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Melville’s Marginalia from the Berkshire Athenaeum

Posted for Audrey Hamelers, Digital Library Intern, Spring 2010:

The digital preservation of books formerly owned by Herman Melville in collaboration with the Berkshire Athenaeum was recently completed, and the books have been added to the Villanova University’s Digital Library and are available for perusal in the Berkshire Athenaeum Books section. The project was completed with help from scholars at Melville’s Marginalia Online, who will be adding commentary to each volume.

As lead preservationist and first line of quality control for this project, I learned a lot about working in a digital library and about digital preservation. I gained experience handling and scanning many very different rare books, from the large, beautifully illustrated The Renaissance of Art in Italy (30 cm) to the very tiny, proverb filled The Reticule and Pocket Companion or Miniature Lexicon of the English Language (10 cm). The nine volumes of The Works of Moliere were especially challenging, as they were extremely fragile.

By far my favorite book in this collection, and the most interesting to work with, was A History of the County of Berkshire, Massachusetts in Two Parts. Melville used this book extensively after his 1850 move to Arrowhead in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Peter Norberg, the Associate General Editor for the Melville’s Marginalia project and our lead contact for work with the Berkshire Athenaeum books, says that Melville probably carried this volume around in his pocket. It includes two large, color maps.

Berkshire Map

The book also contains inserts possibly added by Melville, like a two-page newspaper clipping inside the front cover.

Berkshire Tales

Most importantly, A History of the Country of Berkshire is filled with Melville’s notes and marks of interesting passages, including remarks that reveal his thoughts and sense of humor.


Working with this volume really made me feel like I was handling a part of history, and scanning the fragile pages, which ranged in size from the normal text, to oversized inserts, to the quadruple-sized maps, taught me a lot about digital preservation. It was sometimes difficult to scan each page for the best quality image, but I kept at it and the end result is indicative of how much effort was put into the project.

While my internship project focused on digital preservation of rare books, the Villanova Digital Library offers potential interns experience in many areas, including creating in-person and online library exhibits. I would recommend the Digital Library internship to anyone interested in digital library experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better hands-on introduction to digital library work.



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Last Modified: August 2, 2010

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