Tracing the Sinhala Script in the Rare Book Collection

The Rare Book Collection at UNC is proud of its global collections. Recently, we discovered a rare Sri Lankan imprint in our main library, Davis, and have arranged for its transfer to the RBC. The book, The Singhalese Translation of the New Testament (1820), is one of the earliest British books printed in the Sinhala language and a wonderful complement to the RBC’s collection of Sinhala olas, or palm leaf manuscripts.

Singhala_NewTestament_titlepage1 copy

Title page / RBC 225.59148 TS

Printing was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch in 1734. The first book printed in Sri Lanka was published in 1737 using the first set of movable Sinhala type, which had been designed and cast by a local Dutch armorer. The Dutch printed a scant 22 books in Sinhala before ceding Ceylon (as it was then known) to the British in 1796. Although the British government took over the Dutch printing house and the Sinhala type founts, it was the religious societies—first the Columbo Auxiliary Bible Society (1812) followed by the Wesley Mission Society (1815)—that continued to print in the Sinhala language.

The Singhalese Translation of the New Testament is a major revision of an earlier, error-riddled edition published by the Colombo Auxiliary Bible Society in 1817. Much energy and money was devoted to the second edition, and a smaller, more compact Sinhala type font was specially commissioned for the octavo edition you see here. This book was intended to be widely distributed and easily carried. Printed at the Wesley Mission Press by a trained printer, this edition found praise among contemporaries for its typographical cleanness and elegance, as indeed it was by colonial standards.


Abhidhānappadīpikā / Poleman 6642

By comparing an ola manuscript with the typography of The Singhalese translation, it is possible to study the relationship between Sinhala manuscript and print cultures. Scholars have argued that the rounded curves of the Sinhala script originated from the material constraints of writing on variegated palm leaves with a reed. Recently, Sri Lankan scholar and typography designer, Sumanthri Samarawickrama Jayaweera, has argued against such a reductive conclusion. You can listen to her engaging interview about the history of Sinhala printing and typography here. Jayaweera suggests that it was the introduction of colonial printing that ultimately changed how the Sinhala script was written—a process that might be traced in the RBC’s “new” copy of The Singhalese translation of the New Testament.

UNC’s ola collection, a gift of Dr. W.P. Jacocks, is not currently recorded in the online catalog but is described in H.I. Poleman’s Census of Indic Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (1967).

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Poets of the First World War

Here at the Rare Book Collection we are gearing up for the centennial of World War I, and we’re expecting an influx of students, scholars, and other curious visitors to work with our extensive international holdings of related materials. To prepare, we are combing the collection, assessing what we have, and looking for those special items that might be of particular interest.

One item of note is a first edition of Siegfried Sassoon’s The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, Sassoon’s first book of poetry about his experience at the front. Sassoon published this volume in 1917, the same year he began treatment for neurasthenia (more commonly known as “shell shock”) at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, where he met fellow poet Wilfred Owen.

Sassoon’s poems, at their most caustic, register his disgust with war authorities in Britain, whose casual use of propaganda from the safety of the home front Sassoon critiques. Other poems, like “To His Dead Body,” convey his deep affection for his fellow soldiers while unflinchingly recording their deaths: “When roaring gloom surged inward and you cried, / Groping for friendly hands, and clutched, and died, / Like racing smoke, swift from your lolling head / Phantoms of thought and memory thinned and fled.”

KIC Image

PR6037.A86 O43  / Courtesy of the Estate of George Sassoon

What makes our copy—a second printing of the first edition—special is that it reveals how Sassoon used his time at Craiglockhart to create literary networks with fellow poets. Pasted to the back endpaper is a letter from Sassoon to Douglas Ainslie, a Scottish poet who was known to Oscar and Constance Wilde as well as Arthur Conan Doyle. In the note, written on Craiglockhart stationery, Sassoon tells Ainslie that he regrets not being able to meet him for lunch but says he hopes they can meet at a later time. Sassoon admits that he is “keen to know whether you like my poems, & equally impatient to read your own.” Ainslie’s autograph on the front endpaper suggests that the book was his. All the pages are cut, so we can surmise that Ainslie read Sassoon’s work. One can only wonder what, in fact, he thought about it and whether the two men got the chance to meet!

