Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

‘Palm’ Reading with MS Q57

October 9th, 2018

Throughout history, people have found innovative ways to record the written word. Civilizations have used clay, stone, papyrus, animal skin – almost anything they could think of to produce records and share their stories. Recently, I was introduced to another innovative writing surface: palm leaves!

Photograph of the Rāmāyaņa palm-leaf manuscript, circa 1600s

Spencer’s Rāmāyaņa palm-leaf manuscript inside its acid-free storage box.
Call Number: MS Q57. Click image to enlarge.

Created in the 17th century, this palm-leaf manuscript (also referred to as a Pothi) contains the first five books of the Rāmāyaņa, an ancient Sanskrit epic about Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his wife, Sita, from Ravana, the 10-headed Rakshasa king of Lanka. While the epic itself dates back to over two millennia ago, the text in Spencer Research Library’s manuscript is a Telugu translation from the 13th century.

Photograph of the Rāmāyaņa palm-leaf manuscript, circa 1600s

Photograph of the Rāmāyaņa palm-leaf manuscript, circa 1600s

Close-up views of Spencer’s Rāmāyaņa palm-leaf manuscript.
Call Number: MS Q57. Click image to enlarge.

Palm-leaf manuscripts were created by drying and curing palm leaves. Holes were then added to the leaves so that a string could pass through, securing the leaves into a book. To create the text, scribes used a stylus to etch the characters before adding a layer of black soot or turmeric to improve the text’s readability. While the use of palm leaves for writing declined in South India as the printing press became more widely used in the 19th century, thousands of palm-leaf manuscripts containing the history, traditions, and knowledge of the region still exist today.

Emily Beran
Public Services

First Impressions

November 9th, 2013

Setting type may not be as easy as it looks, but it is good fun! Throughout October intrepid students in the History of the Book (English 520 / History 500) made several trips to the press room in Spencer’s basement to execute a printing project using the library’s historic presses. Reading about printing during the hand press era offers some insight, but it is easy for the process to remain shrouded in mystery until you try it out yourself. As you stand in front of a case of type, the logistical considerations involved in producing a book–such as format, imposition, line length, and style and size of type–quickly take on a new reality.

Students hand-inking the type using a brayer. Photograph of student lowering the frisket, October 2013

Photograph of printing on a hand press, Kenneth Spencer Research Library

Image of the History of the Book class printing in the Spencer Research Library's basement, October 2013.

Students from The History of the Book  (ENGL 520 / HIST 500) operate the press with
the assistance of printer Tim O’Brien (in the blue apron and striped shirt).

Since Spencer houses wonderful Irish Collections, we elected to print W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Wild Swans at Coole,” which has an appropriately autumnal theme. Each student set two lines of the poem, picking type, letter by letter, from the case and depositing it in a composing stick held in the opposite hand. (If you are right-handed, you would hold the composing stick in your left hand and pick with the right.) The set lines were then transferred to a tray called a “galley” for assembly as a page.  Wooden furniture and metal quoins were used to lock the composed pages into a metal chase, which was then positioned in the press.

As an early proof of the poem quickly revealed, setting type is a skill that requires practice and concentration.  Some speculate that the caution to “mind one’s p’s and q’s” originates in printing, since these two pieces of type are easily confused.  In examining our proof, it seems it was our b’s and d’s that needed minding.  Though excessive errors could lead to docked wages in an eighteenth-century print shop, for us, making (and correcting) mistakes was an instructive part of the process.

Image of an initial proof of the poem lying on a case of type.

“If at first you don’t succeed…”:  proofing and correcting our mistakes.

The project was printed in “folio” format, each printed sheet folded once to create two leaves (or four pages). First, the class printed the “outer forme” (containing the title page and the colophon). Then, after some drying time, we “perfected” the sheets by printing the “inner forme” (containing the poem’s text) on the verso.

Title page and colophon locked in the chase

Outer Forme: the title page and colophon locked in the chase.  Wooden “furniture” and
metal “quoins” provide the pressure needed to keep everything wedged tightly in place.

In the early days, printing usually involved two pressmen–one to insert the paper and work the press, and the second to ink the type. Under the guidance of printer Tim O’Brien, the students each took a turn at both roles.  As the class discovered, there is definitely a genuine satisfaction that comes from operating a hand press.  Of course, the best part is that it produces such wonderfully tangible mementos!

Image of the completed leaflet (copies folded and unfolded): The Wild Swans at Coole Image of the printed text of the poem "The Image of the printed text of Yeats's poem, "The Wild Swans at Coole."

Ta-dah! The finished product. To read the full text of “The Wild Swans at Coole” click the image on the right to enlarge.

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian