News & Notes

“Curses! Foiled again!” How to keep your books safe, 18th-century style

Posted in Special Collections Tagged with:

Librarians love acronyms. One of the best is for Stanford University’s digital preservation program LOCKSS (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”). Several hundred years ago, “Lots of Curses Keep Stuff Safe” would have rung true as well.

First used in the ancient Middle Eastern city of Nineveh in the 7th century B.C., book curses were intended to discourage people from walking off with library materials that didn’t belong to them. In the Middle Ages, when books were both scarce and valuable, theft (or the fear of theft) was so bad that librarians often chained books to the shelves or locked them in huge wooden chests. As a second line of defense, scribes sometimes wrote a curse in the form of a pithy rhyme inside the book’s covers.

bookcurse1

Guilt, shame, excommunication, bodily injury, divine retribution, and even death were the kinds of punishments book curses threatened to bring down on the heads of thieves. Although some were intentionally funny (“For him that stealeth… Let bookworms gnaw his entrails”), book curses were a reminder at a time of intense faith that theft was not only illegal, but could also jeopardize your soul.

After the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, books gradually became cheaper, more abundant, and easier to replace, but the book curse didn’t completely disappear. One dating from 1704 was recently found in the LSU Libraries’ Rare Book Collection:

Gerard Cooper his Book,
God give him grace therein to look.
Not only look, but Understand,
For Learning is better than House & Land.
When House & Land is gone & spent,
Then Learning is most excellent.
Steal not this Book, my honest Friend,
For fear the Gallows will be your end.
Steal not this Book for fear of Shame,
For underneath stands the owner’s Name.

Gerard Cooper his Book
November the 4th, 1704

The book, a copy of Erasmus’s Adagiorum printed in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1616, has been at LSU since about 1871, according to an old library bookplate. Have we written a new book curse? No. Security cameras? Yes.

For further reading, see Marc Drogin’s Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (Middleton Library, Z6 .D76 1983).

bookcurse2

Erasmus, Adagiorum (1616). Rare Book Collection, call number: 171 Er15a

Michael Taylor is Curator of Books, LSU Libraries’ Special Collections

Posted in Special Collections Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Events

Recent Faculty Publications

2019

Comeaux, Dave;  Emily Frank; and Mike Waugh. “Supporting Student Success: E-books as Course Materials,” CODEX: Journal of the Louisiana Chapter of the ACRL. Volume 5, Issue 2 (Fall/Winter 2019).

O’Neill, Brittany; and  Allen LeBlanc. “Evaluating Trends in Instruction Scheduling Management: A Survey of Louisiana’s Academic Libraries,” CODEX: Journal of the Louisiana Chapter of the ACRL. Volume 5, Issue 2 (Fall/Winter 2019).

Ziegler, Scott; and Cara Key. “More Than a Pretty Interface: The Louisiana Digital Library as a Data Hub,” CODEX: Journal of the Louisiana Chapter of the ACRL. Volume 5, Issue 2 (Fall/Winter 2019).

2018

Hebert, Andrea. “Information Literacy Skills of First-Year Library and Information Science Graduate Students: An Exploratory Study,” Evidence Based Library and Information Practice Volume 13, Issue 3 (September 2018).

Miller, Marty. “Sacred vs. Profane in The Great War: A Neutral’s Indictment: Louis Raemaekers’s Use of Religious Imagery in Adoration of the Magi and Our Lady of Antwerp.” Catholic Library World, vol. 89, no. 1, Sept. 2018, pp. 20–32.

Wilder, Stanley. “Delayed Retirements and the Youth Movement among ARL Library Professionals,” Research Library Issues, no. 295 (2018).

Wilder, Stanley. “Hiring and Staffing Trends in ARL Libraries,” Research Library Issues, no. 295 (2018).

Wilder, Stanley. “Selected Demographic Trends in the ARL Professional Population,” Research Library Issues, no. 295 (2018).

Ziegler, Scott; and Richard Shrake. “PAL: Toward a Recommendation System for Manuscripts,” Information Technology and Libraries, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2018).

2017

Caminita, C.; Cook, M.; and Paster, A. (2017). Thirty years of preserving, discovering, and accessing U.S. agricultural information: Past progress and current challenges. Library Trends, 65(3), 293-315.

Dauterive, Sarah; John Bourgeois; and Sarah Simms. “How little is too little? An examination of information literacy instruction duration for freshmen.” Journal of Information Literacy, 11.1 (2017): 204-219.

Fontenot, Mitch; Emily Frank; and Andrea Hebert. “Going Where the Users Are: Three Variations on a Theme,” Louisiana Libraries, Fall 2017.

Hawk, Amanda K. “Highflying Crowdfunding: Creating a Successful Partnership with a Campus Donor,” Archival Outlook, July/August 2017: 12-13, 19. https://www.bluetoad.com/publication/?i=422988.

Hebert, Andrea; and Marty Miller. (2017). Using FSA-OWI photographs to teach information and visual literacy. Louisiana Libraries, 79(3), 19–25.

Johnson, Hayley. “#NoDAPL: Social Media, Empowerment, and Civic Participation at Standing Rock,” Library Trends, Fall 2017.

More…

Special Collections Hours

Contact Special Collections

Public Services Desk: (225) 578-6544

Reference Desk: (225) 578-6568

Fax: (225) 578-9425

Email: special@lsu.edu

Submit a reference question

RSS Feed RSS - Special Collections Posts