In 2003 he was named Keeper of Historical Collections at the Antwerp University Library, managing the department from 2006 until September 2009, when he received a grant from the Flanders Research Foundation for a three-year post-doctoral research project about the evolution of layout and typography in Flanders during the early modern period. He is an active member of the Flanders Book Historical Society, for which he organized a large number of Miræus Lectures. In 2007 he joined the editorial board of the Jaarboek voor Nederlandse Boekgeschiedenis
, serving as editor-in-chief in 2011 and 2012.
Welcome to the Folger! What are you particularly excited about in being the new Curator of Rare Books here?
It is wonderful to work in this very special environment, with its rich early modern collections, together with a very professional team of staff members who are also very warm and caring colleagues—I really feel at home here. As a Curator of Rare Books, I have to work closely together with the other curators and many departments, such as the Reading Room, the Acquisition Office, the Cataloging Office, the Conservation Lab, and of course the readers. I am also frequently diving into the collections in the vaults on Deck B and Deck C, and communicating with colleagues all over the world, asking questions and trying to solve questions. I am fond of this combination, the contact with staff, readers, colleagues, and the material objects themselves.
What about your own research—what you are working on?
My own research expands over three fields. My first steps into research dealt with Jesuit theater in the early modern period, especially in the Southern Low Countries. I studied the sources of all kinds of theatrical performances and composed a finding list and bibliography of about 2,000 spectacles. In my PhD I tried to delineate the general context and daily practice of Jesuit school theater of the “old” society that was suppressed in 1773. I performed a thorough book historical analysis of the most important source for Jesuit theater study in this period, notably the printed and handwritten theater programs, extremely ephemeral printings lurking in a multitude of libraries and archives.
In 2000, I was asked to join a small team in Antwerp in order to found the Short Title Catalogue Flanders (STCV—the V standing for “Vlaanderen,” that is, Flanders), the younger sister project of the impressing Short Title Catalogue, Netherlands. Together with the ICT Department of Antwerp University, we designed an online database which was able to describe hand press books in depth, created a website, and wrote a manual for the description of rare books. The project moved from collection to collection and from library to library, and this is how I got to know many different institutions from within, including different corporate cultures and how things are organized, from stacks to readers’ services. When I became Keeper of Historical Collections at Antwerp University Library in the fall of 2003, I became the director of the project, which was running out of funding. Fortunately, I could secure project funding from the Culture Department of the Flemish Government and carry on with it for a number of years until 2009, when the Government finally recognized the merits of the project and created a firmer and stable basis for it. That was quite a relief!
My current research is in fact based on the work for the STCV. I trained quite a number of bibliographers. When they asked me how you can actually recognize Flemish imprints when they lack a clear imprint, I tried to point out the typographical characteristics of these editions. This is a skill you can require by looking at editions, but an average scholar never has the opportunity to see thousands of rare books. My project aims at establishing a clear framework of typographical habits, pointing out typographical evolutions and fashions of hand press books in the early modern period, in relation to different text genres. It is a difficult but intriguing project that will keep my busy for some time.
I know you are only beginning to fully explore the Library’s collections, but do you have a favorite item so far, or a most surprising find?
The collections at the Folger are extremely rich, especially for early English imprints. But the Library houses tens of thousands of continental books as well, some of which are uncommonly rare. A nice example is this collection of poems entitled Diporti del Crescente, printed in Brussels in 1656.
Title page of Diporti del Crescente
According to a handwritten note on one of the endpapers, the supposed author, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, late in life regretted its publication and tried to withdraw as many copies as possible—obviously in vain, as one of them lives in the Folger collections.
Italian note on the flyleaf (click to enlarge)
And although the note on the fly leaf is not fully correct—the German scholar Michael Ritter pointed out that Leopold Wilhelm was not the only author involved —it is one of the innumerable little, but fascinating, anecdotes connected to the books in the Folger. I am looking forward to exploring the continental collections more in detail and to providing readers better access to them, because they are of great importance for our knowledge of the Renaissance.