Transcript: Artist in the Archive Episode 7 — The Serendipity Episode

Here’s a transcript from the latest episode of Artist in the Archive. You can listen to the full episode here.

Jer Thorp: Let’s start with a story about two men named Horace. One of them was Horace Walpole, son of the first British Prime Minister: parliamentarian, art collector, wanderer, man of letters, and the author of the first Gothic novel.

Jer Thorp: On January 28th 1754, this Horace wrote a letter to the other Horace … Mann, a diplomat living in Florence. In the letter he described a painting he’d recently acquired by Giorgio Vasari, a portrait of an Italian noblewoman named Bianco Cappello:

Jer Thorp: “Her Serene Highness is arrived safe at a palace, lately taken for her in Arlington Street. She has been much visited by the quality and gentry, and pleases universally by the graces of her person and comeliness of her deportment.”

Jer Thorp: Horace 1 goes on to tell Horace 2 that he has bespoken a frame for the painting, an elaborate affair meant to match the elegance of the work. The frame has the lady’s grand ducal coronet on top, a label in Latin, and two coats of arms on the bottom: Cappello’s own, and the Medici’s. It turns out Bianco Cappello was the second wife of Francesco de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In researching these insignia, Walpole made what he thought was pretty important discovery, which is shared in his letter to Mann, that both sets of heraldry contain the same symbol: a fleur-de-lis on a blue ball.

Jer Thorp: Horace 1 had not set out to research these coats of arms, the fact about the fleur-de-lis had not come to him through search, but rather through coincidence. Now, there’s a word for this kind of discovery made by chance, and we find it coined for the first time in the next lines of the letter:

Jer Thorp: “This discovery, indeed, is almost of the kind which I call “serendipity”. A very expressive word which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you. You will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale called, “The Three Princes of Serendip.” As Their Highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries by accident or sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of. For instance, one of them discovered that a mule, blind in the right eye, had traveled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only the left side where it was worse than on the right side. Now do you understand serendipity?”

Jer Thorp: Walpole’s phrase, “of things which they were not in quest of,” has rattled around my mind during my year at the Library. In this episode we’ll get serendipitous by speaking to some Library staff about unusual objects, and tangled paths their creators followed.

Jer Thorp: First up, let’s speak to data visualizer, Aditya Jain, who spent most of the year digging into a particularly interesting project, tangled deeply in the roots of the American South.

Jer Thorp: I’m Jer Thorp, and the is “Artist in the Archive”.

Jer Thorp: How did you get here? What was your path to get to the library, and what made you interested in coming here?

Aditya Jain: So I’m a data visualization designer and developer, and the kind of work that I’m trying to do, focuses on painting portraits of people, of communities. The Library of Congress calls so many stories about their public, these stories really are about people, so I wondered if I can make some visualizations of stories out of here. So this is what has been happening on my most recent project, which is about the Lomax election. The American Folklife Society have been really helpful in helping me gather materials for my research and my visualizations.

Jer Thorp: I sort of had an inkling of where you were going, because you started posting a lot of blues music on your Twitter feed: I thought that was really fun. And that’s another artifact of diving into an archive, is that you can’t help but be swept away by it, in all kinds of ways.

Aditya Jain: So our TL;DR for this complex collection is two folk ethno-musicologists, John Avery Lomax, and Ruby Terrill Lomax, started off from the vacation home in Port Aransas, Texas, on a three-month long, 6500 mile journey across the southern United States, just collecting folk songs in a lot of different places. Their motivation was the fact that, with the advent of the radio, they feared that a lot of folk songs would be lost to time. So they visited places as diverse as segregated high schools, or prisons, ranches, to capture songs from the frontier, or just songs from the Mexican American community in south Texas.

Jer Thorp: And what year was this?

Aditya Jain: This was 1939. So this is a period, you must remember, where this nation is still recovering from The Great Depression. There are dozens of really interesting sub-things tucked away into this story, that have been documented by the Lomaxes. Mostly, because of the extensive field notes and dust jackets that were documented by Ruby Lomax.

Jer Thorp: The first part of your investigation was in building a map?

Aditya Jain: The way the library gives you the data back is, each song has metadata about when it was recorded, that it was recorded by the Lomaxes themselves, and it also has the locations. I was, like, “Well, why not just visualize this journey?” And then I stopped and I realized that this was 1939, so the interstates weren’t even built then. So I had to go into the Maps Collection-

Jer Thorp: Google directions wasn’t going to give you a lot of help?

Aditya Jain: Yeah, exactly. Because the interstates totally look different from the 1939 roads. I mean I went to the Maps Collection, a curator out there helped me pick out a 1939 southern roads map. Like, some of the roads, out, then, weren’t even built with the same materials that we see today. It’s clearly marked that some of these were dirt roads or concrete roads.

