NEH Funds Clark Library Digitization Project

Published: March 29, 2017
Details from an annotated copy of Peter Heylyn’s A Help to English History (1680)

The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library has been awarded $261,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to describe and digitize a large group of either copiously or extensively annotated printed books from the hand-press era (ca. 1455–1830). The Clark holds one of the nation’s most comprehensive collections of rare materials related to the study of England and the Continent from the Tudor period through the long eighteenth century. A recent survey of its collection of printed books revealed more than 800 annotated volumes, nearly 300 of which contain a substantial amount of contemporary or near-contemporary annotations, comprising more than 2.5 million (2,500,000) words of handwritten commentary, notes, and other marks.

The facsimiles of 76,600 pages—more than 90% of which contain annotations—will be hosted by the California Digital Library (CDL) on its website, Calisphere—a free and open service providing access to hundreds of thousands of digital primary sources from the ten University of California campuses and public and private institutions across the state. Users from all disciplines and levels—ranging from K–12 students to academic researchers to genealogists—access the Calisphere site about a million times per year. Metadata is also shared with the Digital Public Library of America, a public directory to millions of digital items aggregated from institutions across the country.

Annotated books from the hand-press era reflect the questioning, acceptance, and growth of early modern and Enlightenment ideas. Literacy and educational opportunities (including self-education through published works) increased in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Reactions to what people read at the time—as expressed, for example, by their annotations in the Clark’s collection—offer a fascinating and insightful portal for students and their educators, as well as established scholars, to understand decisions made by political and literary figures; paths of mathematical, scientific, and religious developments; and the Zeitgeist, which is better understood when the thoughts and considerations of both well-known and anonymous men and women are taken into account. This age signals—to paraphrase Alexandre Koyré—the end of the closed world and the beginning of the infinite universe.

The digitization of and free access to the Clark’s holdings, now possible because of the National Endowment of the Humanities, will have a profound impact—both quantitatively and qualitatively—on the worldwide interest in researching readers through their annotations in printed books.

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Annotated foldout and title page from Bernard Annely’s A Theory of the Winds (1729)