Tag Archives: libraries

Breaching the walls of the Folger Shakespeare Library

After a 2 month hiatus, I am back to recording progress on my trip. Coming back and re-establishing myself was more challenging than I imagined – in fact the trip itself was more challenging than I thought it would be. My apologies for leaving you hanging!

Motorcycling to the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC

Getting into a special collection library can be daunting. University libraries have their system, public libraries have somewhat easier methods and private libraries can be the most restrictive. But things are changing in the library world and the vetting process has become a little less stringent.

The Folger Shakespeare Library requires letters from two individuals with .edu or .org email addresses. Generally that means an academic institution or non-profit research library. I was fortunate to acquire letters from one of each and the librarians said some nice things about me and my project.

I was excited that I was granted entry as a reader. I’ve visited the Folger’s conservation lab a number of times, but going in as a researcher is different than visiting a colleague.

It was raining lightly on Saturday, September 11, 2015 when I rode to the library. My hosts live in Silver Spring, MD about 9 miles from the library, a 45 minute commute during the week. On a Saturday, it’s faster as there is less traffic on the roads.

If I was going to be a riding reader, I should ride to the library at least once while in the nation’s capital. I arrived somewhat damp in my riding gear. The guard didn’t believe that I had permission to enter. After requesting my identification, she told me to stand in the lobby while she checked the reader services desk. I dripped water on the stone floor as I awaited my fate. Would I be allowed into this august library or be thrown out as motorcycle trash? The guard didn’t appear to like a damp biker being allowed into the library. I guess not everybody in the library world has come to embrace motorcyclists?

Requests for items are made prior to arrival so the staff has time to page them, I’d made my request on Friday. Saturday, the hours are curtailed, so it makes sense to do this. Requesting vault or restricted items, they are pulled only during the week.

At the desk, I asked for my books and a young woman in jeans (librarians don’t wear jeans, do they?) brought them to me. She asked why I had requested the particular books I had. Briefly (yeah, right!) I told her about Motoscribendi and my research. She listened attentively and then introduced herself as Heather Wolfe, the curator of manuscripts at the Folger. We stood there for half an hour talking about writing manuals, different calligraphic hands, quill cutting and the world of rare books and the chance to look at old books and manuscripts. It was like meeting an old friend and catching up. Heather’s knowledge and enthusiasm are what makes this kind of work exciting. Meeting with an inquisitive, engaged paleographer happy to talk with me about these things gave me an even greater sense of being a part of something worth pursuing.

Practicing the Secretary Hand

Heather teaches paleography classes on the Secretary hand at the library. Even though many manuscripts at the library are in English, they are all but indecipherable without some training. The library has around 60,000 manuscripts many of which are written in a Secretary hand. Heather and her colleagues have been working on a project to teach paleography and get people involved in transcribing documents from the collection. Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) has just launched Shakespeare’s World to use crowdsourcing technology to allow interested individuals to be a part of reading and transcribing these manuscripts.

We talked about quill-cutting, parchment-making and other scribal traditions and how exciting it is to look at these materials and discover things about production and use.

When I went to sit down to look at the books, she apologized for taking me from my work, but the truth was that speaking with her is my work. Getting to look at books and learning more about these writing manuals is important, but I wanted to meet the scholars, librarians and staff that are charged with caring for these books.



Manuscript note about writing masters in the Folger Shakespeare’s 1588 copy 2 of Palatino’s Compendio del Gran Volume

After lunch, I came back and continued looking at the books I’d called up. Palatino’s writing manuals have been well researched by Stanley Morison and others, but I think there’s more to learn by looking at these books. A digital copy will only represent one iteration.  Each time I open a writing manual, I am excited to see how it has lived and been used.

Palatino’s Compendio del Gran Volume. 1566, with an owner’s practice flourishes on the title page

This interplay of book and reader shows the challenge of learning to master a particular hand. Sometimes the student is not very skilled, and sometimes they are better. And often, the progression is obvious through the book’s progression.

1667 manuscript copying of exemplars in the Folger Shakespeare’s 1566 reprint of Palatino’s Compendio del Gran Volume

You see in the above image a woodblock that was cut in 1565 being used in the 1566 edition of the Compendio del Gran Volume. This block was cut a year before the printing of this book. It was the norm for woodblocks to be stored and reused in subsequent books. Typesetting for the later editions was newly done yet the woodblock is older. This copy then, has three distinct time element in this one page:

1565: Woodblock

1566: Typeset signature mark at lower right “Ciij”

1667: Manuscript practice, dated to a century later

1667 manuscript copying of exemplars in the Folger Shakespeare’s 1588 reprint of Palatino’s Compendio del Gran Volume

And on the verso of the leaf marked “Ciij” is another block cut a year later in 1566 with the same 17th century scribe’s annotation of Palatino’s full name.

There’s more to discuss about the Folger’s Palatino collection, and I’ll continue that in my next post.






Home is where the Hurricane is parked

Tecopa, CA at sunrise looking West
Tecopa, CA at sunrise looking West

I’m breaking the mostly-chronological nature of the story to report that I’ve made it back to Oakland, CA. I returned last Thursday and am getting re-acclimated to being off the road and returning to a daily routine.

