Crooks with one of the many woodblocks that she is working with this summer at the Library Company of Philadelphia.
Researching Woodblocks from the 19th Century
After two years of working at Haverford College’s Magill Library, Liz Crooks ’12, a history major, decided that she wanted to build on her experience and spend the summer working with original materials and developing her research skills. With funding from the John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center, Crooks is following through on that goal with an internship at The Library Company of Philadelphia. Crooks, daughter of Elliot Crooks ‘76 and Charlotte Steele (BMC) ’76, is one of 20 students who received summer internship stipends from the Humanities Center.
Founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, The Library Company of Philadelphia is an independent research library that specializes in American history and culture of the 17th through 19th centuries. Free and open to the public, the Library Company houses a vast non-circulating collection of rare books, manuscripts, broadsides, ephemera, prints, photographs and works of art. In addition to preserving these materials, the Company’s goal is to interpret and understand them.
Crooks is sorting through a recently acquired collection of approximately 6,500 woodblocks used to print illustrations in 19th century children’s books. The woodblocks were used by the American Sunday School Union, the most prolific publisher of children’s books in America. The goal of her project is to match up each woodblock with the books they were used in. The records developed by Crooks will be of use to scholars working in many areas, including children’s literature, art history, religion and media studies.
Most of Crooks’ day at the Library Company is spent in the Digitization department, where she scans the woodblocks and creates digital records for the Library Company’s online image catalog. Crooks is also conducting independent research on the production and distribution of the woodblocks.
“Most of them are gorgeous, intricate engravings, and no one has really looked at them before,” says Crooks. “It's been interesting to see how my assessment of what a woodblock depicts often differs from how it's presented in a book, when I find an illustration.”
In her spare time, Crooks is taking full advantage of the Library Company’s resources. She loves to wander around the stacks, and view the different artifacts on display. Some of her favorites include one of Napoleon’s death masks and a mummified hand from Egypt. The Library Company also has semester and month-long fellowships. At the beginning of each month the fellows lecture on their research, and Crooks attends regularly, always looking to gain new perspectives on history.
“I love being able to hear what really interesting people in academia are working on,” she says. “It's been a valuable insight into how doctoral candidates and independent scholars go about their research.”
--Jacob Lowy ‘14