Category Archives: Rare Books

In the Lab: The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

We’re going to be teaming up with our friends in the Verne and Tanya Roberts Conservation Lab here at the Duke University Libraries for a regular series of posts on RBMSCL materials in the lab for conservation treatment. We’ll start with a look at the Dutch-language edition of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

A Little History

This six-volume world atlas was created and published between 1648 and 1655 by Willem Janszoon Blaeu and his son, Joan Blaeu, two of the finest map makers of the 17th century.

Dutch cartographer and publisher Willem Blaeu (1571-1638) studied astronomy and cartography under the well-known astronomer and alchemist Tycho Brahe. In 1633, he was appointed the official cartographer of the Dutch East India Company. Joan Blaeu (1596-1673), himself an accomplished cartographer, took over the press after his father’s death in 1638. Under his supervision, they became the largest publisher of their kind in 17th century Europe.

These folio volumes are full of engraved maps and vignettes that were hand-colored with a strikingly vibrant palette. They are bound in gold-tooled stiff-board vellum bindings.

Conservation Work

The atlases arrived in the lab in fairly good condition considering their age. Still, due to their size, it will take Erin Hammeke, Special Collections Conservator, many hours to complete the necessary repairs.

The texts and maps are printed on a good quality rag paper that is still quite strong. There are minor paper tears, badly folded maps, and some insect holes in all of the volumes which make safe handling difficult. The vellum bindings also exhibit small tears that need to be mended.

Each atlas requires surface cleaning to remove dirt and debris from the covers and individual pages. Erin will use soft brushes, special erasers, and a museum vacuum, all of which are designed to remove debris while reducing potential damage to the paper’s surface. Wheat starch paste and strong but thin Japanese and Korean tissues are used for the paper repairs. When the conservation is complete, Erin will construct a custom fitted enclosure for each volume.

Post contributed by Beth Doyle, Collections Conservator, and Erin Hammeke, Conservator for Special Collections

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An Artist Responds to Hurricane Katrina

The artistic response to societal tragedy is always a difficult balance: how can art contribute to understanding and interpreting, without aestheticizing suffering? In the past decade, films, novels, and other creative approaches to events such as the Holocaust, 9/11, and the conflict in Darfur have provoked controversy and debate about art’s place in the discussion of international politics and personal suffering.

Shortly after the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 landing on the Gulf Coast, the RBMSCL acquired a unique artist’s book, Katrina by Beth Thielen, made in 2007. An opening supported by waves of paper reveals tiny human figures trapped in a whirlpool, begging for help. The text asks, “How do we make a just society when there is an underlying contempt for helplessness?”


In correspondence with this post’s author, the artist explained: “I made the work because the moment was such a clear and rare reveal of the darker undercurrents of our country…. During Katrina we all watched the images of people with outstretched arms pleading towards the sky. Is there any image more archetypal of helplessness? It is a crying baby’s pose. Reproachful disdain to helplessness… is as primitive as a school yard bully calling someone a crybaby after taking their candy.” She continues, “To feel with is to feel for. A civilized response.”

Thielen’s work joins another artist’s book in the RBMSCL’s collections, Habitat by Jessica Peterson, which explores Katrina’s destruction of Biloxi, Mississippi. Both works add to our collections of Southern Americana and artists’ books by women. Nearly 300 more works of fiction, films, essays, and scholarly works on Hurricane Katrina can also be found in the Duke Libraries’ online catalog (see these catalog records here).

Post contributed by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections