Highlighting a History of Literacy for the African Diaspora in the West at Wilson Special Collections Library

Historically, in places like the United States, literacy has been lawfully and socially restricted as a race-based entitlement. Written language and print culture were used in the institutionalization of European law throughout early colonial settlement territories. From the earliest days of European colonization and trans-Atlantic slavery, most enslaved Africans trafficked into the western diaspora and their descendants were intentionally kept illiterate.

During the 19th century, anti-literacy laws for enslaved people became increasingly codified and enforced in the American South in response to a fear of the social consequences of global abolitionist movements like the Haitian Revolution. Even today, decades after the Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. the Board of Education, segregation in the American education system remains prevalent as a systemic barrier to broader tools of information literacy for the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Within Wilson Special Collections Library there are historically significant print artifacts that evidence the African diaspora’s resistance to institutionalized exclusion from the Eurocentric print culture. In honor of Black History Month, we are showcasing primary sources selected from the Rare Book Collection and the North Carolina Collection that demonstrate almost three hundred years of the history of literacy for the African diaspora in the West.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral


Phillis Wheatley, the first African American and the second woman to publish in the United States, created this work and in doing so overcame the restrictive social taboos around the literacy of enslaved persons; while not explicitly outlawed, literacy among enslaved persons in late eighteenth century Boston was unconventional. This 1773 edition of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is held in the Rare Book Collection. Here, the object provides a dedication; a preface; a letter by John Wheatley, who enslaved her; a portrait of the author; and a poem showcasing her unusual literacy and command of the English language.

The Laws of North Carolina

Cases like Wheatly’s that evidence a history of Black literacy in the early-colonial period were anomalous. Wilson Library’s North Carolina Collection holds an 1831 edition of the Laws of North Carolina that showcases how the law was used as a tool to formally forbid the teaching of literacy to enslaved people. This object demonstrates that the right to literacy in the language of the law, indeed the very same body of law that legitimized enslavement, became a legal entitlement reserved only to those who were also afforded the legal status of whiteness.

Notably, even though formal and informal instruction of enslaved persons in literacy was outlawed in the nineteenth century, this North Carolina law shows that people who were enslaved recognized literacy as tool for claiming rights. Some used their literacy practically to communicate while navigating abolitionist communication networks like the Underground Railroad to emancipate themselves. More broadly, race-based restrictions on literacy like this North Carolina law became increasingly codified throughout the nineteenth century as lawful enslavers became fearful of retribution from enslaved peoples following the historically unprecedented success of the Haitian Revolution.

My Bondage and my Freedom

My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass is another primary source from the Rare Book Collection that is useful for gaining insights into the history of Black literacy in the West. He escaped slavery in Maryland and went on to become an author and leader in the abolitionist movement between Massachusetts and New York, becoming one of the most famous American figures during the 19th century. This 1855 edition includes a portrait of the author. In this selection of the text, Douglass remarks on experiences he lived as an enslaved person, “A knowledge of my ability to read and write, got pretty widely spread, which was very much against me.” He notes increased ostracization from enslavers as a social consequence of his ability to inspire discontent with the conditions of lawful slavery among other members of the African diaspora.

Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse

Our narrative of the history of Black literacy continues with Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse by Langston Hughes. Increased rates of literacy coincided the explosion of Black print culture that occurred in the decades following the American Civil War and the formal abolition of American slavery. The Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and intellectual revival of African American performing arts and scholarship in New York City across the 1920’s and 1930’s, was the result of increasing Black literacy. Langston Hughes, a leading figure of the movement, and here, we showcase a compilation of his works published by the Golden Stair Press into an ephemeral object. The Golden Stair Press, “was born of Langston Hughes’s desire to publish and distribute inexpensive pamphlets of poetry for African American men, women, and children- affordable literature that would be accessible in both form and content.” (Quinn, page 17). This copy includes a signature by the author and a list of other works by Hughes on the back cover.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is another primary source for showcasing the history of literacy for the African diaspora in the West. Prior to his assassination, Malcolm X dedicated his life to advocacy for restorative justice and economic reparations for slavery in Black communities around the globe. The Rare Book Collection holds two copies that are shown here. Notably, the first copy displayed is a spiral-bound uncorrected proof complete with manuscript corrections throughout. The second copy on display is a published version from 1965 that includes an authorial portrait on the dustjacket and several photographs.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

The final object in this exhibition is a collection of songs gaining its title from the black national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing. The NAACP declared this song the Black national anthem in 1919. Twelve years later, President Herbert Hoover would declare the “Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the federal government. Here, the song is denoted as the “negro” national anthem. It is often interpreted as a song about collective hope for equality and restorative justice. In contrast, the “Star-Spangled Banner” is still the national anthem today, the third verse of which is written as,

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Banned Books Week Showcase at Wilson Library

Banned Books Week is an annual event that encourages information-seeking patrons to embrace and celebrate the freedom to read. Initially, Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden increase in the number of challenges to books in typical reading spaces like schools, bookstores and libraries. Banned Books week celebrates and upholds the value of free and open access to information by bringing together the entire book community—including librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared affirmation of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, including those ideas that some consider relatively unorthodox and unpopular. In Wilson Special Collections Library there are materials that reveal insights into the history of the book and the history of reading, as well as insights into how censorship intersects with historical social injustices and epistemic oppression. Our selections below illustrate a timeline of the history of censorship.

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

An engraved frontisepiece for the 1758 edition of the Index librorum prohibitorum with several people throwing books into a fire

The history of censorship in Western Civilization is older than the printing press itself. The Catholic Church censored readings as early as 496. A.D. Censorship practices included book burning, book banning, publication restrictions and conditional censorship, imprisonment, torture, and execution. These practices carried the force of law in some territories well into the 19th century. Wilson Library’s Rare Book Collection holds a 1758 edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum that includes an engraved plate depicting a book burning. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was never meant to be a complete catalogue of forbidden books, but rather a guideline for Catholic priests around the world to make determinations of censorship for their own localities.

