The Archivist’s Nook: To Our Honest Readers – Curses in Rare Books

A friendly curse written in The works of Jonathan Swift, 1756-62.

Working in the Special Collections stacks, you often see messages from the past. Notes from long-past authors or readers, who have scribbled in the margins or front leaves of books. Some notes are merely the thoughts of a reader or a dedication, but at other times, there is a note directed to you – the person holding this book – a warning from centuries past. A curse! 

“Steal not this book my honest friend for fear the gallows should be your end”

So warns a handwritten note in a 1756 edition of The Works of Jonathan Swift. Written in the same hand as the note of its later owner, “Wm. Davis’s Book Coolmore [possibly Culmore, Ireland] May 2nd 1817…”, it stands out as one of the known curses that exist within the Catholic University rare books collection, but not a surprising find.

Modern special collections libraries have all manner of security features to protect their holdings from theft, flood, fire, and more. These protections come in many forms – from alarm systems, specialized access policies, disaster plans, etc. But one thing that is perhaps missing from today’s library is curses. A long-common practice, dating back millennia, book curses were another means by which creators and owners of books wished to protect their manuscripts. The labor-intensive process of creating books prior to the invention of the printing press made books an extremely valuable – if not vulnerable – piece of property. One could limit access to a collection or chain up the books, but why not add a final threatening note to ward off would-be miscreants? 

These stacks are secure…but spooky in the dark.

While the curses could be written by the later owners of a book – such as is the case in early modern printed books – in the medieval period, it was often the scribes themselves who added a final warning to their texts. After spending countless hours copying a text, a scribe may have wanted to guarantee that his work would be respected and protected by adding a few lines of warning to any would-be book thieves or desecrators. 

While these warnings could be simple pleas to one’s conscience, they could also call forth cruel punishments or God’s wrath (or the executioner’s rope) upon anyone who plucked or mistreated the work in question. But the spirit was the same – protect the hard labor and valuable material that constituted the book. In an age before the printing press – and even well past its widespread use in Europe – books were valuable and expensive objects that might not be easily replaced. The loss or desecration of one could snuff out a person’s only copy of a work or eradicate months (or even years) of hard work by a dedicated scribe.

Beyond a warning from the nineteenth century in our collection, we also hold a 1460s German Passionale, a collection of martyrology narratives. This handwritten manuscript from the late medieval period is cataloged with the note that it has a “book curse” on its first folio. No further details or translation were offered, so our staff went to work. (We had to know what actions we should avoid, lest we receive the curse…) 

While it still remains somewhat of a mystery to us – and we welcome additional feedback – thanks to the dedicated work of History doctoral candidate, Nick Brown, and several graduate students*, we are much closer to identifying what spell may have been placed upon our staff. Here is an approximate transcription and translation:

Concordes ineunt Lybie deserta leones,

Sevaque concordi tygris depascitur ore.

Nec lupus ipse lupum, nec aper male vulnerat aprum;

Non aquilis certant aquile, non anguibus angues.

Soli homines proprio grassantur sanguine. Soli

Exercent trepidas per mutua vulnera cedes.

 

Dic quibus in terris, et eris mihi magnus Apollo,

Tres pateat celi spatium non amplius ulnas?

A close-up of the possible curse, Passionale Sanctorum, 1460 (Ms 141).

The lions go peacefully together into the deserts of Libya,

And the fierce tiger grazes with a docile mouth.

The wolf does not harm another wolf, nor does the boar harm another boar;

Eagles do not contend with eagles, nor does the snake contend with the snake.

Only humans go after the blood of their own kind. Only they,

Through wounding each other, bring about restless murders.

 

Speak, and you will be great Apollo to me, in what land

Does heaven extend no more than the space of three measures?

Our working theory is that the “curse” is a later addition, and not from the original scribe. While the date of the “curse” is unclear, we are are certain that the passage is referencing two distinct sources, circulating in the late medieval/early modern period. The first is a passage on animals,”taken from De vita solitaria et civili, a collection of poems attributed to Theophilus Brixianus. There was a fifth-century bishop of Brescia by this name, but it looks like all we know about him is that he was bishop and martyr. Perhaps the “curse” author wanted to open the work with a quote attributed to an early Christian martyr, as a link to the passion narratives in the text (and on the theme of the humans shedding blood)?

A blessing, hanging in our archival stacks.

The last two lines of the “curse” are from Virgil’s Eclogue III, and is called the Riddle of Damoetas. The rediscovery of Virgil is a significant theme in the early Renaissance, suggesting a familiarity with the scribe to his works. While it may not be a “curse” per se, it does open up a fascinating window into the literary diet of its author, as well as the broader social milieu under which they operated. This passage may have been written during a time of early literary humanism and classicism in the Italian and/or German sphere. As the riddle itself remains unresolved, is the scribe offering his own answer to it in the context of the example of the passion narratives? Take your own guess!

So while we cannot say for sure how many of our books are definitively cursed, we think it safe to say that we will treat all our books with the utmost respect (and caution). Not just as professional curators of these treasures, but lest some vengeful reader/writer past unleash their curse upon us! 

And even if our books are cursed, our reading rooms are not! In fact, they are blessed, and are open to appointments. Contact us at this link: https://libraries.catholic.edu/special-collections/archives/about/contact-us.html

*In addition to Nick Brown, special thanks to Patsy Craig, Jon Dell Isola, Jane and Luke Maschue, and Alex Audziayuk. They double-checked the translation and aided in the research of the Passionale’s “curse”.

For more information on book curses:

Drogin, Marc. Anathema: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. Totowa, NJ: Allanheld & Schram, 1983.

