Our Research Librarian Martin Lewis, aka @RareBookGuy, takes a look at some of the more unusual questions he has received on tours of the Te Papa library collection.
Part of my role at Te Papa includes giving tours, working with school groups, and hosting visiting researchers.
You can never predict what visitors will ask on a tour, but there are some common questions I get about the rare book collection. Things like:
- What’s the heaviest book in the collection?
- What’s the smallest?
- What’s the oldest?
- What’s the smelliest? (yes, you read that correctly)
Weighing in at 23.5kg this ‘book’, The Vatican frescoes of Michelangelo, is the heaviest in our collection. It’s filled with beautiful, massive photographs of Michelangelo’s frescos.
This book was gifted to Te Papa by one of our corporate partners, TOWER New Zealand, in 2005.
This beast is actually four books in a wooden ‘book-like’ case – two are 58x50cm! The books were produced by a photographer, Takashi Okamura, in the 1980s showing the Sistine Chapel frescoes of Michelangelo pre-cleaning.
Each page is stunning. I’m not sure if it is 1:1-sized but it is still big enough to get up close and personal with the images in a way you could never do staring up at the chapel roof. Takashi Okamura went on to photograph the frescos after cleaning as well, but didn’t produce it in the same mega-box book style.
Coming it at 50mm the Reeds’ Lilliput Māori Place Names (1960) and Reeds’ Lilliput Māori proverbs (1964) are the two smallest books in the library collection.
The dictionary also comes with a native timber book stand/prop. It is very ‘touristy’, perhaps to showcase New Zealand native timbers. The stylised Māori carving is made of taraire, tanekaha, kaikawaka, mataī, rewarewa, pukatea, tōtara, and kahikatea timbers.
The miniature books are even illustrated with miniature pictures!
We have 11 items that span 1600–1750; of these, my favourite is a history book about Queen Elizabeth 1.
It was published in 1630 (she died in 1603) and is called: The historie of the most renowned and victorious Princesse Elizabeth, late queene of England. Contayning all the important and remarkeable passages of state both at home and abroad, during her long and prosperous raigne. Composed by way of annals. Neuer heretofore so faithfully and fully published in English.
That’s one seriously long title (but not the longest in the collection!) and int’resting to seeth how the English language hast hath changed ov’r timeth.
The book has been damaged by a fire during its long life, and just how the library acquired it is a bit vague.
All we know is that it was gifted by a Mrs Cameron of Island Bay on 5 Oct 1984. I’d like to know more about why, or how, it was connected to her family. Anyone know her or the Camerons of Island Bay?
The plate above shows the Queen in all her glory. Gloriana! With those shoulder pads she would never know if someone was creeping up on her. I guess that’s why she had guards…
So this treasure doesn’t actually smell in all honesty, but the smelly process that created the leather cover has come up in tours.
The cover is made of material called vellum, which is leather made from calf, goat, sheep, or sometimes pig skin. More exactly, vellum is from the French veau and refers to a parchment made from calf skin, but it varies. Vellum was sometimes used as a cheaper alternative to leather binding. This might be because rich folk would purchase the item from the producer with a simple binding, then have it rebound ‘fancy’ and in the same style as the rest of their library.
So back to smelly… The tanning process! If you imagine an animal skin, it has hair on the outside and bits and pieces of leftover animal on the reverse. This stuff needs to be removed without the skin rotting away. Skins would be immersed in a nasty solution of lime and/or urine (which depends on when in history we’re talking about). This softens the skin and allows the rotting fat and hair to be scraped away. The skins were then stretched on frames and scraped until the leather was of the desired thickness.
Have a watch of this video for a more in depth explanation into how vellum/parchment is made:
You can read more about this in a great article from the Smithsonian on the historic uses of urine. Beware, those Romans used to do weird things with wee!
I’d imagine tanneries were pretty smelly places, so this makes this the smelliest item in the library collection – though we have a lot of leather-covered books, so strictly speaking there are heaps of smelly books. (Note: they don’t actually smell).
Martin Lewis, Research Librarian at the Te Aka Matua Research Library, Te Papa.
Find out more about the library or search its catalogue. Or you can see some of the rare book collection in Collections Online.
Read Martin’s previous blog, ‘Rare books and the marvellous art of marbling’.