The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Q & A: Caroline Duroselle-Melish, Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints

carolinedurosellemelishIn January, Caroline Duroselle-Melish joined the Folger as the new Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints, a position that gives her responsibility over books and prints through 1800. She has worked with a wide range of collections in university and independent rare book libraries, including serving as Rare Book Librarian at the University of Rochester and, most recently, as Assistant Curator at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Caroline has published on a range of topics associated with early modern printing, including studies of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s library and the trade relations between Frankfurt and Bologna. Her graduate degrees include the French equivalents of an ALA-accredited MILS, an MA in history, and a graduate-level French degree in the History of the Book. We are delighted to have her join the Library and the crew of Collation contributors.

Welcome to the Folger! Have you had a chance to find any favorite items or aspects of the Folger collections? 

The Folger collections are rich and varied. I like how various collections connect to each other, for example, how the continental collection includes a number of original texts that were then translated into English, thus tracing the “genealogy” of a particular work.  I find interesting that starting with Henry and Emily Folger, the Library has often collected several copies of a particular book. Shakespeare’s First Folio is the best-known example, but it is not the only one. These various copies present different features especially manuscript annotations. I have already seen wonderful examples of this: a Manutius edition of Catullus showing at the bottom of the first page of text the scansion carefully written by a reader and a copy of Leonard Fuchs’s De Stirpium with early modern notes throughout the book and an idiosyncratic hand-coloring of the woodcuts, very different from the one I have seen in other copies. In some cases, it is really an embarrassment of riches of different copies and editions of a text such as the Orlando Furioso, in which one can see the complex and non-linear moves from woodblocks to engravings, and smaller to larger editions. I have also found some interesting layout of text with type ornaments in English books such as in the 1601 edition of John Weever’s The Mirror of Martyrs.

How did you become interested in being a librarian? 

Libraries have always fascinated me and I have been using them since my childhood. When I was writing my MA thesis, I worked every day at the Bibliothèque nationale de France by the reference desk. Sometimes, I would eavesdrop on the conversations of the reference librarians with readers, and I became very impressed with their ability to answer all sorts of questions. I find the multiplicity of books and of subjects in libraries intellectually enriching: there is always something new to learn. In addition, in special collections libraries, the material aspects of books are taken seriously, especially for the early modern period, and this materiality is one of the reasons why I find working with pre-1800 books particularly interesting.

I have worked in a range of special collections libraries, but it is in my former position in the Printing and Graphic Arts Department at the Houghton Library that I became fully aware of the role of prints in books. I now firmly believe that printed images in books cannot be studied in abstraction from the text with which they were printed and, reciprocally, that texts cannot be studied without understanding their illustrations. Likewise, artists and artisans responsible for the production of single-sheet prints also made book illustrations; neither can be examined without considering the other one. I applaud that Folger has both collections of illustrated books and single-sheet prints made by the same artist (Wenceslaus Hollar for example). I am also very interested in the matrices used to produce printed images (woodblocks, engraved plates, etc) to try to better understand the economy of these images.

Are you working on any scholarly projects you want to share with us?

I have been working for a number of years on one of the best documented naturalists of Renaissance Europe, Ulisse Aldrovandi. I am particularly interested in how he is a case-study for the difficult and shifting relationship between print and knowledge in the Renaissance and beyond. I look at his struggles to master the technologies and economies of print, the various networks he had to mobilize simply to acquire books for his impressive library and museum collections, and how his own printed works help us understand the surprisingly complex relations between center and periphery in the transnational book trade, among other topics. I am currently looking at his perception of his own library as a resource that he wished to leave to future generations of researchers and as the means for him to attain immortality. At the same time, he was aware—perhaps more than other collectors of his time—that libraries are fragile entities that can be easily destroyed. Such an awareness has persisted to this day.

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