Category Archives: History of Science

Hints of Gold in the Backlog: Part 4 of 4

This is Part 4 of a research exploration by Cataloger Vance Woods and History of Science/Rare Books Librarian Anne Bahde.  Part 1Part 2; Part 3.

With these details confirmed, Vance could finally prepare the catalog record for the item. The time spent on cataloging proper is by far the least time-intensive of the process; the key is to have all the pertinent information at hand so that when one begins working on the bibliographic record most of the necessary data is readily available. 

As it happens, Vance was in the middle of a rare books cataloging class, and was able to incorporate some of the things he learned in the class into the record as he went. For one thing, having not worked with too many items of such early date, this was Vance’s first foray into the wonderful world of signatures (otherwise known as a collation, an indication of how the printed leaves were meant to be folded and gathered for binding). In this case, the situation was complicated by the fact that the symbol used was the Greek letter eta, which is not available in most cataloging systems, and therefore required bracketing and “transcription”: “Signatures (in Greek characters): ē4.”

Through each step of our research process to answer our initial questions “what is this item?” and “how did it come to OSU?,” we both had to call on our primary source literacy skills. Primary source literacy is defined as the set of skills needed to successfully find, understand, analyze, interpret, and use primary sources such as rare books and archives in research. 

Developed in 2015-2018 by a team of 12 special collections and archives educators (of which Anne was a proud member), the SAA/ACRL-RBMS Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy show why these skills are critical for students of all ages engaging in any research involving original sources. Fluid flexing of these skills allowed us to find information quickly and efficiently through the research process for our Libavius item.

At the beginning of our process, we drew on the item to generate and refine our research questions, moving from “what is this item?” to exploring its role in the alchemical debate and the potential complications of its publication (1C). As sources were discovered and knowledge was extended, our questions took on different angles and elements, and new information was gathered at each step. We integrated that knowledge into our searching, and searched in different ways for the item in different places (1D). To place the item in a disciplinary context, we pursued secondary sources and used our knowledge of the relationships between secondary and primary sources. (1A). We examined the item and factored in material elements to understand the piece through the communication norms of the period (3A, 4E). Because we understood that the title might exist in a variety of iterations, excerpts, transcriptions, or translations through time, we searched for it across multiple platforms and adjusted our search terms as needed. (3C).

As we learned more about the item, we evaluated it critically in light of what we knew about the creator and his personal biases, as well as the original purpose behind its publication (4B). We were able to situate the source in context by applying knowledge about the time and culture in which it was created, while considering its publication history and format (4C). Our consultation of trusted expertise helped us identify and consider the reasons for gaps and contradictions in the potential publication history of the item (4D). 

When examining its provenance and movement through the centuries, we articulated what might serve as primary sources to answer this question: purchase receipts, communication with dealers, descriptions from rare book dealers and auction records (1B). We identified possible locations of these sources in other collections using a variety of strategies and pursued those leads for more information (2A, 2B). We encountered policies that affected our access to primary sources and recognized their potential impact on our research (2E). When considering new sources, such as the auction catalog, we assessed their appropriateness for meeting our goals (4A). We met the actors in our story with historical empathy and understood how their moment in history affected their actions (4E). Finally, through our reports here, we communicated the content of sources with attention to the context of their production (3E). We examined a variety of sources to construct our research claims (5A), and practiced appropriate citation and copyright practices (5B, 5D). 

With the catalog record completed, the Libavius pamphlet can take its place at last among its partners in the History of Science Rare Book Collection and join a strong concentration of rare books on the history of pharmacy and chemistry. Because we now know some of its hidden stories, the item can now function in a variety of ways to teach these primary source literacy skills. It might used to support classes or research involving early modern scientific discourse or communication, or the history of pharmaceutical use of metals, or the effects of war on the human condition, or the movement and dispersal of collections over time. 

For each of these approaches, this same Libavius pamphlet could be used in class activities or research, but for each context it can hold a different teaching power, and be used to teach and learn various primary source literacy skills in partnership with other complementary sources. 