O’Hagan, Lauren Alex. “Steal not this book my honest friend.” Textual Cultures 13, no. 2 (Fall 2020): 244-274.

More on Virgil’s riddle:

Campbell, John Scott. “Damoetas’s Riddle: A Literary Solution.” The Classical Journal 78, no. 2 (1982): 122–26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3297061.

The Archivist’s Nook: On Movies and all that Jazz – The Talkies and their Catholic Critics

An early Technicolor film, The King of Jazz (1930) is a film that the IFCA film reviewers were fascinated with due to its production elements around sound and color, as well as its direction. Courtesty: Wikimedia Commons.

The magic of the motion picture leaves one a little breathless sometimes. And to those of us who see feature, short, travelogue, newsreel in the studio there is a tremendous sense of awe at that which motion picture accomplished for our entertainment. Of course, there are pictures we do not like…

Rita McGoldrick, Feb. 2, 1933

Fans of our blog are probably familiar with the story of Catholic film critics through the work of the Legion of Decency/Office of Film and Broadcasting records. But that organization was not the only Catholic critic show in town in the 1930s. Alongside the Legion, there operated the Motion Picture and Broadcasting Committee of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae (IFCA). Operating from the end of the Silent Film era through the early Talkies period, IFCA produced monthly radio and printed reports that filmgoers around the nation could tune in and subscribe to. The majority of these reports were written and performed by the Committee’s chair, Rite McGoldrick. These reports reveal the underlying moral and educational mission of IFCA, as well as the presence of cinephiles among its leadership.

Founded in November 1914, IFCA promoted the activities of Catholic teachers, religious sisters, and the alumnae networks of American Catholic colleges and universities. As part of its educational mission, IFCA focused on promoting charitable examples and combating examples of bigotry in media and in the classroom. They established eight departments, including education, literature, social service, motion pictures, bureau of sisters scholarships, religious activities committee, and the De Paul Missions Committee. 

IFCA Seal, ca. 1930s.

Formed in 1927, the Motion Picture Bureau (later Committee) rated films, denoting which were suitable for schools and general audiences with ratings as either ‘good,’ ‘very good,’ or ‘excellent.’ As stated in the March 1928 Quarterly Bulletin of IFCA, the guiding questions it asked of each film were: “What are suitable motion pictures for children?” and “How are we going to get the proper motion pictures to them?”

But their work goes beyond simply rating films. The Legion of Decency, another Catholic film review organization, would form later in the 1930s with the intent of reviewing and influencing the work of the film industry. In the process, the Legion would review almost any film and intervene in film production to modify films it deemed improper. The IFCA Committee, on the other hand, took a different approach. As stated in their November 29, 1929 broadcast:

To forbid people to attend the movies would be to shut out of their lives a very interesting form of entertainment which they might receive from legitimate movies. The happy plan of reviewing and classifying the movies and the talkies has been evolved by the Motion Picture Bureau of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae. Each month this body publishes a list of plays to which Catholics may go without offending God….

First page of the August 1930 Endorsed Motion Pictures newsletter from the Committee.

Their monthly newsletter of recommended films, supplemented by a monthly radio address given during the early 1930s by Committee chair Rita McGoldrick, only discussed films that the Committee deemed appropriately moral and educational. (Unlike the Legion, they would not even think of discussing horror films!) And while their focus was on education, this did not mean that the reviewers limited their enthusiasm for newsreels or documentaries. They would express excitement over murder mysteries – The detective story lovers – and there are millions of us! – are going to have a fine time (McGoldrick, May 22, 1931). McGoldrick also would comment positively on genres ranging from jazz musicals and Rin Tin Tin movies to “Dogville Comedies” (or barkies). Educational and moral value could be seen by the reviewers to be contained in virtually any film type… so long as it wasn’t gangster movies!

But the Committee’s records do go beyond simple film reviews. Reading through them may remind a modern reader of their favorite film podcast or social media personality. In addition to discussing their recommended films, IFCA Committee members would excitedly report—in an almost casual, conversational tone—on the trends in the film industry, make predictions about how the industry may develop, share news of their favorite stars signing up for projects, and generally nerd out over the latest technological and production achievements seen on the silver screen.

Legendary director, Cecil B. DeMille, in a letter exclaiming the educational and family-friendly value of a particular film. The studio, UFA-Films, forwarded this letter to the IFCA Committee, with a note detailing the educational value of their productions. Quite a letter of recommendation!

Some times [sic] we wonder if you, our Radio audience, are interested in some of these technical details that go into the production of the finished picture that we accept so casually as an evening’s entertainment? To those of us who are reviewing all of the pictures and who are in intimate contact with the producing agencies, the science, vision, genius that go into productions of these greater pictures is a never-ending wonder. Rita McGoldrick, Feb. 28, 1930

They commented on advances in sound technology and the experimentation of studios in bringing it to theaters. They also reported in 1930 on the promise of full-color features, as they broke down the technical processes behind Technicolor. And they made predictions about how sound and color—as well distribution—may impact the industry over the 1930s.

The radio broadcasts, which began in 1928 continued until at least 1933. However, the monthly newsletters denoting “endorsed motion pictures” continued until 1940. At that stage, much of the work that the Motion Picture Commission had been performing became increasingly covered by the film reviewers and censors with the Legion of Decency. 

The records of the Motion Picture Committee are available in the IFCA records onsite, but have also been digitized. The files include correspondence and monthly reports from the Committee.  You may see the digital collection here.

The Archivist’s Nook: Conservation in Rare Books, Part II

First folio of MS 126. Image of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, often pictured with the devil in chains.