We are most grateful to the Estate of George Sassoon, Siegfried Sassoon’s son, for kindly granting permission to reproduce this letter. Readers who wish to publish the letter should contact the estate.

The Rare Book Collection has print holdings of many World War I writers, in addition to the extensive Bowman Gray Collection of World War I posters, postcards, and pamphlets, as well as other documents relating to the war. We welcome readers to explore our holdings in the second floor reading room of Wilson Library.

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On the Road: The Plantin-Moretus Museum

Courtyard of the Plantin-Moretus Museum / Photo by Daphne Bissette

Courtyard of the Plantin-Moretus Museum / Photo by Daphne Bissette

During a recent visit to Belgium, I stepped back in time to the world of Renaissance printing at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. The museum, honored in 2005 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, preserves the printing workshops, office, and private living quarters of the great printer-publisher Christophe Plantin and his son-and-law and successor Jan Moretus, just as they were in the 16th century, when the Officina Plantiniana was arguably the most important press in Europe.

The museum’s website boasts:

It is just as if after 440 years the working day is about to begin for the type founders, compositors, printers and proofreaders in the world-famous printing works. The oldest printing presses in the world are there, intact and ready to roll. The offices and shop echo with conversations between Christoffel Plantijn and aristocratic and scholarly clients from all over the world.

This correspondent found that description entirely true. The dark-paneled workroom with its row of venerable ancient printing presses and the rows on rows of type in dozens of fonts in oak cases  fired the imagination to reconstruct the hustle and bustle of a workday in Plantin’s busy shop. As a sometime-proofreader for Rare Book Collection publications, I felt a special sense of solidarity with Plantin’s invisible proofreaders, seeing their massive wooden desks under the sixteenth century windows, imagining them piled high with stacks of proofs waiting to be corrected.

The Museum also includes the living quarters of the Plantin family: the damask-and-tapestry-draped drawing rooms with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Plantin’s almost-contemporary and fellow Antwerp citizen; the Plantin’s handsome private library; and several rooms hung with costly Spanish gilt leather. The lushness of these spaces, in contrast to the brisk practicality of the offices and workrooms, is an invitation to imagine the private life of a man who was at once eminently learned and humane, invested in the philosophical and religious discourse of his times, but also a shrewd capitalist and entrepreneur. Plantin rose from relatively obscure beginnings to become, in today’s terms, a multimillionaire, exemplifying his personal motto labore et constantia (“by labor and constancy”) in his business life.

Plantin device

Plantin device with his motto

A Frenchman by birth, Christophe Plantin settled in Antwerp at the age of about 28 or 29 with his wife Jeanne Rivié and their young daughter after learning bookbinding and the bookselling trade in Normandy. A few years later, while walking alone at night, he was attacked by a gang of men who mistook him for someone else; they inflicted a wound to his arm. Unable to continue work as a binder, Plantin turned to publishing, becoming known for the excellent typography of his editions. He cemented his reputation with the publication of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible, a printing masterpiece and landmark scholarly effort bringing together Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac biblical texts, a handsome copy of which is on display in the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

The Rare Book Collection’s holdings in early printing include several volumes by Plantin, notable among which is his 1568 imprint Carmina novem illustrium feminarum, “Songs of Nine Illustrious Women,” an anthology compiled by Plantin of songs and lyric, elegiac, and bucolic poetry by Greek poetesses, including Sappho, and commentary on these poems from Latin authors. The volume illustrates not only Plantin’s erudition and devotion to the classics, but also his skill in employing beautiful typefaces, for example, this Greek one designed by Robert Granjon.

