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

Twentieth century German woodcuts

Heilige Nacht (15th c.), click on image to enlarge

I recently catalogued a book from 1927, Der Niederrhein im Schrifttum alter und neuer Zeit (S950.b.9.1244), an anthology of writing about the Lower Rhine region of Northern Germany, illustrated with the most striking woodcuts. Some of these date from pre-1500 as the example to the right (or above if viewed on mobile phone) illustrates, but the majority are contemporary Expressionist works created by either Artur Buschmann or Anton Wendling, both artists I had not heard of before.  The woodcut as a medium was particularly used by Expressionist artists in Germany.

Buschmann (1895-1971) was a local artist, best known for his paintings. He also worked as a draughtsman throughout his career. He had served in World War One but spent some time recuperating from a gas attack. By the 1920s he was part of the art scene in Düsseldorf. Here is a small selection of his woodcuts from the book (click on each image to see enlarged version): Continue reading

When the illustrations are more interesting than the novel: Le Livre de Demain

We write quite frequently on this blog about donations to the University Library, not because this material necessarily makes up a large proportion of what we acquire, but more probably because we (the people writing these posts) find old books to be interesting. That is the case with a dozen volumes that we accepted as a donation in the series Le livre de demain, published by Arthème Fayard. I’m sure the novels in these books are worthwhile and interesting, but we accepted them primarily because of their illustrations. For the purposes of the UL, while the novels themselves are unlikely to be heavily used, the illustrations are much more interesting.

All books in this series have woodcuts created specifically for the publications. They are in general by illustrators who are represented elsewhere in the UL. The novels sometimes appear elsewhere in the UL, sometimes not.

A couple of examples of these novels and their illustrations follow:

Ariane, jeune fille russe

Written by Claude Anet, the pseudonym of Jean Schopfer (a writer and tennis player), this novel was adapted several times for cinema– most notably for a 1957 film by Billy Wilder. Cambridge libraries have numerous copies of the novel (and English translations). This edition, which stands at 2016.9.4412, has 29 woodcuts by Angelina Beloff.

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La fée de Port-Cros, ou, La voie sans retour

Written by Henry Bordeaux, our copy (2016.9.4413) in this series is illustrated by Jean Constant Raymond Renefer, who illustrated one other book from the collection in the UL. He was primarily a painter, most well-known for his paintings of soldiers during the First World War.

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Josh Hutchinson