printing

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Living in the technologically focused 21st century, we have access to more information than any generations before us. The answer to a question is often “just google it” and we hit the internet to search for our response, bearing in mind a good proportion of the information published online is not always accurate.

Before internet, a researcher could go to the library, or ask a knowledgeable friend, or consult the trusty set of encyclopaedias on the bookshelves at home. Coming from the Greek words enkyklios (general) and paideia (education), the books were designed to offer a comprehensive set of knowledge on a range of subjects. They differ from dictionaries, which only provided the origin and meaning of words.

The earliest surviving encyclopaedia was Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. Published in the 1st century AD, it included 37 chapters on natural history, medicine, geology, geography and many other topics. Pliny stated he sourced the 20,000 facts published in the series from consulting 2,000 works by over 200 authors.

Encyclopaedias were out of reach for most people for centuries, remaining in the realm of academia and intended to impress writers and wealthy patrons, rather than educate the general public. Attitudes began to change in the 18th century when printing was easy and literacy was rising. General-purpose encyclopaedias began to be more commonly distributed.

1. Map of New Zealand

 A map of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands appearing in the 1903 Encyclopaedia Britannica. WRM ref: 1969.32

One of the classics of the encyclopaedia world is the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was first published in 1768, making it the oldest English language encyclopaedia still in production.

The first set was printed in Edinburgh, Scotland, and comprised three volumes of general knowledge with the first engraved illustrations completed by Andrew Bell. The encyclopaedia was very popular and the second edition covered 10 volumes, growing to 20 volumes by the time the fourth edition was produced between 1801 and 1810.

With a reputation as a scholarly work, the publication attracted more eminent writers and contributors. The ninth and eleventh editions, produced between 1875 and 1889, and 1911 respectively, are considered landmarks of scholarly literary style.  After being purchased by an American company, however, Britannica began to shorten articles in order to meet the requirements of the North American market. Despite being produced in the USA, it retained British English spelling.

The fifteenth edition, published in 2010, was the last printed version of Encyclopaedia Britannica. This set spanned 32,640 pages of information in 32 volumes. Now it is solely produced online, with the help of over 4,000 contributors.

2. Britannica with revolving bookcase

 The tenth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, with a custom made rotating bookshelf and reading ledge. WRM ref: 2015.52

The Whanganui Regional Museum holds two sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica, including a set of the prestigious ninth edition, at its scholarly peak. The second set is a tenth edition published in 1902, and belonged to Fred Symes, a Whanganui banker and prominent Mason. This set was donated with a custom built rotating wooden bookcase, specifically designed to hold the 35-volume set, and is complete with a foldout shelf on which to rest the volumes while reading.

 

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Is handwriting a lost art?

Writing may arguably be one of the most important inventions of humankind. For centuries writing was a means for humans to record history, ideas and discoveries, and to communicate with each other.

Thought to have originated in Mesopotamia around 3,200 BC, writing has undergone a mass of technological development to get where it is today. Handwriting has been evident in many forms: inscribing with tools on stone, leaf, wood, wax, papyrus and parchment and in more recent times, on paper.

These days, people handwrite less and less. The arrival of the printing press in the mid-15th century meant multiples of transcriptions and books became easier to produce. Then the typewriter eliminated the need for composing everything by hand. In recent years the rapid development of computers and smartphones all but do away with the need to write by hand; instead we use texting, emailing and instant messaging. And that’s a pity.

1. Contract 1577

 Commercial contract dated 22 August 1577, written in fine black ink on high quality heavy parchment with three red wax seals attached on hanging strips. Written in English, the signatories are Laurence Robynson, Thomas Bell and Matthew Walker.
Ref: 1959.197.2

The Whanganui Regional Museum archives hold numerous examples of handwritten text, some as early as the 16th century, in the form of legal documents, mortgage papers, manuscripts, indentures, patents, diaries, letters, business records, cash books, autographs and personal papers. In delving into the pages of these beautifully kept records we can appreciate the art, skill and importance of hand-written text. Future generations are unlikely to stock museums with our dull digital printouts.