Jer Thorp: Do you have a sense of, if those roads still exist?

Aditya Jain: I do not know. But I think it would be possible to do an overlay of the 1929 map with something like Google Maps.

Jer Thorp: Or satellite imagery of some kind, yeah.

Aditya Jain: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jer Thorp: And, so, from there you ended up with more or less an itinerary. Right?

Aditya Jain: Yeah. I must remark though, that the map itself that I built, marks the hypothetical route, because we don’t know what exact road route that they took from point A to point B. My methodology out there is to pick the major highway that I can see. I just hope that that’s the route that they took.

Jer Thorp: Yeah, I mean that’s the way that history works, right? We have to try to get our best guess at what happens, but who knows when a car broke down or they decided to take a different road. I don’t know that it really matters as much as that sense of what the conditions and the experience of traveling then, would have been, and the number of turns they would have had to have made. And the things that you’re mentioning, like these dirt roads and gravel roads, it evokes a certain sense of this old car driving down the street with a dust cloud coming behind it as they make towards one of these destinations.

Jer Thorp: For me, one of the interesting things about this project was how deep you went into the individuals. So the Lomaxes would visit these different locations, they would record these performances by the musicians, whose names were recorded. Can you tell me about how some of that detective work happened to try to find out who these people were, and what their living conditions were like?

Aditya Jain: One of the most interesting aspects of this project has been sifting through the field notes, which have extensive documentation about the people that are making these recordings. Something that I was not aware about was what the term ‘state farm’ means. I thought it was an insurance company. So the field notes kept mentioning ‘state farm’, people who were recorded at state farms, and I finally Googled that up, and that’s when the penny dropped that these were actually prisons. It felt a like a very different moment because suddenly there was this dimension of incarceration and race that had been dropped on me, and that brings a whole other set of ethical questions, like “How are these songs recorded?” And so on, and so forth.

Jer Thorp: The Lomax legend feels so warm and fuzzy, and then this introduces something into it that changes it, no matter what.

Aditya Jain: Definitely.

Aditya Jain: I felt that something this important shouldn’t be that buried in the field notes, and I wanted to highlight that in my visualizations, so what I’ve tried to do is make special patterns for the people who were incarcerated and made recordings. So that if you were trying to look for, only the prison recordings, you can locate that more easily.

Aditya Jain: And it’s not just about visualizing these people, but the data for whether or not these people are incarcerated is not always consistent in the Library APIs. So the Library API can tell you if a song was a work song, or blues, or a religious song, and it also mentions the name of the person, but it doesn’t mention anything about the race; that’s not something that’s mentioned. So I wanted to document to that. To do so, I first sifted through the field notes, which makes regular references to someone’s race, but not always. As well as the dust jackets for the recordings. This was something I uncovered relatively recently, but if Ruby Lomax was making the writings on the dust jackets, she usually recorded the race of the person herself. I’m not sure why she did that but she did.

Aditya Jain: So those two were my primary sources, and if I could not locate any of the race data for the other people I was looking for, I go to the 1940 census. The census, out here, in the United States, follows the 72 Year Rule, which means that census records where DII are declassified after 72 years. So the 1940 census was declassified pretty recently. I was able to go to and just search for the people and the location, and not always, but 60% of the time I would find the record and I confirm that, either through their age, or the family names are mentioned in the field notes, tally it up.

Aditya Jain: So compiling this race data is not something that I imagined I’d be doing when I said I’d do these visualizations, but it was rewarding in the sense that I got a deeper look at, not only how the Lomaxes viewed race, but also how the Government looked at race through census records.

Jer Thorp: The end result of the work … well I’ll use term ‘end result’ even though I think you and I know that there’s never really an end result for these things. You’ll probably continue working on projects like this, or something that’s spun from this, for a long time, but is an interactive visualization. Let’s try to do our best at describing what this visualization looks like and how it functions?

Aditya Jain: The idea behind the visualization, for me, was to make flowers for each state. The only thing I know about the south is that it associated with magnolias. So that’s what I set out to do. I’ve been told by people that it looks like a flower, or a dandelion, or a fan, or just a dendrogram. So that’s the inspiration.

Aditya Jain: I’ve tried to undercover three of four different dimensions behind this visualization. I’ve tried to tell people about what State the Lomaxes visited. The locations behind that State. The people behind that State. And the songs in that State.

Aditya Jain: I’ve been told that it is a very messy visualization and that’s it’s hard to read. And I find that to be true myself, but that it secretly something that I’ve tried to do. I’m really inspired by Giorgia Lupi’s “Data Humanism Manifesto”. It’s a really long manifesto but I’m going to read three lines of it, it says, “Simplify complexity.” Simplify is crossed out. It says, “Depict complexity. Data is numbers.” Numbers is crossed out. Data is people. Save time with data.” Save time is crossed out. “Spend time with data.”

