The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Is that bleed-through?

In some ways, this image is a perfectly ordinary one (well, ordinary if it’s possible to think of an autograph manuscript of Mary Wroth’s important sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus [Folger V.a.104] as ordinary):

Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (fol. 65r)
Mary Wroth’s Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (fol. 65r)

Heather Wolfe was showing this image to the participants of the Folger Institute’s recent summer NEH institute, Early Modern Digital Agendas, as part of a transcription exercise. The conversation had turned to the symbol Wroth uses to mark the end of her sonnets (see this sonnet, for example) and we were wondering how she indicated the end of the series—did she use the same symbol, or perhaps something fancier? Turning to this image of the last page, we noticed first that the final punctuation of the series is a semi-colon followed by a slash (!) and that there is a flourish underscoring the last line, both of which stood out as different and perhaps indicative of finality. But then we noticed something else—what are those faint markings visible in the white spaces of this page? Is it bleed-through from the reverse side? Is this not the final poem after all? 

Because the Folger digitized this volume cover-to-cover, we were able to look at the next page and at the preceding page. What we realized was that this is the final page of text and the faint markings are not bleed-through from the following page but offset from the preceding page (you can see this most easily by exploring the volume in its book-reader view). That is, the ink wasn’t fully dry on the page facing this one, so when the book closed, that wet ink left a mark on this page.  It’s not an unusual thing to have happen. But what was surprising was the inability to see whether it was bleed-through or offset in the digital image. If we hadn’t been able to consult images of the adjacent pages, we would not have been able to identify which of the two processes left these marks. And although both Heather and I use digital images of early texts a great deal, neither one of us had noticed this problem before! But it’s a good point to keep in mind for future digitization projects: even if you’re not planning on digitizing an entire work, make sure you’re digitizing enough that users can understand what they’re looking at.

On a different note: for the next three months, I will be taking a sabbatical to work on a new project. While I’m on leave, The Collation will be on a reduced publishing schedule. You’ll still see great posts from all your favorite writers, but only once a week through mid-November. And we’ll be trying a slightly different style of crocodile posts during this period—rather than splitting them over two parts, a show and a reveal, we’ll be doing one short post that features one or two images and a few hundred words about what that image is interesting. Today’s look at the Wroth image is the first of those “crocodilish” posts.

So come on back next week for a Q & A with our new Research and Outreach Librarian, and in the following weeks for posts from our curators and others.


  • Wouldn’t a wet ink transfer be more irregular, leaving, for example, a heavier mark of the “o” of the penultimate line’s “your” (which seems to have been rather ink-bloated), and leaving the first lines rather more vague, as they should have dried by the time the last lines were written? To me it seems more like a long time effect of a probably ferric ink discoloring the paper opposite. But whatever the case, I wholeheartedly support the call for generous digitizing!

  • I’ll have to check with my colleagues who work with manuscripts more regularly than I do about how ink discoloring the opposite paper might look different than offset. But what I notice in this example is that the section in the middle of the opposite page is more heavily inked than the text at the bottom of the page, and I see more tracings of ink in the middle of the last page than in the bottom–that seems consistent with offset. It looks like the ink was heavier on her quill with the text at the top of the preceding page than at the bottom of that page, where the ink is to my eye noticeably lighter. Even though the last lines on that page were written later, if the first lines were more heavily inked, they would take longer to dry.

    In any case, it’s these sorts of questions that are probably, at the moment, most easily answered by looking at the object itself, rather than representations of it!

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