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Cabinet Card Photographs from the Harvard Theatre Collection

John Overholt - August 5, 2014 in Curator's Choice, Featured, Public Domain


John Overholt, Curator at Houghton Library, shines a spotlight on a few examples from the eclectic lot of cabinet card photographs found in the Harvard Theatre Collection, a series of images which are currently making their way onto Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the Wikipedian in Residence scheme.


This year, Houghton Library hired its first Wikipedian in Residence. Although the project was new for us, the idea certainly isn’t: since the first such position was created in 2010, dozens of libraries, museums, and other institutions have had a Wikipedian. Generally, a Wikipedian in Residence will enhance articles relevant to the institution’s collections, contribute materials from those collections, and foster ongoing cooperation between the institution and the Wikipedia community. You can follow the work of our Wikipedian in Residence, Rob Velella, through the edit history of the account he created for this project, Rob at Houghton.

One of my priorities for the project was to have the Wikipedian work on identifying and uploading public domain material from our digitized collections that could be useful in enriching Wikipedia articles. We decided to start with the rich collection of more than 100,000 cabinet card photographs in the Harvard Theatre Collection, currently in the midst of a long-term digitization project. So far we’re only through the first few letters of the alphabet in the collection of actors’ photos, but even that small slice gives a strong sense of the value and scope of the collection. Unsurprisingly, the collection is primarily made of actors in the strict sense, and the photos of them range from the tastefully classical:

English actor Aubrey Boucicault (1869-1913), headshot in character. Source includes the note: “In Quo Vadis”. TCS 1.3244, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1913 or earlier. Photographer: Elmer Chickering from Boston – Source.

to the wild and wooly:

American opera vocalist David Bispham (1857-1920), in character as Alberich in the opera Siegfried. TCS 1.2543, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1902. Photographer: Aimé Dupont – Source.

In addition, quite a few other kinds of performers are represented, from authors like Mark Twain:

American author Samuel L. Clemens, known by the name Mark Twain (1835-1910), sitting and wearing a white suit. TCS 1.5265, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1910 or earlier. Photgrapher: unidentified – Source.

to impresario of the Wild West, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody:

American showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917). TCS 1.5331, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1917 or earlier. Photographer: Newsboy, New York – Source.

From health and fitness advocate Bernarr Macfadden (note that this photo is presented in its entirety, and I have no further information about what may have been happening below the frame):

American proponent of health and fitness Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1915). TCS 1.2397, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: Before 1918. Photographer: unknown – Source.

to, well, whatever the heck this is:

Two performers playing stringed instruments. Labeled “European comic eccentric ‘Bonitas’ family. TCS 1.2790, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1918 or earlier. Photographer: Hall, New York – Source.

In fact, not all the subjects are human, such as the chess playing automaton Ajeeb the Wonderful. It should be noted however, that like his more famous cousin the Mechanical Turk, Ajeeb is merely a cover for the quite human chess player inside who secretly controlled his movements.

Chess automaton “Ajeeb the Wonderful”. TCS 1.183, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Date: 1886. Photographer: Falk, New York – Source.

If you’d like to explore the rest of this fascinating collection, simply search for “TCS 1” in VIA, Harvard’s image access database, or visit us at Houghton Library, which is open to any adult researcher who wants to make use of our collections.

John Overholt is Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library, Harvard University

This post is part of our Curator’s Choice series, a monthly feature consisting of a guest article from a curator about a work or group of works in one of their “open” digital collections. Learn more here.

See this post in all its full page width glory over at The Public Domain Review.

Getting ready for the OpenGLAM benchmark survey

Lieke Ploeger - July 29, 2014 in Events/Workshops, Featured

Since early 2014, a group of people from national chapters of the Open Knowledge Foundation, Wikimedia chapters, NGOs, cultural heritage and research institutions has been working on preparing the OpenGLAM benchmark survey. This online survey will measure the state of advancement of OpenGLAM in various countries around the world (for example regarding digitization, inter-organisational cooperation involving the exchange of metadata, open data, crowdsourcing, linked data) and identify the main challenges and obstacles that stand in the way of the promotion of open cultural data and free access to knowledge. The initiative is inspired by the pilot survey carried out among Swiss heritage institutions by the Bern University of Applied Sciences in fall 2012.