Aditya Jain: So those three principles really resonate with me and that’s what I’m trying to do with these visualizations. They’re hard to read but if you have sometime to spare you can really dig into these songs, these people. You can click on them, you can listen to all their recordings, and hopefully paint a better picture for yourself of what the nation looks like.

Jer Thorp: What the visualizations that you’ve done have done, have done a very good job of, is showing you the kind of broad character of the dataset, so I can look at these diagrams and understand something of them in a whole. And I think if you did simplify it you would lose that. So we always have to walk a spectrum between one and the other, and I think you’ve chosen to do something that I think does an excellent job of capturing the personality of the thing that you’re talking about, this strange endeavor that the Lomaxes went on and, then, the people who were involved in it.

Jer Thorp: And I guess the last question I have for you is, it feels to me anyways, and this maybe being projected, that this project has changed something in the way that you approach your work. What do you think the next thing you’re going to do will look or feel like?

Aditya Jain: I think this project has really inspired me to take on more projects that are people focused. Every day I try to design, develop visualizations about people, and I end up learning more about people themselves. So it’s sort of like a two-way street, as opposed to what I would have thought was a one-way street: it’s not me designing the visualization, the visualization is also designing me.

Jer Thorp: Do you feel like you need to go down there? I feel like I need you to rent a car and drive down those dusty roads, and take some photographs of these places.

Aditya Jain: I definitely have fantasized about that in the past weeks. Perhaps, when I get done with my internship, I’ll take a trip to Brownsville, Texas, which is right on the frontier. That would be fun.

Jer Thorp: Well, if anyone’s listening and has a publication that wants a really nice data focused story on the Lomaxes and their journey through the south, and also wants to pay your travel to go and investigate these things a little bit closer, let us know.

Jer Thorp: Thanks Aditya.

Aditya Jain: Thank you.

Jer Thorp: It’s very, very hard to give Aditya’s project any kind of justice in audio form, but you can check out Southern Mosiac on the web. We’ll post a link to it in our finding aid.

Jer Thorp: It’s super-hard to wander far through the Library, without running into a few of the same figures. There’s Abe Lincoln of course and his full cohort of presidents. There’s Rosa Parks and many other important figures from the civil rights movement. And then, well … and then there’s Walt Whitman. The very first thing I saw, in my own adventures here, was Walt Whitman’s walking stick, given to him by his friend the naturalist John Burroughs.

Jer Thorp: In this next interview I sat down with Barbara Bair to talk about a particular Whitman artifact from the collection, which is intricately wrought with lines of serendipity.

Barbara Bair: I’m Barbara Bair, and I’m one of several historians and art manuscript specialists, in the Manuscript Division, at the Library of Congress.

Barbara Bair: So the Library has its own Geography and Map Division, where they have marvelous, marvelous collections. But sometimes we have maps too, and we keep them if they’re considered integral to the collection. One of the ones we’ll see is from the Walt Whitman Charles Feinberg Collection. It’s actually a printed map but it’s made into a manuscript because he annotated it by hand. Part of what’s interesting is, “What did he put on it?” And, “What does it mean?”

Jer Thorp: We talked about maps, largely as a way to understand the structure of information, but it feels like they’re using the map as a kind of tool, as a kind of creative tool. And, in particular, with the Whitman map.

Barbara Bair: I think they are tools. They’re also constructions, they give structure to imagination.

Barbara Bair: Whitman, on the travel lines map of the United States … it’s a railroad map. It was printed. And if it was blank we probably would transfer it to the Geography and Map Division, and people could use it to study things like the boom in transportation and communications in the 19th century, and the growth of the transcontinental railroad, and so on.

Barbara Bair: We have it because Whitman drew on red ink lines of major places he had traveled. So in some ways he’s mapping his own life story, we can say these travel lines are also life lines. And they’re kind of a memory of where he went, but they also relate directly to the themes of his poetry, that Whitman is often thought of as the poet of the nation, a poet of democracy, and here we have a map of the United States that shows his physical orientation.

Barbara Bair: Whitman, also, was a poet of mysticism and of the soul, and often he was writing about places in ways that seemed so real to people, that people think he traveled abroad or he was in California, and he never went to those places. So it’s also what’s absent from the pages, the places that he didn’t go, but yet he saw in his mind. So in some ways these maps are about mapping imagination.

Jer Thorp: So this map in particular, it’s a black-and-white map of … You said it was a map of the United States, but it’s not a complete map of the United States-

Barbara Bair: It is not-

Jer Thorp: … it mostly focuses on the Eastern Seaboard, and then goes over West and cuts off in Colorado. You just see a sliver of the Gulf of Mexico along the bottom, just to give people a sense of what we’re actually looking at.