This past academic year, Special Collections staff continued our long-term project of addressing conservation issues within the Catholic University’s Rare Books collection. As “Part I” of the conservation blog post reported, we began by looking at four of our late medieval European manuscripts. While we continue to prioritize our handwritten manuscripts, this time, the date and geographic range of Quarto’s efforts varied from medieval Europe to late colonial Mexico! 

Our goal in Special Collections is to provide both our external and campus patrons with access to the works they need to research and study. And thus, our number one goal in conserving these manuscripts was to render them stable for both eventual digitization and in-person access, without damaging the text or any original materials in the binding.

As this project progresses, we will continue to keep the campus community informed about the ongoing conservation work and what materials are now safe for full access! And thus, without further ado, we present the five most recently conserved works:

MS 115 – Exposed textblock on the top. Bottom: the rebound textblock.

1. Quadriga Spirituale, ca. 1500, (MS 115)

This work faced real challenges with its binding. The original binding had become quite loose, with tears throughout. The conservators stabilized the binding using wheat starch and Japanese tissue. The binding was preserved and stored in a separate box with a foam insert to mimic the original textblock (the pages inside the covers and binding) and support the binding.

The endbands (the cords affixed on a book spine to provide structural support) of the textblock were stabilized, with the spine stabilized through Japanese tissue and new alum tawed (a calf leather prepared with a liquid solution to create a white appearance) sewing supports sown in. The text was covered with a handmade non-adhesive paper binding to protect the spine and text.

2. Instruccion del Estado del Regno de Mexico, 1794 (MS 121)

MS 121 – The exposed textblock (left). After stabilization, the covered work (right).

This volume lacked any binding, leaving the textblock fully exposed. The spine was loose, with tears in the page caused by abrasive iron gall ink used in the original writing. Iron gall ink was a widely used ink in European works until the nineteenth century, made of iron salts and tannic acids. The conservators worked to stabilize the spine and remove – but conserve for our records – some of the abrasive papers and glue in the spine. They cleaned, stabilized, and mended the tears caused by the ink on the first few pages of the text. A paper binding was created to cover and protect the work.

3. Meditationes Beati Bernardi Abbatis, ca. 1400 (MS 126)

The text’s binding and end cover boards (front and back) were loose, with the boards completely detached from the textblock. This binding was a nineteenth-century addition to the original text.

MS 126 – Left: Detached cover boards. Right: Cover boards reattached to the textblock.

The conservators cleaned the spine and end boards, stabilizing them. They then carefully reattached the endsheets (blank sheets often bound at either end of a textblock to protect the text) and end boards to the textblock. Utilizing microscopic analysis, they reviewed the ink of the text to see if any stabilization was required and noted that none was currently necessary. 

4. The interior Christian or a sure guide for those who aspire to perfection in the spiritual life, 1796 (MS 262)

The leather cover was worn along the spine, but the most grave concern about this work was that the binding and textblock was split down the middle of the spine. The work was literally falling in half, with the two halves stiff and difficult to open.

MS 262 – One the left image, the split in the spine is visible. One the right, the mended spine.

The conservators stabilized the leather front and back cover boards, as well as cleaned the interior of the text. They gently lifted the leather spine and added new sown bindings to stabilize the textblock and make it accessible to readers again. The original spine was removed and safely stored with our records, with a new paper spine created to cover the binding.

5. Theologiae polemicae, 1733 (MS 264)

MS 264 – Top shows the red rot damaged cover, with the loose pieces on the spine. Bottom: the new cover.

This work’s leather cover was heavily damaged through red rot. The spine of the cover had completely disintegrated over the years, leaving the threads of the binding exposed. However, the threads were heavily compromised, offering no support to the text and thus rendering the pages loose. Some damage was noted along the pages that had been in close contact with the leather binding. The binding is original to the text, but was so damaged that it needed to be replaced (but with the threads and cover boards kept). 

The conservators unbound the text and carefully paginated the pages to maintain proper order. The spine was cleaned and tears throughout the text mended with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The textblock was resewn, with new endsheets added to protect the original pages. A historically similar binding with boards was created to protect the text.

To find out more about these books or the general Catholic University Rare Books collection, please contact us at: lib-rarebooks@cua.edu

Our digitized manuscripts may also be viewed at this link.

The Archivist’s Nook: On Presidents and Parades, Part II: Bush and Biden

Image of Msgr. John A. Ryan behind US President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his January 20, 1945 Inaguration.

In January 1945, Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth inauguration was held on the White House lawn. The ongoing Second World War called for a scaled-back ceremony. Catholic University faculty member Fr. John A. Ryan was present and provided the benediction at this event. The 1945 swearing-in, highlighted in our records on past inaugurations, provides a precedent for the scaled-back ceremonies that occurred this week.

Typically the city of Washington bustles with the excitement of a presidential inauguration, with thousands of spectators gathering along the National Mall, hoping to catch sight of the new (or re-elected) President. But this year’s inaugural ceremonies were smaller due to COVID-19. So while we can’t safely attend a typical inauguration in DC this year, we can reflect on the person at the center of it all and how they are represented in the history of Catholic University. The inauguration of Joseph R. Biden represents the second time a Catholic has been sworn into the highest office in the United States, and also now represents another chapter in the long history of visits by presidents (current and future) to the Catholic University campus.

Then-Senator Joe Biden in today’s Aquinas Hall, 1978.

Like his fellow Catholic Commander-in-Chief, John F. Kennedy, Biden also paid a visit to Catholic University as a young senator! While Kennedy came to campus in 1956 to receive the Cardinal Gibbons Medal, Biden’s three known visits all involved speaking to students and parents about contemporary politics and the role of Catholic faith in 1970s America.

