The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Browsing the #wunderkammer

One of the great things about running the @FolgerResearch twitter account is pulling together the Wednesday Wunderkammer from the Folger Digital Image Collection. It’s a chance for me to explore what’s in the constantly growing collection, making new discoveries and highlighting some of the things that catch my eye. It’s a different sort of interaction with the Folger’s collections than I usually have. As a scholar and a teacher, I am usually looking for something specific—a book by a particular author, a work on a certain subject, an object with specific characteristics. But in doing the #wunderkammer, I get to browse and experience the collection serendipitously. It’s a joy to shift gears from searching to browsing and to look at something for no more reason than it tickles my fancy.

Yesterday, for instance, I tweeted about a recently digitized mid-sixteenth-century six-language dictionary:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/FolgerResearch/status/106378727063158784″]

I’ve been interested in the physical presentation of dictionaries for a while. I often use an example of a traveler’s phrasebook when I’m working with students to think about how the physical aspects of a book informs its use, since the columns needed to represent the many languages result in an oblong format and the languages themselves are usually differentiated by font choice. There’s always some nice touches, too, about what phrases are deemed necessary to know in multiple languages. So this new addition to the digital collection caught my eye. This particular phrasebook seems less charming to me, except for one detail: throughout the book, the column of Italian vocabulary is misidentified as Welsh! (To see for yourself, click on the link in the tweet.)

Other times I come across works that I already know, but that have details I hadn’t seen before.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/FolgerResearch/status/94418330923966464″]

The Macro Manuscript is one of the Library’s famous holdings. It includes what is usually described as the earliest stage diagram in English theatre (an image of the Castle of Perseverance).

The Castle of Perseverance stage diagram (fol. 191v)

But it also includes a great doodle of a man with some dragon heads. I love this serendipitous discovery 1 because it reminds me that what might be most precious to us was not always so sacred, but a blank slate for scribbling.

doodle from the Macro Manuscript (fol. 98v)

Sometimes I come across things that just give me joy:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/FolgerResearch/status/60843660438290434″]

There’s certainly plenty to be said about the desire to have miniaturized books of Shakespeare’s plays. But there’s some laughter, too. Tiny Bill! Part of the world’s premiere collection of Shakespeare!

I haven’t spoken here about the idea of a Wunderkammer, also known as a cabinet of curiosities. But its root in wonder and exploration is central to how I experience the Library’s collections and how I hope readers of my #wunderkammer tweets respond. For most of us—including most of the staff at the Library—the rare materials stacks aren’t open for browsing. The Folger’s Digital Image Collection gives a window into what we might find were we to do so. There will be future posts telling more about the Digital Image Collection, including how to use it and how it is growing. And I will continue browsing and tweeting items for the #wunderkammer. 2 If you’re on twitter, you can follow @FolgerResearch to have those tweets, and more information about research at the Library, show up in your stream. If you’re not on twitter, you can find all the #wunderkammer tweets at the page devoted to them here at The Collation—just follow the link above the banner image!

UPDATE: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the Castle of Perseverance diagram as being on fol. 131v.

  1. I say “serendipitous discovery” but of course it’s only a discovery to me, not to the plenty of scholars who have read and cataloged this manuscript. But part of the joy of research is finding things that are unexpected to you, even if they’re not unexpected to the rest of the world.
  2. Wondering why I keep putting a number sign in front of “wunderkammer”? It’s a hashtag—a way of marking words so that they are linked to other tweets using the same hashtag. In this instance, clicking on #wunderkammer in any of the tweets in this post will search for all posts with the hashtag #wunderkammer. Hashtags were often used to link interests and trending topics, such as #earthquake or #openaccess. But, in the way that all language is organic, hashtags are now often used to signal tone (#kidding), sottovoce comments (#notreallykidding), or jokes (#whatmycatateforbreakfast). Susan Orlean has a nice blog post for the New Yorker on the joy of hashtags.

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