Jer Thorp: Now, these red lines that were drawn on the map, did he draw them as they happened? Was it like a living document, or was this a one-time thing? Do we know, or do we know?

Barbara Bair: We don’t know for sure, but I presume that it is a one-time thing because he’s written at the top, “Lines of travel. 63, 49, 72, 79, 80,” and et cetera. So we can figure that after 1880 he did this. And the map is truncated, it’s not the entire United States, but it does happen to go as far as he got.

Barbara Bair: So one of the key trips that is documented is his 1879 trip West. And he visited St. Louis, which is very kind of interesting that you see this as a, sort of, data map about this life, that St. Louis ends up being kind of, of the heart, in the middle, almost like arteries that come out from it. And they look more like arteries because of the red ink. So part of that is, what imagination do we bring when we look at the map?

Jer Thorp: I spend a lot of time in St. Louis, and actually did a long project about mapping in St. Louis. And certainly at this point, St. Louis was a real transportation hub.

Barbara Bair: Absolutely.

Jer Thorp: And so it may just be, in many ways, just a result of that.

Barbara Bair: Well, yes. But it’s also, it’s centered in the map, it’s the heart of the map.

Barbara Bair: He went to St. Louis, partly, because his brother, Jeff, was living in St. Louis, at the time. His brother, Jeff, was a civil engineer who worked with the water works in St. Louis. And Whitman intended to go all the way to the West Coast, but he was very ill at the time, and he only got as far as Pike’s Peak in Colorado, and he had to come back and convalesce and return.

Barbara Bair: But the trip west was very important, because another way to look at this map is it’s about Whitman’s ideas about manifest destiny and post-war America. He came to see the Civil War as a time of bloodshed and payment for the sin of slavery, and had great optimism about coming out anew from this war and being able to forge a more perfect union, a more perfect place, with more perfect people. He became, ultimately, quite disillusioned in those ideas.

Barbara Bair: But at the point, in the 1870s, this was also the time period when he wrote “Democratic Vistas”. And when he saw the West for the first time, he had already been writing about the spectacular scenery and the geopolitics of the United States, in the cataloging method that he used in his poetry, when he talked about people of all occupations, people of all ethnicities and races, and tried to encompass the mass of humanity that, in aggregate, makes up who we are as Americans.

Jer Thorp: This is a particularly interesting map to me, because I live in Brooklyn. I live just a few blocks from his offices at what is now called the Eagle Warehouse building. I live in what I would consider to be one of the spiritual homes of Whitmanism. But this kind of reminds me, anyways, that there is much more to that.

Jer Thorp: There is a zoom-in here, on New York, but we don’t get to the city level.

Barbara Bair: No. It’s more New York and New England, but bringing up Brooklyn is a really important thing, because we talked about St. Louis looks important, but all roads lead to New York and Brooklyn. The very first trip that he made away from New York, was to New Orleans, and so this is that line that goes down the Mississippi River, down to New Orleans.

Barbara Bair: One way to look at the travel lines on this map is that every line means a change in Whitman’s life, a new kind of consciousness, and there’s some kind of literary product that comes out of it. So, an example of that, is he’s been editing the Brooklyn Eagle, and he gets a job offer to help with the new newspaper, the Daily Crescent, in New Orleans. He goes down with his 14-year-old brother, Jeff. And he’s only there for about three months and he quits and he comes back. But one of the things he sees when he’s traveling the Mississippi River and he’s in New Orleans, is slavery in the Deep South, which is something he had never been exposed to, even though he lived in Washington during the Civil War and had seen slavery in Virginia, and so on.

Barbara Bair: He was already embracing Free Soil politics, but when he comes back, what does he do? He founds his own newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman. And the Brooklyn Freeman is a Free Soil, anti-slavery newspaper. He’s, also, at this time, working on the first edition of “Leaves of Grass”, which would come out in 1855. So a lot of people think, well, “Who was this brilliant man that sprung out of nowhere?” Well, more recently, so many people have done research about him as a journalist, and as a writer of basically kind of pulp fiction, and various things he did as a freelance writer to make a living.

Barbara Bair: One of the major poems that in the first edition of “Leaves of Grass”, is ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. One of the things that’s very significant about that, it’s about the body and the soul. The last two parts of it are about slaves at auction; a male slave at auction, and a female slave at auction, in which he figures their full humanity. And the importance of them, not just as individuals, but as basically the carriers of a whole ancient history from Africa, a cultural history and a biological history. From them will come these generations in the future. It was a really pathbreaking way for a white author to be writing at the time.