Carmina / PA3447 .O7 1568

Carmina / PA3447 .O7 1568


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Moving from Manuscript to Print

Books from the early days of printing bear witness to the unique period when the printing press was supplanting the centuries-long manuscript tradition as the primary means of transmitting texts.

One underappreciated way that early printed books are indebted to manuscripts is their typefaces, many of which are based on contemporary manuscript hands. Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), the illustrious Venetian printer, was a pioneer in this respect. He employed the Bolognese type-designer Francesco Griffo, who developed what we now know as italic type from “cancelleresca corsiva,” the papal chancellery hand. Aldus popularized Griffo’s italic type by using it in his popular pocket-size affordably-priced editions of the Latin classics because it saved space (only later did italic type come to be used as an emphatic font, as it is today). Aldus’s printer’s device of a dolphin wound around an anchor is represented on one of the colorful banners of printers’ and publishers’ devices on the first floor of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Davis Library.


In Epistolas Ciceronis ad Atticum, Pauli Manutii commentarius / PA6299 .M3 1557

Another visible way that books may reveal their debt to manuscripts is their bindings, like the 1557 Aldine imprint pictured above. The damage to the book’s spine reveals that it was reinforced with manuscript waste—handwritten texts, often on vellum, which were commonly used to strengthen the interior structure of books. Usually, these were manuscripts or scraps lying around a printer’s shop. “Vellum was such a valuable material that even material with writing on it was often used to reinforce the interior structure of books,” said Jan Paris, UNC’s Conservator for Special Collections. Sometimes, manuscript waste was used to bind the outside of books, but more often it was hidden in the structure, visible only when the outermost binding was damaged.

The book pictured above, which recently came to the attention of a Rare Books staff member, is a product of this period of transition from manuscripts to printed books. It is a 1557 Aldine imprint, by Aldus’s son Paulus Manutius, who assumed control of his father’s press in 1533 after it had been managed by his uncles, the Asolani, following Aldus Manutius the Elder’s death in 1515. Paulus Manutius was an avid Latinist, especially devoted to Cicero. This imprint is a reminder of Aldus, a pioneer in typefaces derived from manuscript hands, even as it is a reminder of the more concrete ways in which early books relied on their manuscript predecessors.


Spine detail / PA6299 .M3 1557

Our curiosity was piqued by the manuscript waste on the spine. What was the text? UNC Professor of Classics and paleographer Bob Babcock determined that the manuscript is written in a fourteenth-century Italian Gothic hand. The text is religious—the third line mentions “Isaias,” or Isaiah—but is difficult to identify because such a small section is visible. Careful peeking down the spine and on the corners where the binding has been torn away shows more manuscript writing in what appears to be the same hand.


Occasionally, modern-day conservators find valuable manuscript or printed sources in the bindings of early books. When UNC acquired its first millionth volume in 1960, a 1483 imprint of John Gower’s Confessio amantis by William Caxton, the first British printer, further study of the volume revealed a second Gower imprint—a 1481 indulgence of Pope Sixtus IV that had been used to reinforce the binding. A binder removed the indulgence and restored the binding in 1975.

This spring, Cataloging Librarian Barbara Tysinger made another discovery when she noticed the manuscript fragment binding of Johann Wittich’s 1589 book Bericht von den wunderbaren bezoardischen Steinen (“Report of the wonderful bezoar stones”). Professor Babcock and other campus experts determined the fragment contains part of the Apocryphal book of Judith from a twelfth century lectionary. An additional fifteenth century manuscript, from Albertus Magnus’s De animalibus lies mostly obscured beneath the lectionary fragment.

All this reminds us that the Manuscript Road Trip is in the South and will be visiting Chapel Hill soon.

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In Memoriam George E. Stuart (1935–2014)

The Rare Book Collection and the University Library mourn the loss of George Stuart (Ph.D. 1975), beloved good friend and benefactor.

