Over this past winter and spring I have been dodging periodic snowstorms across the Mid-Atlantic region, journeying back and forth to Washington for a project that draws upon one meaning of the word from which this blog derives its name: collation. My project—comparing printed “states” of the libretto for an extravagant 1692–93 operatic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream called The Fairy-Queen—started last year, while I was at Harvard University’s Houghton Library on a Katharine F. Pantzer Jr. Fellowship in Descriptive Bibliography. Houghton has three copies of this libretto, and I began noticing that they were all different from each other, a sure sign that closer scrutiny was warranted.
But I couldn’t hope to draw broader conclusions until I had paid a visit to the Folger, whose collection includes an eye-popping eight copies of this seventeenth-century book. Given the number of exemplars available for consultation at the Folger, I had reason to hope that some small but distinct typographical variations from copy to copy would emerge, and would illuminate my preliminary findings from Harvard. (Variations can occur when the pieces of metal type are intentionally changed in order to fix errors—this is known as “stop-press” correction—or when the type is not properly locked into its “forme” and some individual letters, words, or whole phrases shift slightly from side to side as the press run proceeds.) The question was, how to spot those tiny variations among the book’s fifty-two pages when, on first glance, all copies of any given page look exactly alike?
Enter the Hinman Collator. A relic of the pre-digital age, this deceptively simple device allows the user to examine two copies of a printed book1 in order to determine minute differences between them. When you place a copy on each side of the machine, opened to a particular page, the collator utilizes a combination of lights and mirrors so that when you look through the central view-piece the two images are superimposed on top of one another. Once you have perfectly aligned the two copies so that you seem to be looking at a single, crisply focused, image, it’s time for the magic to begin.
Press a pair of buttons on the face of the machine, and the lights illuminating each of the two copies start to strobe slowly back and forth, so that only one copy is visible at a time: left–right–left–right–left–right…. As your eyes, gazing through the view-piece, travel over the page, they might pick up a small movement somewhere: either a letter or word changing to something else and back again as the lights flash, or a bit of text wobbling gently to and fro while everything around it remains absolutely still. Voilà: you’ve found a typographical variant! If you accumulate enough data about the variants existing in different copies, how often they occur, and in what configuration, you can begin to establish a fuller picture of the book’s printing history, and perhaps even draw larger conclusions about printing-house practices at the time.
All of this was made possible as a result of experiments first conducted right here at the Folger. In the 1940s and ’50s, Charlton Hinman compared all of the library’s seventy-nine-plus copies of the Shakespeare First Folio for his monumental study The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (2 vols.: Oxford, 1963). In the process, he devised the collating machine that bears his name: the prototype was constructed from a pair of projectors, parts of an apple box, some sheets of cardboard, and items from an old erector set.2 The industrial manufacture of the instrument was taken over by Arthur M. Johnson of Silver Spring, Maryland (just outside the District of Columbia), and later by Mico Engineering Company of the nearby town of Bladensburg. Fifty-nine units were made prior to 1979; at the present time, some forty-one are still known to exist, most of them in research libraries in the U.S. and Europe.3
The Folger’s model, which can be seen by its serial number (L1047) and design to date from the 1970s, is housed in a small room just off the main circulation area between the Old and New Reading Rooms, where it resides among shelves of assorted office supplies and other useful detritus. In this day and age, when descriptive bibliography is no longer a “sexy” field in the eyes of many scholars, few visitors to the Folger even know of the collator’s existence, although it is shown off occasionally as a curiosity to students in one or another of the library’s bibliographical seminars. As a result, when I arrived in January to try my hand at collating The Fairy-Queen, the device had not been used seriously in at least fifteen years and was not in what could be described as optimal working order.
Certain moving parts (the “universal sensitive lateral adjustment” mechanism associated with the left-hand book table, and the internal gears for calibrating “interpupillary distance” in the view-piece) had frozen up from disuse; the wraparound tension wire attached to the knee treadle used to control the strobe speed potentiometer had become disconnected; a set-screw meant to hold the viewing apparatus firmly in place was stripped and needed repacking; one of the handles for manipulating the right-hand book table had suffered a serious blow at some point and was broken off. Even the low-slung swivel chair parked alongside the device was out of order, its disintegrated foam stuffing spilling out through the breathe-holes in the seat bottom and dispensing powdery trails across the carpet.