Barbara Bair: So, when the first edition comes out, people are blown away by the free verse style but also by the themes and his subject matter, which was really revolutionary for the time.

Jer Thorp: My heart skipped a little bit of a beat because when I started this residency, I was in New Orleans, and I was in the Historical Society reading room, and I stumbled for the first time on Whitman’s history with New Orleans.

Jer Thorp: I went for a long walk that afternoon, and sat in the park across from the building where he stayed, and sort of thought about that experience. And then, actually, on our first tour through the Manuscripts Division, we saw his walking stick, so in some weird way I think Whitman’s been following me.

Barbara Bair: Right. The ‘Calamus Cane’ as we call it. It was a gift from his friend, John Burroughs, who he first met here in Washington D.C. And, of course, the walking stick is a symbol of his homosexuality. It was a joke between he and John Burroughs basically, what is a ‘Calumus’ stick, it’s a reference to the Calumus poems that came out in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. So, yes, it’s all connected.

Barbara Bair: And the next travel line is connecting to, right after the 1860 edition. In ’62 he moves to Washington D.C. And the reason he does that is his brother George signed up right away, at the beginning of the Civil War, in the spring of 1861, and he ended up serving throughout the war, and actually became a prisoner of war near the end.

Barbara Bair: But, in 1862, Whitman comes, because he and his mother, Louisa, were reading the newspaper at home in New York, and they saw George’s name listed among the wounded. So he comes seeking George to find out how he’s done, how badly he may be hurt. He finds him in Falmouth, Virginia. And George, at that time, had served at [inaudible 00:27:09], The Battle of Fredericksburg. And they write to home to Mom and say, “Everything’s great. I found George and he’s doing fine.” They don’t mention that he’s been shot through the face!

Jer Thorp: Not the kind of thing you mention to your mother?

Barbara Bair: No. No. You just don’t tell Mom that part!

Barbara Bair: But it’s also a breakthrough for Whitman, where he’d already been visiting people in hospitals in New York City. He was friends with stevedores and drivers and a lot of the working men, and carpenters: people who worked in manual labor, that were often injured on the job, and he would go to see them in hospitals. He was interested in the sociology of the hospitals, the doctors, all of that, and he had been already writing about that.

Barbara Bair: And then when he comes here, he decides to stay and he becomes a civil servant. But the main reason he stays is because he wants to volunteer in the Civil War hospitals of Washington. So that’s another new phase of his life represented on the map. And out of that comes his great book of poetry “Drum Taps” which is his book of Civil War poems. And also, later, he writes up his notebooks, that we have in the manuscript version in the Charles Feinberg Collection, in memoranda during the war. Which are both considered great classics about the social history of the Civil War.

Barbara Bair: We could go on and talk about the other travel lines. Should we?

Jer Thorp: We could spend hours on this.

Barbara Bair: I do want to mention that the travel map is online. And the Walt Whitman papers, and the Charles Feinberg Collection. And through our digital-

Jer Thorp: So we’ll post a link to that on the Finding Aid work, where they’ll be able to go and look at that.

Barbara Bair: Okay. Super.

Jer Thorp: There’s this idea of the writer as a mark maker, which we don’t necessarily think about in that fashion. You have the real hand of the person, making this mark on paper, in various forms of accuracy. And I find that very interesting, in the things that I try to think about doing with the archive, because there is an interesting balance between what, in the archive, is text, and what, in the archive, is kind of visual. And how you cross these things?

Barbara Bair: Yes. There’s a real authenticity to it, and we often get that when we show manuscripts to the public, that people are sometimes slow to really grasp that this is the hand of a person holding a pen with ink, and putting this ink on this page. And so this person, Walt Whitman, wrote this. And they all say, “You mean that is the real thing?” “Yes, it’s the real thing.” And it does feel very human and personal and direct, and it’s very interpretative.

Jer Thorp: Barbara, thank you so much.

Barbara Bair: Thank you. It’s been great.

Jer Thorp: We’ve got one more interview for you, this episode. It’s one that I’ve been saving up for a while now. But before we get there, I’d like to talk a little bit about an experiment in collective serendipity that I ran with the help of a little over a million Twitter uses, on the Library of Congresses Twitter feed, called “Serendipity Run”.

Jer Thorp: The idea was simple. We’d start with a single item from the collection, then we’d ask the Library’s followers to post things, which in some way reminded them of it. And then we’d Kevin Bacon our way, from object to object, from image, to book, to film, to website, to web page. Over the course of two hours, we’d see how far and wide we could range, as one big collective, serendipity-powered search engine.