At the Open Knowledge festival a dedicated session to the OpenGLAM benchmark survey was hosted to share information about the ongoing work and to give new countries the ability to join the survey. After a brief introduction to the goals of the survey and the work that has been done so far by Beat Estermann (Bern University of Applied Sciences), representatives from three participating countries presented their national context with regard to open cultural data and their way of implementing the survey: Joris Pekel (the Netherlands), Laura Sillanpää (Finland) and Subhashish Panigrahi (India).

The situation around open cultural data and OpenGLAM in various countries is of course quite different: the OpenGLAM benchmark survey can function as a useful tool for better understanding the particularities of each country, put insights gained into a broader perspective and better adapt strategies and best practices to the specific situation of each country. New countries are very welcome to join the survey: if your country is not yet in the list of participating countries, you can either leave a message on the discussion page or contact Beat Estermann to get involved. If you would like to join one of the existing teams, you can contact the local coordinator. countries During the upcoming Wikimania conference (6-10 August, London) you’ll also have a chance to hear more about the OpenGLAM benchmark survey. The session Promoting OpenGLAM:  Exchange of Experiences and Best Practices will focus on sharing experiences related to the promotion of OpenGLAM and GLAM-Wiki cooperations, and the role the OpenGLAM Benchmark Survey can play in this respect.
Beat Estermann presenting at the "Introduction to the OpenGLAM benchmark Survey project" at the Open Knowledge Festival, Berlin on 17 July 2014.

Beat Estermann presenting at the “Introduction to the OpenGLAM benchmark Survey project” at the Open Knowledge Festival, Berlin on 17 July 2014.

The full notes of the OKFestival session are available through this Etherpad: more information on the OpenGLAM benchmark survey can be found on the coordination portal.

Starting the OpenGLAM local group for Germany – event report

Lieke Ploeger - July 25, 2014 in Events/Workshops, Featured

On the morning before the start of the Open Knowledge Festival, a group of nearly 60 open culture enthusiasts from all over the world gathered at the Wikimedia offices in Berlin to discuss the situation around open cultural data in Germany and to start up a local German OpenGLAM group. The day began with a brief overview of the OpenGLAM initiative:

Next up were several brief lightning talks demonstrating the value that opening up cultural heritage can bring. Joris Pekel presented the case study of the Dutch Rijksmuseum, one of the largest institutions that has released its collection openly. He showed how the museum progressed from offering a first set of images as CC-BY to releasing the full collection as public domain, as well as encouraging users to remix content through the Rijksstudio program.
Stephan Bartholmei of the German Digital Library (DDB, Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek) shared his experiences after one year of working in the field of digital cultural heritage. He encouraged cultural heritage institutions to be bolder and share their data openly with the right tools and infrastructure, so that users are empowered to make the best use of this data.
The next lightning talk focused on the Wikidata initiative, which is a free knowledge base created by Wikimedia that collects data in a structured form. Lydia Pintscher (Wikimedia Deutschland) gave an impressive demonstration of how data can easily be reused by Wikimedia projects and third parties, for example to provide multilinguality.

Helene Hahn (Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland) then went on to present the results of the first German cultural hackathon, Coding da Vinci. She described the winning projects that were selected from a total of 17 developed projects – definitely an impressive first edition of this hackathon series!

The final lightning talk was given by Daniel Mietchen of the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin. He gave an overview of the ongoing collaborations in the GLAM-Wiki sphere focused on scientific data: the basis of his talk is available through his Wikipedia page.

Starting the local OpenGLAM group for Germanyog_fringe_okfest14

With such a large group of participants, structuring the debate on the current situation around openness in Germany was not an easy task. Everyone was asked to share what they see as the most positive contribution that Germany has made towards opening up cultural data, as well as the three most pressing issues which stand in the way of further opening up. All input was placed on two bulletin boards, and the issues were grouped together in five clusters that a local OpenGLAM group for Germany could focus on in the start-up period:

  • Data quality
  • Copyright / licenses
  • Access to and use of data
  • Supporting cultural heritage institutions
  • Network: sharing use cases & best practices

Finally, for further inspiration there were talks from two other local OpenGLAM groups: (Switzerland, presented by Beat Estermann) and AvoinGLAM (Finland, presented by Sanna Marttila), both of which have managed to set up a good network and working structure within their countries, as well as some impressive achievements such as hackathons and masterclasses around open cultural data.