An exact reprint of the Roman Index Expurgatorius

Title page of Roman Index Expurgatorius

Conditional censorship and publication restrictions are just two examples of the practical means by which the Church censored reading in the West. The Roman Index Expurgatorius is similar to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum; however, it also includes a catalogue of books that were banned in totality. It provides comments and annotations on the works of specific authors and bans the works unless the author removes the expurgated material prior to authorized publication. The Rare Book Collection holds a facsimile edition of the 1608 Roman Index Expurgatorius printed in 1837.

Registrum huius operis libri cronicarum cum figuris et ymagibus ab inicio mundi, or the Nuremberg Chronicle

A page from the Nuremberg Chronicle where a reader has put an x-mark through the passage and woodcut illustration of Pope Joan.

The Rare Book Collection’s copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle contains a variety of wood-engraved illustrations, coats of arms, maps, and portraits. The fabled Pope Joan is depicted in ceremonial regalia holding her baby. Legend has it that Pope Joan disguised herself as a man and rose through the ranks of the Vatican to become Pope, where she was only discovered to be a woman when she went into labor during a procession. In this copy, the illustration of Pope Joan and the accompanying text that describes her has been “expurgated,” by a previous owner. Expurgating books was a common practice encouraged by the Vatican’s commissioned censors in localities around the globe.

The History of the World, by Sir Walter Raleigh

Engraved half-title page for The History of the World. At London printed for Walter Burre. 1614.

A page from the History of the World taken from the introduction. Text is in English.

The North Carolina Collection holds a copy of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World. Raleigh’s works were subjected to censorship by the English crown. After he fell out of popularity with the Royal Court of England, Raleigh was condemned to live in the Tower of London for over a decade before his execution. From there, he authored The History of the World. Soon after publication, the work was banned by King James I of England for, “being too saucy in censuring princes.

Leaves of Grass and Go Tell It on the Mountain

Today, attempts to ban books target mostly LGBTQ and BIPOC authors, and our final selections highlight the longer history of challenges like these. The Rare Book Collection holds a first edition copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and two editions of Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.

Leaves of Grass

Cover of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The title is guilt and the letters are stylized to look like plants.

Title page of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, New York: 1855.

Upon publication, Leaves of Grass was banned in a number of libraries in the United States; in 1865, Whitman was even fired from his job as a federal clerk in the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., after his employer found a copy in Whitman’s desk and became disgusted by the work’s sexually suggestive passages.

Go Tell It on the on Mountain

Cover of the 1953 paperback edition of James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain. Yellow background with stylized red sun and black and yellow shadowed highrise buildings.

Cover of the 1953 paperback edition of James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain. Red background with stylized young boy in the foreground and red shadowed highrise building in the background.

James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain has been banned or challenged in various libraries across the United States for similar allegations that the work is sexually explicit and therefore, to some, inappropriate. The 1953 paperback edition is featured first above, depicting a city block and yellow sky. The second image shows a variant cover design rejected by author.

How to Name Medieval Plants

Have you ever wondered how medieval Europeans produced their medicine without a universal botanical language? RBC’s new acquisition, a facsimile of the Tractus de herbis manuscript (Sloane MS. 4016 in the British Library), may just have the answer for you.

In the medieval and early modern period, medical professionals needed a way to record descriptions and drawings of the plants they used to make medicines. They kept this information in books called herbals. Herbals catalog the names and descriptions of plants, usually recording their medicinal value in addition to their culinary and magical properties.

An incunabular print of Pliny's Natural History translated into the Florentine dialect. The initial "D" is decorated with florals.
The “Prohemio”, or preface, of Pliny’s Historia naturalis translated into the Florentine dialect by Cristoforo Landino. Incunabula 373.4

Monasteries produced most of the extant herbals of the Middle Ages since religious institutions frequently had a physic garden and members of the various fraternal orders produced books and studied medicine to care for the sick and elderly. This practical training aside, medicinal manuscripts from this period often repeat the classical source materials monks would have been reading, such as Pliny’s Natural History or the works of Galen.

Following the crusades, however, medieval Europe began importing ideas from the medieval Islamic world.

Two soldiers, armed, guard Balsam of Mecca growing within the interior court of a castle.
Occasional animal, mineral, and human figures do make an appearance in the Tractus de herbis. Here, two soldiers guard the Balsam we see within the interior court (f. 10v). The inscription reads, “Balsam of Mecca, which in Arabic [is called] lelesem or fructex, which is more authentic” (translation by Alain Touwaide).
Muslim botanists and physicians, like Avicenna, made significant contributions to herbal knowledge, and the advent of print in the 15th century revolutionized and increased the production of and market for herbals. Some of the best-known herbals were produced during this time, though their manuscript counterparts continued to flourish even as the Protestant Reformation took medicine out of the monasteries and religious apothecaries and into the garden of the laity.

While many manuscripts of the Middle Ages prioritize the image, the Tractus de herbis is based solely on the image. The original manuscript, the British Library’s Sloane MS. 4016, is an herbal album from the 1440s that features more than 500 full-color illustrations of the raw materials — plants, minerals, and animals — used to make common medicines in the mid 15th century.

