Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

We’re gonna need a bigger box

December 21st, 2015

Enclosures play a very important role in the preservation of library collections by protecting fragile items from dust and fluctuations in environmental conditions, and by enabling safe and easy handling of heavy, oversized, or awkward objects. Whenever possible, standard-sized prefabricated archival enclosures are used; shelving like containers with like makes efficient use of shelf space and contributes to ease of access and retrieval. However, in all libraries and archives, especially a large academic library with very diverse collections, there are always exceptional items that do not fit into standard enclosures, and that is where we in Conservation Services are called upon to create custom-made housings.

Recently, two very large items in need of improved housings came to our attention. The first is an undated (likely 19th century) Japanese map mounted on a scroll. The primary support – the paper on which the map is drawn – is cracked in many places and is too fragile to withstand being rolled and unrolled, so the scroll must be stored flat. It had been stored in a folder inside a map case drawer, but this situation was problematic: the rods at either end of the scroll created an uneven surface and placed pressure on other objects stored in the drawer, the folder holding the scroll was not strong enough to support its unevenly distributed weight, and the folder could not be easily handled by just one person.

To create a more stable and user-friendly housing for the scroll, I started with a basic, easily customizable template for an archival corrugated clamshell box, or what we often refer to as a “pizza box.” A pizza box is cut and folded from a single piece of board; in this case, I had to use 4 foot by 6 foot sheet of board! After I measured, cut out, and folded up the box, I allowed it to sit overnight surrounded by weights to help set the box walls at a nice right angle.

Housing for mounted scroll

Top: The box after cutting out – nearly 5 feet wide and looking very much like an actual pizza box.
Bottom: Setting the assembled box overnight. Click images to enlarge

The next step was to modify the interior of the box with something that would support the fragile scroll and accommodate the bulky rods at its ends. Using archival foam sheets, I fitted out the tray of the box with channels at either end that the rods can sink into, allowing the fragile surface of the scroll to lie flat. This box achieves a goal I always have in mind when creating housings for fragile objects: it allows the object to be viewed unobstructed without having to be handled, reducing stress on the object without significantly diminishing the user’s experience of it.

Housing for mounted scroll             Housing for mounted scroll

Left: Foam inserts, affixed to the box with hot melt glue. Right: The scroll in its completed housing. Call number Orbis Maps 2:204. Click images to enlarge


The second oversize item is an 18th century map printed by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; the map is beautifully printed on several sheets of heavy paper attached to one another to form a very large single sheet – nearly 3 feet wide and over 4 feet long. At 53 inches, the map is too large to fit into the largest map cases (48 inches wide) in the special collections stacks, so a place will be found for it among the oversized flat shelving, where it will need a custom enclosure to protect it.

This housing is another modification of two basic enclosures – a portfolio and a four-flap wrapper – and again uses that extra-large 4 x 6 foot archival corrugated board. To begin, I pieced together sheets of 20 point board to form a simple (though giant-sized) four-flap wrapper for the print. I then built a corrugated portfolio into which the four-flap is adhered. The portfolio has a cloth spine for durability and four woven tie closures.

Open portfolio for oversized item   Open portfolio for oversized item

The portfolio with inner four-flap closed (left) and opened (right). Call number N23. Click images to enlarge.

Completed portfolio for oversized item

The completed portfolio. Click image to enlarge.


When making any custom enclosure, especially oversize ones, it’s important to consider how the housing will perform in all the stages of an item’s use, not only in storage but during retrieval as well. To ensure that this portfolio can be easily transported by a single person, I added a fabric handle to the front cover; despite its bulk, the portfolio is quite light and can be held comfortably at one’s side, leaving the other hand free to open doors and such.

Constructing custom enclosures is one of my favorite conservation problem-solving challenges. I enjoy pulling together and re-imagining elements of basic enclosure designs to devise just the right housing for every object that crosses my bench.

Angela Andres
Special Collections Conservator
Conservation Services

Item Feature: La Sfera, a 15th century schoolbook

October 19th, 2015

La Sfera, a 15th-century schoolbook, opens with basic concepts of cosmography and geography and ends with an itinerary of seaports of the southern Mediterranean and Black Seas. This manuscript poem in Italian is illustrated with astronomical and geographical diagrams, a drawing of the Tower of Babel, and miniature extracts from sea charts showing the coasts described.

Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.

Fig. 1. Diagrams showing celestial bodies and the division of the Earth into zones according to classical tradition appear near the beginning of La Sfera (ff.2v-3r). Special Collections, call number Pryce MS P4. Click image to enlarge.

Portolan charts, a type of sea chart that originated in the Mediterranean and was used in navigation from circa 1300 until the late 1600s, formed the model for the map illustrations in La Sfera.

Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.

Fig. 2. The portolan-style map illustrations exaggerate the shape of the seacoast and emphasize coastal place names and major cities (here Tripoli and Tunis), as well as giving approximate distances (f. 21v). Special Collections, call number Pryce MS P4. Click image to enlarge.

Some have attributed its authorship to Leonardo Dati (1362-1425), but, as a leader of the Dominican order, he was unlikely to have written a textbook in Italian. Boys destined for the law and Holy Orders were taught in Latin, while education for commercial careers took place in vernacular lay schools.

Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.  Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.

Figs. 3a-b. The text and place names are in Italian. The pen-and-ink drawings of mountains, water features, and the cities of Damascus and Jerusalem have been colored with watercolor washes (f. 22v). Left: overall view, right: detail of Jerusalem. Special Collections, call number Pryce MS P4. Click images to enlarge.

The confusion about authorship arose, because La Sfera’s author was Leonardo’s elder brother, Gregorio (Goro) Dati (1362-1435), a Florentine silk merchant whose 20 children (by a succession of four wives) doubtless provided the inspiration for writing La Sfera. The survival of more than 150 manuscript copies and several printed editions from the 15th and 16th centuries attests to La Sfera’s popularity. Goro Dati knew the Mediterranean Sea firsthand from trading voyages on merchant vessels, but he left La Sfera’s circuit of the Mediterranean coasts unfinished, perhaps because he died while writing it. In 1514 Giovanni Maria Tolosani completed and published the itinerary as a printed book.

La Sfera is written in ottava rima, a form of poetry employing stanzas of eight lines. It belongs to an Italian tradition of vernacular geographical poetry, known as geografie metriche. A later example was Francesco Berlingieri’s publication in 1482 of Geographia of the ancient Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, re-written in Italian verse. Also dating from the 1480s were Bartolomeo dalli Sonetti (Zamberti)’s sonnets in Venetian dialect about the Greek islands. The ease of memorizing poetry may account for its use in textbooks published elsewhere in 16th-century Europe, such as the 2nd edition Johannes Honter’s Rudimenta Cosmographia published in Latin verse in Kronstadt (now Brasnow, Romania). Based on its script and paper watermarks, Kenneth Spencer Research Library’s manuscript copy dates from circa 1450. As well as annotations, the dirty outer leaves, stains left by spilled liquid, and the remains of a snakeskin used as a bookmark attest to its use.

Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.  Pryce MS P4 ff. 11r detail finger

Figs. 4a-b. The leaves in this opening have added marginal notes and a passage marked by a pointing finger (ff. 10v-11r). Left: overall view, right: detail of pointing finger. Special Collections, call number Pryce MS P4. Click images to enlarge.

This manuscript was probably used first as a textbook, without a cover, and later bound in a codex with other texts, from which it had been separated before its acquisition in 1966.

Karen Severud Cook
Special Collections Librarian