Following these talks, the groups started a first brainstorm on what kind of activities the German OpenGLAM group could start for each of the five topics. Since time was running out, this will be continued online in the future – a German OpenGLAM network mailing list has now been set up to discuss what the next steps of the working group might be. Besides discussions, subscribers will get information about dates and outcomes of working group meetups, interesting links and event hints around open cultural data in Germany. More information (in German) will also be shared through

Sanna Marttila presenting AvoinGLAM (Finnish OpenGLAM group)

Sanna Marttila presenting AvoinGLAM (Finnish OpenGLAM group)

Many thanks to Wikimedia Deutschland for the great hosting of this event, and for all those interested in joining the German OpenGLAM group, please sign up for the OpenGLAM-de mailinglist to stay informed!


Maintaining a healthy and thriving Public Domain

Joris Pekel - July 22, 2014 in Events/Workshops, Featured, Public Domain

At this week´s Open Knowledge Festival, Europeana together with the OpenGLAM initiative and Dutch think tank Kennisland ran a workshop to discuss how to maintain a healthy and thriving public domain of cultural heritage. The festival ran from 16-17 July in Berlin, and was attended by more than 1000 people from all over the world who gathered to talk about open data, transparency, development and many other topics. This blog has been written as part of Europeana’s #PublicDomainMonth – a month dedicated to sharing knowledge, best practices and events all related to the Public Domain and was crossposted from the Europeana Pro blog.

Image: Schilderkunst achtervolgd door onnozelen, anonymus, 1700 - 1800. Rijksmuseum. public domain.

Image: Schilderkunst achtervolgd door onnozelen, anonymus, 1700 – 1800. Rijksmuseum. public domain.

The principles of a healthy and thriving Public Domain are established in the Europeana Public Domain Charter, as essential to the social and economic wellbeing of society (you can read an Introduction to this here). During this workshop we explored how cultural institutions can work towards maintaining the public domain as a valuable source of knowledge.

The session started with Kennisland’s Paul Keller presenting the difficulties for institutions to define if an object is in the public domain or not. Thanks to complex international, European and national copyright laws, calculating when an object is in the public domain ranges from simple to the complex. Cultural heritage institutions, who are required to make decisions based on copyright, do not typically employ copyright law experts. This lack of clarity combined with lack of very specific expertise can often result in an organisational policy, which restricts the use of digital objects by incorrectly claiming copyright allows them to do so.

If we stick with the strict interpretation of law, we run the risk of losing access to valuable cultural heritage material. So when should exceptions be OK? Paul went on to present a number of case studies where it is debatable whether this type of  organisational policy is acceptable or not, such as the recent release from the Wellcome Library, where over 100.000 images were made available in high quality using the Creative Commons Attribution Licence. While on the one hand it is applauded that these images are made available for anyone to use in an open way, it does not acknowledge that the material is out of copyright, and therefore cannot be made available under a copyright licence. For more details see the presentation slides below.

As we delve deeper into the issues, we turned to look at the application of copyright law itself.Thomas Margoni from the Institute for Information Law in Amsterdam presented his ongoing research, which queries when a digital reproduction of an existing (protected or unprotected by copyright) object gives rise to a new object that can claim copyright and/or related rights. This research reviews EU laws to address the  different ways in which legal exceptions are applied. The preliminary results are available in the slides below.


The many exceptions in the different European Member States make it difficult to come to a common approach. This is a challenge for both the cultural sector, as well as the organisations that work towards more openly available cultural content on the web. Would applying  CC-BY licence be acceptable in order to make beautiful material, that was previously unavailable to the public, available online? Or should organisations like Europeana take a firm stand against this? One idea proposed in the workshop was an ‘Open GLAM Scorecard’ for open datasets which can be used to rank the set. This way it can be acknowledged that an institution is doing good work, but it can also be used to point out things that could be done better in order to receive a full green status of ‘open’.

This workshop was the kickoff of the broader discussion. In the coming period these ideas will be further explored with the wider GLAM community to see of this would work, and if so, how the ranking should be done. If you are interested in this discussion please join the mailing list. All the notes taken during the session can be found here.

Let’s bring the Public Domain Calculators Worldwide !

Joris Pekel - July 10, 2014 in Featured, Front Page, Public Domain, Workshops

This blogpost was written by Pierre Chrzanowski, Open Knowledge Foundation France

Our cultural heritage is immense but it has been dispatched across countries, public institutions, private collections, and so forth. Hence, for a long time, there was unequal access to culture and knowledge. Those who were close to cultural institutions or knowledge centers had lots of cultural content at their disposal. Others could not access it, unless they had the opportunity to travel.