The page features front-facing images of Ammoniacum, Artamita, Pipevine, and Asafetida with brief commentary that expounds on their other common names, mostly in Arabic.
Because the diversity of languages often caused confusion, albums like the Tractus de herbis often included many of the different names associated with the same plant. Here, the entry for Asafetida (pictured on the bottom right of f. 7r) reads, “Avicenna calls it altit; Dioscorides calls it lassar and says it is the sap of a plant called silfer. He says it is [the plant called] anviden and bearan” (translation by Alain Touwaide).
Although Latin, Ancient Greek, and Arabic unified a portion of international medieval populations, many languages further complicated the already esoteric terms in medicinal literature. A panoply of scientific and traditional plant names prevented mutual understanding across the social hierarchy, so it became necessary to produce visual references that could help medieval medicine-makers differentiate between maleficent and beneficent herbs. The Tractus de herbis, like other visual herbals of the period, presents an illustration of the plant and accompanies that illustration with its various names, both ancient and contemporary.

The page features front-facing images of Horse Mint, Annual mercury, and Bugle with brief commentary that lists their other common names, mostly in Greek.
Depicted here are (left to right): Horse Mint, Annual mercury, and Bugle (f. 59v). The entry for Annual mercury is an excellent example of how the commentary will often feature plant names from authoritative sources alongside anonymously cited or commonplace terms. The description reads, “Constantin called [it] lichitus. As for Dioscorides, he [calls it] linçostis. Others [call it] parthenion, others parcenotidos, others algumus, others argiritus, others pastemon, others hermuli asilliom, others argilioces, others arumom, others alcancus, others argrarivus and others marcorela” (translation by Alain Touwaide).
In this way, Tractus de herbis personifies the unification of Medieval Europe’s past with its present, tying together classical knowledge, the new discoveries from the Arab world, and those pieces of original Ancient Greek and Roman medical literature that were once thought lost though actually preserved and reproduced by Muslim scholars.

The Rare Book Collection’s facsimile of Tractus de herbis is a replica of the British Library’s Sloane MS. 4016, and it features a companion volume of study by Alain Touwaide of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. The facsimile and companion volume are excellent resources for anyone interested in studying medieval herbalism or the history of global medical traditions.

Displaying the Body

The history of Western anatomy extends from ancient times to the modern analyses of bodily function; however, the scientific study of anatomy, particularly of the human body, is a recent historical phenomenon dating only so far back as the 2nd century.  During this time, the physician Galen compiled most of the writings from other ancient authorities and used empirical observation to develop theories of organ function.  He supplemented authoritative knowledge from classical sources by performing vivisections, mostly on animals, and applying those observations to human anatomy.  His work as a gladiatorial physician afforded him additional opportunities to study various wounds without the need to preserve and examine corpses, and these observations helped him expand his theories on organ function, the humors, and disease.  His tracts became the authoritative foundation for physicians for the next 1300 years.

Contrary to a popular misconception, the dismemberment of corpses wasn’t officially restricted during the Middle Ages and Renaissance; nevertheless, human dissection was rare in part because of local persecution and in part because physicians acquired their anatomical training from book-learning rather than practical observation.  But by the 14th century, some European universities began holding anatomical lectures.  Within 300 years, dissections became increasingly more common, and the modern field of anatomy as we know it today came into being.

With the advent of the printing press, print materials like books and pamphlets provided the means of recording and sharing the observations found in systemic dissections at major European universities.  Anatomists like Andreas Vesalius began to question relying solely on authoritative sources to draw anatomical and medical conclusions.  Vesalius openly denied Galen’s anatomical teachings and advanced the opinion that a new account of human anatomy was necessary.  By the end of the 1540s, his De humani corporis fabrica revolutionized anatomical study; however this work, though attractive, was not anatomically correct, and it required refinement from future anatomists.

A copperplate featuring a skinned nude. Individual muscles are assigned numbers and given labels on the adjacent page.
Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica is often credited as the foundation of modern anatomy. However, other contemporary texts are far more accurate in their prose accounts of the human body. Vesalius had the advantage of attractive, detailed copperplate illustrations, and his work quickly overshadowed these more studied accounts. In time, he would face his critics, such as Juan Valverde de Amusco. QS 4 V575 1543 superv’d.

Bartolomeo Eustachi, unlike Vesalius, was a noted supporter of Galen.  In addition to his rediscovery and accurate description of the tube that now bears his name in the internal ear, Eustachi was the first anatomist to accurately study the teeth and to describe the first and second dentition. He also discovered the adrenal glands.  However, it took many years for him to complete his intricate set of anatomical engravings.  By the time he finished them in 1552, Vesalius was already published. Eustachi would never see his own book printed in his lifetime.

A plate showing the base of the brain connected to the spinal column and its associated nerves.
Eustachi dissected with laborious care. He based his engravings on many autopsies, not just one or two. The plates function as general composites to portray the average human body in the most accurate way possible. This plate shows the base of the brain connected to the spinal column and its associated nerves. QS 4 E91 1722.

Eustachi’s student, Juan Valverde de Amusco, had an equally fraught relationship with Vesalius.  Valverde’s best-known work, Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano, was published in Rome in 1556, 13 years after Vesalius. Like Vesalius, Valverde criticized Galen, but he disagreed with several of Vesalius’s conclusions. Moreover, he blamed Vesalius and other Italian anatomists for failing to mitigate Spanish anatomists’ ignorance. In his Historia, Valverde asserts that the goal of the book is to aid Spanish surgeons whose minimal knowledge of Latin kept them unaware of the major anatomical reforms coming out of Italy in the mid-sixteenth century.

All but four of the 42 plates in Valverde’s book actually come directly from Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica.  This infuriated Vesalius, who bitterly accused Valverde of plagiarizing him and performing few if any dissections himself.  The inclusion of the plates also led many non-Spainards to believe Valverde had merely translated Vesalius’s work into Spanish.  However, Valverde refuted these claims.  In the introduction to his subsequent Italian translation, Valverde wrote:

Succeſſe dapoi, che molti non intendando la lingua Spagnuola, & vedendo le mie Figure non molto diuerſe da quelle, cominciarono á dire ch’io hauea tradotta l’historia del Veſſalio.

