From the Lowy Room: remnants of Spanish Jewry

By Michael Kent

As a librarian, people often question me about the value of the print book in the digital age. After all, many of the books in the collections I serve can be found in digital formats online. While it is true that even the oldest works in Library and Archives Canada’s collections are now accessible in a range of formats online, I maintain that the power of the physical items—and the stories behind them—go far beyond the mere content of the page.

One of the items that evokes this sentiment in a powerful way is the fragment of the 1491 Pentateuch, the Jewish canonical scriptures, from Spain.

This Bible, printed by Eliezer ibn Alantansi in Hijar, Spain, was the last dated Hebrew book printed in Spain before the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492. While the age, the print quality, or the level of scholarship necessary to produce this book alone make it an important work in early printing, it is the story it tells about the expulsion of Spain’s Jews that makes it a powerful item to behold.

Sadly, refugee crises are not new. Currently, our world is in the midst of a global refugee crisis, a crisis we are able to observe almost first-hand due to the rise of social media. The modern world has allowed us to gain an important and humbling glimpse into the struggles of those living in refugee camps.

The breadth of media content, blogs, pictures and personal accounts will allow future generations of scholars to understand the struggles of contemporary refugees in a way previous generations of scholars could never have imagined. But what about past refugees—how do we try to understand the struggles of medieval refugees, their expectations, their former lives, their hopes for the future, and the devastation caused by their upheavals?

These questions represent a tremendous challenge for historians who wish to uncover the experiences of those in the past. History needs to be more than dates and the stories of the elites; the stories of the masses and the collective experiences we need to learn from are the important episodes that should be investigated.

This is where I return to the biblical fragment found in the Lowy collection. From a content-on-the-page perspective, does the Pentateuch represent anything more than a standard Rabbinic Bible, the type that could be downloaded for free? The simple answer is no. Looking outside the text, does this item provide insights into the lives of Spanish Jewry on the eve of expulsion? I believe the answer is a resounding yes.

A colour photograph of a yellowed, printed page written in Hebrew.

A leaf of the 1490 Hebrew Bible printed by Eliezer ben Avraham Alantansi (AMICUS 32329787)

I look at this page and see a community that saw itself as stable and with a future in Spain. In the early days of printing, a Bible like this would have been a major undertaking. The establishment of communal infrastructure in the form of a printing press, the investment in scholarship, and a major economic undertaking are, to me, evidence that Spain’s Jews saw themselves as secure and with a long and stable future in the Iberian Peninsula. I look at this page and see people who did not imagine the major upheaval and communal devastation that was less than two years away. In short, I see firsthand evidence of one of Medieval Europe’s largest refugee experiences.

As a librarian and curator, I strongly believe in the power of the physical book, a power that goes far beyond the content of the work. While e-books and websites ensure global access to a range of intellectual content, the humbling experience and historic evidence offered by the physical book are irreplaceable.


Michael Kent is the Curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection

New additions to Rare Books album now on Flickr

 

A colour photograph of an open book on a blue background showing a very well dressed man on the verso and an elaborately illustrated frontispiece on the recto.

Walton’s Polyglot Bible, Volume 1, 1654. Left: engraved portrait of Brian Walton. Right: engraved title page (AMICUS 940077)

The Rare Book Collection at Library and Archives Canada is one of the largest collections of rare Canadiana in the world. Canadiana is defined as works printed in Canada or printed outside of Canada but concerning Canada, written or illustrated by Canadians.

Visit the Flickr album now!

Guest curator Meaghan Scanlon

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


Les voyages du sieur de Champlain…, Samuel de Champlain, 1613 and its map, the Carte geographique de la Nouvelle Franse faictte par le sieur de Champlain [Geographical map of New France by Samuel de Champlain, 1613]

Les voyages du sieur de Champlain…, 1613 and its map Carte geographique de la Nouvelle Franse faictte par le sieur de Champlain [Geographical map of New France by Samuel de Champlain], engraved by David Pelletier in 1612. (MIKAN 3919638) (AMICUS 4700723)

Les voyages du sieur de Champlain…, 1613 and its map Carte geographique de la Nouvelle Franse faictte par le sieur de Champlain [Geographical map of New France by Samuel de Champlain], engraved by David Pelletier in 1612. (MIKAN 3919638) (AMICUS 4700723)

Explorer Samuel de Champlain saw Canada as a land of potential. He published this book, with an eye-catching map, to advertise its possibilities to investors. The beautiful drawings of plants are probably his own. Continue reading

From the Lowy Room: Canada’s Talmud

By Michael Kent

One of the most common questions I am asked as the curator of the Jacob M. Lowy collection is “which is your favourite book in the collection?” While I am unsure if I will ever be able to pick one, there is a work in the collection which I often highlight. Visitors are not surprised when I mention it is one of our Talmuds, the written compendium of Jewish oral law codified in antiquity and arguably the most important Jewish text after the Torah, after all we have impressive volumes from Soncino from the 1400s and Bomberg from the 1500s. I often get a surprised look when instead of selecting a 500 year old volume, I pick a volume that is not even 100 years old.

