Nick Purgett is a senior art history major, graduating in May. He is working at the Harry Ransom Center as an intern in Description and Access, printed and published media. In the future, he wants to continue art history at the graduate level and beyond, though he plans on taking a year or two before starting an even larger profusion of school.
What does a work day look like for you?
It depends on the work day and really no two are alike! Tuesday and Thursday, I tend to work with Hebrew books as well as some of the internal data with the incunabula project. Fridays, I work with Pforzheimer Curator, Aaron Pratt, and fellow intern Celia Shaheen on the incunabula themselves, flipping through pages and driving ourselves crazy at the absolutely insane stuff you tend to find in old books. In working on these projects there is a fairly straightforward workflow, for the incunabula it is among the three of us while working on the Hebrew books is solo.
One person has to do the dirty work of flipping through every page in the book. The one page you skip over could have a weird and crazy annotation or bit of provenance information that is key in better understanding the book, so you have to pay attention. Additionally, the person flipping through the book makes sure that our record of how the book is constructed, what leaves are missing, etc. is consistent with the actual state of the book.
Another person will have a printed record of the book and take notes based on what is found inside, adding them to relevant software. This makes relevant details about the book more easy to find via the UT library catalog.
Finally, a third person is on a laptop finding the ISTC number for each of the incunables. The ISTC is the Incunabula Short Title Catalog, a very useful, but very unwieldy, database used to manage standard forms of incunabula. It seems crazy, but books didn’t exactly have titles back then. Furthermore, the names of the printers who made these books are rarely standardized between German/Latin/Italian/etc variants.
The same is done by one person for the Hebrew books but we also share that as well as biographical and location information of the people who owned a particular book. Taking that data, Columbia can then generate a map of how books moved, which is a really interesting take on digital humanities.
What projects are you working on or have you completed? Is there one you most enjoy working on or are passionate about?
I have mainly two projects, Hebrew books and incunabula. I must say that despite working with the books I do not know a lick of Hebrew, so I do prefer incunabula. Also recently I have been collaborating with other members in the department towards creating a wiki that consolidates and documents workflow for future employees and interns.
What skills have you gained or knowledge have you learned through this internship at the Harry Ransom Center?
I know more now about incunabula, binding, and bookmaking than I ever thought there was to know. That’s partially the work of Aaron, but additionally having practical experience working with books is such a valuable teacher.
What has surprised you about the Ransom Center and your position here?
I’ve been working with the materials themselves since day one! The Center absolutely does not baby you in giving access to important things, which is great! I can have a book from 1550 sitting in a manuscript cradle on my desk. That’s just something quotidian and that’s incredible.
What prior interactions had you had with the Ransom Center before working here?
My interactions with the Center were both as a student and a researcher. Being an art history student, many classes of mine have used the incredible resources of to teach. As a researcher, I used the reading room last school year to look through incunabula that I found interesting just for my own edification.
How is the work you do here important for researchers and the general public?
For the Hebrew books project, the data myself and Celia are collecting are shared with Columbia University. They are running a project there to map out these instances of Hebrew books in the US, allowing scholars to get a better view of how these books moved before the resurgence of Hebrew in the late 19th century. For incunabula, we’re generally updating and modernizing the description of these books, allowing for both researchers and the public to search our holdings more easily. Say a scholar wants to only look at books with engraved clasps, they’ll be able to do just that once this project is finished.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen at the Ransom Center?
This is really a question about my favorite piece of work. There is an absolutely whacky incunable where the rubricator has drawn, badly I might add, snakes and birds all throughout the margins. It absolutely defies reason. I love it.
What was the most difficult part of your internship?
There are a ton of individual resources that you have to keep track of in your head, be it for incunabula or Hebrew books or cataloging or whatever. That’s partially what will be so useful about this new wiki. So much of the Ransom Center’s knowledge is tied up in the heads of the brilliant people who work here but that information is never written down anywhere. So it will be great to consolidate all of that and help future employees and interns!
How has your passion for historical documents helped in your internship?
At the end of the day it is useless to go through these books if you do not have a passion for them and want to describe them and make them accessible with the greatest accuracy possible. Every day, I get to work with the early books I’ve learned about in art history, as well as my German and French culture classes. It’s a dream!
Top photo: Nick Purgett, second from right, with his undergraduate intern cohort.