Many of those who did not understand the Spanish language, and who saw that my illustrations were not very different from his began to claim that I had just translated the work of Vesalius (translation by Bjørn Okholm Skaarup in Anatomy and Anatomists in Early Modern Spain).

A copperplate showing the exposed musculature of a skinned anatomy specimen. The figure holds a knife in his left hand and his own skin in his right.
One of Valverde’s original plates, the skinned figure is posed in a way to show its detailed musculature. Here the figure holds a knife in his left hand and his own skin in his right. Each muscle is meticulously cataloged in the adjacent prose. QS 4 V215a 1606.

Valverde longed to prove the inaccuracy of the accusations against him, including Vesalius’s, thereby validating his work as original.  Though it conversed with and pulled material from other books, Valverde corrected or complicated that material, always treating it as the building block to his own larger argument.  Throughout his own book, he corrects Vesalius’s images in nearly every account, improving on or adding details that he claims Vesalius grossly overlooked, most especially in the eyes, which he and other anatomists argue Vesalius universally mislabeled.

Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, Bartolomeo Euctachi’s Tabulae anatomicae, and Juan Valverde de Amusco’s Anotomia del corpo umano will be on display in the Fearrington Reading Room at Wilson Special Collections Library as part of RBC’s Anatomy Day Open House.  Please join us from 12:00pm – 2:00pm on Tuesday, November 12, to view historical representations of human anatomy in selected materials from our collections. 

Recognizing Evil: The Devil and His Horns

“Angels are bright still,” Shakespeare writes, “though the brightest fell.”  This moment in Macbeth, when Malcolm debates with himself whether he should trust Macduff, maps Malcolm’s internal, political concerns onto a very real religious concern for Protestants in England: the outward appearance of evil.  Malcolm believes that even though evil constantly attempts to look good, good must always appear to be good, too.  Therein lies the problem:  how does one distinguish between what appears to be good, and what actually is?  How does one know whether they are working for something godly or for the Devil?

The western tradition still considers the figure of Satan as the multifarious and malevolent author of evil. In his seminal, multi-volume portrait of what the idea of “the Devil” evokes, Jeffrey Burton Russell suggests that the Devil isn’t a finite figure; instead, he argues,

The Devil is the personification of the principle of evil. Some religions have viewed him as a being independent of the good Lord, others as being created by him. Either way, the Devil is not a mere demon, a petty and limited spirit, but the sentient personification of the force of evil itself, willing and directing evil (Devil 23).

Nevertheless, across religious and secular traditions, the Devil remains a symbol of rebellion, heresy, accusation, and turpitude. Cultural representations of the Devil in literature and its accompanying visuals continue to define, condense, and even localize the measureless potential for evil.  The text and images in these books never stop attempting to confine the unconfinable.

Who or what, then, is the Devil? And how would we actually recognize him if he showed up?

The cover of Arthur Lyons's Satan Wants You, the title in all caps and white text with a red subtitle in the same font that reads "The Cult of Devil Worship". On the cover, a black and white photo of Anton LaVey dressed in Satanic ritual robes and posing as Uncle Sam in front of a nude model lying on an altar.
The traditional iconography of Satan is re-presented here on the cover of crime fiction writer Arthur Lyons’s exploration of Satanism. The book traces the history and rise of Satanic belief from sixth-century Persia to the doctrine of LaVeyan Satanism in the 20th century. BF1548 .L96 1971.

The Apocalypse long loomed over the religious life of Western Europe.  From the rise of the early Church to the Protestant Reformation, Christian life anticipated the Second Coming, and it involved daily interactions with the divine, and the demonic, as a result.  The general population understood the spirit world to be intimately tied to their own, and ecclesiastical authorities attempted to exert control over how their congregations perceived and interacted with that world.  Canon scripture does not describe Satan, so early and medieval Christian artists had to develop an iconography that captured the Devil’s evolving role as tempter, tyrant, and rebel angel. They had to visually embody evil.  Within centuries, the Devil acquired his characteristic hooves and horns, icons drawn from the Greco-Roman Pan and Jewish seirim that Western Christian artists grafted onto the demonic.  And ecclesiastical authorities made sure that that iconography accompanied the texts moving out of scriptoria.

A woodcut of demons dragging and prodding naked souls of men and women into a large, leonine Hellmouth.
Example of a medieval Hellmouth. The woodcut is part of a large decorative border surrounding contemplative prayers in a French Book of Hours (16th-century). It depicts demons dragging and prodding the naked souls of men and women into the jaws of a leonine monster. The adjacent woodcuts depict the breaking of the fourth seal in Revelation 6. ND3363.K4 C3 superv’d.

The early modern period further intensified the early and medieval Church’s demonological iconography.  The visual tradition remained in print, even during the far more iconoclastic Protestant Reformation.  Protestants emphasized the written word over Catholic visualization and ceremony, but they proved themselves the masters of the accompanying image, too.  Using well-established visual rhetoric, Protestants developed an effective way to deliver their anticlerical, reforming message.  Even before Martin Luther distributed his Theses on Halloween 1517, critics of the Papacy lampooned it with demonic imagery.  This provided Protestants a range of visual sources to capitalize on and modify.  In their hands, the Catholic image of the Devil would become the Catholic hierarchy of offices itself.  But in prose, the Protestants argued that the Devil was terrifyingly mutable and, therefore, far more difficult to recognize.