The item, and one of my favourite works in the collection, is the 1919 Montreal Talmud, which’s publication was termed “the most important event in the annals of Canadian Jewry,” by Canadian Jewish Congress president Lyon Cohen.

To truly appreciate my admiration for this printing of the Talmud, one needs to understand Canadian Jewish history. While some Jews did arrive in Canada during the 1700s, large scale Jewish immigration to Canada did not begin until 1880s. In the early 1900s, the majority of Canadian Jews were actually born in Eastern Europe.

A colour photograph of an open book showing Hebraic writing.

Frontispiece of the 1919 Montreal Talmud in the Jacob M. Lowy Room at Library and Archives Canada.

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Superheroes of the Digital Universe: Digitizing the Bell Features Collection

By Meaghan Scanlon

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is excited to announce a new digital resource for fans of Canadian comic books. The Bell Features Collection of Second World War-era comics has been completely digitized and is now available to researchers online.

The Bell Features Collection consists of 382 comic books, most in multiple copies, published in the 1940s by the Canadian comic book publisher Bell Features. These comics showcase an astounding selection of Canadian heroes such as Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Johnny Canuck, and Dixon of the Mounted.

Between November 2015 and March 2016, LAC’s digitization staff painstakingly photographed one copy of each issue held in the collection—a total of 193 comic books. At between 50 and 60 pages per comic, that’s around 10,000 pages!

Creating electronic copies of these delicate documents from LAC’s collection involved hours of careful labour from technicians in our digitization labs, who follow rigorous standards to get the best possible images while preserving the condition of the items.

The process begins with a technician placing a comic on a flat copy stand under an overhead camera, making sure to line the comic up with the camera so that the image taken will be straight. A sheet of Plexiglas is laid over the item to keep it flat. The Plexiglas is on small risers to ensure as little contact as possible with the surface of the comic. This helps prevent damaging the item by placing too much pressure on its spine. Every superhero has an archenemy, and so, too, does the digitization specialist: dust. A single particle on the Plexiglas can create a spot that ruins an image. The technician keeps an anti-static blower on hand to defeat this threat.

A comic book is placed on a flat black surface underneath a sheet of Plexiglas. A woman leans over the surface, using an anti-static blower to remove dust from the Plexiglas. The lens of a camera is visible above the table.

A digitization technician uses an anti-static blower to remove dust from the sheet of Plexiglas covering the comic book she is about to photograph. The camera lens can be seen suspended above the copy stand.

Once the comic book is in place, the technician uses an overhead camera to take a photograph. For the Bell Features Collection, a Phase One 645DF+ camera body with an IQ260 digital back and an 80-mm lens was used, with an F11 focus and a shutter speed of 1/13th of a second. The image taken with the camera is automatically uploaded to the technician’s computer, where she checks for imperfections. If she is satisfied with the image quality, she crops it in Photoshop and moves on to the next page.

A woman faces a computer monitor showing an image of a page from a comic book.

A digitization technician checks for imperfections in the digitized image of a page from Slam-Bang Comics no. 7 (AMICUS 42623987), with art by Adrian Dingle.

This entire process is repeated for each page of each comic book. Once all the pages of an issue have been photographed and the images corrected, a PDF version is created. Finally, this PDF is uploaded to LAC’s servers and a link is added to the relevant record in LAC’s online library catalogue.

If you’re interested in checking out a few of these newly digitized old Canadian comics, you can find a small sample on our website. Hungry for more? The finding aid attached to the catalogue record for the Bell Features Collection (AMICUS 43122013) includes links to all of the digitized comics. You can also access them via the catalogue records for each of the individual titles in the Bell Features Collection; see for example the record for Active Comics (AMICUS 16526991).

