Collaboration on book stamp / seal research

A few weeks ago, I asked on twitter if other people would be interested in pooling resources on book stamps / seals (both terms are viable from different perspectives, see below). There was some response, and considering how niche the topic has always been, that response seemed promising enough to me to spring into action. In this post, I will talk about how I envision a collaboration to move forward.

First, let’s talk about book stamps some more (not unlike my other post “Time to talk about book stamps“).

Tweet by Nick McBurney, Twitter, 15 January, 2021.

What is the difference between a book stamp and a seal?

The difference between the two really depends on the perspective from which you look at it. The book stamp (which interests me for reasons elaborated in that other post) is the imprint on a book’s page, be it a manuscript or printed book.

The seal is the object that made this imprint. While there is an entire field dedicated to the study of seals—sphragistics (there is a German blog entirely dedicated to it on hypotheses) or sigillography—no such field has really taken off with regard to the application of seals as book stamps, at least not in the Arabic-script context.

Book Stamp, Süleymaniyye Kütüphanesi, MS Laleli 3747, fol. 193a

But the Arabic-(manu)script context is what interests me, and I believe that it does not go too far to estimate that more impressions of seals in manuscripts have survived than actual seals. I’ll use both terms synonymously hereafter, partly because the existing literature uses “seal” also where they talk about “book stamps” (Deroche, however, uses both terms, see below).

State of the art

Collaborative research on book stamps can draw on a number of former and existing projects. The most renowned of those is certainly the Islamic Seals Database hosted by the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Unfortunately, it has been on hiatus since late 2018, and it is unclear when it will be back online.

Tweet by Annabel Gallop, Twitter, 11 January, 2021.

Another import step has been Annabel Gallop’s research on seals in Malay and Indonesian manuscripts. We should also not forget that seals are treated in the important manuals for manuscript studies by Adam Gacek and Francois Deroche.{1} Moreover, both reproduce examples of seals with bibliographic information.

This leads us to yet another helpful resource: catalogues of manuscript collections. Admittedly, not all catalogues include such information about their manuscripts, and even fewer do so systematically. Nonetheless, when they do in any fashion—even if they just mention the presence of seals in the abstract—, they make research on seals that much easier. The best catalogue in this regard may be the one by Christian Seybold for 47 Arabic manuscripts at Tübingen University as it even gives transcriptions of the stamp inscriptions. Its successor catalogue does that intermittently as well.

Why is Research on Book Stamps difficult?

There is a number of challenges every researcher of book stamps will face: the stamps are often rather small, meaning that deciphering their inscriptions can be difficult. To this paleographic challenge we can add the calligraphic nature of many stamps and mutilations they often suffered when the manuscript passed from one owner to another (see image below).

ʿAbd-at-Taiyib Zakī-ad-Dīn, “Risālat al-ābāʾ wa-‘l-ummahāt,” Tübingen University Library, MS Ma VI 326, fol. 1a.

However, stamps have an advantage over ownership notes which suffered from similar practices of erasure. A stamp cannot only be identified by the script it displays. It can also be identified by its size and shape. That is, if it can be found in a better state in another manuscript.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is to find stamps. The same used to be true for ownership, endowment and reading notes as well. Boris Liebrenz, in particular, has invested a lot of time remedying this situation, and the online manuscript catalogues of the Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, and Leipzig University Library have benefitted greatly from his research. He has recently presented on book stamps, as well.

However, as this post’s title suggests, I want to propose a different way forward with regard to stamps: instead of putting this work load on one set of shoulders, we should collaborate on finding, deciphering and collating book stamps. This does not necessarily mean that everyone involved needs to be doing all of those steps. If your interest in manuscripts is tangential and you mainly focus on the works they contain, you might still come across book stamps.

A proposal for collaboration

What is needed then, is a forum in which to share images of stamps and, in the best of cases, receiving a reading and dating of the stamp and an identification of its owner. Those specifically interested in book stamps can, in turn, enlarge their sample.

Since I had asked about interest in collaboration on book stamp research in January 2021, I have experimented with two online alternatives: the Open Science Framework (osf.io) and good old Zotero. Both bring certain advantages, and that is why I would suggest using them together.

Since Zotero is purpose-built for storing and organizing literature, it should be perfect for adding manuscripts containing book stamps in a uniform way, which is essential in collaborative projects. It is searchable and entries can further be organized in sub collections. So far, I have entered some 80 manuscripts with stamps from three different collections.

For the time being, I have only entered minimal information on each manuscript containing book stamps: the title (but not the author), the date when the manuscript was produced, its holding place and institution, its call or reference number, information where stamps can be found, and links to digital catalogues and—where available—the digitized images (URL).

Snapshot Zotero Group Library “Library Stamps”.

Everything else is treated in separate notes. So far, I have limited them to notes on “Provenance” and “Stamps”. The “Stamps” notes are where book stamps would be deciphered and contextualized. Eventually, I hope, they themselves will receive their own reference codes, which can be used as tags so that all manuscripts with the same stamp can be found via the tag.

However, here the shortcomings of using only Zotero become apparent. And this is where the Open Science Framework comes in. The OSF offers more options for the organization of information. In the past, I have mostly used its built-in Wiki feature for that.

Snapshot OSF project “Stamp/Seal collaboration” (https://osf.io/4728f/).

My proposal is that the OSF will be used to provide background information on collections, provenance, and stamp owners we will identify. Each OSF project can be organized in different “components”. I have created one component for each manuscript collection as well as separate ones for the stamps and their owners.

While it might seem that there is some overlap between what Zotero and OSF should be used for, I see this as a complementary relationship between both platforms. Whereas Zotero is used for referencing, OSF is the place where discussions can take place and where information is combined and scrutinized.

The Zotero library has been linked to the OSF project. Neither is openly visible for the time being. Whether this should change, is a question to be discussed with other (future) collaborators. If you are interested in collaborating, please contact me on Twitter (@DrWorsTen) or via email (Torsten.wollina[at]googlemail.com).

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Collaboration on book stamp / seal research", in Damascus Anecdotes, March 14, 2021, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/2213.

 

 

  1. Adam Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts. A Vademecum for Readers, Leiden: Brill, 2009, 243-245; Francois Deroche, Islamic Codicology. An Introduction, London: Al-Furqān Heritage Foundation, 2005, 300, 332, 335-44, 350, 351, 355, 358. []

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