Quoth the Raven

quoth the ravenThis a not just a raven. It’s THE raven. The raven believed to have inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write his famous poem. If that isn’t enough of a distinction, this same raven (his name is Grip) was once the the beloved pet of Charles Dickens. After Grip died, Dickens had him stuffed and it’s reported that he arranged the foliage in the display box himself. Grip was a minor character in Dickens’ book, Barnaby Ridge. Poe, who was working as a reviewer in Philadelphia, read the book and remarked that the raven’s “…croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.” Four years later, he published “The Raven.”

Grip the raven is just one of the treasures in the Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia. I spent a happy afternoon there, learning about the history of the book and enjoying a massive cheese steak, both provided compliments of Joe Shemtov, Rare Books Librarian. Ready for a little history lesson?

envelope and tabletFirst, Joe brought out this Sumerian clay tablet and envelope (ca 2000 B.C.E). That’s the envelope on the left, and the tablet on the right. The envelope is, of course, clay, and was cracked open in order to gain access to the tablet. Interestingly, the tablet is a contract for a delivery of lard with a penalty clause. All business, those Sumerians.

papyrusNext, we move to a papyrus manuscript from Ancient Egypt (ca. 700 B.C.E.). The image above is a section from a Book of the Dead, which the wealthier Egyptians were privy to. Interesting fact – while the scribes were producing these, they would leave blank spaces for the names of the book’s future owners. The manuscript is written in Hieratic, a cursive writing system that allowed scribes to write more quickly than with hieroglyphs.

scrollThis Meghillat Esther scroll is a beautiful reminder of how the reading experience has changed over time. We flip pages to read, but before that, we scrolled. I suppose with computers, we’re back to scrolling. Huh.

vellumMoving forward, we start to see manuscripts and books written on vellum (i.e. the skin of sheep, calves, and goats). Vellum was sturdy, but rather tedious and time consuming to produce. The size of the animals limited the size of the vellum, which inadvertently resulted in more standardized sizes of books.

book of hoursThis is a Book of Hours (ca. 1475), a religious book that was the “bestseller” of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. From the mid-13th century to the mid-16th century, more of these books were bought, sold, bequethed, inherited, printed, and reprinted more than any other book, including the bible. A Book of Hours was a book of prayers, but also contained a calendar of feast days (which commemorated the days on which particular saints were believed to have been martyred, as well as the important days of Christ and the Virgin).

gutenberg bibleAt this point in history, books were still written entirely by hand. Until this came along. Above is a page from a Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed on a printing press. Johann Gutenberg invented his press in the 1450s and thus ushered in a new age of literacy. Gutenberg also popularized the use of plant-based paper rather than vellum. While opinions and records vary, it’s generally believed that approximately 180 copies of the Gutenberg Bible were printed, and only 21 complete copies exist today.

chapbookSprinting forward to the 19th century, books were looking very much like the ones we know and love today. And because of the plethora of printing presses, books were selling cheap. An 1840 chapbook like the one above would have cost mere pennies. This made the books more affordable to the lower classes, which  that meant more people could afford to start learning to read and write.

Of course, there were still some fancy books out there. Are you ready to see something really, really, cool?

fore-edge 1This is a book with a fore-edge illustration. While it’s a little hard to see in the image above, the edges of the pages are gilded (i.e. burnished with gold). But, when you fan the pages  just so…

fore-edge 2…the pages reveal an illustration! How completely and totally amazing is that?!? Man, I love rare books! Even better, this book has a double fore-edge. If you flip it over and hold the pages just so…

fore-edge 3There’s a different illustration on the other side. Unbelievable. While the Rare Book Department has been giving history of the book tours for some time now, they were recently awarded a Hatching Innovation Grant to create a traveling educational program to local schools and library branches. Congrats Joe!

The Rare Book Department at the Philadelphia Free Library is open to the public and free of charge (they’re on Facebook as well). The library is open Monday-Saturday with daily tours starting at 11:00am. You are also free to visit their exhibit galleries, which are absolutely lovely.

exhibit hallTheir new exhibit space, the William B. Dietrich Gallery, is currently showing Sacred Stories: The World’s Religious Traditions. The exhibit draws from “one thousand years of human history, illustrating the ways we have written, printed, decorated, and illuminated our Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim faiths.”

dietrich galleryWell, we began this post with Dickens, it seems only appropriate we end with him. This is the Elkins Room in the Rare Book Department, a gorgeous wood-paneled paradise filled with books, artifacts, sculptures, and artwork.

elkins roomSee the desk to the right? That, my friends, is Charles Dickens’ writing desk. Originally, it resided in Gad’s Hill Place, Dickens’ country home. The great man himself sat right there, wrote amazing things,  and even carved his initials in it! And there’s me, hopefully absorbing some of that writing power into my own fingertips.

dickens desk


Many thanks to Joe Shemtov and the Rare Book Department staff for an amazing afternoon! Sacred Stories: The World’s Religious Traditions is showing through January 30th, 2016.

Bone Up On Your Storytelling

dia de los muertosA few years ago, the Arts Council of Princeton asked my library to submit a piece for their Dia de los Muertos exhibit. The result was the crazy kaleidoscope you see before you.

The base of was made of two recycled archive boxes (with 20 small boxes hot glued to the sides). We used construction paper, shiny cardboard mosaic tiles, patterned paper, foil leaves, miniature plastic gems, and tissue paper. By “we” I mean myself, 4 University students, and 1 Rare Books staffer. It was a “drop in anytime and decorate” sort of project, and over the weeks the layers just kept building.

My favorite part, however, is the skeletons. Princeton University student April Lee drew 20 little skeletons for the base pieces (and I hot glued 20 little books in their hands). But she also crafted the 3D skeleton figurines you see on the top – an adult skeleton reading to skeleton kids. They’re made with card stock and wire. The book being read to the eager youngsters? A fully skeletonized version of The Cat in the Hat of course. Isn’t April amazing? You can see another one of her projects – a fantastic Mythomagic deck – right here.

There were several other pieces in the exhibit as well. But here’s the one that completely won my arty, crafty, re-purposing heart:

Skull by Maria EvansIt’s a giant skull made of chicken wire and coffee filters. Coffee filters! Over 2,000 of them! The artist is Maria Evans (who also happens to be the Artistic Director of the Arts Council). Beautiful.

If you’re looking for an interesting and artistic skeleton with a little Dia de los Muertos flair, take a look at this fellow! Also of possible interest – these super simple kid-safe lanterns.