Today, digital could support the creation of a global public archive of knowledge, where every cultural artefact in the public domain would be free to access, use and share for everyone connected to the Internet. Yet, until now, there is uncertainty as to what are our rights to access that knowledge. The line between public domain and protected content are still fuzzy and unclear.

This is how came the idea of the public domain calculators.

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 11.59.55

The public domain calculators aim to make it easier for everyone to establish whether or not a given work is in the public domain in a given jurisdiction. Public domain calculation can provide value to memory institutions, lower costs for clearing rights and give the assurance that works can be reused without permission by copyrights holders. Public Domain Calculation can massively unlock our cultural heritage for reuse.

Since 2006 a loose network around the Open Knowledge Foundation, The Institute of Information Law and Kennisland have attempted to break through this barrier to reuse with products like,, and most recently in France. We’ve learned a lot about public domain calculation and foresee some of the next challenges. But we need you, developers, cultural institutions, and all those interested in making global public archive of knowledge real. On July 16th, 12:00 am, during a one hour session at OKFest, we will present the state of the art on Public Domain Calculators and discuss and work on next challenges and how to bring the Public Domain Calculators Worldwide.

More on the Public Domain Calculators:
EU Flowcharts, Out of Copyright
Public Domain Calculators, Open Knowledge
French Public Domain Calculator
Mapping the Cultural Commons, Jonathan Gray

The session will be facilitated by Pierre Chrzanowski, Open Knowledge Foundation France, Marco Montanari, Open Knowledge Foundation Italy, Maarten Zeinstra, Kennisland

Open Data in Cultural Heritage – OpenGLAM in Germany

Lieke Ploeger - July 10, 2014 in Events/Workshops, Featured, Workshops

Are you working in a cultural heritage institution, or interested in opening up cultural heritage data for wider reuse? On the morning prior to the start of the Open Knowledge Festival, the OpenGLAM initiative, DM2E project, Open Knowledge Germany and Wikimedia Deutschland  are organising a half day workshop on open cultural data, with a special focus on German cultural heritage institutions.


During the OpenGLAM workshop, we will investigate and discuss the possibilities and obstacles of opening up your cultural data as an institution. After a round of inspiring presentation from initiatives like Europeana, Wikidata, the German Digital Library and Coding da Vinci we will continue the discussion how to overcome the barriers to opening up data in the cultural heritage sector.

Finally, we will hear from the successful local OpenGLAM groups currently active in Switzerland and Finland, and kickstart a local OpenGLAM network for German memory institutions interested in open cultural content and open access. We invite everyone to join and help think about the focus points for such a German OpenGLAM group for the future, and look forward to start up a fruitful collaboration!


Picture 17

  • 9.30: Welcome & introduction to OpenGLAM – Lieke Ploeger, Open Knowledge
  • 9.40: Lightning talks on the value of open data for cultural heritage institutions.
    • We opened up – now what? An analysis of the open data policy of the Rijksmuseum – Joris Pekel, Europeana
    • 1 year in digital cultural heritage – what were the walls I ran into most often & how to tear them down – Stephan Bartholmei, Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek
    • Wikidata – Making your data available and useful for everyone – Lydia Pintscher, Wikimedia Deutschland
    • How to use cultural heritage data: Coding Da Vinci results – Helene Hahn, Open Knowledge Foundation Germany
    • Experiences from German GLAM projects / GLAM-Wiki-Kollaborationen in der Wissenschaft - Daniel Mietchen, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
  • 10.30: Coffee break
  • 10.45: Debate on the current situation around openness in Germany
  • 11.30: Forming a local German OpenGLAM group
    • With inspiring presentations of the OpenGLAM local groups from Switzerland & Finland
  • 13:00: End

Registration and details

      • Date: Tuesday 15 July, 9.30 – 13.00
      • Location: Wikimedia Deutschland, Tempelhofer Ufer 23-24
      • Attendance is free but places are limited: please register here
      • If you want to read more about OpenGLAM and open cultural data (in German), check out

Hack the Bells – The world’s first interdisciplinary open license contest celebrating the carillon!

Sarah Stierch - July 10, 2014 in Contest, Featured, Hack days

Image credit: Michael Pihulic (CC BY SA 4.0)

Image credit: Michael Pihulic (CC BY SA 4.0)

In this blog (cross-posted from her blog The Culture Feed) Sarah Stierch introduces the world’s first interdisciplinary open license contest celebrating the carillon: Hack the Bells, running from 1 July – 1 September.

