The visitors’ album of María Luisa Aub : a hidden treasure

The visitors’ album of María Luisa Aub came to the University Library in 2018. María Luisa (1927-2013), affectionally called “Mimín” by family and friends, was the eldest daughter of Mexican-Spanish writer Max Aub. She had close links to Cambridge, having lived in the city for over 25 years, but she also lived in exile in Mexico for many years. 

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Dating Spanish chapbooks: the wonders of artificial intelligence

Cambridge University Library was recently awarded a Cambridge Humanities Research Grant to continue work on the Spanish chapbooks catalogued and digitised under the “Wrongdoing in Spain, 1800-1936” project, as featured in the Cambridge Digital Library. This new year-long project aims to reliably date about 67% of chapbooks bearing estimated dates, often drawn from the printer’s period of activity. To establish more accurate dates of printing for these items, we aim to conduct visual search on woodcut illustrations within the chapbooks to compare prints made from the same woodblocks.

Printing houses used woodblocks (as well as metal stereotype plates in the nineteenth century) to illustrate the chapbooks. Woodblocks were expensive to produce, so printers often had a limited stock that they reused, sometimes through several generations of printers. Earlier woodblocks were crudely made on softwood, but the technique developed to produce much more detailed woodblocks etched with metal-engraving tools on harder wood. More intricate images are typical of the later period, although many older woodcuts continued to be used in later years to cut costs. It comes as no surprise then that wood blocks deteriorated over time, becoming less sharp, developing cracks. We see how, after many printings, the finest lines began to fade, and it is this wear-and-tear that we are hoping to use to our advantage to date the Cambridge Digital Library Spanish chapbooks more accurately.

During the first phase of the project (October 2021-to date) images of the chapbooks were run through a machine learning model created by Oxford University’s Visual Geometry Group. The model was pre-trained on similar Scottish chapbooks from the National Library of Scotland. This process recognized the woodcut images and created annotations to mark them using bounding boxes, but the result was not perfect. Manual input was needed to ensure that the gathering of images suited the parameters of the project. Our aim was to isolate individual woodblock prints (i.e., woodcuts made from a single woodblock). The software missed the fact that some images consisting of two or three separate woodblocks had been combined to make an individual image. It also missed borders and garlands and made “false detections”, so manual input was essential not just to serve our purposes for the project, but also to train the machine learning model to make more accurate predictions in the future.

On the next phase of the project, all the images and annotations, alongside metadata from Cambridge Digital Library, will be imported into an instance of VISE (Virtual Geometry Group Image Search Engine). VISE will allow us to visually search many images (we annotated a total of 18,757 images out of 26,527 scanned images of chapbooks). By using an image or a metadata field as a search query, we are hoping to use machine learning and computer vision to explore relationships between the illustrations and not only narrow down the publication dates of the chapbooks, but also open up fields for research in printing and social history.

Sonia Morcillo García

Some resources on racism in Spain and Portugal

In line with recent events linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, this blog post features ebooks and other titles dealing with racism and social prejudice in Spain, Portugal and Portuguese-speaking Africa available to Cambridge students and researchers.

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Juan Latino, 16th-century Afro-Spaniard freed slave, poet and Latin professor

Juan Latino (ca. 1517-ca. 1594) was born most likely in Baena (southern Spain), descendent of Guinea born parents. He was the first Afro-European to write in Latin and thus, have a literary career. In fact, he was called “Latino” for his mastery of that language. We should not forget that slavery was common at the time in Europe (see 532:8.b.200.1).

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Slave with chains & woman in the Kingdom of Castille, Christoph Weiditz, 1530-40, Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg (via Wikimedia, click to see enlarged)

The fascinating story of Juan Latino is for Professor Aurelia Martín Casares (Universidad de Granada) an example of the triumph of wisdom (see C213.c.3056); he was able to break prejudices and social conventions in a somewhat rigid early modern society. In this story the noble family to whom he belonged, played a crucial role in helping make possible his exceptional achievements. Martín Casares compares Latino with the American abolitionist writer and orator Frederick Douglass (who escaped slavery in the 1830s), but makes the point that Latino lived three centuries earlier than Douglass. Continue reading

The Prado Museum, a 200-year story

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General view of the Museo del Prado, by Outisnn (via Wikipedia)

Last November 19, the museum celebrated the 200 year anniversary of its opening. The University Library regularly receives Spanish art catalogues – including the ones issued by the Prado – but this time we have also acquired a selection of recent books (listed below) commemorating this occasion. Among them we can highlight Museo del Prado, 1819-2019: un lugar de memoria (C202.b.3782), catalogue of an exhibition focused on the museum’s history, organised by the institution. Continue reading