The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A treasure chest 6.75 meters long

It is not a secret that in most libraries—and I am tempted to write “in all libraries”—treasures are slumbering and waiting for their discovery. This sort of thing may happen when you least expect it, for instance when you call for a book and it turns out to be a completely different one than the one you think you asked for.

In some libraries—and certainly not in all of them—treasuries are tucked away somewhere in remote and gloomy caverns of the building. In many a library, books are tidily waiting on the shelves to be entered in the catalogs. In other institutions, dozens of boxes chock-full of books are piled up against the walls. I know of at least one library where the back-log outnumbers the cataloged holdings of an average institution. In general, library staff shouldn’t fear for a lack of work.

One of the largest treasure chests at the Folger Shakespeare Library is out in the open, waiting for discovery in reach of all onsite readers. It is sitting in a piece of furniture holding in sum 6.75 meter of cards and slips, providing access to about 18,000 Continental books (that is, books printed before 1830 in Europe). This treasure is referred to by Folger staff as the “Continental Chron Cards,” short for the “Chronological Card Catalog of Continental Books.” This file, filling 29 drawers, can be found in the Catalog Room off of the Reading Room.

the Continental Chron Card file

Sixty percent of all cards in this file refer to books dating from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Scholars who are, for instance, interested in early editions of Greek and Roman classics and early Christian authors will find a multitude of neatly printed books published by the Aldine press in Venice. One example is this little octavo book from 1515, containing Lactantius’s Divinarum institutionem libri septem and Tertullian’s Apologeticus pro Christianis:

The title page of Tertullian’s Apology, prominently featuring the dolphin and anchor printer’s device used by Aldus Manutius.

According to their colophons, these editions were printed in April 1515, two months after Aldus Manutius died, but his brothers-in-law, the Asolani, carried on the Aldine press until 1533. For more from the Aldine press, you might continue your investigation by consulting the “Continental Place Cards” file (located right next to the Chron cards) as well as looking in Hamnet. One little oddity about this book is that the card in the Continental Chron File lists the Lactantius work and notes that there are “2 parts in 1 vol.”, but it doesn’t identify the Tertullian—it’d be a nice surprise for someone when they see the book itself!

the card in the Chron files showing Lactantius’s work, but where’s Tertullian’s Apology?

This little example demonstrates that the Continental Chron File is a treasure indeed, but it’s one we do not want to hide. On the contrary; we are exploring new ways to make it better accessible for all readers, both on and off site. In fact, the landing page for Hamnet already refers to it, be it perhaps too modestly and in somewhat implicit terms, by means of four italicised words between parentheses: “see also card catalogs.” This Collation post is a gentle invitation to have a closer look at it and a quick orientation to what you’ll find there.

The Chronological Card Catalog of Continental Books consists of three kinds of cards or slips. The first kind of cards are the so-called RLIN-cards. They are produced of cream-colored cardboard and they show computer generated numbers at the bottom. The text they show was generated by a computer when they were entered in RLIN (the Research Libraries Group Union Catalog), somewhere in the 1980s and 90s. These cards represent about a third of this catalog and their content is also available through our regular electronic Hamnet catalog as well as via WorldCat, the current successor to RLIN. The card below, for instance, can also be found as a record on Hamnet.

an RLIN-card

The second sort of cards are also made of cardboard of the same creamy color and figure typewritten descriptions. In contrast to the RLIN-cards, they have no computer generated numbers at the bottom. We estimate that almost 40% of the Continental File is described in this way; although full sets of catalog cards are filed for each such title in our card catalog, these typewritten descriptions for the most part do not yet appear online.

a typewritten card

Thirdly, a good quarter of the Continental File consists of blue-green “accession” slips. The majority of books mentioned on these slips are not in Hamnet and are not represented by full sets of filed catalog cards. For readers working with continental books they will bring to surface many a crucial old edition.

an accession card

Opening the drawers will tell you that not all periods contains the same mixture of RLIN-cards, typewritten cards, and accession slips. The majority of green slips can be found for the period 1612–1800 (notice the predominance of their color in the photo above). So for readers interested in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their consultation is mandatory.

A random sample of the Continental File tells us more about the origin of the books in our holdings. About 30% of them are produced in Italy, 23% are French, 15% are German, 12% are printed in the Netherlands, more than 7% in Switzerland, and about 4.5% saw the light in a Belgian printing shop. Smaller numbers of books in the collection were either produced in other countries, including Spain, Portugal, Austria, and Poland, or they do not indicate any place of publication at all.

But enough numbers for now. It is up to you to embark on the voyage of discovery in the Continental File! For more details about what is and is not yet in Hamnet, consult our “Hamnet Contents” page.


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