Author Archives: Jane Siegel

About Jane Siegel

Rare Book Librarian

Come in and look more closely!

The premise of the current exhibition “Mirror of Humanity: Seeing Ourselves in Playing Cards” is that the imagery used on playing cards tells us a lot about how we have viewed ourselves in the past. As an example, consider the deck The Forbidden City: Pekin & Chinese Views (Los Angeles, CA: Grimes-Stassforth Stationery Co., 1901). From a distance, it is a somewhat grey collection of stock views. But when we look closer, we can see some sights ripped from the headlines, and a set of attitudes from a specific moment in time. The deck was issued just after the Boxer rebellion, a war between anti-foreign Chinese forces and a coalition of Western powers including the United States, newly flexing its muscles as an international power.

The two of Diamonds from Field USA 0117

The two of Diamonds from Field USA 0117

In her guest label, Professor Amy Lelyveld describes many of the scenes depicted on the cards, such as the Two of Diamonds with the British Legation, one of the scenes of fighting: “It is shown here ‘after the Siege’ but with the protective barricade that was erected in front of the entrance and sandbags on the roof—intended to protect the roof from incoming artillery and catching fire–clearly still in place.”


The Joker from Field USA 0117

The Joker from Field USA 0117

It is the scorn of the victor which assigned the Joker to “the Chinese official authorized to act as a plenipotentiary in negotiating with peace with the allied foreign forces in early September 1900. He went on to be a signatory to the Boxer Protocol that required the Chinese Government to pay compensation—at immense expense—to the 8 Allied nations who resisted the Boxer Rebellion.”

Come in and see more of this deck, and the rest, from Argentina to South Africa!



Please join us on Monday, November 11, 2019 at 6 pm for a gallery tour, followed by a reception at Hex & Co., where we will announce the winner of a playing card design competition. Just sign up here.

The exhibition is open in the Kempner Gallery during RBML open hours until January 31, 2020.

Commemorating World War I


from A.G. West's The Diary of  a Dead Officer, image by John Abell (The Old Stile Press, 2014)

John Abell, a British artist, selected excerpts from Arthur Graeme West’s The Diary of a Dead Officer (published posthumously in 1919), and created powerful linocuts to go with them. The new edition, printed letterpress by The Old Stile Press, was issued this year in an edition of 150 copies.

West managed to enlist in 1915, but was horrified by the war in the trenches and even more by the officer training he had back in Britain in 1916. Increasingly inclining to pacifism, he nonetheless returned to the trenches and was killed by a sniper in 1917. The book, edited by an old school friend, included parts of his diary and his poems, including God, How I Hate You, You Young Cheerful Men.

WWI SgtMaj ok2

Thus the volume, added to our Book Arts Collection, dovetails also with our large holdings of World War I poetry. Click on this link to the online catalog to put it in your Special Collections Research Account.

In other WWI news, on view in the exhibition gallery this summer has been a selection of about 40 WWI posters from the Frankenhuis Collection. More on the exhibition, “The European Home Front in WWI: Posters from the Frankenhuis Collection” here. Come quick! closes September 12.

Art of the Book 2013

The MFA Writing students in the Art of the Book seminar last Spring were challenged by Matvei Yankelevich to create their own artists books. More than just text on paper, artists books use technique, materials and structure – images as well as words – to express their content.

The book above is Richard Quigley's Monstress, printed on a laser printer using a simple variation on an accordion structure to bring together poetry and images.

Meg Matich's Goldbeating uses Thai handmade papers (the covers are gilded paper). The photopolymer plates with the text  were printed by hand rather than letterpress on the delicate papers, with a rough result very suitable to the text.

For The SuperHero Book, Catherine Kirch used rubber stamps and translucent paper to express two related texts in a dos-a-dos binding structure. The flip-side pamphlet is on display along with the rest of the books by the class in the exhibition cases on the west side of the third floor of Butler Library (to the right of the circulation desk) until the end of the Spring semester. Check them all out and pick your favorites!

Exhibition: Art of the Book

Butler Library, 3rd Floor west side cases

November 2013 – May 2014

Christmas in August

A carton appeared in my mailbox late Friday afternoon, a good time for a treat.  I opened it and found these:



Also in the box was a letter from Terry Belanger of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.  This program, which Terry founded, had its start at Columbia back in the 1970s. And during that time, Rare Book School borrowed a Washington hand press, made by R. Hoe & Co. in 1843, from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, in order to give future rare book librarians a chance to try out printing by hand.