In the Ottawa area? Encounter some of Bell Features’ characters on a bigger scale when you visit LAC’s exhibition Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity. It runs at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa until September 14th. Admission is free.

Additional resources


Meaghan Scanlon is the Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Anne in the library: introducing the Cohen Collection

By Meaghan Scanlon

In five accessions between 1999 and 2003, Canadian lawyer, film producer, and bibliographer Ronald I. Cohen donated his extensive Lucy Maud Montgomery collection to Library and Archives Canada. (See AMICUS 44572655 for a description of the collection.) The collection contains materials related to adaptations of Montgomery’s work, as well as anthologies and periodicals in which Montgomery is featured. But the bulk of the collection consists of various editions of Montgomery’s published novels, including, of course, her most famous book, Anne of Green Gables.

Among the approximately 420 items in the Cohen Collection are no fewer than 46 copies of Anne of Green Gables. Three of these are in Japanese, two in French, and one each in Korean, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish. The other 37 are in English.

Why, you might ask, would anyone need 37 English-language copies of Anne of Green Gables? Isn’t the story the same every time? The answer is that for book collectors, it’s often not about the story told in the text. Rather, collecting is an opportunity to discover the story of the book itself, its publication, and the way it has been marketed and received. Many book collectors set out to document the history of an author or title as completely as possible through their collections. For some, this means amassing many copies of the same title.

The Cohen Collection traces the spread of Anne of Green Gables across the English-speaking world through its inclusion of early American, British, Australian, and Canadian editions. The novel was originally published in Boston in April 1908 (AMICUS 9802890). This first edition was extraordinarily popular and Montgomery’s publisher, L. C. Page, reprinted it at least 12 times before the end of 1909. The Cohen Collection contains copies of the sixth (November 1908) and eleventh (August 1909) printings.

Copyright page of the Cohen Collection copy of the sixth printing of the first edition of Anne of Green Gables

Copyright page of the Cohen Collection copy of the sixth printing of the first edition of Anne of Green Gables (AMICUS 9802890, copy 5). “Impression” is another word for printing.

The first British edition of Anne of Green Gables was also published in 1908 (AMICUS 21173240). Anne then made her way to Australia in 1925 (AMICUS 26942864). Interestingly, despite the iconic status of Montgomery and her work in Canada, the first Canadian edition of Anne of Green Gables (AMICUS 1706899) did not appear until 1942. This edition, too, went through several printings; the earliest copy in the Cohen Collection dates from 1948.

Although the story remains the same in each edition, the depiction of its heroine, Anne Shirley, on the books’ covers does not. Audiences in different places and time periods have encountered different representations of Anne, from the mature-looking woman on the first edition to the sometimes cartoonish drawings on later versions. The Cohen Collection’s copies of Anne of Green Gables document the visual history of the character through their illustrations, cover art, and dust jackets.

In fact, when Ronald I. Cohen started collecting L. M. Montgomery’s books, finding copies with dust jackets was one of his main goals. Historically, dust jackets were often discarded by readers (and libraries!) and early examples can be extremely hard to find. The numerous rare dust jackets in the Cohen Collection are therefore a highly valuable resource for researchers looking at the history of one of Canada’s most beloved literary classics.

To learn more about the Ronald I. Cohen Collection of Works by L. M. Montgomery, listen to the latest episode of Library and Archives Canada’s podcast, Kindred spirits after all!


Meaghan Scanlon is the Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Images of fore-edge paintings now on Flickr

Fore-edge images are painted images on the edges of book pages. The pages are either fanned or closed for the image to be visible. These types of paintings can be found as far back as the 10th century. Early images were symbolic or decorative, but the art evolved into scenic landscapes or portraiture by the 18th century. Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Rare Book Collection has 12 volumes that are known to have fore-edge paintings.

Drawn from Real Life: Hillborough Studio’s First Canadian Comic Book Heroes

By Meaghan Scanlon

In August 1941, a small Toronto-based comic book publisher called Hillborough Studio released the first issue of its first title, Triumph Adventure Comics. The series is an anthology, with each issue containing several one-page humour strips along with a few longer feature stories. These features showcase heroic characters like Cape Breton strongman Derek of Bras d’Or and Inuit demigoddess Nelvana of the Northern Lights.

The fact that these characters both have distinctly Canadian identities is no coincidence. The first issue of Triumph Adventure Comics includes a letter from the comic book’s editor to its readers, which notes that the stories in issue no. 1 “all have a Canadian background, which will delight you not only in this edition, but in the many issues to follow.” Who would produce these Canadian stories? Naturally, the editor says Hillborough employs “the best artists in Canada.”