A woodcut of a devil dressed in papal vestments and carrying a pitchfork. Two horns curl out from under a mitre blazing with hellfire. The devil is shirtless, and his chest is a demonic face. The woodcut is labeled "Ego sum Papa".
Pope Alexander VI is lampooned as a demon who declares, “Ego sum Papa” (I am the Pope). The woodcut originates from a Parisian handbill of the late 15th century and is reprinted here in M.M. Sheĭnman’s Вера в дьявола в истории религии [Faith in the Devil in the History of Religion]. BT981 .S53.
Protestants believed that the Devil could easily trick Catholics without having to change his appearance.  But for Protestants, who viewed themselves as true believers, the Devil could not so easily deceive them.  While visual aids in books and pamphlets could represent the internalized evil of the Devil, Protestants understood the Devil’s exterior was always trying to appear innocuous.  Visual aids simply weren’t enough to understand evil anymore.

Arthur Lyons’s Satan Wants You, the Thielman Kerver Heures a lussaige de Rome, and M.M. Sheĭnman’s Вера в дьявола в истории религии will be on display in the Fearrington Reading Room at Wilson Special Collections Library as part of RBC’s Hallowzine event.  Please join us on Thursday, October 31, from 3:00-4:30 pm for more spooky books, zine-making fun, and a book-themed costume contest with a generous prize for best costume!

Past Incubator Award Recipients Share Advice for New Applicants

Fall is here and so are the Incubator Awards! If you haven’t heard, the Incubator Awards are an annual library program which provides student artists at all levels with funding to explore research questions and produce creative projects using any of our special collections. Each participant’s work culminates in a project which can take any form, including but not limited to film, visual art, artist books, writing, music, and performance. This paid opportunity gives students from all artistic disciplines the chance to work intimately with library materials that spark their creativity and produce something they can share with the UNC community at the Incubator Showcase.

We asked some former Incubator Award recipients to tell us about their experience in the program and offer advice to potential participants. Read their responses below to get inspired for your own Incubator project and learn more about what our special collections have to offer.

The 2017 Incubator Award recipients, standing in a horizontal line inside a library. From left to right, the students are Ayla Gizlice, Anne Bennett, Karly Smith, Margaret Maurer, and Joel Hopler. Recipient Emily Yue is not pictured.
The 2017-18 Incubator Award recipients. From left to right: Ayla Gizlice, Anne Bennett, Karly Smith, Margaret Maurer, and Joel Hopler. Not pictured: Emily Yue.

Joel Hopler,
2017-18 recipient
At the time of the Incubator Awards, Joel was in his last year of earning an MFA in Studio Art. His work at Wilson Library supported his Master’s thesis show. He has since graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Joel’s project
My research moving into getting the Incubator Award was to focus on a cross-historical, cross-cultural, collaborative environment between etchings from like 17th, 18th century Europe, Edo Japanese ink wash drawings, and then tying it into post-abstract expressionist art. At the time I was looking for sort of like metaphors of contemporary American fatherhood.

Which libraries did Joel use?
Definitely the Wilson Rare Book Collection. We looked into the cage at the Sloane Art library at some Jackson Pollock facsimiles… the Sloane Art library a lot. And I interacted actually a good bit with the Ackland.

Joel’s advice to potential applicants
I think the more you talk to people, the quicker you figure things out. And so, while it is, like, very important to understand how the digital catalogs work and how to search and find things, asking human beings questions is exponentially faster so the more I got to talk to people and meet with them in person, I think the faster my research started going in a productive direction.

Emily Yue
, 2017-18 recipient
At the time of her award, Emily was a senior double majoring in Studio Art and Media & Journalism. She has since graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Emily’s project
So what began as my capstone project for my Photojournalism major was the “Queer Bodies, Tender Hearts” series of portrait photography that I was doing of queer people of color and queer activists in the South. What I ended up doing was sort of blending my fine art background with the photography and making a deck of tarot cards and matching these people with the symbolism and iconography of tarot and making a book that accompanies it that sort of explains the cards and includes excerpts from the interviews I did with the subjects who sat.

Which libraries did Emily use?
I read a lot of the artists’ books that were in the Sloane Art Library and the Hanes Art Center.

Emily’s advice to potential applicants
I think no matter what your field or discipline is, it’s worth applying and I’d say to come into it with a lot of open-ended questions. And make sure that whoever you’re working with, if it’s your faculty advisor… I think it’s good to have good personal stuff on top of professional and like scholarly stuff as well. And to not worry so much about having something finished, but about being able to explore something a lot more thoroughly than you have before. It’d be really cool to see like a stem-centered Incubator performance art piece, or more photography, or some film, but it’s very cool. Libraries are great. That’s my advice.

Applications for the 2019-2020 Incubator Awards will be accepted October 1-31, 2019. To learn more about the program or submit your own proposal, click here.

‘The Blood is the Life’: Dracula and 19th-Century Transfusions

In Bram Stoker’s genre-defining novel Dracula, after a series of sleepwalking episodes leaves Lucy Westenra mysteriously exsanguinated, her friend and jilted suitor, John Sewell, consults his former medical teacher, Abraham Van Helsing, to find a cure for Lucy’s anemia. “She wants blood, and blood she must have or die” (123-24)–these words, muttered by Van Helsing as he tries to save his dying patient, catapult readers out of gothic vampire fiction and into 19th-century medical reality.

First edition of Dracula, bound in yellow buckram with red title and border
Front cover of the first edition (1897) PR6037.T617 D7 1897, superv’d

Transfusions in Stoker’s time weren’t completely uncommon. James Blundell, an English obstetrician, performed many of the first successful human-to-human transfusions in the early 19th century, but he often found that many of his patients “suffered fever, backache, headache and passed dark urine”–all signs of blood incompatibility. First published in 1897, Dracula predates physician Karl Landsteiner’s discovery of blood type cross-matching by several years, and, like the contemporary science the novel immortalizes in its pages, it never mentions whether the four transfusions Lucy receives are compatible ones.  Instead, Stoker tells his readers that it is male vitality that continues to rouse her: “You are a man and it is a man we want” (123).