George Stuart at Chapel Hill / photo by Melinda Y. Stuart

George Stuart at Chapel Hill / photo by Melinda Y. Stuart


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Le Grand Siècle Chez RBC


Emmanuel Bury, professor at the Université de Versailles, and Fabien Montcher, Ahmanson-Getty fellow, Clark Library, UCLA, looking at Philippe de Commyne’s Memoirs in the Imprimerie Royale edition

A week ago, on a stormy Thursday, May 15, Wilson Library gave shelter to sessions of the 2014 Conference of the North American Society for Seventeenth-Century French Literature (NASSCFL).

At lunch hour, the Rare Book Collection mounted a selection of outstanding and eclectic imprints from the Grand Siècle, to the delight of the very knowledgeable conference attendees, who left behind their sandwiches and drinks for some bibliographical nourishment.


Katherine Dauge-Roth, associate professor at Bowdoin College, examines a book in the “Women as Agent and Object” section

Materials were grouped thematically: “Arts & Science,” “L’Imprimerie Royale,” “Mazarinades,” “History & Literature,” and “Women as Agents and Objects.” Clearly, there was something for everyone, as well as much surprise that such French literary resources resided in Chapel Hill. In particular, the extensive collection of Mazarinadespamphlets published during the French civil wars known as the Frondeelicited a fair degree of wonder. RBC’s cataloging of the approximately 1,000 titles overlapped with the publication of Hubert Carrier’s two-volume opus, Les mazarinades (Geneva, 1989-1991), which consequently failed to note UNC’s impressive holdings. Examples on display and the two drawers of shelflist cards received much attention.


Mazarin 1665 front

Mazarin 1665 title-page

Mazarin 1665 past page

Mazarin 1665 last page











Professor Ellen Welch, of UNC’s Department of Romance Languages & Literatures (and a co-organizer for the NASSCFL conference), has certainly used the Mazarinade collection to great advantage with her advanced French literature courses.  A recent class did in-depth analysis of a small selection and produced an informative website.


Adrian Sicler, La chiromance royale et novvelle (Lyon, 1666) / BF922 .S5

The 2014 NASSCFL conference display was enjoyed not only by conference attendees but also by Wilson Library employees, who found new books to love. A particular favorite is Adrian Sicler’s scarce cabbalistic palmistry text (left). And our recent acquisition of a rare edition of Melusine has already inspired a post on Wilson Library’s tumblr.

François Nodot, Histoire de Melusine (Paris, 1698) / GR75.M44 N6 1698

François Nodot, Histoire de Melusine (Paris, 1698) / GR75.M44 N6 1698 /Hanes Foundation

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Student-Curated Exhibition: Imagining the U.S. Civil War

Civil-War2_exhibition2_350The RBC is pleased to be sponsoring the current Wilson Library exhibition, Imagining the U.S. Civil War 1861-1900, curated by Professor Eliza Richards’s undergraduate seminar in American literature.  On April 24, the show opened with a lively reception, where the 21 student curators fielded questions from some 120 visitors about the over 80 items on display. Organized into categories such as “Union and Confederate Poetry,” “The Suffering of Prisoners,” “African American Literature” and “Women at War,” the diverse materials include memoirs, dime novels, anthologies, photographs, broadsides, periodicals, and even a surgical kit.

Students (with name tags) discuss their selections

Students (with name tags) discuss their selections. Photo by Sarah Boyd. Courtesy UNC Department of English & Comparative Literature.

Professor Eliza Richards led the reading- and research-intensive semester class, and students worked closely with Library staff to create an exhibition that gives a unique perspective on the epochal event through the superb holdings of Wilson Library’s Rare Book Collection, North Carolina Collection, and Southern Historical Collection, as well as the Special Collections at the Health Sciences Library.

The opening took place the day after Unesco’s World Book Day, April 23, the death date of writers William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes.  April 23 is also the feast day of St. George, or Sant Jordi, in Catalonia, where it is traditional for a man to present a rose to his beloved. In 1923, a bookseller created an adjunct tradition that caught on, in which a woman gives a book to her loved one. Millions of roses and hundreds of thousands of books are exchanged throughout Spain on April 23.