Why is the art of handwriting so important? Firstly, learning to write by hand is a vital component of literacy. There is evidence to suggest that more information is retained and expressed when putting pen to paper. Handwriting engages more sections of the brain than typing. Learning how to shape and link letters improves reading comprehension. Researchers have ascertained that students who hand-write their notes indeed learn more. Writing a word out, letter by letter, is a self-conscious process that requires a certain processing of information, which provides a deeper connection to thoughts than is acquired by using a keyboard. Handwriting can also increase creativity and improve memory.

2. Stewart journal 1843

 Excerpt from the field journal of Whanganui surveyor and engineer, J T Stewart, 1843.
Ref: 1805.388

Secondly, someone’s handwriting gives clues to their personality that cannot be assessed in digital text. The unique style and slope of individual letters, a flowing cursive and the expressive quality of an individually written word is something that we stand to lose. There is warmth and personality attached to a handwritten letter or note, a postcard sent home or daily diary entries.

Other than the ubiquitous handwritten shopping list, scrawled reminder note or obligatory form filling, how many of us use handwriting on a daily basis? When did any of us last write a handwritten letter to someone? Texts, emails and other forms of technical communication have taken over and caused us to neglect our penmanship. Technology has diluted our collective handwriting ability and there is a real possibility that the skill of hand-writing is dying out.

3. Oldknow letter 1789

This letter was written by H Oldknow from her school in Nottingham to her mother, in 1789. It starts with “Hon.d Madam” and ends, touchingly, with “I am / Madam / your most dutiful / and obedient Daughter”. Ref: 1966.22.1

Handwriting is unique. It has a tremendous expressive power, and more than that, handwritten text can be incredibly gorgeous. The physical act of writing takes time and can communicate that the writer cares about the content of the communication, and in turn the person intended to receive it. There is something special about sending or receiving a precious hand-written note or letter.

Pick up a pen. And write something.

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Pressing Business

Proofing press

Some of the items we feature in From the Vaults are stored somewhere in the giant labyrinth beneath the museum, catalogued and carefully kept in temperature-controlled conditions until needed for display or research. Others are presented proudly behind glass, under lights or on models as part of a current or ongoing museum exhibition. Seldom do we find something that is in use, still doing the same job it was designed to do more than a century ago.
The museum is in possession of an ancient proofing press, once part of the Wanganui Chronicle plant and equipment, and now a working exhibit in the Whanganui Regional Museum tactile collection. When it was in daily use as a newspaper tool, printing staff would use it to print each page for proofing purposes, enabling a practised eye to be cast over the newsprint before going to press.
Museum educator, Margie Beautrais uses the machine as an educational tool at the museum. “We have the wooden poster type,” she says, “which is very old and very precious, and we feel really lucky to be allowed to use these with kids.”
The wooden type comes in many sizes and is stored in their original type drawers, also sourced from the Chronicle. Unfortunately, the museum does not possess a full complement of any particular font.
Included among the carved wooden letters is an array of logos and graphic art, once used in newspaper advertising. Margie has arranged all the letters in sizes so posters can be created with differing font styles of the same size. It works well and the posters look great.
“It’s all good learning for kids,” she says. “They find out that this stuff is called ‘furniture’ (wooden blocks used for line spacing) and these things are called ‘quoins’ (metal wedges) and they have to learn the writing goes backwards.”
Margie showed me some of the old Chronicle art she has used to create themed posters. There are ads and logos for long gone Wanganui companies, pictures of riverboats, Christmas art, the Wanganui District Council crest – all stamped in metal and glued to wooden blocks.
“Every child gets a tray, they get to choose a picture and they have to think of a word to go with it. It’s really good for supporting literacy,” she says. “I do a demo for them and they help me find the letters, working in pairs or by themselves.”
Margie holds up a mirror for the children to check their work before they move over to the press to ink it up and print a copy. The posters are then hung to dry and given to the school the following day.
When the proof press was given to the museum it went straight to the education programme, where it has been retained. “The value of it as an educational tool is high,” says Margie. “It’s not getting damaged. It’s fairly robust.”
To see it used as it was intended in a museum context is refreshing. “It’s old and it’s cool and it’s still being used,” she says. “I would love more schools to come and do this programme. It doesn’t get used as often as I would like. I’d like to run this programme every week.”
Teachers interested in any of the educational programmes on offer are urged to contact the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 2nd May 2 2012. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.