Jer Thorp: And range, we did. Within the first 10 minutes, we’d moved from a handwritten letter by Rosa Parts, to Suffragettes on horseback, Baobab trees, and maps of the Turkish Empire. Later we’d drift together to Babe The Blue Ox, One Direction, W. E. B. Du Bois, and photos of kittens, of course. None of this was planned, which is not to say that our run didn’t take us to useful places.

Jer Thorp: One of the things I’ve come to understand about serendipity is that it’s a social thing: it works better with friends. People are wonderful engines of chance, and when you engage in an act of finding with another human, or with another group of humans, you are more likely to stumble upon the unexpected.

Jer Thorp: Years ago, I had the chance to collaborate with the writer and photographer, Teju Cole, on a project called, “The Time of The Game.” For the piece, Teju engaged with thousands of people on Twitter, asking them to post photos of themselves watching the 2014 World Cup Final. The result was a collection of images, all from different places in the world, with the same thing, a soccer game on television.

Jer Thorp: Working with Mario Klingemann, I made a web interface that overlaid all of these unique images, exactly on top of one another, so that it felt and looked like everyone was watching the same T.V. set. In an essay Teju later wrote about the project, he referred to “The Time of The Game” as an experiment in “public time”, which he described as “the chronological equivalent of public space”. It’s basically about finding ways to make the public space intimate, and yet to do it without going directly to “Kumbaya,” he wrote. Under the guise of football, we actually testify to each others existence.

Jer Thorp: “Serendipity Run” was, likewise, an experiment in public time. Gave it’s participants to be in the Library’s collection together, at the same time. To humanize the vast dataset of hundreds of millions of objects together. To weave stories held by the books, and photos, and films, and banjos, with stories of their own, all at the same moment.

Jer Thorp: Well, we have one more voice to weave into this episode, and that’s Stephanie Stillo.

Stephanie Stillo: I am the curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Graphic Arts Collection, in the Rare Books Division, at the Library of Congress. So how’s that for you?

Jer Thorp: That’s fair enough.

Stephanie Stillo: Nice and long!

Jer Thorp: We’ve had a chance to do interviews in some nice rooms thus far in this podcast, but this might be the nicest one. And for everybody who’s listening along with us and can’t see, this is kind of if you imagined in your head what a rich person’s library might look, like, in 1870-something, this is kind of what we’ve got, right?

Stephanie Stillo: Right.

Jer Thorp: There’s books all around us. All enclosed in these really beautiful wood and glass cases.

Jer Thorp: Can you tell us a little bit about this room and what the history of it is?

Stephanie Stillo: Yeah. Absolutely. So, what we have in this room, enclosed all around us, is a reference collection from Lessing J. Rosenwald. Along with his donation came about a 5000 volume reference library. These were the books that Lessing Rosenwald used to learn about books, and his passion for collecting. He felt that it was useful that when the donation of rare material came to us, that all of his reference material came with it. So everything in this room was once at his home. It’s a highly annotated collection as well, so it’s very personal to the collector, which is very helpful to me, especially as someone that is trying to learn about a collecting strategy of a person that is long gone, at this point.

Stephanie Stillo: So the room was established as an homage to Lessing Rosenwald, so it actually is titled “The Lessing J. Rosenwald Room”. So surrounding us is, as I mentioned, the reference library in the glass cases, but we have this room within a room, that is the central section of the room, and that is designed after his Art Deco mansion that was outside of Philadelphia. The walls have this fabulous silver leaf and copper look to them. All of the furniture in the room is also original to the mansion as well, so that was part of the donation. When we show Rosenwald material, we show the material on Rosenwald’s desk. And all of the sconces, everything, is original to the home.

Stephanie Stillo: The idea is that when you walk into this room you get a real feel of this man and his collection, so it’s really something extraordinary that we’re able to do in the Rare Books Division, is that we can connect people so closely to the material that he donated, but also to who he was as a person.

Jer Thorp: You have a beautiful looking book in front of us. This book, this particular book is right out of central casting, right?

Stephanie Stillo: Yes.

Jer Thorp: It’s like if you needed a book that was, “This is a rare book,” this is what it would look like.

Stephanie Stillo: Exactly.

Jer Thorp: It’s gigantic and very ornate.

Stephanie Stillo: Ornate, yeah.

Stephanie Stillo: What I have pulled for you today is one of my favorite books that’s in the collection, and it’s my favorite for several reasons. First off, as you mentioned, we have this incredible ornate 15th century binding, so this is original to the time that the pages within this book were printed. That’s rare. Books are often re-bound, over the centuries, and so having an original binding is very exciting for us. So everything that you see in this book, you have on the outside, it is original, so the bosses, the clasps, the leather, the blind tooling that you see, all of the stitching that you have on the side here: this is all original to the 15th century. Even just on its outside, it’s just a beautiful object.