As I rode through the mountains and into Death Valley, temperatures rose, but the day was so chilly that I had to stop in Furnace Creek for warmth and food. The previous couple of days were a bit challenging. I’d left Sedona, AZ on Monday, the 9th after having lunch with a couple I know from Oakland. It was bright and chilly, and I wanted to make it down from the San Francisco Peaks mountain range before it got too late in the day. I managed to do that and rode until around 7:00 with a few stops to warm up. My gloves were no longer waterproof or wind proof and I was wearing cloth gloves as liners to keep me somewhat warmer.

Around 7:00 I stopped at the Tecopa school district building to check my map and see how far I still had to travel. It could have been around the next bend, or 10 miles away, I didn’t know. The building has street lights so I felt safe stopping in the parking lot to check my phone.

As I started off, the bike died. And when I tried to restart it, the battery went completely dead and I was left without power of any kind. Because this had happened three previous times on the trip, I was familiar with the symptoms and possible cure. I pulled all my gear off to get under the seat and to the battery. I checked the wires to the main fuse block and  the fuse itself. All was in order, so I then checked the battery. It was hot to the touch. Not warm or neutral as it should be, but hot. This meant that the battery was fried from too much voltage returning to it after the alternator created electricity.

The Honda Hurricane has a regulator/rectifier that manages input and output of power through the system. I knew now that I’d have to find a new battery and the bike was not going anywhere that night. My chill was not so great as to be worrisome, but I was weary and mildly concerned as to my location in regards to the Tecopa motel I was scheduled to stay at. Still in my riding gear, I started down the dark road in hopes of finding the motel close by. After walking into the dark, I retraced my steps. I had to have faith in my mantra: “I wonder what nice people I’ll meet today.”

No car had come by in 10 minutes and I didn’t know how long it might be for the next one. I was tired and didn’t think it wise to leave the light. If someone was going to pick me up, it would be better to stand under the street light and be visible.

I said I’d start walking if a car didn’t come by in 20 minutes. Around 17 minutes into it, two cars passed me traveling in the opposite direction. I waved my cap slowly like a train signalman to get their attention. They pulled into the parking lot and were happy to take me to the motel. Brad drove his wife and friend back home just around the corner. His friend was in the second car and didn’t know the area in the dark.

When Brad picked me up we had a nice discussion and got along so I asked if he hired out as a taxi. He said he’d take me the 30 miles to O’Reilly’s and get a replacement battery the next day. True to his word, we met up in the morning and the four of us wandered northeast to Parhump, NV to replace the burned up battery.

I was happy that the new battery fit and worked properly, so I relaxed a little and sat in the hot tubs supplied as part of the motel fee. My neck hurt quite a bit from crouching down behind the windshield so I splurged and got a massage after a hot tub soak. This made me much more relaxed.

After a slow night of relaxation and further dips, I got up at 4:00 a.m. for a final soak. I wrote some and organized myself for the penultimate day’s ride through Death Valley. I wrote a few postcards and headed to the Post Office at 8:00 a.m. to send them on their way on Wednesday, Veteran’s Day.

Tecopa Post Office
Tecopa Post Office
Death Valley, CA
Death Valley, CA

Death Valley is beautiful and when it’s chilly rather than boiling hot, it’s a refreshing (if cold) experience. I was set to meet a buddy at Big Pine, CA at noon. I made it to Lone Pine, some 40 miles south, around 12:15. We connected and rather than travel north, I was able to rest and warm up while he ate and headed south. The roads were icy on Hwy 50 and that meant all passes across the Sierra were icy. The only thing to do was travel south to cut across Hwy 178 past Lake Isabella. Those canyons are quite beautiful, but cold on this wintery day. We managed to hit the last canyon after the sun was low enough to  be hidden by the mountains. But it wasn’t yet dark, so the temperature hadn’t plunged to freezing yet.

We gassed up and headed north on Hwy 99 out of Bakersfield and rode for almost another hour before stopping for Mexican food. The meal was welcome and put a little heat in us, so that we could continue on to Elk Grove where Rob lives. We made it there by 10:30. I’d started at 8:00 that morning and was thoroughly exhausted by the 660 mile ride that day.

Thursday I got up and had a great breakfast, then rolled into my shop in Oakland around 1:00 p.m. 98 days from when i left.

Return to Oakland after 98 days on the road
Return to Oakland after 98 days on the road

There are still many more stories to tell about the books and people I met along the way. And now that I’m back, I can organize my thoughts and continue the narrative.

The trip was quite successful and has energized me with both research questions and artistic ideas. I will be going back out on the road in the Spring next year to go to libraries I didn’t visit this trip. Weather dictated that I miss Boston and Rochester, so they’ll be a particular focus on my next trip and I got sick in NYC and had to cancel trips to Philadelphia area libraries.

Because I found many more things to look at than time allowed, I’ll be revising a number of libraries from the first visit. Therefore, Motoscribendi will continue.