The resources needed to complete quality descriptive cataloging of materials are significant, and the effort must nearly always be collective. We complete our stage of this work with questions still turning in our heads: Was the full text for our preface ever published? Might there be a record of anyone using or referencing it? Were there more prefaces printed? If so, where did they go, and if not, why not? How might this text have affected alchemical arguments of the time? Knowing that research is iterative, and that there will always be more questions than time, we place the item in the collection and wait for others to take up these paths of inquiry. 

Acknowledgements
Professor Bruce Moran, University of Nevado-Reno
Brad Engelbert, Oregon State University Library and Press 
Cali Vance, University of Washington Special Collections
Allee Monheim, University of Washington Special Collections
Thüringer Universitäts- und Landsbibliothek in Jena, Germany staff

Bibliography and Further Reading

Principe, Lawrence M., ed. Chymists and Chymistry: Studies in the History of Alchemy and Early Modern Chemistry. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2006. 

Moran, Bruce T.. Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. United Kingdom: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Moran, Bruce T.. Paracelsus: An Alchemical Life. United Kingdom: Reaktion Books, 2019.

Moran, Bruce T.. Andreas Libavius and the Transformation of Alchemy: Separating Chemical Cultures with Polemical Fires. United States: Science History Publications/Watson Pub. International, 2007.

Debus, Allen G.. Chemistry and Medical Debate: Van Helmont to Boerhaave. United States: Science History, 2001.

Newman, William R. Atoms and Alchemy : Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

For more on u/v historical usage: 

McKerrow, R. B. An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927.

Leslie, Deborah J. and Benjamin Griffin. Transcription of Early Letter Forms in Rare Materials Cataloging. 2003. https://rbms.info/files/dcrm/dcrmb/wg2LeslieGriffin.pdf

Hints of Gold in the Backlog: Part 3 of 4

This is Part 3 of a research exploration by Cataloger Vance Woods and History of Science and Rare Books Librarian Anne Bahde. Part 1; Part 2.

We were heartened by Professor Bruce Moran’s response to our inquiries, though they had introduced new questions. We sent scans of the rest of the pamphlet to Moran, and told him of our discovery of the title in this index, to see if he could shed any further light. He replied:

“I can affirm that this is a preface to a work that is focused on the Disputatio de auro potabili of Thomas Erastus.  Libavius admits that the man (Erastus) is dead [Erastus died in 1583], but that what he wrote is still alive; and he points out that Erastus, in his book, has brought together nearly all the arguments that “we recollect he wrote and said against our opinions/ views.”  So, this is very much a counter-thrust, but without seeing the text itself there is no way of knowing what kinds of arguments Libavius has in mind.  The main thing is, you have here only the preface to the work itself.  I looked at the library in Jena to see what it has.   That copy also has only the preface.  So, it too is not complete and has no text beyond what you have.  The interesting thing is that the preface refers to the Disputatio as having been edited fourteen years before.  We know that the book appeared in 1578, so that would make the composition of the Libavius text, if not its publication, 1592.  I have no idea where the date 1596 in the index comes from.  The Jena copy has no date.  Perhaps the text went to print later.  But since both you and Jena have copies that have no date and only include the preface (and nothing else), perhaps the text was never published (for one reason or another) and all that remains are a few copies of the preface itself.”

Professor Moran’s interpretation provided some fascinating answers, but yet again we had more questions than we began with. We knew now that the item was likely meant to be used in an educational context, and was intended to be presented in direct juxtaposition to Erastus’ work on Paracelsus and the ingestion of gold. But we also knew that what we held was only a fragment of what was intended to be part of a larger product; because it had been potentially separated from its original context, we could not fully appreciate how it was intended to be used and understood. 

We puzzled further over the item’s provenance and began tracing its potential movements from the date of its publication through various owners, and ultimately to SCARC’s backlog. A review of acquisition records confirmed that we lacked clear documentation about how or when it was acquired by OSU. 