In September 1973, during his first year in the Senate, Biden was invited to campus by the Graduate Student Association. Addressing a crowd in Caldwell auditorium, Biden spoke about the state of American politics and the many critiques of politicians. In February 1974, Biden would again return to campus as a guest speaker during a Sunday brunch on Annual Parents’ Visitation weekend. Unfortunately, we have no reports on what he told the assembled parents over their waffles and coffee.

George H.W. and Barbara Bush, with then-CUA President Rev. William J. Byron, S.J., 1989.

In November 1978, the inaugural National Conference of Catholic College and University Student Government Leaders was held at Catholic University. A student-led conference, its 85 attendees from across the nation met in the then-Boy’s Town Center (today’s Aquinas Hall, and home to our archives!). The conference was opened by Biden, who provided a discussion on “a Catholic’s posture in contemporary America.” The student newspaper, The Tower, reports that the attendees listened to Biden discuss Catholic social teaching and its role in the politics of the late 1970s.

While Biden’s three visits to campus represent the last time a (future) President came to campus as of this writing, other Presidents such as George H.W. Bush would show their support for the school. President Bush would attend the inaugural Cardinal’s Dinner – a fundraiser for the University – which was held off campus in 1989. And perhaps there are guests and students who have walked the campus recently who will someday serve in the Oval Office?

Learn more about all the Presidential visitors to campus by checking out our video here.

The Archivist’s Nook: CatholicU’s First Residents: A “Grotesque” History

Ever notice these two on top of Caldwell? They seem be just as surprised to be up there!

While walking across campus, have you ever looked up? The first residents of campus are still present, peering down…

Since the very opening of the University, every generation of Cardinals has studied and graduated under the watchful eyes of Caldwell Hall. And we do mean eyes, as the exterior of the building has been home to dozens of stone faces since the opening of the building in 1889. Walking along the west side of the façade, you can find numerous “grotesques” peering out. Grotesques, similar to gargoyles, are stone faces adorning a structure. While gargoyles are specifically designed to serve as water spouts, grotesques primarily decorative.

How many faces can you see here?

While we have little information on why the designs on Caldwell were selected, we do know that on March 9, 1888, the Baltimore-based architectural firm of Baldwin and Pennington contracted the stonework of the building to Bryan Hanrahan. Presumably Hanrahan made the decisions on the designs himself, likely with consultation with University officials. But as is often the case with gargoyle or grotesque designs, the artist may have drawn inspiration from the faces, stories, and peoples that surrounded them.

Is it just me or is that Grover Cleveland?

While we can’t say for sure what inspirations there may have been for any of the visages, this author has a sneaking suspicion that one of the faces was inspired by then-President Grover Cleveland. After all, Cleveland did attend the cornerstone-laying of Caldwell Hall in 1888, giving ample opportunity for the artist to see him up close (and providing a connection to the building). 

There are perhaps too many faces – both inside and outside – of Caldwell to catalog in one blog post! But some of the highlights include an figure sticking out their tongue and a person hiding behind a book (see the image at top). While the interior of Caldwell may appear more dignified, with only a few stern faces holding up the columns in the main stairwell, the exterior is a “grotesque” landscape!

But Caldwell is not the only ornamented structure on campus – several other buildings have design features that may be missed at first glance. Look closely at McMahon Hall for the ornate stone vine work that traces the building. Or the next time you pass by the doorway into Mullen Library, look for the Zodiac symbols that grace its entrance (just one of many engravings on the library’s exterior). You will even find figures looking out across campus in and on numerous other buildings on campus – some of which this author may not even be aware of! There is hardly enough room in this post to detail them all, but perhaps you can explore a sample of them yourself via a scavenger hunt by following this link

While one face is the most noticeable here, how many can you see?

And do share any faces you find hidden among the stones! Learn more about one alumnus, Jay Hall Carpenter, and his own work with sculpture and grotesques at the National Cathedral in this Mullen Library exhibit!

The Archivist’s Nook: Conservation in Rare Books

St. Jerome with lion, Epistolae, ca. 1400 (MS 168) Learn more about why Jerome is often pictured with a lion here.

Beginning last year, Special Collections staff began a process of reviewing Catholic University’s Rare Books collection for works facing conservation issues. With over 65,000 works in the collection, we had to focus on the most immediate concerns. Of particular interest was the manuscripts collection, which holds over 200 one-of-a-kind handwritten texts from the medieval to the early modern period, ranging from alchemy treatises to choral books.

After working alongside graduate students and faculty from the Department of Greek and Latin, our staff selected four initial works to send offsite for conservation with local vendor Quarto. The four we chose exhibited serious binding and textual issues that threatened not only the long-term survival of the works but also severely limited their safe access by patrons.

Our goal in Special Collections is to provide both our external and campus patrons with access to the works they need to research and study. And thus, our number one goal in conserving these manuscripts was to render them stable for both eventual digitization and in-person access, without damaging the text or any original materials in the binding.

We would like to keep the campus community informed about the progress of this long-term project, so whenever we finish with a batch of books, we will post a blog on the highlights of the returned works. And so without further ado, we present the four most recently conserved works for your consideration:

1. De emandatione pectoris [and various other works], ca. 1450 (MS 114)

This work from the mid-fifteenth century contains theological and spiritual works from a number of late antique and medieval authors, ranging from Caesarius of Arles to Leonardo Bruni.

MS 114 – before (left) and after (right) conservation.