The team of artists and writers behind Triumph Adventure Comics sometimes drew on real-life Canadians for inspiration. The creators of Derek of Bras d’Or based the character on Angus McAskill (sometimes spelled MacAskill), a Cape Bretoner famous for his incredible strength and gigantic stature. McAskill, who was almost eight feet tall, toured the world as a curiosity during the 1840s and 1850s.

A black-and-white photograph of two men standing: one is very tall and the other is very short.

Angus MacAskill and Tom Thumb. (MIKAN 3531760)

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Comic books at Library and Archives Canada

As the keeper of Canada’s national documentary heritage, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collects a wide range of published Canadiana, including comic books. The collection includes not only comics published in Canada, but also comics by Canadian creators published in other countries. Comic books published in Canada are often acquired via legal deposit. But LAC has also received two important collections from private sources that greatly enhance its holdings of Canadian comics. The largest of these is the John Bell Canadian Comic Book Collection. Donated by comic book historian and former LAC archivist John Bell, the collection includes approximately 4,000 comic books, ranging from Second World War era superhero comics to 21st century zines. Currently, the collection is uncatalogued, but a complete list of all items in the first two accessions is available in AMICUS.

Colour photograph showing a filing box with folders with labels, one is pulled out half-way and a red comic book with the 10¢ price peeks out of the folder.

One box from the catalogued and housed Bell Features Collection

Second World War era Canadian comics are also well-represented in LAC’s Bell Features Collection, which consists of 382 comic books from the corporate archive of one of the major publishers of the period, Toronto-based Bell Features. These older Canadian comics are extremely rare, and the Bell Features Collection is one of the richest resources available. The collection has been fully catalogued, and a collection-level description listing all the titles is available in AMICUS. Over the last few decades, comic books and graphic novels have been increasingly recognized as a literary genre worthy of serious study. In the 1940s, however, comics were considered “throwaway” books for children, as demonstrated by the fact that many Bell Features comics include games and activities for young readers. Because of their ephemeral nature, 1940s comic books were printed on cheap, poor-quality newsprint. As a result, there are various conservation issues to consider when storing comics. Fortunately, the vaults at LAC’s state-of-the-art Preservation Centre provide optimal environmental conditions. The Bell Features Collection is stored in acid-free, closed boxes that protect the comics from harmful light exposure and dirt. Inside the boxes, each comic book is kept in a paper envelope that is open on the top and front edges allowing the comics to slide in and out of their housing with a reduced risk of catching or tearing on a tight opening. The envelopes also contain an alkaline reserve that helps slow down the harmful effects of the acid in the paper. Listen to the podcast Guardians of the North: Comic Books in Canada to learn more about Canadian comics.

Related resources

New additions to the Rare Books Collection: a census

After receiving the recent additions to the Rare Books Collection, the conservation team conducted a census or survey, to determine the state of the collection. The questions on the census were developed by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) conservators, in consultation with the rare book librarians. The conservation team then assessed the books individually and recorded the information.

The primary information recorded was on the condition of the collection, but also included information about the decoration and style of the books. Everything was documented regarding the initial condition of each book and any need for conservation—whether minor or major conservation was needed, and if there was any structural damage. The level of leather deterioration and the need for leather consolidation (a surface treatment to stop the deterioration of the leather) was also noted. The specific housing needs for each book was also assessed and noted—whether a wrap, wrap and tie or box was needed. Other details recorded were: cover decoration, the presence of marbled paper and bookplates, and any interesting inscriptions, missing volumes, etc.

Pie chart showing the portions of the new collection in conditions ranging from poor to excellent.

Figure 1. The results of the new rare books condition census.

After the completion of the census, leather consolidation was carried out on 499 of the 518 books. Following these treatments approximately 8% of the collection was upgraded from fair to good condition. The number of books in fair condition decreased from 38% to 30% and the number of books in good condition increased from 27% to 35%. Rehousing was only needed for 15% of the collection and has been completed.

A table and pie chart showing the housing types required for the collection. The vast majority do not require any special housing, while some require wrap, wrap and tie, or boxes.

Figure 2. How much of the collection required rehousing.

Now that the census has been completed, the team has written a report that summarizes and presents all the results in easy-to-read graphs and charts. The report will be an invaluable tool for conservators, and will help plan future conservation projects as well as serve as a research tool for librarians and archivists.