We began this research from the ownership mark we did have, the bookplate from pharmacologist Emil Starkenstein. Starkenstein was one of the most important figures in European pharmacology in the 20th century. He published prolifically on a wide range of topics in the field and held respected teaching positions. He had a passion for book collecting early in his career, and he built an unrivaled pharmacological collection

We quickly found other evidence of other treasures he collected. The Morgan Library holds a 14th century manuscript herbal from his library, and a census of the rare Fabrica of Vesalius indicates a copy with his bookplate.  The bookplate in his rare Libavius piece was one of at least four lovely plates Starkenstein used to mark his books. 

But this brilliant life was among the six million murdered by Nazis in the Holocaust. According to an oral history from rare book dealer Ludwig Gottschalk cited in Starkenstein’s Wikipedia entry, Starkenstein’s family agreed to sell the collection to him before Starkenstein was sent to Mauthausen in 1942. But “when Gottschalk faced deportation to the camps himself, he secreted the library in several locations in the Black Forest and went into hiding. After the war, he reassembled the Starkenstein books and for nearly half a century sold items from the collection under the name Biblion, Inc., in Forest Hills, New York.” 

Our pamphlet likely laid hidden in the forest with the rest of Starkenstein’s collection during the war. This heartbreaking report urged us to consider the awful decisions Starkenstein, his family, and Gottschalk had faced as they were persecuted for their faith. Making the decision to part with a lovingly acquired, splendid collection must have been achingly sad; perhaps that sadness was only outweighed by the immense fear Starkenstein must have felt for himself and his family. 

Gottschalk selected those hiding spots for the precious books hoping to live through the war and come back for them. As keys to his potential economic survival after the war, he must have hoped desperately that they would still be there. What had seemed at first an unassuming pamphlet now stood to us as a potent symbol of the profound losses of the Holocaust.

As far we as could tell from other compiled provenance data for our collections, we held no other books with Starkenstein’s bookplate. As we reviewed internal historical acquisitions files, Anne found a typed dealer description for our item. Though no dealer was listed on the page, the format and style matched many other items in our collection with dealer descriptions from the well-known Los Angeles book dealer Zeitlin & Ver Brugge. 

It is unknown how the pamphlet moved from Gottschalk’s Biblion to Zeitlin & Ver Brugge, but we began to look closer at how it may have moved from Zeitlin & Ver Brugge to OSU.

The unmarked, typed dealer description that matches the style of others from Zeitlin & ver Brugge
A typical typed dealer description from Zeitlin & ver Brugge
Catalog for the sale of Jake Zeitlin’s stock at Swann Galleries, 1988
Shelf lots at the end of the Swann Galleries Part 1 Sale

Upon Jake Zeitlin’s death, his stock went to Swann Galleries to be sold. This sale took place in two parts in 1988. We were able to consult a copy of the catalog for Part 1, and asked a library holding the catalog for Part 2 (University of Washington Special Collections) to consult their copy, which they graciously did despite having very limited access to collections during COVID. 

The Libavius title is not listed in the catalogs to either Part 1 or Part 2 of this sale, but could have appeared in one of the “10 uncataloged shelf lots” listed at the end of Part 1, which consisted “primarily of works in chemistry, physics, and medicine.” OSU’s Special Collections department was founded in 1986, and librarians at the time were building history of science book collections through bulk purchase.  

While we don’t have direct evidence of an OSU purchase, we do have indirect evidence that an OSU special collections librarian was at the Part 1 sale in April 1988, in the form of an unrelated piece of correspondence from that time. It is likely that this item was purchased at the Swann sale to add to our growing history of science collections. (If this is true, the item has stumped catalogers and lingered in our backlog for over thirty years!)

Excerpt from correspondence in internal files showing OSU presence at sale

In Part 4, we will reflect on what we have discovered and the research skills helping us arrive at these answers.

Hints of Gold in the Backlog: Part 2 of 4

This is Part 2 of a research exploration by Cataloger Vance Woods and History of Science and Rare Books Librarian Anne Bahde. Find Part 1 here.

From here, we could branch our research into different directions to expand our knowledge of the work. We now had pending questions about the title’s content, production, context, and story, as well the physical item’s origin and provenance. First, Vance reached out to the other holding library in Germany. They responded to Vance’s message, but did not have any more information than we did about the piece. (However, after our own discoveries, Vance reached out to them again to share what we had learned; they are in the process of updating their own records accordingly.)

