The cover of the 1536 children's book.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Among librarians and booksellers, hymnals and children’s books are infamous for their low survival rate, as a result of overuse and abuse. So when the staff at the University of Illinois Rare Book and Manuscript Library found an eight-page unbound copy of the ABCs and common prayers published in 1536 – more than 450 years ago – they immediately ran the title through several international databases to see if any other libraries had a copy. None did.
Valerie Hotchkiss, the director of the RBML, says the Project Unica website already has more than 280 of these lone volumes online, with more scanned and waiting to be uploaded. She recently opened Project Unica to other university libraries to share their unique books on the site.
“The concept of a unicum is difficult for the average library user to understand, since books, by their very nature, exist in more than one copy. That’s the genius of Gutenberg’s invention, after all,” Hotchkiss said. “But fate and circumstance have sometimes led to the destruction of every copy, save one. And the University of Illinois has quite a number of absolutely unique printed books.”
English literature is one of the Illinois library’s specialties, so the majority of the items in Project Unica originated in the United Kingdom. Many of the items are parliamentary acts, addressing issues ranging from mortgage relief to improvement of “flaxen and hempen” manufacturing, theregulation of chimney sweeps and the abolition of the practice of hanging the corpses of executed criminals “in chains.” Hotchkiss feels certain there are other copies of these documents.
“Somewhere in England, there’s got to be a collection of acts, but nobody’s cataloged it yet,” she said. “So for now, we’re the only ones.”
Besides these government documents, there’s an assortment of plays, poems, religious texts, satires, sermons and speeches. There are leather-bound trial transcripts, including a cache of letters used as evidence in the 1866 divorce case of a British doctor and his wife, each using the most proper prose to accuse the other of infidelity.
There’s “An oration on the oppression of jailors,” allegedly recorded by an anonymous witness to the spontaneous speech given by a jail inmate, published in 1731 and sold in pamphlet shops in London and Westminster. There’s a book of “Psalms, Hymns and Anthems for the Use of Children of the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children,” and “Biblia pauperum,” an 1815 book of 38 woodcuts illustrating the life of Christ. There are limited-edition art books from the 1940s that represent solitary specimens unscathed by World War II.
“Unica come in all shapes and sizes,” Hotchkiss said.
At least a dozen “lamentations” – the Victorian equivalent of today’s television crime shows – are already online in Project Unica. These broadsides, usually written in first person, ostensibly by the criminal, typically tell the story of some gruesome murder or other newsworthy offense and consequent punishment, always in verse. “The Awful Sentance and Lamentations of Keene,” for example, begins:
“I am a sad and wretched man,
Who in Horsemonger’s Goal do lie,
For murdering a smiling boy,
Am on the gallows doomed to die.”
The poem goes on to describe how Keene drowned his own infant son by dropping him down a well.
A cheerier example, “Beware of Garotters,” apparently meant to rouse London officials to crack down on roving gangs of robbers preying on female pedestrians, begins and ends with a catchy chorus:
“Oh! Says the maids, don’t be afraid,
Stick ’em, lick ’em, pinch ’em,
They’re cowardly rascals, villains base,
Nick ’em, kick ’em, lynch ’em;
When once in their arms, don’t be alarm’d
The London police have got ’em,
It will be a pretty long time before
They’ll go out again garroting.”
Hotchkiss ensures that each of these documents receives the same treatment, which includes a high-quality digital scan of the outside (front and back), the spine, the printed pages and the flyleaves, even if they’re totally blank.
“We show people everything,” she said. “We give them everything they would have if they held the book in their hands.”
Among the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s unica is a bound copy of “The Solemn League and Covenant” – a landmark 1643 agreement between the English Parliament and Scotland meant to cement support for the reformed religion. The printer who assembled the copy owned by the RBML apparently used a medieval manuscript as scrap paper to add heft to the binding. The sheepskin flyleaves have small holes left by blemishes in the animal’s skin. Some pages have pencil marks made by booksellers and librarians over the centuries.
“You never know when that might be important to someone,” Hotchkiss said.
She predicts that Project Unica will eventually have more than 2,000 books from Illinois alone – all available free of charge, online, for anyone who wants to see these “supremely rare” items. The ability to share the library’s treasures so generously makes Hotchkiss happy.
“It makes me feel better about security, about preservation, all that,” Hotchkiss said. “And for somebody halfway around the world to have access to these books that exist in only one copy – I think that is terrific.”