I’ll be doing research on how to prepare and present the database. I’ve learned a few things that should help make it a more open and useful tool than I first envisioned. That work will continue and I welcome input as to how best to do it.


Coffee in Berkeley just days before leaving
Coffee in Berkeley just days before leaving Photo C. Stinehour

The Motoscribendi tour rolls out in a few hours. I packed all my clothes and camping gear, now the hard part comes: Getting the traveling writing kit together – pens, inks, paper, etc.

Packing the bike
Packing up to leave. Photo M. Smith

The t-shirts are done as you can see and have already been shipped out, so that’s been a relief to have accomplished. Thanks to Meg Smith, other fulfillment will be done while I’m gone. And she and her boyfriend are taking their bikes to escort me to Sacramento on Delta roads and twisties just to get things going.

Where am I going?

I’ve come to the conclusion that an itinerary will help – even if I change things up along the way. The list below is my first attempt at routing.

August 6th – Saturday 8th: Oakland/Santa Fe, NM
August 10th – Tuesday 11th: Santa Fe/Austin
August 12 – 18 Austin, TX
August 18 – 21 Houston
August 22 – 23 Houston/Iowa City
August 24 – 25 Iowa City, IA
August 26 Iowa City/Chicago
August 27 – September 2 Chicago, IL
Sept. 2 Chicago/Ann Arbor, MI
Sept. 3 – 4 Ann Arbor & Detroit, MI
Sept. 5 – 6 Detroit/Charlottesville
Sept. 6 – 7 Charlottesville, VA
Sept. 8 – 9 Richmond, VA
Sept. 10 Richmond/Washington, D.C.
Sept 11 – 15 Washington, DC
Sept. 16 Washington, DC/Princeton
Sept. 17 -18 Princeton, NJ
Sept. 19 Princeton/NYC
Sept. 20 – 26 NYC
Sept 27 NYC/New Haven
Sept 28 – 29 New Haven, CT
Sept. 30 New Haven/Worcester
Oct. 1 – 3 Worcester, MA
Oct. 4 Worcester/Cambridge
Oct. 5 – 8 Cambridge, MA
Oct. 9 -10 Hanover, NH
Oct 11 Hanover/Scranton, PA
Oct. 12 Scranton/Philadelphia
Oct 13 – 14 Philadelphia, PA
Oct. 14 Philadelphia/Cleveland
Oct. 15 – 17 GBW, Cleveland, OH
Oct. 23 – 24 APHA Rochester, NY
Oct. 25 – 31 Return to CA, no fixed itinerary

Remember, this is a motorcycle tour of libraries that have writing manuals and copybooks, and to keep that in mind, here’s a few more items to look at.

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library Photo NGY
Horfei @ Harry Ransom Center Photo NY
Horfei @ Harry Ransom Center Photo NGY

I’ll see you in a few days with a report.

Many Thanks!

Many Thanks!
Many Thanks

Thanks to all who contributed  to Motoscribendi!

The final count was $6,579 and this will allow me to print and make all the Perks (they will begin going out next week) and then allow me at least 45 days on the road. While 45 days isn’t a long time to travel 12,000 miles and visit almost 20 libraries (yes, the number has increased since I started this!) I will still spend a few days at each institution and gather information, look at the books and work with librarians to develop the Census.

Below are some shots Jennie Hinchcliff took at a presentation I made at the Letterform Archive.

Motoscribendi smacky prints
Motoscribendi smacky prints
Bookcase at the Letterform Archive
Bookcase at the Letterform Archive
Pointing out a manuscript exemplar at the Letterform Archive
Pointing out a manuscript exemplar at the Letterform Archive
Van de Velde & copy
Van de Velde & copy
Pairings from bamboo pens cut by Ward Dunham
Parings from bamboo pens cut by Ward Dunham

I owe a ton of thanks to a number of people who encouraged me as well as helped organize the project. Next week I’ll get things organized enough to do a proper thank you as I have been scrambling to get all the artwork completed, sent to printers: T-shirt, sticker and offset printers.

I will be on the road by Wednesday night, August 5th. And I’ll probably leave at 8:00 pm and make all of 100 miles before I stop! I’ll continue the blog from the road.

Motoscribendi: 1 Man, 1 Motorcycle & 14 Libraries launched on Indiegogo

My Indiegogo Motoscribendi campaign is now up. I’ve made a video describing the kinds of things I’ll be looking at. I volunteered at this week’s conference of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Hosted in Oakland and on the campus of UC Berkeley’s libraries, hundreds of librarians came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities of libraries in the digital era. It was a good time meeting up with a few old friends and meeting new colleagues from around the country.

When I wasn’t helping out, I was in my shop working on the video and cutting a woodblock logo for the project.

In process woodblock of Motoscribendi logo
In process woodblock of Motoscribendi logo

The excitement of cutting letters in wood continues to grab me. Taking a letterform and rendering it in relief in wood is physically demanding and challenging. The resultant printed image transforms the scribal experience.

I’ll have more images of writing books and my own woodcuts posted in a day or two.