Terry reports that the finials “had long been stored off the press, which was in active use, because they kept falling off.” When RBS moved to Charlottesville in 1992, they returned the press to RBML, but inadvertently carried off the finials with their other collections. During RBS’s renovation project this year, Barbara Heritage discovered the finials, packaged them up, and our press is now made whole again.



The cast iron Washington Press, one of four printing presses in our collections, was given to RBML by the American Bible Society in 1953 to compliment our large collections in printing history. It stands in the reading room next to a slightly older wooden hand press, where you can visit it any time RBML is open.

“Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” is here!

The new exhibition on the third floor of Butler Library is a powerful collection of over 50 works by book artists responding to the tragic bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street, the centuries-old center of book selling in Baghdad, on March 5, 2007. There was an international call to book artists, and there so many  responses, it's taken five New York venues to display them all: the Center for Book Arts, Alwan for the Arts, International Print Center New York, Poets House and Columbia University Libraries.

The books on display at Columbia reflect on intellectual freedom, human rights and violence in a time of war. The project was organized by Beau Beausoleil, the Founder of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition, and Sara Bodman (more on the project here); the New York manifestation of the exhibition was organized by the Center for Book Arts; and the Columbia exhibition was coordinated by the CUL/IS Global Studies Division and the Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research.

The exhibition will be on display on the third floor of Butler Library until September 21, 2013.



RBML's collection contains one of the books on display downstairs: Emily Martin's Not a Straight Line (Iowa City: Naughty Dog Press, 2011). The ten little codices are erratically linked together, their meandering path reminding the reader of the ancient Al-Mutanabbi street.

Rare book as artifact


This intriguing object was found on our shelves recently by Tabrizia Jones, our rare book processor. Forty-six issues, dating between 1808 and 1853, of the Neuer Bauernkalendar, an Austrian farmer's almanac, were stitched into a canvas wrapper.



Each issue is 32 pages, and is mostly devoted to the hand-colored illustrated calendar showing the saints' days & prognosticating the weather, and a shorter list giving phases of the moon. It's pretty wonderful; lively and information-rich.

Being a city girl, I don't understand why the farmer owner carefully kept the issues from year to year, eventually stitching them into this rough canvas bundle. But I am grateful to whomever it is who preserved this vibrant piece of home book-making for the hundred years between the middle of the 19th century and 1960, when it was given to Special Collections by a regular donor, Harry G. Friedman (1881-1965; PhD, 1908).

Dr. Friedman's Economics thesis was on the taxation of corporations in Massachusetts. From his Wall Street address, he donated a wide variety of items starting in 1952, including Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts, cuneiform tablets, prints, early printed books, many hand-written documents, and at least one curious binding.


Never enough Sébastien Le Clerc


I saw Sébastien for the first time last year. Indeed, I fell in love with the beauty of his engravings on viewing his Pratique de la geométrie (Amsterdam: Pierre Mortier, 1691). Although this is a geometry textbook, with plates to illustrate concepts and theorems, my Sébastien added beautiful views and figures to every one of the 80 plates. How can one resist this need to add superfluous beauty to a text book?

Sébastien Le Clerc (1637-1714) was a celebrated French engraver, with expertise in military architecture, geometry and perspective. He made prints, illustrated books, and wrote popular books on geometry and architecture. Géométrie Pratique was translated and reprinted for decades: RBML holds five French editions (from an incomplete first ed., 1668 to a 1764 version “a l’usage des artistes”); four editions in English; and two in Italian. Just this week, I opened the package with the English edition of 1727, bought from a catalog. I wanted to see the plates – did the English printers acquire Sébastien’s own plates? Would they be hideous English substitutes?



It turns out they are decent copies of the originals. Definitely copies: you can see that the English etcher had Le Clerc’s prints in front of him and copied them as he saw them, so that when the plate was printed, the picture – including the mathematical diagrams – were reversed (he did get the letters to read correctly). The copied etchings aren’t bad, though maybe not as fine as Le Clerc’s. What does surprise me is that the letterpress printing in the volume also closely mimics the French original, and if anything, the English printing is more accomplished than the French.

The Avery Library has also found that it does not have enough Le Clerc, and has just recently added a volume which includes several suites of prints of architectural views to its collection. It is a beautiful thing to page through – I highly recommend a visit to see it!

Report from CODEX

I went last month to the CODEX Book Fair and Symposium. CODEX is big, too big, perhaps, with nearly 180 tables. So many books, people, conversations, so much over-stimulation. The question between marathon sessions — at the Fair itself, on the bus, in the bar, at dinner, at coffee, was "What did you see?"


