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Little treasures inside old books

There have been more than a hundred findings such as poems, manuscript notes, and bookmarks in about ten years.

There have been more than a hundred findings such as poems, manuscript notes, and bookmarks in about ten years.

The star of the collection is this leaf with a shepherding image.

The star of the collection is this leaf with a shepherding image.

Ticket from a 1859 lottery to raise money for the Hispano-Moroccan War.

Ticket from a 1859 lottery to raise money for the Hispano-Moroccan War.

Rotating and parchment bookmarks.

Rotating and parchment bookmarks.

Unpublished extract from Sant Bonaventura <i> Comentaris</i> in Pere Llombard <i>Sentències</i>, found in a book spine from 1562.

Unpublished extract from Sant Bonaventura Comentaris in Pere Llombard Sentències, found in a book spine from 1562.



The smell of an old book, volumes from centuries ago that fill up the shelves… Entering the Manuscript room from the Rare Book and Manuscript CRAI Library of the UB is always special. Here lies the reserve collection of the University: an impressive compendium made of more than a thousand manuscripts, almost a thousand incunabula and around one hundred and twenty thousand works printed between the 16th and 18th centuries, which are a valuable piece of our history. Not only is this collection exceptional but it has other surprises.

Well preserved little treasures are hidden inside these books. Some drawings and engravings, pieces from newspapers, poems and manuscript notes, bookmarkers, pierced paper, dry flowers and even pins that survived the passing of time, and are now found during the process of cataloguing the books. “It is fascinating”, says Neus Verger, head of the Rare Book and Manuscript CRAI Library. “Taking an old book to catalogue, which has not been touched or open for a long time, and opening it to see what you can find, this is already exciting. But if apart from that you find these things…these are magical moments”, she says.

She still remembers the day they found what is now the star of the collection. It was one of their first findings: a tree leaf inside a book from the 18th century. It did not have anything special at first, but when seen backlit, they saw there was a shepherding image drawn in it. Pure magic. Many findings appeared after this one, more than a hundred in about ten years. “And the ones to be discovered”, she says.

Historical testimonials

Verger highlights the historical value of these findings: “We study history with great events; but here we do so with the experiences from people from the past who left pieces of their lives in a book. It’s microhistory”. An example can be a button, a lottery ticket used as a bookmarker, which takes us back to 1859, when the Hispano-Moroccan War started. The objective of that lottery was to raise money for the war, which put Spain against Morocco. The ticket was found in the book Angleterre ancienne (1789) and is definitely one of the most interesting findings. Another war, the Napoleonic wars in this case, makes the story for another of these findings. In February, CRAI was restoring an engraving from the Royal Palace of Madrid that reproduced Felipe V in the campaign of Portugal, on March 4, 1704. The engraving, from the 18th century was ripped and had a paper stuck to prevent it from deteriorating. When they took it out to restore it, the surprise appeared: the paper was an administrative document from the 19th century, which was used in French hospitals during the Napoleonic wars to register the ill.

A particular collection of bookmarks

The collection of bookmarkers collected during these years is also outstanding. String bookmarks were common in medieval libraries but they were so fragile that only a few survived. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library took some which are rather particular. In Diego José de Cádiz’s El hermitaño perfecto (printed in Seville in 1795), they found a bookmark that with a simple and smart mechanism, allowed going back to your reading page and the exact line the reader stopped reading. This is a round piece of parchment which is folded and sewed to a string that has a small arrow. Both sides of this circle have two numbers: “1” on top and “2” at the bottom. The staff in the library understood that number “1” or “2” indicated the verso or recto in the pages where the bookmark was. Then, moving this piece up to the wished part of the page, you could see the exact point where reading had stopped. A deduction task.

CRAI cataloguers had to think about the functioning of another bookmark. It was found inside José de Santa Teresa’s Flores del Carmelo. In this case, the text was in columns and was not helpful to use common bookmarks. It needed another solution. And readers of that time found it: a dynamic parchment bookmark, with two mobile pieces. One of them had four numbers, from 1 to 4, and the other had letters: “P”, “M” and “F”. Rotating the two pieces, the reader can mark the number of the column and the part of the column (“P” for beginning, “M” for middle and “F” for ending) s/he had stopped reading. “This is a unique piece, we have not found information about this anywhere”.

Reused manuscripts

Reaching these conclusions is not easy however. “That is why whenever we can, we try to have experts collaborating with us”, says Verger. Their participation is necessary in certain cases, such as the cataloguing of books that have parchment pieces in the bookbinding. In a time when noting was thrown if it could be reused for a certain purpose, it is common to find pieces of paper and parchment, manuscripts and printings, inside the book bindings. In this case a level of expertise is necessary to identify its origins. Fate wanted one of these to be in the hands of the researcher Daniel Gullo: a factitious volume with some treaties by Pere Alfons de Burgos printed in Barcelona in 1562. In the book spine of the in-octavo volume, Gullo, expert on Sant Bonaventura, found a piece of manuscript parchment from mid-14th century: it was an unknown extract of sant Bonaventura Comentaris in Pere Llombard’s Sentències. A blessed coincidence.

Files in attached materials

The amount of found pieces so far created the need of a specific file. First they write a description of each piece and it is added to the book file (attached material), so that it can be checked on the online site of the library. Then it is filed in a single archive, where they record the topographic signature of the book. Veger highlights the importance of the cataloguing task with these copies, a laborious process that requires time and dedication: “Cataloguing, mostly in a library like ours, is a primordial part, apart from preservation, because it allows us to know what we have”. They calculate there is still a third and a quarter of the collection to catalogue, a total of more than 37.000. Who knows how many treasures will be discovered.

This Flickr provides you with photographs of the most distinguished findings so far.


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