This post is by Henry Felix Raine, Director of the Library Digital Program and Institutional Digital Repository
For the past several years, the New-York Historical Society Library has been ramping up its digitization program, from single manuscripts to very large archival collections of photographs, personal papers, and institutional records. It has now built a database of over 100,000 images freely available in its recently-launched Islandora repository, N-YHS Digital Collections, which is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of images available through subscription products created by publishers such as Readex, a division of Newsbank, and EBSCO. The goal of all of these projects, large and small, is to expose the Library’s vast and rich collections to a broad audience, and to provide a critical mass of significant materials for scholarly research.
Sometimes, smaller-scale projects such as the recently-completed Five Timucua Language Imprints, 1612-1635 are among the most significant and provide the most satisfaction to those involved in creating them. This blog post will briefly discuss the importance of this particular collection, as well as the process through which it was created.
The extinct language of the Timucua, a Native American people who lived in what is now central and northern Florida and southern Georgia, is known through only nine surviving primary sources, most of them from the early seventeenth century: four catechisms in Spanish and Timucua and a grammar book written by the Franciscan missionary Francisco Pareja (died 1628) and printed in Mexico City; two other printed catechisms written by Gregorio de Movilla, also a missionary to the Timucua people; as well as two handwritten letters written to the Spanish king by Timucua leaders. Timucua was the primary native language in the region at the time of first European settlement in the late 1500s, and it died out in the early 1700s. Aside from its importance as the language of a large Indian population that lived in the southeastern United States, it is of particular significance to linguists interested in Native American languages because it is believed by some scholars to be what is called a language “isolate,” that is, a language that is not related to any other language.
The N-YHS Library owns, or once owned, five of the seven printed works described above. Most of them are what are known to people interested in rare books as “unique” copies, that is, printed books that survive in only one copy. In centuries past, printed books were usually issued in runs of several hundred, but through use, misuse, wear and tear, neglect, and attrition, occasionally very few copies survive, which is why we consider them to be “rare” books. “Unique” copies are the rarest of the rare, and their survival to the present day often relates to a remarkable story. People sometimes wonder why the New-York Historical Society holds items that are so completely unrelated to New York history, and the remarkable story of Buckingham Smith, who collected these Timucua language books, explains why this particular collection ended up in the Library.
Thomas Buckingham Smith (1810-1871) was originally from Cumberland Island, Georgia and moved with his family to St. Augustine, Florida in 1820, when his father was appointed U.S. Consul to Mexico. He completed his education at Harvard Law School in 1836, and returned to St. Augustine in 1839, where he served as secretary to the governor of the Territory of Florida (1839-1841) and as a member of the Florida Territorial Legislative Council. He later worked at the United States embassies in Mexico (1850-1852) and Spain (1855-1858). While living in those countries, he collected manuscripts, rare books, and other sources relating to his antiquarian and scholarly interests in Spanish North America and Native American languages and culture. His papers and collections were donated to the N-YHS by his heirs following his death in New York City in 1871. Among the materials in his estate were the five Timucua language imprints included in the digital collection.
Because of their extreme rarity, scholars in the field of anthropology, linguistics, and colonial Spanish history have long wanted the Library to make these works available digitally. Microfilm and photostat copies of the originals have been available since the 1970s, but they are of varying quality, and in order to really read and study these texts, scholars needed high quality images. Unfortunately, one of the volumes was lost after it was microfilmed and only survives in its microfilm copy.That particular reel of microfilm, however, was of good enough quality to produce satisfactory digital images. The other volumes were in excellent condition in their original form, and could be digitized from the originals.
In 2016, the Library applied for a Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) digitization grant in order to fund the scanning of these rare books. After notification of the grant award, the project manager travelled with the rare volumes to Bethlehem, PA to oversee the scanning of the volumes and of the microfilm reel by a company that specializes in the digitization of rare materials, Backstage Library Works. Normally, the Library doesn’t allow rare materials to leave the N-YHS building in Manhattan, but in this case, it made sense for the project manager to accompany the volumes to Bethlehem and oversee the scanning at the company’s facility. Having Backstage digitize them at their location saved a considerable amount of money over having Backstage come to the N-YHS to digitize on-site, and Backstage had enough equipment and staff in Bethlehem to complete the digitization in one day, and perform image editing and quality control overnight. This was a quick and efficient way to get some very important materials digitized.
As part of its digitization grant program, METRO works with institutions to add their collections to its Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York (DCMNY) portal. The project manager created metadata, detailed information describing digital resources, for each of the items in the collection and worked with METRO’s developer and metadata specialist to create the collection that is now freely available online. If you’ve always wanted to learn the lost Timucua language of Spanish Florida, or if you’re simply interested in seeing some cool rare books printed in Mexico City in the early seventeenth century, visit Five Timucua Language Imprints, 1612-1635. There, you’ll find the complete digital versions of some extremely rare books, and have the opportunity to learn about the lost language of a large and important Native American people who lived in the southeastern United States during the Spanish colonial period.