If these blocks could talk

The 9 millionth volume recently acquired by University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill is not a book. It is a collection of approximately 900 woodcut printing blocks from the Propaganda Fide press from 1625 to 1850. The role of printing blocks as a printing technology and in world history makes them valuable for research in many fields and also a tribute to books and bookmaking.

The Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (“Holy Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith”) is a college of the Catholic Church, now known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. In 1622, to support the church’s mission to spread the faith throughout the world, she established her own printing shop. The printing house produced materials in various languages, including manuals for priests trying to learn a new language and publications teaching the tenets of Catholicism.

The collection contains blocks in many languages, with a strong focus on East Asian and Middle Eastern languages, Slavic, Greek and other global languages.

Elizabeth Ott, Frank Borden Hanes curator of rare books at the Wilson Special Collections Library, said she expects these objects would benefit many scholars. “From an art historical point of view, they are of great value. If you study iconography in books, if you study the production of images, if you just want to know how woodcuts were used to make illustrations or art prints, you can find out from these objects,” she said.

The blocks are of different sizes and shapes. (Photo by Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“It’s also a collection of great value for people studying how religion was taught and disseminated,” Ott said. “Religious conversion has been an important driving force in the study of languages ​​in Europe. European knowledge of other cultures was made possible in part by the production of religious texts in different languages.”

The blocks were purchased with funds from the John Wesley and Anna Hodgin Hanes Foundation and the Whittaker Library Foundation. The Hanes family’s involvement with Carolina libraries began in 1929 when they made the gift that established the rare book collection. Through its founding, it has gifted the library with every millionth volume milestone ever since. Officials believe the tradition is unique among research libraries.

Established in 1960, the Whitaker Library Fund has helped augment university libraries’ holdings of English and American literature, as well as continental European books and manuscripts.

“The millionth volume tradition isn’t just about celebrating the library,” said María R. Estorino, associate university librarian for special collections and director of the Wilson Library. “It’s about our commitment to making the creation and sharing of knowledge in so many forms accessible to the people of North Carolina. To have this commitment shared by the Hanes and Whitaker families demonstrates the power and impact of philanthropic partnerships.”

The blocks come in different sizes and shapes, Ott said. Some are long and thin. Some are the size of a 11″ x 17″ poster. All are .918 inches thick – a standard measurement known as “paper height” that allows a piece of paper to be pressed flat against the blocks during the printing process.

Two women examine the wooden blocks.

Elizabeth Ott (right), Frank Borden Hanes, Curator of Rare Books at the Wilson Special Collections Library, and Maria Estorino, Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections and Director of the Wilson Library, discuss part of the 9 millionth collection. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

They are wrapped in “print waste,” a term for replacement paper that contains errors or overflows. This packaging gives clues to the time and circumstances of its creation. “There’s an archive within the archive that’s the printer’s waste,” Ott said. “This collection has many layers and depth.”

The original Hanes endowment to the university commissioned the library to investigate the origin and development of the book, Ott said. “We’re a large research university and we support all the different types of research that happen at UNC,” she said. “But we have this fundamental mission of exploring the origin and development of the book. The Propaganda Fide Collection speaks powerfully about where we have been and where we are going. It teaches us how information circulated in a historical time when books were the primary technology people used to communicate ideas.”

The collection also serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of our world, even at a time when we see people as culturally isolated. “Traditionally, when we’ve studied European history, we’ve studied it in isolation,” Ott said. “But so many of these countries – Spain, Italy, France, England and the Netherlands – they went around the world and founded colonies that funneled money and resources back to Europe and made so much of what we consider European history possible . This collection shows us one aspect of how this worked and how ambitious a project colonialism was. This collection allows us to see that even our most historical collections are also a global research collection.”

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