Stephanie Stillo: When you dive into it though, it becomes I think even more exciting. First off, I have to explain that this is what is called a sammelband, so it is several works that are bound together. And so you open the piece and it is a piece of printing from the 15th century, a small treatise on Thomas Aquinas. I love to show this to people because it really gives them an idea of that 15th century printing moment. This is very soon after Gutenberg invented moveable metal type, or at least that manifested in the West. And so this is an extension of that.

Stephanie Stillo: We move through the book and there’s these nice human touches that are all throughout this printed work. So you have these red marks that are called “rubrication marks” that were put there by hand, so somebody took a lot of care.

Jer Thorp: It’s like every capital letter at the beginning of a sentence is marked with kind of a red stroke.

Stephanie Stillo: Exactly. Exactly. In the manuscript period, and in the printed era as well, it was incredibly difficult to see when a sentence began and ended: this was a marker for that.

Stephanie Stillo: So once we move past Aquinas, we move into a manuscript, so a handwritten piece. I really like this manuscript for several reasons. Its content is interesting. Why I like it so much is not necessarily because of its content, it’s the acts of Jesus on various sermons, but it’s sort of messy, right? And it’s this very lived-in feel to a book. Often we see manuscripts that are really beautiful, and that’s fantastic, but I like to remind people that people in the 15th century were still jotting down notes.

Jer Thorp: Yeah. So this page we’re looking at has some of the sentences struck out. It looks like it has some notes at the top, and in the column. There’s got to be a word for that … the space between the columns.

Stephanie Stillo: Well, you see several kinds of inks here, as well, so there’s a lot happening with this particular work. And it’s a nice comparison, I think, for the printed work, as well, that you can see the similarities of them mimicking one another.

Jer Thorp: If anyone’s ever had like a high school essay, that the teacher really didn’t like, this is kind of what we’re looking at right now. It’s got red pen all over it!

Stephanie Stillo: It does! It does! Though these red marks were considered very helpful in the 15th century.

Stephanie Stillo: So the real star of the show, for this book, is something called a block book. Block books were a form of printing that were somewhat unique to the 15th century. Their popularity hit a zenith around the 1470’s. This particular work is of the Apocalypse of St. John. There were many wonderfully illustrated books, in the 15th century, about how everything began, the moment of creation, but there are also wonderfully illustrated books about how everything ends, as well. And so this is an example of this.

Stephanie Stillo: Block books are a form of printing, usually a form of hand-printing, in the 15th century. You would carve your image and your text together, because they worked together, and you would carve them into a wood block, in relief. Once you had your wood block you would ink it, and then you would lay paper over it, and then you would press very heavily on that paper, and you would come out with an impression: and you can see that on the back, here. The back of the page is highly texturized, and that’s from that deep impression from the block and from the hand-pressing process.

Jer Thorp: These illustrations, I think, maybe what they remind me most of … and this might be something to do with my life these days, it’s almost like children’s books. Like, they have that very limited amount of text on the page, and then a very prominent illustration.

Stephanie Stillo: Yeah. A lot of people say, “They’re the first graphic novel.” People that haven’t ever seen block books before, that’s the immediate thing that they go for. I mean they are highly visual, and the idea here-

Jer Thorp: Ah, there we go! See, the first two pages were more of a children’s book, but now this is like a much more detailed sort of tubular framing.

Stephanie Stillo: Exactly. And the idea is that you would be able to follow this story even if you were unable to read. So this very visual vocabulary was incredibly important in the 15th century.

Stephanie Stillo: Many block books are of religious content, but unfortunately we don’t know much about where or when they were produced. Our best knowledge about this, right now, is that they were produced largely in Germany and the Netherlands in the 15th century. A lot of people, art historians have thought that block books pre-dated Gutenberg’s invention of metal type for the West. But actually paper analysis has proven that they were really a phenomenon that came after Gutenberg and his moveable metal type revolution.

Stephanie Stillo: So it’s really interesting to think about, that this is very much … comes out of the popularity of Gutenberg’s invention, and that there are people in the 15th century that are interested in selling, perhaps, what you’d think of as ‘cheaper’ material. A printed book would be rather expensive in the 15th century, this would be a little bit cheaper for people to purchase.

Stephanie Stillo: Now, this one is hand-colored in a pretty extraordinary way. We have a limited palette of a really bright orange, and a green, black, and then this sort of maroon color, and yellow. So it’s a limited palette, but they really do a lot with it here. That would have been hand applied, so this would have been printed and then the colors would go in, and hand applied.

Jer Thorp: So very similar to sort of a modern comic’s production?

Stephanie Stillo: Yeah. Absolutely.

Jer Thorp: Where you have, quite literally, the ink. Who’s, like, painting ink onto wood block.

Stephanie Stillo: Yes, exactly.