Stoker owes a great deal to Blundell’s language, whose report in an 1829 issue of the Lancet established the idea of transfusion as “life-giving”: “…the patient expresses herself very strongly on the benefits  resulting  from the injection of the blood; her observations are equivalent to this—that she felt as if life were infused into her body.”

Contemporary cover of Jennings' Transfusions. Plum-colored cloth featuring the title in gold-lettering
Cover of Jennings’ Transfusion (1883) WB 356 J54t 1883

British physician Charles Egerton Jennings also wrote on transfusion’s “life-giving” properties.  In his book Transfusion, a short work on the process’s history and “modes of application,” Jennings advocates for the continued use of and experimentation with transfusions.  He saw their application as a vital component to contemporary medical treatment, especially obstetrics, and believed they were necessary to save at-risk parturient women. Complications during childbirth were common well into 19th-century Britain, and severe hemorrhages, while less frequent than in the past, were not unusual.  Jennings’s short treatise offers hopeful solutions to the country doctor, providing him with new tactics and a patent for new transfusion siphons that are ideally safer and easier to transport.


Jennings' figure of a siphon for a combined method of transfusion, including a small vessel to carry saline fluids, and a bifurcated tube that can be used for direct transfusion.
Jennings’ “syphon for intra-venous injection and a modified form of canula”. The siphon features a vessel that holds a saline solution that he believed could act as a blood supplement, as well as a bifurcated tube that can transport the solution as well as blood from a donor.

Today, we read Dracula and find the idea of transfusion probable, even banal. However, in 1897, when the novel was published, transfusion was an experimental process rife with dangerous complications. Air could easily find its way in transfusion equipment and cause fatal embolisms, blood could coagulate and clot siphons, and the equipment itself was often difficult to transport and rarely available for emergency transfusions in country homes outside the universities and hospitals of major cities, like London.  That Van Helsing risks the operation reinforces his position as an eccentric and experimental physician, and highlights the novel’s attention to the conflict between modern science and the folkloric horrors its theories cannot account for.

A first edition printing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and an early printing of Charles Egerton Jennings’s Transfusion will be on display in the Fearrington Reading Room at Wilson Special Collections Library as part of RBC’s Hallowzine event.  Please join us on Thursday, October 31, from 3:00-4:30 pm for more spooky books, zine-making fun, and a book-themed costume contest with a generous prize for best costume!

Portrait of a Black Intellectual: The Life and Letters of Ignatius Sancho

One of the Rare Book Collection’s most interesting chronicles of the African diasporic experience exists not as an autobiography, but as a collection of letters. Originally published in 1782, our two-volume first edition of the Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho highlights the unique societal influence of a black public intellectual in 18th century England.

The marbled cover of the first volume of "Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho," 1782 first edition.
Marbled front cover of the first volume, originally published in 1782. CT788.S168 A32 v.1.

When these letters were published by an editor two years after his death, Ignatius Sancho posthumously became the first black Briton to publish correspondence. This was the last in a lifelong record of firsts: Sancho had been the first black Briton to vote in parliament, patronize a white artist, critique art, literature, & poetry, and have an obituary in the British press. He wrote plays, music, essays, and a book, and was well-published in popular serials. Known for his taste level, his creative opinion was sought after by the likes of Laurence Sterne, Matthew and Mary Darly, John Ireland, Daniel Gardner, John Hamilton Mortimer, Joseph Nollekens, and John James Barralet. Much of this status was afforded to him by his high station under the Duke and Duchess of Montagu, as well as his later ownership of a grocery (which afforded him his voting rights). These achievements were especially significant for a former slave, so much so that Abolitionists widely held him as a symbol of the high capacity of the black intellect. A master writer and rhetorician, he used his talents as a tool to gain respect and penetrate social circles previously inaccessible to black men.

The book's frontispiece, Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of Sancho engraved by Bartolozzi. subject Ignatius Sancho sits erect and eyes the distance with a right hand tucked into the bosom of an elaborately trimmed waistcoat.
The frontispiece, Gainsborough’s famed portrait of Sancho, engraved by Bartolozzi. In the painting the waistcoat is a warm vermilion, edged with a delicate gold.

We know that the public held him in high regard because it is indicated in the narrative framing of his Letters. The book begins with a disclaimer that was common in the publications of well-established white figures, but largely absent in those of black writers. The publisher’s note declares, “The editor of these letters [Frances Crewe Phillips] thinks proper to obviate an objection, which she finds has already been suggested, that they were originally written with a view to publication.” University of Maryland professor Vincent Carretta identifies this as an example of “the frequent and usually disingenuous disclaimer by editors of posthumously published correspondence that the letters had not been written with an eye toward publication.” These statements were intended to assert an authenticity of sentiment, countering public suspicions of self-censored and intentionally impressive writing. The fact that Sancho’s letters included such an opening, while equally significant publications by other black writers such as Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass did not, offers us proof of a status and high regard that may otherwise be difficult to fully understand today. It is evidence of an established reputation for wit and artistry that preceded him even in death.

Sancho’s book of letters and other autobiographic black narratives are available in the Rare Book Collection. If you are interested in black experiences in the United States, check out our new exhibit “On the Move: Stories of African American Migration and Mobility,” on display until January 19th, 2020 in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibition Room.

