Archaeological adventures in the Bolton Library

by Paul Novosel

If I wasn’t a professional musician, I would have probably been an archaeologist. Unearthing the past and finding historical artefacts has always fascinated me. And this term at UL, I had the chance to experience something akin to an archaeological dig: as part of my MA in Ritual Chant and Song, I delved into the world of rare liturgical books.

For one of my MA modules, I was given the awesome opportunity to thoroughly examine a rare book from the Bolton Library and create a record of its health (image 1). The University of Limerick takes care of the Bolton Library, “a collection of 12,000 early printed books, manuscripts and incunabula of exceptional academic and bibliographic importance”. It’s a literary goldmine of historical artefacts for future generations of researchers—a very noble legacy, and a coup for the Glucksman Library.


1: Students of the MA in Ritual Chant & Song in Special Collections 

The Bolton Library is currently being catalogued by Olivia Lardner, and my assignment was to create a catalogue record of a printed chant book from the Bolton Library for Olivia’s catalogue. It’s not everyday that someone asks you to analyse something and hands you a rare Roman Catholic Missal that was used by priests on the altars of Ireland in 1682, contains more that 650 pages of art engravings, Gregorian chant music notation, wood block initials, and was run through a Gutenberg-style press twice (once for black ink, and once for red). Books have a long shelf life, if you pardon the pun!

Before the inspection and cataloguing process, and being apprentice cataloguers, my colleagues and I were briefed by Glucksman’s wonderful staff on how to handle a rare book (image 2). Surprisingly, white gloves are no longer used because it is thought that they make your fingers clumsy, which could cause damage. Clean, clean, hands now serves as best practice. Careful transport, and proper support for the spine is paramount, along with a slew of safety precautions. The process of cataloging one rare book can take hours, even days. Every page must be analysed and counted; hundreds of details written down; meta-data created; and languages translated. For my assignment, the book I analysed (shelfmark K.1.12) was in Church Latin, with small accent marks above the text indicating how certain words should be pronounced – so we know that this book was intended for use in the public recitation of the liturgy.


2: Learning how to …!

The books which comprise the Bolton Library will take some time to catalogue, but this catalogue will be essential for scholars of the future. To expertly catalogue a book is to ensure that solid facts about the book are concise and helpful for the researcher, and that the book’s intrinsic value maintains its integrity as a connection from the past to the present. The experience of cataloging a book is like sitting down with a new friend and asking, “What are you all about?”

The project experience of the MA Ritual Chant and Song was a hands-on stupendous and unforgettable experience. Nor is it every day that you can page through a rare old book and discover its beauty and uniqueness, it’s like being… an archeologist.

The MA In Ritual Chant & Song is taught by staff at the Irish World Academy.