Comparing the before conservation photos (left column) with the after conservation (right column) reveals a subtle, but important, difference. This late medieval text was rebound sometime in the 18th century, with a leather covering that was beginning to experience red rot (a common degradation in vegetable-treated leather). The leather cover was cracked and loose, most notably along the spine. This cracking made it difficult to access the text without further damaging the leather covering and binding around the spine.

To resolve the issues limiting access, the conservators repaired and reaffixed the damaged part of the spine. They also used treatments to clean the textblock (the stacks of pages inside the covers and binding) of the manuscript and slow the process of decay of the leather binding.

2. St. Jerome, Epistolae, ca. 1400 (MS 168)

This northern Italian manuscript of Jerome’s letters is a beautiful work with a gorgeous miniature (a small illustration) on its opening text page (as pictured above). Sadly, accessing the work was difficult without its stabilizing boards attached.

MS 168 – Top and left center photo show the manuscript prior to conservation, with the bottom and right center image after.

Medieval and early modern books are usually bound with wooden boards over the front and back pages, offering stabilization and protection to the textblock contained between them. The boards, which are bound together with the textblock, are then covered with leather. These wooden boards can experience rotting or damage, but in this case, the binding had loosened, causing the boards to become completely detached from the textblock and spine. This made accessing the text difficult without adding damaging pressure onto the first few pages of the text.

In the collage on the right, you can see what the manuscript looked like a year ago, including how the front and back cover boards were completely loose.  On the bottom and right center photos, you can see the work Quarto did to restore the binding. The conservators rebound the boards to the textblock and added chemical solutions to stabilize the cover’s leather.

3. Johannes Canonicus, Quaestiones supra octo libros physicorum, 1364 (MS 169)

This may have been the most challenging of the works sent offsite. A manuscript reflecting on Aristotle’s Physics, the entire binding and cover boards of the work were warped, pest damaged, and decayed to such a degree that it was virtually impossible to safely open the manuscript. But this was a popularly requested manuscript from researchers!

MS 169 – Top photos are before conservation, with the bottom two after.

To complicate matters, the cover boards appear to be original to the text, dating from the 14th century. However, the spine is coated and bound in a much later (19th century) paper binding, including bits of newsprint. This paper binding had rapidly deteriorated and was marked with evidence of past insect infestation. The binding was effectively non-existent, with the work and its textblock loose. Even attempting to open the book was difficult and caused damage to the text. Serious work was needed to stabilize it for continued use.

You can see the end result of Quarto’s work above. Keeping the original boards and binding was nigh-impossible, so the conservators created replica boards and alum-tawed calf cover (a calf leather prepared with a liquid solution to create a white appearance) — mimicking the style and weight of the original — with new binding.

MS 169 – String and paper binding shown on top, with original board on bottom.

But fear not! We do not toss out book materials in rare books! These pieces can tell us so much about the original production of a work or later restoration, rebindings, or conservation work. So the original boards, spine, and threads have all been kept and added to our collections. Patrons wishing to access the collections may see these pieces, alongside the restored manuscript.

4. German prayer book, 1440-80 (MS 178)

Our final work is a fifteenth-century prayer book from Germany. A small, but bulky text, this work presented an interesting challenge. Not only was the front board missing and the original binding exposed, but several pages were loose throughout the text. The back board was still present and attached, with the original leather partially covering it (but cracking and brittle). With cracking leather and an exposed textblock, handling this work was precarious.

MS 178 – Left column of images are before conservation, with the right after.

In the left column, you can see the manuscript prior to conservation. On the right is the manuscript after conservation. The goal was to stabilize the textblock for access and preserve the original binding, board, and leather. In order to do so, Quarto crafted a facsimile board for the cover, worked to stabilize the surviving leather, and reattach the loose pages. Without modifying or removing the original binding threads, the conservation team attached the new board to the front and developed a paper chemise (a case in which a book is stored) to offer an extra layer of protection to the text and binding. This chemise is easily removable (as seen in the photos) and will allow patrons to study the original binding, board, and leather. When not needed for viewing, the chemise can be slipped back on to protect these original components.

While there are many details that this post did not cover with respect to conservation efforts — especially when it comes to cleaning the textblock’s pages — we welcome all patrons to send us questions about the conservation process or these manuscripts.

As we work on our conservation efforts, we will continue to update the community. In the meantime, if you have any questions about accessing the above manuscripts or any materials in Rare Books or Special Collections, please contact us at: lib-rarebooks@cua.edu

Our digitized manuscripts may also be viewed at this link.

The Archivist’s Nook: Teleworking in the Archives

After a few months away, finally back in the stacks. Something seems different?

During spring break week in mid March, as many of the Catholic University community were away from campus, the Archives staff met to discuss our contingency plans for the spreading pandemic. Our researchers from across the United States and the world were beginning to cancel or delay scheduled appointments, and we began to determine how best to shift our services and resources online. With little time to prepare, we readied the stacks for a possible long-term closure.

Friday, March 13, 2020 would end up being the last normal day of work at the Archives. (Yes, Friday the 13th was when our “luck” ran out.)

When we think of essential workers during the current crisis, we rightly think of medical professionals, delivery drivers, grocery and pharmacy employees, custodians, etc. But even among those professions mostly teleworking, there are those who exercise an essential function. In addition to the facilities staff (a huge shout out to them!), many administrators and librarians at Catholic University have continued coming to campus to assist in the transition to online instruction, to guarantee that students and faculty (as well as most staff) could remain safely at home.

My home office, with a book to prop up my laptop for Zoom sessions and serve as comforting reading when I need a break.