Wisconsin Undergraduates Share the RBC’s Tale of Sweeney Todd


UWGB Editorial Team
The 2017-8 editorial team. L-R: UWGB students Faith Klick, Heather Matchefts, Sara Ladwig, Emma Ferron, Marisa Slempkes, Miriam Laird, Erica Sorenson, Maria Lemens, Kyle Pech-Kortbein, and Beth Siltala. Photo by Rebecca Nesvet.

In December 2014, UNC-Chapel Hill provided the Internet Archive with a digital facsimile of an extremely rare treasure: the Rare Book Collection at Wilson Library’s copy of James Malcolm Rymer’s The String of Pearls, or the Barber of Fleet-street, A Domestic Romance—the longest and final edition of this original source of the urban legend of the homicidal barber Sweeney Todd.

The bound volume consists of a complete run of individually-published parts of the “penny blood,” a Victorian fiction serial targeting working-class family readers. Only two such copies exist. The other one is in the Barry Ono Collection at the British Library and is not entirely identical to the UNC copy. At the open-access Internet Archive, anyone with internet access can read The String of Pearls.

This is an important text in the British reaction to the Industrial Revolution. In The String of Pearls, Todd’s accomplice Mrs. Lovett hires a succession of frighteningly disposable workers to operate her subterranean “pie manufactory” (58). The archaic term emphasizes that it’s a factory, not a bakery, not even an industrial kitchen. The workers are warm, housed, and fed, but without any company, dialogue, art, science, or other kind of humanistic solace, they “contemplate… suicide” (241).

However, it is not the most accessible Victorian novel. There is no critical edition of the 1851–1 text, nor any edition of that text published since 1850. This is problematic because the penny parts are riddled not only with references to a culture that no longer exists, but with a great many typesetting errors, probably due to its publisher Edward Lloyd’s frenetic publication pace. Moreover, the interface of the Internet Archive doesn’t easily facilitate twenty-first century popular reading—that is, reading on a phone.

To solve these problems and make the story of Sweeney Todd accessible to a new generation of readers, upper-level undergraduate students of English and Digital Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay (UWGB), have been creating a digital documentary edition of The String of Pearls. Since 2015, these students and UNC alumna Rebecca Nesvet, Assistant Professor of English at UWGB, have been correcting the Internet Archive’s OCR-generated transcription of the UNC copy, encoding the resulting transcription in XML in accordance with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) Guidelines, and annotating the text with contextualizing notes (and corrections of the original typos.) In 2016–7, UWGB student (now alumnus) Matt McAnelly designed a Graphical User Interface (GUI) intended to make the edition legible on a phone. By January 2018, the team has produced a very rough draft of the first sixty chapters. This spring, we will receive feedback from external peer reviewers: undergraduates at Babson University, taught by Prof. Kellie Donovan-Condron.

Still to come is proofreading of most of the existing chapters, additional chapters and notes; web development for improved accessibility and nonlinear reading; a bibliography; and a searchable gallery of illustrations, displayed in a carousel.

To “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” (as Stephen Sondheim advised in his 1979 musical adaptation), you can start with Nesvet’s General Introduction, then read the main text chapter-by-chapter. Alternately, consult the Chapter Synopses to find the most exciting bits of the long-running serial.

The UWGB editorial team is inexpressibly grateful to the RBC for acquiring The String of Pearls in 2013 and making it publicly available both in Wilson Library and via the Internet Archive.


1968 Student Uprisings

1968 was a turbulent year characterized by extensive global protests, political repression, and conflict between citizens and governments. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this landmark year, Wilson Library is displaying a selection of album covers, magazine advertisements, musical scores, and photographs drawn from the Southern Folklife Collection, North Carolina Collection, and UNC Music Library. Titled Sounds of ’68, this exhibit explores how music mirrored the changing times through protest, experimentation, and the merging of music genres, as well as how the music of 1968 has influenced the world of today. It is on view in the Saltarelli Gallery in Wilson Library from January 16 to April 22.

Universities were particularly affected by the global tensions of 1968, serving as centers for radical and political thought, and often as stages for organization and protest. Student protests and uprisings occurred globally, although their scope and purposes varied. The Rare Book Collection recently acquired materials on two such student uprisings: Mexico 1968, a pamphlet that addresses the government repression of the student protests in Mexico that preceded the 1968 Summer Olympics, and Action, a student newspaper covering the events of the student uprising and accompanying general strike that brought Paris to a standstill in May 1968.

Mexico 1968 front cover
The front wrapper of Mexico 1968. Translated as, “When a government abuses force, it becomes a dictatorship!”

Mexico 1968: A Study of Domination and Repression was published by the North American Council on Latin America (NACLA) in 1968, shortly after the Tlatelolco Massacre on October 2, 1968. It provides a study of the historical, economic, and political contexts surrounding the Mexican student movement of that year. Through interviews with eyewitnesses, translated articles, and an analysis of official sources, Mexico 1968 presents a narrative of the uprising and subsequent repression that differs significantly from official reports. It also examines the dynamics of the Mexican economy on an international scale, paying careful attention to the role that US intervention played in shaping the conditions that the protests grew out of. Photographs from the demonstrations and illustrations inspired by the events are scattered among the text, which is broken up into essays and articles by various writers. Illustrations in a striking red on the front and back wrappers show skeleton-like soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets, as well as a tank whose treads display the five rings of the Olympic Games.

Mexico 1968 back cover
The back wrapper of Mexico 1968. Note the Olympic rings on the tank.

Mexico 1968 traces the student movement back to a conflict between two groups of students from rival schools that was met with surprising brutality by granaderos (grenadiers/riot police). This event sparked an uprising, prompting demonstrations that grew in size as the summer went on, all of which were met by violence from police and the army. Students barricaded themselves inside the schools, leading to invasions by the granaderos and the army that violated university autonomy and left many dead, injured, or arrested.

