” postcard. c.196-

The distinctive, once orderly, deck chairs now stand alone in the muck and moss, or have been tossed like bones into the bottom of the graffiti laden pool, joining muddy strings of blue beaded lane markers. The signature tile work is faintly recognizable under the encroaching moss, and the star burst lamp still hangs from the ceiling. I knew how tragically abandoned the formerly thriving resorts in the Catskill Mountains had become, and had seen photographic evidence of just how overgrown and lost these spaces currently are, but the images of the natatorium haunt; the building sits upon the landscape like a perpetually decomposing corpse.  In the mid-century (when the indoor pool was constructed) the resort was thriving, as it had been since the 1920s. Grossinger’s gradually declined throughout the 1970s, a decline which hastened when the property was sold in 1986.1 Many items of interest pertaining to Grossinger’s, including an Auction notice and contents for sale, can be found in Brown’s Digital Repository. Most of the resort’s buildings have now been demolished, but the natatorium still stands as a ghostly relic; its remnants pointing to fragmented memories, an uncanny space filled with abandoned objects of leisure being consumed by nature itself.


Photo by Pablo Maurer. Abandoned NY: Inside Grossinger’s Crumbling Catskill Resort Hotel


The more things change…

February 21, 2014 by | 2 Comments

As winter in New England quickly becomes the house guest that has greatly outstayed its welcome, I thought it would be interesting to browse through the Brown Digital Repository for images of snow in Providence. I came upon this image with a view up Williams Street of the Nightingale Brown House. Trade in the horse-drawn carriage for some contemporary vehicles, and it’s not too far from the Williams Street we saw on Tuesday.

* Update: Many thanks to Ron Potvin, for correcting the information about this image. We have updated the post as well as our metadata in the BDR to reflect his insights.


Porcelain Figures from Brown’s Monuments Man

February 7, 2014 by | 5 Comments

Porcelain figures originally commissioned by John Nicholas Brown II (1900–1979) are currently on exhibit at the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. library through April 25, 2014. Brown II was a civilian-status Lieutenant Colonel, Special Cultural Advisor for Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) in Europe toward the end of World War II — as well as husband to collector Anne Seddon Kinsolving Brown, the founder of the Library’s military art collection (a substantial part of which has been digitized for online viewing). While the 21 porcelains currently on display in the library were not salvaged works per se, they were commissioned by Brown in 1945 while he was a “monuments man” in Europe.

Thanks to a movie opening on February 7, 2014, directed by George Clooney and loosely based on historical accounts, the “monuments men” have been making a resurgence in both popular media and the cultural heritage community: from features in the New York Times (re: monuments women, as well), to educational reference resources showcasing the retrieved artworks (Scholars Resource set featuring 111 salvaged works), to recent commentaries by associated museums (“In the Footsteps of the Monuments Men: Traces from the Archives at the Metropolitan Museum”).

The image shown below, a porcelain commissioned by John Nicholas Brown II in late 1945 while serving with MFAA, was taken by Digital Production Services for the library’s exhibition publicity. Curator Peter Harrington describes the context of its commission:

While John Nicholas Brown was working with the allied forces in Germany in 1945 reporting on stolen art works, he visited the factory at Nymphenburg in Bavaria and ordered 21 porcelain figures for his wife, Anne S. K. Brown. Subsequent additions to this set came from the Dresden porcelain factory. Today these porcelains form a unique segment of the foremost American collection devoted to the history and iconography of soldiers and soldiering.