As for the Archives staff, we need to monitor our collections to guarantee that the humidity and temperature levels are maintained at proper levels, that leaks are not occurring, or that bugs are not infesting the stacks! Plus, as many online collections as we have, most of our materials are still only available onsite. Each of our staff received a letter marking us as essential employees, able to come in to protect the collections during the strictest period of the DC shutdown.

Does that mean we took unnecessary risks to visit the stacks? No. Most of us continued to telework, with two of our staff (who live close by or can drive in) stopping in one to two days a week to check the collections. (A special thank you to Archivist, John Shepherd, and Special Collections Technician, Brandi Marulli, for keeping the onsite stacks maintained during the first few months of the pandemic. Not to mention Curator, Maria Mazzenga, and Graduate Library Pre-professional, Amanda Bernard, for expanding our digital presence during the shutdown.) As for me? I began to return to the onsite collections in June.

“Stay Home” signage lines the streets of my neighborhood. One morning, I found one such sign sitting like this just outside my house. Cleaning up or an artistic statement?

Overall, I have been fortunate thus far. I’ve been able to mostly telework, have kept my livelihood, and been healthy. As a current graduate student, despite my displeasure at endless Zoom sessions, my remote classes have kept me busy. (Knitting during Zoom classes tends to help me stay focused on the lecture/discussion!)

With that said, I do live alone. Many days are long, with my small basement apartment becoming the center for my entire life. For over four months, often the only outdoor activity I may get is an occasional walk or an early morning trip to the grocery store.

My family is back in central Nebraska, and they reside mere blocks from a meatpacking plant forced to remain open, despite becoming a hot spot for the virus. My family had no options for teleworking and the local authorities seemed unwilling to take the pandemic seriously. For months, almost every morning, before logging into my laptop to work remotely, I would talk to my relatives on the phone to see how everyone was doing and check in myself. (So far, so good!)

George Avenue in late March, after the Maryland and DC “stay at home” orders went into effect. This is at the height of rush hour, when this road is usually bumper-to-bumper traffic.

All this has made me reflect on my short- and long-term plans. Every year, I visit my family several times. But not in 2020. Maybe not in 2021. Wherever I have been in life, I have always found my way back to Nebraska every Christmas and New Years, to see my family and childhood friends. This may be the first time in my life I must skip that journey, for fear of risking my family’s safety by traveling.

I worry about finances, as so many schools and businesses face tough economic choices. I consider my meager savings now as not only a cushion for myself but possibly for my distant family and friends.

While taking graduate coursework during a pandemic is a challenge unto itself, I am relieved to have the distraction. But also taking these courses has helped provide a sense that my life is not stagnating in quarantine, that I am advancing in some capacity while sitting at home most of the week.

I have friends and family who are public school teachers, rewriting their wills as they are potentially put back into classrooms too early, grocery store workers and truck drivers on the “front lines” for months on end with no breaks, and childcare workers furloughed. I know people who (incorrectly) claim the virus is a hoax, and others who will never leave their homes out of fear of getting sick. I know people afraid, people struggling, and people offering hope.

I live mere blocks from a food pantry. One to two days a week since late March, a long line has stretched down the street from it. It is heart-breaking to see, but it is also encouraging that the pantry keeps helping. Volunteers still go in, despite any personal risks to health. Food is still being handed out to each person in that line. Donations keep coming in.

Mullen Library main stairwell, with not a soul around.

Collecting stories can be exhausting – reliving my own experiences of the pandemic or empathizing with those submitting their own accounts – but it is crucial work to preserve our tales for the future, to vocalize our experiences, and to help us understand that we are part of a broader web of human experiences during challenging times.

There are millions of stories during this pandemic. Many negative, some positive, and most still being written.

Keeping a journal myself, I want to end with one short reflection I wrote a few weeks ago, after I came to campus and had entered the still-closed library:

As I entered Mullen Library at 6:30 in the morning to check on the collections, I found myself alone in the building. Staring over my face covering and fogged-up glasses, I found a sight I usually love – a quiet, uncrowded library.

But not like this.

Not for these reasons.

Not due to a pandemic keeping patrons away and staff at home. Not from an economic crisis forcing us to make hard choices about what services we can provide. Not due to BIPOC students feeling targeted on campus, thus feeling unwelcome in their own library.

So many of us as individuals, groups, and localities have sacrificed to slow this pandemic, have helped those hurting economically, and have protested and started the long-term processes of confronting our own internalized and institutionalized racism.

Staring around me at dawn, this quiet library served as a reminder of both these challenges facing us and the collective actions we are taking to address them.

It is shuttered to help us control the spread of a virus. It is quiet due to staff mostly teleworking, with the Library working to maintain their employment and health in uncertain times. It is a time in which libraries are further reflecting on and working to address institutionalized racism in the profession, while providing (usually digital) sources to help others learn about these issues.

What will define this empty library – the challenges of the present moment or the work that hopefully helps and changes our culture? I’m a historian, not a seer, but I’ll do my best with my small platform in this currently quiet library to help.

In a few short weeks, there may be more people going up and down these stairs. While I’d like to see that, I do have concerns. So I’ll keep my mask and hope handy.

Just one account among many during these times of pandemic, social change, and economic upheaval.

To learn more about submitting your own story, please see this form. Questions or concerns can be addressed to: lib-archives+covid19@cua.edu

The Archivist’s Nook: War Comes to Campus – CatholicU Students in a Time of Crisis

Catholic University Receives War News Calmly

WWII Memorial, originally dedicated in McMahon Hall in 1945. Made by local sculptor, Frank Zuchet, it reads at the top, “We ask a memento for these students of the university who have died in service of their country”.

