Illness has prevented me from posting anything for over a week. The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana has received a grant worth nearly half a million dollars to catalog a collection of rare Italian books the University Library acquired ninety-three years ago and make them available to scholars, the University of Illinois News Bureau announced on Monday, December 22, 2014.
Through its Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program, the Council on Library and Information Resources (C.L.I.R.) in Washington, D.C. made the $498,942 grant to the University Library to catalogue The Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s Cavagna Collection of over 20,000 Italian books published between the 16th and 19th Centuries. The funds come from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The University Library’s project is called “Cataloging Cavagna: Italian imprints from the Sixteenth through the Nineteenth Century.” It is one of nineteen projects the C.L.I.R. chose to receive grants out of ninety-two applicants.
In 1921, the University Library purchased this collection from the family of Count Antonio Cavagna Sangiuliani di Gualdana (1843-1913). The aristocrat was a bibliophile and writer.
He was a recognized expert on the history of northern Italy. In addition to the books, his family sold the University of Library his manuscript collection, which was called the Archivio Cavagna Sangiuliani.
This is called the “Cavagna Collection 1116-1913.” According to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, it consists “of 138 portfolios of unbound manuscripts arranged alphabetically by place, 290 bound volumes of manuscript material (ca. 50 items earlier than 1600) and 100 volumes of later transcripts from Italian archives.”
Meta Maria Seton, Cataloguer of the University of Illinois Library, produced a typewritten manuscript in 1932, “List of the Manuscripts and Printed Documents of the Archivio Cavagna Sangiuliani, Seztone Prima, in the University of Illinois Library, Based Upon the Summaries Made by Count Antonio Cavagna Sangiuliani.” A biography of Count Antonio Cavagna Sangiuliani di Gualdana and a description of his library appeared in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America in 1925, volume 19, pages 66-72.
Valerie Hotchkiss, the Andrew S. G. Turyn Endowed Professor and Director of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (R.B.M.L.), called the books “one of the world’s premier collections for Italian studies.” However, after the University Library acquired the books, “many were just put on shelves in the general stacks.” Others were boxed up.
“We knew they were a rich resource but we haven’t had the resources to catalog them until we got this grant,” said Professor. Hotchkiss. “It’s a hidden collection. It’s a collection we knew was here, we knew was important, but people never had the time and money to take care of it.”
Jodi Heckel, the University of Illinois News Bureau’s Arts & Humanities Editor, wrote, “Hotchkiss said the books are largely about northern Italian history, literature and theater, as well as items such as funeral speeches and wedding poems that will give a feeling of a city’s culture.”
“Cavagna had a special love of mineral water,” Dr. Hotchkiss said. “There will be a history of several towns with mineral springs, early resort literature.”
Theatrical history is “very strong in our collection overall,” Dr. Hotchkiss told Ms. Heckel. “Now we can include Italian drama as well.”
Ms. Heckel related, “Some of the items in the collection are the only known copy of a book, or the only copy in North America. For example, the collection includes a document from 1750 of a well-known legal case in Italy, in which a husband writes a scathing account of the medical treatment received by his wife, who subsequently died. He was forced to burn most of the copies; the Library’s copy is one of two copies that survived.”
Most of the books and manuscripts are in Italian, but some are in French, Latin or German. Many are written in disappearing Italian dialects and are valuable to linguists. Hotchkiss said the books also will be of interest to those in Italian history, literature, law, theater and economics.
The Library cataloged about 7,000 volumes as a pilot project, in preparation for the grant application.
“Those get used all the time,” Dr. Hotchkiss said. “We get calls from Italy, we get calls from around the U.S., so we know if we can make them accessible, they will be used.”
The R.B.M.L. “uses graduate students and recent graduates to gather the information from each item to make it accessible to someone searching in a variety of ways,” Ms. Heckel stated. “The emphasis is on doing the work as quickly as possible, and with students and recent graduates trained in rare book cataloging, it is ‘extremely economical,’ Hotchkiss said.”
Cataloguing work will begin again in January. The catalogued collection will be digitized.
The R.B.M.L. is the principal repository for the University Library’s collections of early manuscripts, rare books, and literary manuscripts in the fields of literature, history, art, theology, technology, theater, and the natural sciences. It is located on the third floor (Room 346) on the north side of the Main Library at 1408 West Gregory Drive in Urbana, Illinois. Those researchers who want to consult the books or manuscripts need to read the R.B.M.L.’s “User Guide & Registration” before creating a research account as part of planning a visit to the R.B.M.L.’s Reading Room.