The protests blossomed to cover a range of social, political, and economic grievances directed at Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz and the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) regime. The government’s expensive preparations for the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in contrast with the lack of resources allotted for social services was also a point of contention. Mexico 1968 provides a historical class analysis of the political and economic problems that led to the social unrest, as well as the antecedents that paves the way for the movement that began on July 22, 1968.

The demonstrations largely ended after an initially peaceful rally at the Plaza of Three Cultures. Plainclothes police opened fire into the crowd, sparking a violent response from the army that surrounded the protesters. Students and bystanders were equally targeted, and those that fled into the nearby Tlatelolco housing projects were pursued, shot at, beaten, and arrested. Though the government put the official death toll at between 20 and 28 people, Mexico 1968 depicts the event as a massacre of hundreds, including children, with hundreds more arrested, tortured, and disappeared. With most of the movement’s leadership either dead or in custody, the movement fizzled out, and, with the government-controlled media refusing to report on the situation, it became buried under the fanfare surrounding the Olympic Games.

Mexico 1968 back inside cover
The inside back wrapper of Mexico 1968. The speech bubble reads, “Today the savage students beat a heroic grenadier!”

Published the year of the demonstrations and the Tlatelolco Massacre, the book presents a perspective that significantly differs from the official explanation for the violence. The government blamed student militants for provoking the attack, explaining that the army acted only in self-defense. Mexico 1968 posits that instead, plainclothes policemen acted as agents provocateurs and provoked the massacre. In 2001, Mexican President Vicente Fox released formerly classified documents related to the massacre, which revealed that special forces called the Falcons opened fire from the surrounding buildings and provoked and coordinated the attack on government orders. Mexico 1968’s analysis of the events proved to be largely accurate.

The Mexican student demonstrations of that summer were not the only student uprisings of 1968. Another that played out several months earlier was the student uprising in Paris, in which students occupied their universities in protest of the closure of their schools by administration. Action, edited by Jean Pierre Vigier between May 7, 1968 and May 2, 1969, provides a contemporary account of the events of the May 1968 student uprising in Paris from the point of view of the students who participated in the demonstrations and the strike. Action documents events occurring in France as well as internationally with a focus on the happenings in Paris. Through articles, essays, photographs, cartoons, and posters, Action provides comprehensive coverage of the uprisings that froze Paris that May.

Action newspaper showing a mrch
The front cover of the 3rd issue of Action, showing a student demonstration that occurred on May 17.

The first several issues between May 7 and June 24 cover the student demonstrations and the general strike in and around Paris in 1968 that lasted between May 2 and June 23. The conflicts began with a series of student occupations of Paris universities in the Latin Quarter of the city in protest against capitalism, consumerism, imperialism, and traditional institutions and values. The demonstrations evolved into a mass movement that sought to overthrow the prevailing socioeconomic structure of state-capitalist society and build an equal society founded on leftist thought. The occupation of the universities and associated demonstrations were met by brutality from the police and the military, leaving many students dead, injured, or arrested. Inside the occupied universities, students and faculty built small societies without hierarchies called Comités d’Action (Action Committees), in which responsibilities were shared and actions were based on the desire to change one’s circumstances.

Action newspaper showing a cartoon fists made up of a group of many people
An illustration in the 13th issue of Action that shows the artist’s interpretation of Action Committees.

A key feature of the movement and a focal point of Action, Comités d’Action were created to address specific concerns or needs, including reaching out to the workers and encouraging their participation in the movement. Comités d’Action were the result of student experimentation with direct democracy, and eventually numbered in the hundreds. Action itself was produced and published by several Comités d’Action, with the support of the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF). On May 14, the movement spread to the factories, leading to mass demonstrations of workers and the beginning of the two-week long wildcat general strike that 11 million workers participated in. Other demonstrations took place throughout Paris, calling for the overthrow of the government and the holding of new elections, leading President Charles de Gaulle to flee the country for a few hours. On May 30, de Gaulle proposed a new election to be held on June 23, and the threat of revolution faded. Afterwards, the movement lost steam – workers returned to the factories, universities were reclaimed and reopened, and the violence ended. Action continued to be published for almost another year, reporting on current events and maintaining a revolutionary fervor, but the movement itself had since ended.

Action newspapers showing a raised fist
A photograph in the 5th issue of Action showing support for striking workers. The caption translates to, “Long live the steelworkers!”

Although subsequent issues continue to focus on events in Paris and in larger France, many of the articles began to have an international element as well. Action covers many of the other demonstrations, uprisings, and conflicts of 1968, including the Prague Spring, the Vietnam War, US student protests, the German student movement, and the Mexico student uprisings of 1968. The newspaper provides a leftist, student perspective on the international unrest of the time, the writers showing their solidarity with the students and the protesters. In addition to covering current events, many essays and articles were dedicated to exploring and analyzing the history of the class struggle and communist thought.

Action newspaper showing three cartoon people with rings around their necks
Action’s coverage of the unrest surrounding the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. The full caption translates to, “The chains to lose, a world to win.” This may be a reference to a rallying cry from The Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, you have nothing to lose but your chains!”

Mexico 1968 and Action provide contemporary perspectives on events that shaped history, and serve as key primary sources for understanding the unrest of the summer of 1968. The Sounds of ’68 Exhibition presents another perspective on the year, showing how music both reflected and shaped the attitudes of the time. Between January 16 and April 22, come visit the Saltarelli Gallery in Wilson Library to see and hear the emergence of influences that still reverberate loudly today. As we leave a year of comparable social unrest and approach the 50th anniversary of these uprisings, it is as important as ever to study the student movements and their subsequent repression that characterized 1968.