So reads the main headline of the December 12, 1941 Tower — the first issue of the Catholic University student newspaper published after the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. But reading into the article it headlines, and the many articles and letters that are in this same issue, one finds a variety of emotions on display beyond just “calm.” Many members of the campus community expressed fear and anger, patriotism, or even disinterest. This particular issue is a symphony of emotions and uncertainty. Students, faculty, and staff report hopes for peace, desire for revenge, or even attempts at making jokes. Columns advocated for a quick response by the college student to the crisis facing the nation and world. Rumors swirled about what would happen. The uncertainty about the length and severity of the conflict, or even if universities would be able to continue operating the same way in the short- or long-term weighed on many minds in December 1941 and in the months and years ahead.

In hindsight, it is easy to assume that everyone understood what was happening at the time and shared in a collective response. The hindsight of history has provided us with a perspective of the days and weeks following the US entry into World War II that can be uniform and seem well-planned, with every person and institution on the same page. But people and history are seldom so simple and clear-cut. And looking through the student-led Tower during the war years reveals the anxieties, hope, adjustments, and ultimate triumph of the campus community in the face of a global challenge.

Catholic University War Bonds Fundraiser in Mullen Library, 1943

To better understand their place and how their university may respond, students turned to the last major global conflict — World War I. The Tower reports efforts to understand how campus offices functioned and how groups such as the “Student Army Training Corps” operated at the time. Articles reflect on students enlisting and highlighted the way students rallied both to the nation and to the campus during the “Great War.” The paper also took pride in highlighting the service of WWI veterans among the current faculty and alumni community. In its column “C. U. Men of Yesteryear,” the focus shifted from job promotions and weddings to reporting largely on military enlistments. In the August 20, 1943  issue, the Tower casually reported on Class of 1912 alumni: 

Major-General Terry Allen, who so successfully commanded the first U.S. Infantry Division in North Africa, is currently leading the same outfit in the Sicily Campaign. 

Generals Omar Bradley (left), Terry de la Mesa Allen (center), and Dwight Eisenhower (right) pictured on November 10, 1944 in Grenzhof, Germany.

But it was not all focused on the war fronts, as campus life did continue. Changes to college life during the war years were anticipated, with a November 1942 Tower article discussing rumors about changing academic calendars, adjustments to how classes may be taught, and even shifting commencement dates. As the author put it: 

It indicated that the men in charge of the war effort, having solved the major problems connected with transferring the processes of civilian life to the methods of total war, were coming round to putting an end to the difficulties of the position of the colleges in war time.

As the war continued throughout the early 1940s, material and demographic changes occurred on campus. In addition to some dances and social gatherings, USO training sessions were held and military exercises occurred on campus. Publications like the Cardinal Yearbook were suspended from 1944-1947, and more women were able to enroll on campus.

1517th Army unit specialized training program at Catholic University, August 1943, marching in front of the now-vanished Albert Hall

As recounted in an earlier blog, the admittance of women to Catholic University was still relatively new and often limited to programs in the School of Nursing. But with so many male students enlisting, women began to take more active roles on the campus. In early 1943, for example, nine School of Nursing students joined the Tower staff as its first women members. But these writers were not merely replacements meant to keep the newspaper afloat, they were active agents shaping the future of the campus.

Among the nine writers, columnist and member of the Tower business staff Margaret Clarke ‘44, wrote:

It seems that throughout history women are facing some form of competition, some barrier, some challenge. Just in the past World War I days the women of the entire nation faced a challenge when they tried to gain the legal right to vote. But they overcame this challenge, and the country really doesn’t seem any worse today for it…Maybe if the few of this University would come to the realization that the women, too, belong to the University, that they are worthy of having an interest in what goes on about them on their campus. And yes, they have a right to partake in the various campus activities…maybe some day the few will learn to accept these students – and the University really won’t seem any worse then for it.

Catholic University War Bond Drive in McMahon Hall, 1943.

Despite the war ending in 1945, it would take several years for certain pre-war elements of campus life to return. For example, the Shahan Debating Society ceased operations during the war years and only returned in 1946. But other changes were fast and permanent. Women were more prevalent and active in the campus community. Not to mention, the G.I. Bill also led to an increased enrollment, dramatically ballooning the size of incoming classes. And with this increased enrollment came more and more new programs on the campus, from the School of Music to aerospace studies.

But students did not forget the war. Many of those present on the campus in the late 1940s and beyond were veterans. Memorials, both in print and in stone and wood, were established to remember the students and alumni who had passed away in the conflict. 

The November 12, 1946 sports page in the Tower memorialized those lost in the war. The caption reads: “The Editors of The Tower dedicate this potion of our paper to men of C. U. who made the supreme sacrifice, in World War I, and II, and whose names would have appeared on this page in various activities.”

During a time of great upheaval and uncertainty, Cardinals expressed various emotions and turned to the past to understand present challenges. But once the initial shock wore off, members of the campus community rallied both on and off campus, finding ways to win the day and build a University community adapted to the times. While sacrifices were made, opportunities also arose as the campus emerged out of the war years having forged new ways forward. Out of the crucible of crisis, Catholic University’s students adapted and persevered.

The Archivist’s Nook: The Catholic University COVID-19 Story Project – A Collection in Real Time

Stories may be shared to a digital archive, safely and remotely.

Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the world is undergoing an unprecedented moment in history. This collaborative effort between The Catholic University of America’s Library and Archives endeavors to document the reactions and experiences of members of the Catholic University community to the pandemic. As events continue to unfold, our stories and feelings may be in flux. We are living in a time on which future students and scholars will look back with curiosity and sympathy.