Stephanie Stillo: The content of this one, in particular, the Apocalypse, was very topical for the 15th century. This is a lot, certainly, happening in Western Europe at that time. You have plague. You have warfare. The idea of death was very much on the mind of many people in Western Europe. And in some ways these books met that need.

Stephanie Stillo: What’s interesting about them is that they often don’t survive to live in cultural heritage institutions, modern cultural heritage institutions. And that’s because they were so heavily used.

Jer Thorp: Unlike the more rarefied clerical texts, these things, that because they were meant for more public consumption, they got consumed. Like, literally consumed.

Stephanie Stillo: Absolutely. Yeah. The rarity of these can’t be overstated. We’re very lucky, at the Library, that we had a collector that was so interested in this particular type of printing, this very ephemeral moment in printing. We have 11 complete block books, but they survive in this fragmentary form throughout America and Europe.

Stephanie Stillo: And also one of the problems is that because this form of printing didn’t win out, that eventually this type of book fades away in the 1600s, that historians don’t really focus on them. So they’re the somewhat neglected moment in printing history, even though they are this incredible relic of what guided people’s daily life and their spiritual life, and what they actually saw. I think that that is what makes them so interesting is that, in many ways, they’re very humble in that way. And they’ve been somewhat neglected.

Jer Thorp: I have to get you to answer this question, because when I publish the photos I’m going to get this question a lot. And I’m going to get you to answer it, which is, “Why are you not wearing gloves?” I know the already, because I asked this the first time. But those of you who are listening, if you’re going to go to our Visual Reference, you’ll see Stephanie with this beautiful old book and she’s touching it with her fingers! And you’ll probably have the same alarm bells that went off.

Jer Thorp: Tell us, because I think one of the things that I think you’re particularly interested in is like what is the human practice of preservation and through the handling of these objects, and how do we keep them in the form that they need to be kept in?

Stephanie Stillo: Yeah. Absolutely. So this is a question that I get a lot as a Rare Books Curator. The answer I think is quite logical. When you put on a glove you lose dexterity in your hands, and so we have found that it is much more likely that someone handling a rare book with gloves is far more likely to drop or to damage the book in some way. Because your hands, if they are clean … and that is the key point here, if they are clean, are very good machines and that is the best way to approach a rare book.

Stephanie Stillo: And I have to say, on a personal note, block books, when I first came to the Rosenwald Collection, were my first sort of island of comfort. I was really drawn to these. They’re intensely visual. They’re beautiful. They’re somewhat mysterious, hard to answer. They don’t have these printers’ marks. They don’t have a color font. There’s a lot we don’t know about them. And so they represented this, like, fascinating mystery to me, and I was really satisfied that I was walking into one of the most distinguished graphic arts collections, at least, certainly in this area. And this was my first island, that I stayed on for quite a long time. So I will always have a place, I think, in my heart, for this kind of printing, in this sort of moment in the 15th century.

Jer Thorp: This was amazing, as always.

Stephanie Stillo: Absolutely. Thank you for inviting me.

Jer Thorp: I wish I could come and visit you all the time.

Stephanie Stillo: You’re always welcome.

Jer Thorp: You’ll never get rid of me because every time we’ve been able to talk it’s been fantastic. Thank you.

Stephanie Stillo: Thank you, Jer.

Jer Thorp: All three of the people we heard from in this episode, Aditya, Barbara, and Stephanie, shared with us objects that had come to fascinate them. What Stephanie so evocatively called, “islands of comfort”. There’s something nice, I think, combining the word ‘serendipity’ with the word ‘comfort’ and indeed, when I think about it, all of my own strange discoveries at this library, over the last year, have done a lot. They’ve done a lot of bolster myself against the chaotic and often terrifying political realities that rumble outside and overhead.

Jer Thorp: Horace Walpole said that serendipity was, “a kind of divination.” A seeking of guidance by which he found, I quote, “Everything I wanted. À point nommé, wherever I dip for it. À point nommé, just when needed.”

Jer Thorp: With Serendipity Run and the projects that will follow over the coming months, a hope that we can all find new ways to roam the Library’s collections, to share public time with others, and to enable the discovery of strange and wonderful things. Things from which we can perhaps find a little comfort of our own.

Jer Thorp: Artists in the Archive is recorded by Jer Thorp and produced by Margaret Kelly. In this episode you heard excerpts from the Library’s Lomax Collection, which is well worth spending a few hours wandering through.

Jer Thorp: Thanks to Luke Manson for his excellent voice work and to all of our interview guests. You can find more information about all the various things we talked about on our Finding Aid,

Jer Thorp: As always, we’d love to hear from you. You can leave a comment on the Tumblr, or you can email me directly



Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.

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Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.