Part of what is so compelling about doing research with old books is that the learning curve never ends—there’s always some new challenge, another thing to explain, something else to get to the bottom of.
Reading old books is hard. Even if a book isn’t that old, content regularly poses challenges: who is that historical figure, what on earth is this political debate about, is this supposed to be a joke? And if the book is from more than a century or so ago, determining the meaning of basic nouns, verbs, and idioms can be tough, too. If you’re reading a manuscript or early printed edition in a place like the Ransom Center or working with a digital facsimile of one from your couch, you’re also likely to face different typographical conventions, alien styles of handwriting, and unfamiliar abbreviations. [Read more…] about Learning how to read again
Even with a print run of fewer than 200 copies, the Gutenberg Bible was a major undertaking. A complete copy, like the Ransom Center’s, includes 1,277 large pages that have text printed on them. Each full page required that approximately 2,500 individual pieces of metal type be set by hand, one at a time. And some pages had to be set twice, because Gutenberg decided to increase the Bible’s print run. With some rough multiplication, we end up with well over 3,000,000 times that someone had to pick up a piece of type and put it into a page forme and, then, after all copies of that page had been printed, take that piece of type out of the page forme and put it back so it could be used again. I think we’d all agree that that’s a lot of work.
The Ransom Center’s Spring 2020 Stories to Tell exhibition features some of the earliest printed examples of illustrated English plays. [Read more…] about Picturing the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries
Most of the books that came to The University of Texas at Austin as part of the John Henry Wrenn Library didn’t look like old books when they arrived in 1918 and still don’t look old now—not as old, at least, as the publication dates of the printed pages inside would suggest. [Read more…] about Revealing an English Schoolmaster’s Piers Plowman
When Johann Gutenberg and his team published their Bible in the mid-1450s, what they were selling to buyers were sets of sheets, sheets of either paper or parchment that had text printed on them. What they were not selling were books—not, at least, if we take “book,” as we usually do, to imply a codex that is ready to read by turning a series of leaves held together at one edge. As I have written before, when a monastery, church, or private individual bought a Bible from Gutenberg, they had to find a scribe to add red text to spaces that the printers had left blank. Gutenberg’s customers had to find bookbinders, too.