While the official records of the University’s response to this moment are already being collected in the University Archives, the idea behind this project is to paint a more complete picture of the historical moment. We welcome all submissions as small pieces in the larger mosaic of the Catholic University community’s experience of events related to the pandemic. This “collection in real time” will help future researchers study how our community collectively and individually adapted over the course of the pandemic. It will also put a human face on the administrative records from the period, illustrating the humor, fears, struggles, and triumphs across the community.

Studying or working remotely? Performing essential work? Keeping a journal of quarantined life? Trying to remain on top of things? Let us hear from you! (Pictured, student studying on the roof of Gibbons Hall, 1916.)

All members of the community—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—are encouraged to submit their comments and reflections for inclusion in the historical record. These accounts in the moment will help tell the evolving story of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Please note that these submissions do not have to be one-time-only or created by one person. We invite contributors to continue to update your stories throughout the duration of these events and share contributions involving multiple voices and perspectives. Multimedia submissions—such as video diaries, audio recordings, photographs, and artwork—are welcome, too.

We are interested in stories about:

  • How campus and other closures have impacted your life
  • The transition to online classes
  • Working, studying, or researching during the pandemic
  • How you are staying in touch with family, friends, and your broader community
  • Experiences navigating social distancing, closures, or stay-at-home orders
  • Creative outlets or new routines during the pandemic
  • How your faith may have been impacted by your experience of the pandemic
  • Other changes or events you have witnessed within the University or your local community

To submit your stories, please follow the link to the form. This form will provide a template for submitting and allow you to review information about your rights and consent. It will also allow you to decide whether you would like us to share your story now or archive it for future scholarship. As we collect stories, we will post the accounts of those who wish to make their stories public.

Again, submissions may be submitted via this form. Questions or concerns can be addressed to: lib-archives+covid19@cua.edu

The Archivist’s Nook: Sr. Bowman Goes to Washington

Photo courtesy of: Sister Thea Bowman Cause for Canonization

Sr. Bowman’s life was one rich with literature, music, education, and spirituality. A scholar and teacher to elementary- to college-age students – and even bishops. Bowman contributed to Catholic education, liturgy, and experience through her outreach and writings on music and education. And like Father Cyprian Davis, she was both an educator of and advocate for the Black Catholic experience – its creativity, art, history, and contributions to the Church.

Photo courtesy of: Sister Thea Bowman Cause for Canonization

Born in 1937 and raised in Canton, Mississippi, Bertha Bowman converted to Catholicism at the age of nine – convincing her parents to do likewise. By the age of 15, she decided to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, taking the religious name “Thea” or “of God”. She entered her postulancy at the order’s motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1953. Having witnessed police brutality and mob actions against members of her community growing up, Bowman’s parents were understandably nervous about their young daughter departing to join an all-white order. In a 1989 interview, Bowman recounts that her father warned her, “They’re not going to like you up there, the only black in the middle of all the whites.” Her response: “I’m going to make them like me.”[1]

While Bowman struggled with discrimination and health issues during the next decade of her life, she would quickly prove herself a skilled educator, serving with her order in Wisconsin, and later, her home state of Mississippi. Arriving at Catholic University in the late 1960s, she entered Washington at a key moment in the post-Vatican II Church, Civil Rights Movement, and Women’s Rights Movement. As a Black Catholic religious sister, she was well placed to speak to the overlapping issues of all three movements.

Photo courtesy of: Sister Thea Bowman Cause for Canonization

During her tenure in Washington, Bowman gained further insight into her identity as an African-American religious sister. Her connections with the broader Church and global African community – both the diaspora and African students – reignited a passion that she would carry with her throughout the remainder of her life. She not only established the first class on Black literature on campus, but she became an advocate for African-American Catholicism beyond Catholic University. She soon became a speaker of the experience of the African community with the Catholic Church, both the trauma of the past and present as well as the creative output of the present and future.  Rhetoric and music were key interests of Sr. Bowman, both of which informed her approach to her teaching and spiritual practices. As she told CUA Magazine in 1990:

While studying literary theory, methodology and criticism at CUA I began to realize the extent to which music encodes values, history and faith of my people. While studying medieval ballads, I read an author who said the oral literary tradition no longer exists. I wrote a paper showing how the oral tradition is alive and well in the black community and how music is a way we have of preserving history and teaching values.

Photo courtesy of: Sister Thea Bowman Cause for Canonization

Bowman’s passion for teaching, rhetoric, and music was exemplified in the presentations she offered both on and off campus during her time in DC. She delivered a 1968 address on Black education at Howard University.[1] As recalled by the CUA English faculty, Bowman would perform African-American Gospel spirituals in traditional regalia for her fellow Catholic University students and faculty. These performances would then be followed by a talk on the rhetorical purpose of the performance’s various components from the words to the physical gestures.[2]

As both a MA and later doctoral student in English language and literature, she wrote her MA thesis (1969) and doctoral dissertation (1972) on St. Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation. She was drawn to the rhetorical style of this text that More composed during his time imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Title page for Sr. Bowman’s 1972 dissertation

After finishing at Catholic University, Bowman returned to Mississippi, continuing to serve as an educator and advocate. She not only remained involved with her local communities, but traveled the nation (and world) speaking about Black music and literature within the Catholic Church. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, one of her final lectures was before the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1989. During this talk she performed an African-American spiritual, and invited the assembled bishops to stand, hold hands, and sing along. Bowman passed away in 1990, but her legacy of teaching, outreach, and advocacy continues as represented by her cause for canonization and scholarships in her name.

[1] Smith, Charlene & John Feister. Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman. Orbis Books, 106-9.

[2] Smith & Feister, 38.