This little book, no more than five or six inches tall, was what I talked about first when asked. The wooden covers are chamfered, rounded, to make you want to pick them up. But watch out! The book nearly flies out of your hand, because that is cedar wood, so light, so unexpected.
The text pages are Japanese paper, also light and airy, and printed only on one side, while the edges are left as the paper maker made them, and are soft and feathery. I sat, holding the book and turning the pages while speaking to the artist, Leonard Seastone. A good person, fun to talk to, and a good and thoughtful printer. It is always worth while to talk to Leonard about the decisions he has made in his work, but this time I also was just looking for an excuse to continue to hold the book a little longer.
Leonard Seastone's hands holding his book.

The text is poetry, also ethereal, minimal. Leonard calls the illustrations ideograms. They look a bit like Chinese characters, but if you take more time and look closely, they are actually constructions of Roman letters, spelling a word from or inspired by the poem, in this case "black." They make me think of Xu Bing's Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy. They also remind me of Rudolph Koch's or Fritz Kredel's woodcuts of symbols and letters, and of early woodcut printers' marks, like Caxton's or Wynken de Worde's.

The text of The Delicate Work of Song is by Ronald Baatz; the ideograms by Guyang Chen. It was designed by Guyang Chen and Leonard Seastone.

Reader, I bought the book. You can see it, and hold it, for yourself, once it is delivered and appears in CLIO.



Floral-strewn mathematics

Printers’ flowers, pieces of type bearing designs (generally floral and arabesque) rather than letterforms, are a convenient and traditional way for a printer to pretty-up a text, as the ornaments combine easily within the page of type for printing. The samples above and below, both from Agostino dal Pozzo’s Gnomonices biformis, Venice 1679 (Plimpton 513 1679 Au4), are pretty typical. (To be clear, in the example below, two kinds of printers’ ornaments surround a woodblock. You can see in the top right row where one of the ornaments was inserted 90 degrees off kilter.)

I love seeing what compositors can create with printers’ flowers. But then, working with books we’re cataloging from the Plimpton collection, I was so pleased to open Jean L’Hoste’s Epipolimetrie (Sainct-Mihiel, 1619), Plimpton F513 1619, and find pages like this:

There’s an initial S at the beginning of the page surrounded with printers’ flowers (I didn’t say they were all attractively printed, did I?), but what I find most appealing here are the little flowers scattered over the mathematical diagrams. They aren’t proper printers flowers, though they are loosely modeled after them, and cut into the wood block along with the diagram. Why? as I understand it, having what would otherwise be empty space within the type page filled with something print-high makes printing easier; but this isn’t so common an occurrence, so I believe that aesthetics are also involved.

I didn’t remember noticing this phenomenon before, but soon found two more examples. And from the book above, printed in France in 1619, we move across the decades to a book printed in Paris in 1556:


This is Oronce Fine’s De rebus mathematicis (Paris: Vascosani, 1556), Plimpton F513 1556 F49. Surprisingly, I found the same phenomenon in an Italian book:  Apollonius, Conicorum libri quattuor (Bononiae [Bologna]: A. Benatius, 1566), Plimpton F516.02 1566:

Isn’t it a beauty? Early Italian books have a certain robustness of appearance I always enjoy. Anyhow, I’ll have to keep a lookout for more samples of not-quite-printers-flowers.

Pretty Mathematics

We have restarted a project to finish cataloging the Plimpton Collection. George Arthur Plimpton (1855-1936) collected “our tools of learning,” pretty broadly described, and gave the collection to Columbia shortly before his death. I’ve been enjoying reviewing the early books — though I’ve been a little surprised by how many books printed before 1800 remain uncataloged. In any case, here are two which particularly caught my eye.

The first is plate five from Johann Friedrich Penther’s Praxis geometriae, 6th edition (Augsburg: Probst, 1761).


The plate demonstrates mathematical concepts, and makes concrete the metaphors used by the author. We start with a point, then a line….  Parallel lines are — see? like cart wheel tracks. My favorite part is the extremely elegant hand holding the pen/ plumb/saw, a hand which comes out of an equally elegant cloud/cuff, because hands (the artist must have thought to himself) have to come from somewhere.

The second image is from an earlier edition of Penther, the third edition,1749, also printed in Augsburg by Probst. This has the same lovely engraved plate, but also this wonderful dedication page:

And what’s not to love about this? It’s a good size, nearly 13 inches tall, with all the extras: beautiful engraving at the head; four great typefaces (if we count the three sizes of blackletter separately), including a roman type for emphasis; and one of the great factotums (woodcuts with a space within to insert a piece of type to make an initial) of all time.

Can’t wait for more!