And so, in gratitude for presenting the public with so many amazing books, the student curators were presented with red roses, which they brandished with great flair for a group photograph.

Top row: Second row: Third row: Fourth row: Bottom row: Tommy Nixon, Subject Liaison at Davis Library; Professor Eliza Richards; Emily Kader, Rare Book Research Librarian; Leslie McAbee, Graduate Assistant Research Consultant

Top row: Anthony P. Garcia, Karon Annette Griffin, Corinne Goudreault, Sarah Frances Rabon, Katherine A. Benson. Second row: Bethany L. Corbett, Christopher McGrath, Catherine Margaret Cheney, Kelly A. MacDevette, Brianna Rhodes. Third row: Morgan Beamon, Toni J. Bowerman, Samuel L. Bondurant,  Eleanor Houser, Wan-Ting Lin, Sarah M. Placyk. Fourth row: John Dennis Howell, Jr., Hannah Marie Wallace,  Krista R. Fulbright, Dane Louise Fields, Anna Christian Spivey.  Bottom row: Tommy Nixon, Subject Liaison at Davis Library; Professor Eliza Richards; Emily Kader, Rare Book Research Librarian; Leslie McAbee, Graduate Assistant Research Consultant. Photo by Sarah Boyd. Courtesy UNC Department of English & Comparative Literature.

The exhibition is up for graduation this weekend and continues through July 20.

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Making Knowledge

Ole Worm, Museum Wormianum (Leiden, 1655) / Courtesy Florence Fearrington

Ole Worm, Museum Wormianum (Leiden, 1655) / Courtesy Florence Fearrington

The current Rooms of Wonder exhibition, which closes this Thursday, April 17, continues to attract enthusiastic viewers in its last weeks and days. On Saturday April 7, participants in the graduate student conference “Making Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Literary Culture”a collaboration between UNC and Kings College, Londonstreamed into Wilson to see the show with the expert guidance of Professor Jessica Wolfe, who spoke at length about some of her favorite books on display.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 9.30.13 AMThen the large group moved to the Pleasants Family Assembly Room to hear Dr. Pamela Smith, Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University, deliver the conference’s keynote address, “From Matter to Ideas: Making Natural Knowledge in Early Modern Europe.” Professor Smith examined Renaissance mining and metalworking and the codification of that industrial and artisanal knowledge in Early Modern manuscript and printed books, such as the woodcut-illustrated editions of Georg Bauer, or Agricola. The lecture, one in the English & Comparative Literature Department’s Critical Speaker series, is available in full in video at their site.

The picture above, while illustrating Professor Smith’s lecture, also demonstrates how strangely distorted the experience of books can be when mediated by modern digital technology. So do listen to (and watch) the lecture, but come in one last time if you can to behold the marvelous printed books lent by alumna Florence Fearrington for Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1565-1865.

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Rare Books in Action: Modernextension Dance Company

Performance with an image of Abeceda projected in Gerrard Hall

Performance with an image from Abeceda projected in Gerrard Hall

On Saturday March 29, the Modernextension Dance Company demonstrated the vitality of rare books in a multimedia dance program, which was partially inspired by Abeceda, a classic work of Czech modernism recently acquired by the Rare Book Collection.  The company, directed by Heather Tatreau, performed their “Haunted” program to a full-capacity audience, who were encouraged to change their vantage points during the seven dance pieces, in order to experience different views from within the University’s historic Gerrard Hall space.

M is for Milča Mayerová, Vítězslav Nezval, Abeceda (Prague, 1926) / PG5038.N47 A62 1926 / Hanes Foundation for the Study of the Origin and Development of the Book

Vítězslav Nezval’s Abeceda, or “Alphabet,” was the inspiration for the piece “Ghost,” choreographed by Wilson Library employee and Modernextension Dance Company member Matt Karkutt, and “To the Letter,” in which five dancers created solos in response to the book. Abeceda, published in Prague in 1926, shows dancer Milča Mayerová enacting letters of the Latin alphabet, opposite Nezval’s poems. The noted Czech graphic designer Karel Teige is responsible for the illustrations, which manipulate photographs by K. Paspa.

