What makes a book rare?

No doubt in 2011 rare books will show up in this blog. But what makes a book rare? I had no idea I would write about rare books in my first posting this year, and perhaps this fact helps to understand the word rare better. Instead of rare, meaning only seldom seen, known to be present at only a few locations, rare often has the added quality of being unlooked for. The departments of research libraries for Rare Books and Special Collections often combine this approach of bringing together manuscripts and books that have survived the centuries, editions of texts once common but now only found after extended research, and books and items brought into the possession of a scientific institution in a remarkable way. A scholar left his book collection, his research notes, lectures or papers to a university library, or a librarian succeeds at an auction in buying books on a particular theme. Sometimes a particular book was already a rarity at the time it left the press because of its contested contents or of its beautiful layout. It could have been printed on expensive paper or even parchment, and a priceless luxury binding increased its value, too.

You might have guessed that I somehow could not help spotting old books today, completely against the planning for new postings. I surfed to Belgica, the digital library of the Royal Library in Brussels. As an example of valuable editions now digitized the Royal Library presents in its showcase a volume with 43 juridical dissertations defended between 1652 and 1655 at the University of Franeker under the aegis of Johann Jacob Wissenbach (1607-1665). The accompanying note states these dissertations are not included in the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN). The STCN aims at presenting data on Dutch imprints between 1540 and 1800 present in a generous selection of major Dutch libraries.

Which facts would enforce the conviction that these old juridical dissertations once defended at a university in Frisia are indeed rare and worth digitizing? The volume came originally from the library of the dukes of Arenberg and was confiscated after the First World War. This story accounts at least for the unexpected way this volume came into the possession of the Belgian Royal Library, but surely more can be done to estimate its rarity. One of the major projects for digitizing old dissertations is housed at the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte at Frankfurt am Main. To its holdings belong more than 70,000 juridical dissertations defended at universities within the borders of the former Holy Roman Empire. At Frankfurt 31 dissertations from Franeker have been digitized, and the dissertations at Brussels are not among them. This fact can rightfully form an indication that the 43 mid seventeenth-century dissertations are rare indeed.

I will not make this post any longer than necessary, and therefore I will just indicate which further steps need to be taken to ascertain more about the rarity of this volume. One step is to look at the holdings of libraries worldwide for particular dissertations within this set. Modern meta-catalogues are truly catalogi omnium catalogorum, foremost among them the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog. The KVK enables you to search in many catalogues – including collective catalogues – at the same time with just one search action; text search is one of the latest additions to the KVK. Neither the KVK nor a few other major collective catalogues mention these particular dissertations. The other way to tackle this question is the road of bibliographies. Ferenc Postma and Jacob van Sluis published for the Frysk Akademie a bibliography of publications from Franeker, Auditorium Academiae Franekerensis. Bibliographie der Reden, Disputationen und Gelegenheitsdruckwerke der Universität und des Athenäums in Franeker 1585 – 1843 (Leeuwarden 1995). Postma and Van Sluis did every effort to find disputations from Franeker wherever held. In my opinion one can state safely whether an old edition from Franeker is rare or not by referring to their bibliography. Tracking juridical dissertations and establishing their authorship is something for specialists indeed. On publications by lawyers from Franeker it is also useful to look at the Bibliografie van hoogleraren in de rechten aan de Franeker universiteit tot 1811 by Robert Feenstra, Theo Veen and Margreet Ahsmann (Amsterdam 2003).

Tresoar at Leeuwarden is the institution which combines the forces of the Frysk Riksarchyf and the Provincial Library of Frisia. For curiosity’s sake and because of the rich holdings housed at the former Treasury I checked for Johann Jakob Wissenbach in its catalogue. For Douvo Mellinga who held a disputation in 1654 contained in the set at Brussels a small volume survives with laudatory words by Wissenbach; to guess from the abbreviated title poems are concerned.

To round off for today, some books are certainly unlooked for! You will not expect Frisian books at Brussels. However, take for a random example a digitized book on Danish litterature at Tresoar in Leeuwarden, the edition Hafniae (Copenhagen) 1651 of [Runir] seu Danica literatura antiquissima by Ole Worm, is less surprising in view of the relatively small distance between Frisia and Denmark. I look forward to find more at the Belgica collection at Brussels, even if I have to inform you that the search function for this digital library does not work as expected. Using the normal catalogue and being alert for URL’s in the search results brings you to the digitized items, not just books, but also maps, music scores, drawings, engravings and medals.

A postscript

In this post I did not give a clear and succinct answer to the question whether the Brussels volume is rare indeed, but I can now safely vouch for its rarity. Checking for Douvo Mellinga in the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog led me to the Gemeinsamer Verbund Katalog which shows at the Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg a volume with two sets of disputations from Franeker, 43 in the first and 59 in the second, all presided by Johann Jakob Wissenbach, printed by Arcerius (Franeker 1658). In this volume the first disputation by Bartholomaeus Franck seems to be identical with the first disputation in the Brussels convoluted set, and the eleventh disputation in both sets is by Douvo Mellinga. It seems the Hamburg online catalogue shows old or incomplete bibliographical data, or more probable, one assumed the publisher of the second set to be also the publisher of the earlier “first” set. Cataloguing old juridical dissertations is a task for experts, and I do not want to offend any librarian. Ferenc Postma send me a comment stating he and Jacob van Sluis have found some 500 “new” titles for a supplement to their bibliography.

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4 thoughts on “What makes a book rare?

  1. Prof. Dr. Ferenc Postma

    Dank voor Uw positieve woorden voor ons Auditorium Academiae Franekerensis (1995).
    Momenteel bereid ik een Supplement voor,
    waarin inmiddels ook het Wissenbach-con-voluut in de KB Brussel is verwerkt. In totaal omvat het Supplement nu zo’n 500 “nieuwe” titels. [05-01-2011.] / Thank you for your positive words for our Auditorium Academiae Franekerensis (1995). I am preparing a supplement including the Wissenbach convolute at the Brussels Royal Library. The supplement includes now some 500 “new” titles.

    Reply
  2. Prof Dr Murray Raff

    I found these postings because I was trawling the web for something on the teaching of law at the University of Frisia. It is excellent that these works are being valued. I believe University of Frisia was a centre of excellence in Northern Europe in the early enlightenment, drawing students even from England during the period of the English Restoration. I am sure there are many more expert on this question than me, but I think this could well be an interesting chapter in connections between the Ius Commune of continental Europe and the Common Law of England. Kind regards, Murray Raff

    Reply
    1. rechtsgeschiedenis Post author

      Thank you for your compliments. Dutch universities did attract foreign law students in the seventeenth century, in particular from Scotland, see Esther Mijers, ‘Scottish students in the Netherlands, 1680-1730’, in: Scottish communities abroad in the early modern period , Alexia Grosjean and Steve Murdoch (edd.) (Leiden, etc., 2005) pp. 301-331. The university registers of the university of Franeker have been edited: Album studiosorum Academiae Franekerensis (1585-1811, 1816-1844) : naamlijst der studenten, Sybrandus Fockema Andreae et alii (edd.) (Franeker 1968), and Album promotorum academiae Franekerensis (1591-1811) , Teodorus Josephus Meijer (ed.) (Franeker 1973). English readers can find further orientation on the Roman-Frisian law in the volume Roman-Frisian law of the 17th and 18th century, edited by Jan Lokin, Frits Brandsma and Corjo Jansen (Berlin 2003), a translation of Het Rooms-Friese recht : de civiele rechtspraktijk van het Hof van Friesland in de 17e en 18e eeuw (Hilversum 1999).

      Reply

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