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The History of the Book Flickr Set

8 March 2011 No Comment

I’ve recently been spending way too much time over on the History of the Book Flickr set, a collection of some 20,000 photos of initials, ornaments, and type from Royal Library, The Hague, and the Archive of Alkmaar. Its author, Dr. Paul Dijstelberge has scanned thousands of pages from European printed works from the 15th through the 17th century. Illustrated works, type specimens, medical illustrations, and engravings and cataloged by country and century of origin. There are a particularly large number of initial caps from various documents done in a range of styles.

The scans have been created at very high resolution-up to 2000 x 3000 pixels in some cases-and visitors can view full-resolution images online. This is particularly useful for type designers or typographers who are interested in studying the spread and evolution of type and printing in Europe. Fifteenth century French typefaces can be compared directly with 16th century German or 17th century Dutch styles without having to resort to looking through a loupe at one or two characters at a time.

The catalog is searchable, somewhat. Individual letters can be searched for and a list of available initial caps is returned. Searching by tags or keywords, however, doesn’t yield anything. Still, I searched for “W” and was given a page of initial caps using the letter. In comparing the character across the centuries and countries, I see that the early printed “W” did indeed look like two “V”s, often with the one of the interior diagonal strokes obscured. It’s easy to see how our “W” was originally thought of as a quite literal double-U.

But beyond documenting the changing style of type and the improvement of the craft of printing, there are the occasional illustrations of creatures that were perhaps only recently discovered judging by the illustrations. In particular, there is an illustration of an orca with long front flippers dangling limply at its side and with a very small tail fluke. One could imagine a fisherman coming to shore after an encounter with orca and trying to explain to the engraver what he had seen.

If there is a fault to be found with this trove of printed samples, it is that it needs to be able to accessed better. Adding keyword tags to the illustrations is critical and I hope that will be coming. Until then, I’ll just have to slog around clicking from set to set discovering what treasures there are inside. See it for yourself at History of the Book Flickr set.