Books as hardware

These odd-looking medieval books share one peculiarity: they were all made into interactive objects because actual turning discs were attached to the page, usually more than one. The makers of these manuscripts added them to calculate the position of sun and moon (Pic 1), the date of Easter (not shown), or make other calculations (Pic 3). Particularly intriguing is the set of cogwheels embedded in the bookbinding (Pic 2), which picked a random number used for a method of divination. More about these unusual books and their function in this post on my other blog, medievalbooks.nl.

Pics: British Library, Egerton 848 (top); Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 46 (middle); Maastricht, Regionaal Historisch Centrum (bottom, pic my own).


Astronomical Compendia

Ok we need to talk about this. I just now found out about these things and they are literally the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

An astronomical compendium (plural = compendia) is an instrument that carry numerous devices for telling the time and performing astronomical calculations. Many compendia were made in the German lands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. They are often beautifully engraved in gilt brass.

Typically such compendia carry a sundial, various lunar and solar volvelles, a compass, tables of latitude, and a perpetual calendar. Two characteristics are typical of the construction of these instruments: first, they were often made as lavishly as possible; second, they are ingeniously constructed, with as many instruments as possible filling the available space.

Most of the instruments on a compendium are used to simplify astronomical calculations. Many compendia have volvelles - rotating discs that show the phases of the Moon, the positions of planets, and other such phenomena.

Some compendia also carry stereographic projections. These are multi-purpose maps of the heavens, allowing many astronomical calculations to be simplified. Using these, people could determine the time of sunrise and sunset, and the position of the Sun in its annual (apparent) motion through the sky.


If you don’t think that’s the tightest shit then get out of my face.


muspeccoll tagged us in the book challenge and we happily accept. It’s always hard to choose but here are 10 of the many librarian favorites. 

1. Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is Not by Florence Nightingale (pictured above): This book was hugely popular in its time and did much to dispel myths and distrust of hospitals and nurses. We are fortunate to have multiple first editions and it is a favorite to use in instruction sessions to demonstrate different printing states of the same work. 

2. Everything You Need to Erect Your Very Own Multi-Story Building by Chris Ware (pictured above): We are lucky to have a burgeoning comics and graphic novel collection including this interactive comic by Chicagoan Chris Ware. 

3. Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose) and Le Jeu des échecs moralisé (The Moralized Game of Chess): These medieval manuscripts were originally bound together, were separated in the 19th century, and reunited in the 21st century in our collection. Read more about it and see the digitized images here: http://roseandchess.lib.uchicago.edu/

4. Tamerlane and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe (pictured above): This is still considered one of the rarest books in American literature. Anonymously published in 1827 by “A Bostonian,” only 50 copies were printed. 

5.Ms. 931, New Testament. Revelation (Elizabeth Day McCormick Apocalypse): Believed to be one of the earliest works of Maximos who is thought to have been an Alexandrian archdeacon. Learn more and see the digitized illuminations here: http://goodspeed.lib.uchicago.edu/ms/index.php?doc=0931&obj=001

6.The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois: First published in Chicago in 1903, SCRC is home to a first edition. Our copy is significant not only for the work’s literary importance but also for the presence of a postcard photographic portrait of Du Bois dated 1904. It was recently featured in the exhibition Race and the Design of American Life

7. Seaven Bookes of the Iliades of Homere, Prince of Poets… . Translated by George Chapman: This is the first English translation of a Homeric text, published in 1598. Recently featured in the exhibition Homer in Print

8. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (pictured above): We hold many early editions of Woolf’s work published by The Hogarth Press. which was founded in 1917 by Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf. 

9. The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (pictured above): Our copy is inscribed by Eliot to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry Magazine. 

10. Astronomicum cæsareum (pictured above) by Peter Apian: One of the most remarkable printed works from the 16th century. It includes 36 elaborately hand-colored woodcuts, 21 of which included woodcut volvelles, designed to help the reader identify planetary positions and alignments as well as other astronomical phenomena. Featured in the exhibition Book Use, Book Theory.

Thanks to othmeralia for starting this challenge and to muspeccoll for tagging us. We would love to hear from newberrylibraryhoughtonlib, and uispeccoll


Smart page with string

These pages from a late-16th-century scientific manuscript share a most unusual feature: they contain a string that runs through a pierced hole. Dozens of them are found in this book. The pages contain diagrams that accompany astronomical tracts. They show such things as the working of the astrolabe (Pic 1), the position of the stars (Pic 4), and the movement of the sun (Pic 6). The book was written and copied by the cartographer Jean du Temps of Blois (born 1555), about whom little appears to be known. The book contains a number of volvelles or wheel charts: revolving disks that the reader would turn to execute calculations. The strings seen in these images are another example of the “hands-on” kind of reading the book facilitates. Pulling the string tight and moving it from left to right, or all the way around, would connect different bits of data, like a modern computer: the string drew a temporary line between two or more values, highlighting their relationship. The tiny addition made the physical page as smart as its contents.

Pics: London, British Library, Harley MS 3263: more on this book here; and full digital reproduction here.

Wow wow wow Wednesday

This little volume is packed with surprises and traces of humanity. 

Texts  The first title in this volume is an early astronomy text (Johannes de Sacro Bosco’s Sphaera mundi, 1558). One might wonder: Why would a theology library have something like this? Well, it is bound with a 1556 theological work by reformer Philipp Melanchthon. (PM also wrote the preface to the Sphaera mundi.)

Annotations  In addition to having a fabulous binding (clasps intact!) this volume contains notes and annotations in several early hands including one note signed and dated 1563. Some appear to be biblical commentary (or notes on sermons?).

Moving parts  Oh, and if all that isn’t enough…The astronomy text includes moving, woodcut illustrations known as volvelles.

Students of theology, students of the history of science, students of book history: Enjoy!