Karkutt’s choreography and the solo dances effectively exploded common conceptions of the static nature of letterforms and books. Dancers mimicked Mayerová’s poses and spelled out words, with images from the book projected behind them.

It was an evening of forceful performances, with a great vibe. The Rare Book Collection hopes for future collaborations with other artists on campus. Indeed, the RBC considers itself a museum in the very best sense of the word: in it, the muses are at work. All artists–and every man is an artist–are encouraged to seek inspiration in the Rare Book Collection.

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Celebrating the Seven Millionth

Reception in Peacock Atrium of the FedEx Global Education Center

Reception in Peacock Atrium of the FedEx Global Education Center

A week ago, on Thursday March 20, some two hundred Library supporters gathered in the FedEx Global Education Center’s Peacock Atrium for a reception and viewing of UNC-Chapel Hill’s seven millionth volume, Juan Latino’s first book, the first book of poetry in a Western language published by an individual of Sub-Saharan African descent.

Food for the mind. The first literary work of the African Diaspora in the West

Food for the mind. The first literary work of the African Diaspora in the West. Juan Latino, Ad Catholicum, pariter et invictissimum Philippum . . . (Granada, 1573) / PA8540 .L615 A65 1573 supv’d

Professors Frank Domínguez, Bill Andrews, and Rosa Perelmutter

Professors Frank Domínguez, Bill Andrews, and Rosa Perelmuter

Food of the more common kind to sustain the evening's intellectual activity

Food of the more common kind, to sustain the evening’s intellectual activity

Teresa Chapa, Latin American and Iberian Studies Librarian

Teresa Chapa, Latin American, Iberian, and Latina/o Studies Librarian

Professors Genna Rae McNeil and Bereket Selassie, foreground

Professors Genna Rae McNeil and Bereket Selassie, foreground










After much joyous socializing, the crowd moved into the Nelson Mandela Auditorium, where University Librarian Sarah Michalak welcomed the audience and spoke about the significance of Latino’s book for UNC-Chapel Hill. And then Borden Hanes formally presented the volume to Chancellor Carol Folt as the gift of the Hanes Foundation in memory of his father, University benefactor Frank Borden Hanes, Sr.

Borden Hanes and Chancellor Carol Folt

Borden Hanes and Chancellor Carol Folt and the book, with Carolina blue ribbon

Following Chancellor Folt’s acceptance on behalf of the University, Curator of Rare Books Claudia Funke had the great pleasure of introducing the evening’s speaker, Professor Michael A. Gómez, who gave a masterful address, “Juan Latino and the Dawn of Modernity.”

Michael Gomez and Juan Latino's first book

Michael Gómez, Professor of History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, with Juan Latino’s book

The public program concluded with closing remarks from Sarah Michalak and the distribution of a beautifully printed keepsake edition of Professor Gómez’s lecture.

Curator of Rare Books Claudia Funke with a printed copy of Michael Gómez's lecture

Curator of Rare Books Claudia Funke with a copy of Michael Gómez’s lecture


Keepsake edition

Keepsake edition






Sarah Michalak and Borden Hanes

Sarah Michalak, University Librarian, and Borden Hanes, Chairman, John Wesley and Anna Hodgin Hanes Foundation




There were further festivities at Wilson Library, where the book will be on public view through April 17 and live thereafter in perpetuity in the Rare Book Collection. Seven is indeed a lucky number!

Daphne Bissette and Alia Wegner of the Rare Book Collection with Juan Latino's book

Daphne Bissette and Alia Wegner of the Rare Book Collection with Juan Latino’s book at Wilson Library


RBC's Tori Darden finishes an exciting evening's work with a smile

RBC’s Tori Darden finishes an exciting evening’s work with a smile

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