The chair’s historical pedigree was insufficient to justify its retention: it went out to the dumpster. But the collator itself fared better. With the indispensable assistance of Josh Childs, the Folger’s brilliant new jack-of-all-trades, I managed to get everything up and running.4
Full functionality twentieth-century-style did leave one thing to be desired, however: the collator relies on pairs of bright floodlights on either side to illuminate the books properly, and the four 150-watt bulbs inside the machine generated a significant amount of heat—not a good state of affairs when dealing with fragile 300-year-old objects. Fortunately, present-day technology enabled us to improve upon the original and, following some minor refurbishment of the wiring courtesy of Josh, the Folger’s Hinman Collator now sports four 17-watt “ultra” LED bulbs. They are every bit as powerful as their predecessors (1300 lumens each), give off almost no heat, flash just as effectively as incandescent bulbs, and produce only an insignificant amount of ambient light while in the “off” position during strobing.
So what is there to be learned once the Hinman Collator is actually working? Here are two examples of typographical variants that can be seen by comparing different copies of a page from The Fairy-Queen.
In the first pairing, you see instances of what I have provisionally designated the “A” and “B” states of page 45 (signature G3r, for those keeping track of such things). If you look carefully, you can easily spot a number of differences between the two: see, for example, the addition of the word “most” (and the elimination of a colon) in line 9, or the alignment of the stage direction three-quarters of the way down the page (“[A noise of Hunting…”) against the beginning of Bottom’s speech (“When my Cue comes, call me…”) just beneath it. In this case, one hardly needs a fancy collating machine to see that the copies do not entirely match.
But what about the second pairing, which shows two examples of state “B”? You may immediately notice the strange typographical anomaly in the stage direction “Ex. all but the Lovers.” about a quarter of the way down the page in the right-hand image. But there is another tiny difference that you’re less likely to find; I didn’t notice it myself until I was comparing the copies using the collator. Look at the line halfway down the page that reads “And I have found Demetrius like a Jewel”. Still don’t see it? Look closely at the first word, “And”. Notice how, in the left-hand image, the letter “A” is not quite left-justified (you can compare it to the “L” in “Long” in the line immediately below). Now look at the right-hand image. The “A” has moved over slightly, so that it’s now correctly justified, but has thereby left a space before the next two letters, so that the word effectively reads “A nd”.
Using the magic of computer technology (specifically, the “Graphic Interchange Format”, or GIF), The Collation’s intrepid editor Abbie Weinberg has created a simulation of what one might see when looking at this part of the page through the Hinman Collator’s view-piece:
The illusion of movement is key here: once your eye has been trained to spot the right kind of motion,5 the wobbling “A” grabs your attention almost instantly, even if your view takes in a large portion of the page, and not just the small detail seen here.
If you don’t feel the earth immediately shaking beneath your feet, don’t worry: this “discovery” is just one tiny part of the process of comparing every page of each of the Folger’s eight copies of the book—and indeed of every page of all sixty-nine copies of The Fairy-Queen that I have identified in libraries around the world, from Sweden to Australia. Only when all that work is done is it possible to start drawing conclusions. But my work here at the Folger has provided an important starting-point.
The process of putting the Folger’s Hinman Collator back into working order generated two subsidiary consequences that deserve mention.