We began filling in our gaps in knowledge about the historical context of the item. A typed bibliography of history of science holdings at OSU produced in 1988 identifies the piece as an “introduction to Libavius’ response to Thomas Erastus’ attack on Paracelsus and the Ioatrochemists. Erastus had attacked Paracelsus in his Disputation Concerning Potable Gold, Basel, 1578.” 

This note gave us some excellent starting points to dig deeper. We confirmed that description and built our contextual understanding by quickly finding a few other secondary sources. Our crash course in early modern alchemy yielded a deeper understanding of the significance of this item.

Andreas Libavius was a most eminent figure in early chemistry, an alchemist who attracted his share of controversy during his career. As an alchemist, he was interested in the transmutation of metals into gold. As a physician, he was also interested in the practical value of medical chemistry and the particular medicinal qualities of gold. 

His emphasis on pharmaceutical applications put him in opposition to Paracelsus, another physician and alchemist who emphasized the more mystical elements of alchemy. Thomas Erastus, a Swiss physician and defender of medieval Galenic medical practice, was also an outspoken opponent of Paracelsus, and attacked the Paracelsian belief in the transmutation of metals. But Libavius did believe transmutation was possible, and passionately so. He refuted Erastus’ position in a series of publications around the time our pamphlet was published. Our pamphlet seemed to be related to this exchange. 

While we began to understand more about the historical context of the item, we also continued to look for the title or fragments of it in Google, HathiTrust, and other digital repositories. 

This title presented a common challenge when seeking information about books published in Latin during this time. In the Roman alphabet, there was no distinction between the letterforms V and U. By the time this book was printed, printers were beginning to distinguish between the consonant V and the vowel U, and the rules for using these letters in printing varied over time. 

Later catalogers of these items may or may not have transcribed these letters into their modern usage. These variations in spelling, printing, and cataloging practices over time, along with modern variability in optical character recognition of digitized texts, means that when U’s and V’s (or I’s or J’s) are involved, using a variety of spellings in keyword searches will yield the best results.

However, despite many different variations of the title searched across multiple platforms, we found only one result for a title fragment via Google Books (a further indication of the item’s potential rarity). This book, printed in 1600, lists our title among others in an index format. 

Vance determined that this book was a compilation of publications between 1593 and 1600, and that the marginal numbers were dates of printing. To test this, he looked for other titles listed in this book in Worldcat and found that they corresponded to the dates listed here. This title therefore suggests that our title was published in 1596.

Volume 1 of Elenchus seu index generalis in quo continentur libri omnes, qui … usque ad annum 1600 … prodierunt. Allgemeine Verzeichniße der newen BücherHenningus Gross

As we researched the historical context of the item, one name kept coming up in our secondary sources: Dr. Bruce Moran, a scholar of Libavius and early modern chemistry at the University of Nevada, Reno. Moran’s definitive scholarship on Libavius has included a number of Libavius’ known works and editions. Vance reached out to him with a scan of the title page to see if he could help us identify the piece. He graciously replied with some intriguing answers. 

Moran’s translation of the final line of the title page indicated that a copy of the Erastus text in question was meant to be attached to this counter-text by Libavius for the purposes of comparison and censure. However, Moran also indicated that he had never heard of this title before, and that the item was stumping him as much as us. While we now had some understanding of this piece, previous questions still lingered just as new ones had been raised. Part 3 follows next week.

Hints of Gold in the Backlog: Part 1 of 4

The title page of the pamphlet

Throughout the pandemic, catalogers at OSULP have been working hard to complete projects and make progress on others. One ongoing project for the Special Collections and Archives Research Center is the creation of new catalog records for our old books.

Most libraries have an imbalance between the materials needing to be cataloged and the professional resources devoted to that work. OSULP is no different, though we are proud in SCARC that our ‘backlog’ is fairly minimal after years of progress by dedicated catalogers. 

To prevent materials languishing between acquisition and cataloging, we proactively move acquisitions through descriptive processes at a steady rate. However, the backlog is still a place where mysteries can turn up, and one such mystery appeared there recently. 