The first is the discovery, in a file labeled “COLLATOR INSTRUCTIONS,” of a small collection of letters and telegrams dating from the summer and autumn of 1948. These documents detail negotiations carried out by Hinman and Robert P. Rich of Johns Hopkins University’s recently formed Institute for Cooperative Research with Bausch & Lomb Optical of Rochester, New York and The Evaporated Metal Company of Ithaca, New York. These two companies ultimately produced, respectively, the view-piece and the aluminized mirrors for the collator’s initial production run. The letters (thirteen items in total, including an original schematic pencil sketch that was copied and dispatched to Bausch & Lomb to explain the principle of the device) will be added to the Folger’s institutional archive. It is fascinating to read the negotiations back and forth and to see the ideas about the collator’s final configuration and features taking shape. For example, Robert Rich originally stipulated that the view-piece should include a mechanical masking stop, intended
to block off everything in the field of view except the printed part of the page. If this is not done, the peripheral view—edge of the page, binding, etc.—jumps even more than the differences to be detected and this distracting motion at the edge of the field of view seriously reduces the efficiency of the observer.6
Ultimately, following some delays and a telephone conversation “between Mr. Rich and our Mr. Foster,” Bausch & Lomb agreed to supply “a special binocular eyepiece, mon-objective telescope” with a “standard round diaphragm,” but with “no provision…made for a special rectangular adjustable stop.”7
The other consequence of my foray into collation at the Folger brings us back to the present day. The library is home to many readers who pursue a wide variety of projects, but I have been deeply touched by the level of enthusiasm and excitement, especially among the Folger’s staff, surrounding the resurrection of the collator during the past few months. From Mellon Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints Caroline Duroselle-Melish (who generously approved my initial request to place the library’s precious books into the machine and trusted me to protect their paper and bindings from undue pressure and physical wear); to Josh Childs and his supervisor, Facilities Manager Jodie Pitman; to the entire Reading Room staff, who so kindly indulged me as I continually encroached upon their sanctum, slipping past the desk, shuffling through my copies of The Fairy-Queen, and disappearing into the small room for round after round of collating—everyone has been exceptionally supportive and kind. The Folger welcomes all manner of scholars, and I have worked here in the past on projects that have nothing to do with this sort of detailed technical investigation, but the last few months have been a special time for me, given how warmly this project has been embraced.
It’s a tight squeeze into the little room where the collator sits, and there is plenty of careful preparation that must be taken when handling the Folger’s fragile objects, but once everything is set up and you’re looking through the view-piece, it’s like being transported to another world. As the disembodied words and letters dance back and forth before your eyes it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the sheer beauty of early hand-press type, and by the extraordinary technical ingenuity that makes possible this unique vision of the revealing traces those shifting metal pieces have left behind on the printed page.
Edit 3 July 2018: Updated the number of found copies to sixty-nine.
- It can also be used with engraved images, aerial spy photographs, telescopic images of far-away galaxies, and any other pair of seemingly identical two-dimensional objects in which the user wishes to discern a tiny dissimilarity.
- See Charlton Hinman, “Mechanized Collation: A Preliminary Report”, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 41 (1947): 99–106, p. 102.
- See Steven Escar Smith, “‘Armadillos of Invention’: A Census of Mechanical Collators”, Studies in Bibliography 55 (2000): 133–70, pp. 135–50.
- The custom-made red forehead pad seen in the picture of the collator, which was crafted sometime around 1980 at the behest of William Proctor Williams (see his comment of August 22, 2011 to The Collation’s first post) has gone missing, but efforts are underway to locate it, or to supply a replacement.
- The more gentle, up-and-down shift of the rest of the text is a common phenomenon, brought about by such things as the subtle expansion and contraction of the 300-year-old laid cotton paper in response to changing environmental conditions over centuries: part of the trick of using the Hinman Collator is learning to ignore this distracting movement.
- R. P. Rich to L. V. Foster (Scientific Bureau, Bausch & Lomb Optical), August 5, 1948. Rich continues by requesting that the stop “be placed in a focal plane of the scope [i.e. the view-piece] so that its edges will be sharply defined; it must be adjustable to a rectangle of any size and shape so that a page of any size (less than about 12″ square) may be properly shielded.”
- J. F. Brandt (Specialty Sales Manager, Bausch & Lomb Optical) to R. P. Rich, September 8, 1948; see also Rich’s handwritten draft of a telegram to Foster, dated August 19, 1948 (“WHEN CAN WE EXPECT REPLY TO LETTER OF 5 AUGUST?”) and Foster’s reply of the same date (“We…are not prepared at this time to make any commitments with respect to cost and delivery. [¶] You will hear from us within a few days with respect to the position we can take in this development”).
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Two points. I think I am responsible for that red headrest pad which was supplied after I had spent several days collating and had rectangular shaped dent in my forehead and someone took pity and produced that pad. On a side matter, this all happened after I had repaired the LC Hinman and the doing of that caused them to let me take their copy of a quarto across the street and run it on the Hinman with the Folger’s copy of that quarto. End of story.
William Proctor Williams — May 10, 2018
A lovely example of always reading the notes. Yes, there it is and I should just have read to the end of the notes and held my peace. My apologies to all.
William Proctor Williams — May 10, 2018
The Hinman device sounds like the astronomical device called a “blink comparator”, which you mention in note one at the end of the article.
Mike Foutch — May 10, 2018