A short, six-page pamphlet in an unassuming binding immediately presented more questions than answers when Cataloger Vance Woods set out to create its record. Vance and History of Science Librarian Anne Bahde teamed up to find some answers about what this intriguing item was and just how it ended up in our backlog. We will explore our research over four parts presented weekly in August.

From the title page, there were a few clues to glean about what this item could be. Though neither of us read much Latin, the title of the book presented familiar Latin word roots that could at least give us indications of the time period and subject matter. For example, ‘mineral-,’ ‘corpor,’ and ‘chymia’ suggested that we were dealing with something having to do with minerals, the body, and chemistry. 

A quick pass of the title through Google Translate allowed us to guess further at content and meaning in the title through a rough translation. We looked closely at the large printed mark near the bottom of the page. This spot is typically where a printer’s device would go, but in place of that identifying image, there is a decorative ornament instead. At the very bottom of the title page we typically find the publisher’s imprint, which often lists details such as the place of publication, publisher, printer, or date of publication. 

We found none of those details in this section, and instead spotted Latin roots such as “sincer’ (sound, genuine, true) and ‘censur’ (judgment, opinion) here. The contemporary handwriting at the very bottom of the title page “Libavius [–ind] Paracel—” associated these apparent names to the title, along with the name Erastus which appears on the page twice. All these details began to suggest an unusual item related to the history of chemistry.

Several physical material clues intrigued us as well. The typeface and printing style suggested a printing date of the late 16th century, but confirmation of that suspicion was not found in any other elements of the item. The paper used was of a rougher nature, and the pages are now age-toned. But, no obvious clue to publication place or date could be found among the few pages. 

Bindings can sometimes give hints about where or when an item was published, but in this case the binding was a simple set of brown marbled boards, probably dating to the late 19th or early 20th century given the style and condition of the binding materials.  Sometimes, this type of slim, nondescript binding can suggest separation from a sammelband or nonce volume, both types of collections of pamphlets. 

Though the piece lacked stab holes or other markers of prior gathering, a thin strip of discoloration does run down the length of the inner margin, suggesting that it was removed from some other binding environment at some point in the past.

The first place we both turn to when searching for items is Worldcat. Considered to be the most comprehensive catalog of materials in libraries around the world, Worldcat offers special insight when trying to track down a difficult title. A catalog record in Worldcat can tell us not only further bibliographical details about an item, but also which libraries around the world currently hold this item, thus giving a basic indiciation of distribution and rarity. 

Despite search experiments with different spellings and other searching efforts, we found only one record with one holding library, the Thüringer Universitäts- und Landsbibliothek in Jena, Germany. 

Deepening this line of inquiry, we followed the Libavius author entry in Worldcat, then examined each item in that list of 382 records. This is a laborious but useful Worldcat trick and can sometimes turn up some potential matches or clues for difficult-to-find items. But this effort still did not yield any further hints about this title. It slowly became clearer that we could be dealing with quite a scarce item.

Bookplate of Emil Starkenstein

The item presented one further curious detail – the striking bookplate depicting two entwined poppy heads pasted inside the front cover. As physical signs of ownership, bookplates offer important evidence about the provenance of an item, and help later researchers track an item’s movements during its life. By searching for the name printed on the plate and looking at Google Image results, Vance discovered it was the bookplate of Emil Starkenstein, a Czech Jewish pharmacologist who was killed in the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1942. It was clear to us now that this was no ordinary book, and we began to pursue answers to the many questions the book had now invited. Part 2: Rare Books and Research follows next week.

Friday Feature: Nuclear History Research Guide

The Special Collections and Archives Research Center is pleased to share the first of our new research guides, which details our significant collection strengths in nuclear history and atomic energy.

The guide includes subtopics on:

The guide will expand as we begin processing on a few new accessions in SCARC, including further records of the Radiation Center, the papers of Radiation Center director Chih Wang, and a very special new collection arriving in the fall. Watch this space for updates, and for new research guides on other subject strengths. In the meantime, check out interesting selections from the atomic energy and nuclear history collections on SCARC’s Pinterest page.