An esteemed jury of cultural visionaries will be awarding $1,000 USD and the opportunity for the grand prize winner’s work to be exhibited and acquired by the University of California, Berkeley and the Anton Brees Carillon Library.

What makes this so groundbreaking?

One, it celebrates the peoples instrument – the carillon - a bell tower of epic proportions found in cities around the world, including the famous Campanile at the University of California’s Berkeley campus. Carillon’s ring out the time of the day on the hour, and at noon, concerts take place around the world, freely able to be heard (and felt) by anyone within the right distance, as carillonists perform original and classic works written specifically for the world’s largest instrument. (Learn more, here).

Second, all works submitted are freely licensed under Creative Common’s Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. These works will be legacy pieces – allowing others to find inspiration in their creations, the works to be forever attributed, and newly created works using the submitted works being published under the same free license forever. All compositions, recordings, and media we have provided are licensed under the same license by carillon composers & photographers. Creative freedom takes a bold stance here, and we are shouting from Sather Tower about it.

The above video features Tiffany Ng, my co-organizer, talking about carillon’s and performing.

Third, it’s interdisciplinary and international. Anyone can submit in any language and any type of creative and innovative work. The opportunities are endless: performance art, remixes, smartphone apps, paintings, poetry, short stories, video art, robots – anything! Get creative! We’re encouraging applicants to consider submissions related to: the 2014-15 Centennial of the Campanile, accessibility in the tradition of the campanile providing music for public space, and openness related to open culture and licensing.

Our jury comprises of awesome innovators. 

  • Jeff Davis - University Carillonist, University of California, Berkeley
  • Alex Freeman - Director of Special Projects, New Media Consortium
  • Lizzy Jongma - Data manager, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
  • Susan Miller - Program Manager, Consortium for Interdisciplinary Research, University of California, Berkeley
  • Greg Niemeyer - Professor of Art Practice, Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media, University of California, Berkeley

Learn more about who they are and what they do, here.

Thank you to our sponsors: Berkeley Center for New Media, Anton Brees Carillon Library, Meyer Sound, the Open Knowledge Foundation’s OpenGLAM initiative, The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America, and the Hargrove Music Library at UC Berkeley.

Submission: deadline September 1 2014 by 11:59 PST

Please visit the Hack The Bells website to learn more and submit your entries. (#hackthebells!)


New Topic Report: Public Sector Information in Cultural Heritage Institutions

Joris Pekel - July 8, 2014 in Documentation, Featured, Front Page

This week a new Topic Report has been published on the ePSI Platform about public sector information in cultural heritage institutions. The report discusses the current state of the digital cultural heritage landscape in Europe and looks at what the recently accepted amendments to the PSI Directive mean for the sector.

What is Public Sector Information?

Public Sector Information (PSI) is the single largest source of information in Europe. It is produced and collected by public bodies and includes legal data, economic/financial data, digital maps, geographic information, meteorological data, digitised books, statistics, and data from research projects.

Most of this Open Data can be re-used or integrated into new products and services that we use on a daily basis, such as car navigation systems, weather forecasts, and financial and insurance services.

What does this mean for the cultural sector?

The original Directive dates from 2003 and it excluded the information that is produced by libraries, archives and museums. The amended Directive that was accepted one year ago changes this. These cultural heritage institutions will now also be asked to make their information available to the public. This includes both the metadata, the descriptive information, as well as the digitised content. The Directive does however allow institutions to make the data available under certain conditions such as charging marginal costs.

Implementation of the Directive by the Member States

At the moment the new amended Directive is not fully in place yet. Member States have until July 2015 to implement the new Directive into their national law. How effective the new Directive will be is dependant on how the different Member States decide to implement the Directive. The report researches the current state of implementation of each Member State and the results can be found in this map.


It becomes quite clear that the implementation of the amended Directive is not on track at the moment. One year after the acceptance of the new text, only a few countries are currently working on implementing it. This is a concern especially when realising that some Member States took as long as 7 years to implement the Directive from 2003.

The full report also addresses other topics like maintaining a healthy Public Domain (also addressed next week during a workshop at the OKFestival), the potential of cultural heritage data for other sectors such as education and creative industries, and the more general issues memory institutions run into when digitising their collections. The full report can be found here.

Spaghetti Open Data

Marco Montanari - July 2, 2014 in Events/Workshops, Featured, Linked Open Data


Photo by Marco Giacomassi

Last march Bologna hosted the second rally of the Italian Open Data Community (Spaghetti Open Data). The event lasted three days: one for the real “conference”, one for the hackathons and one for the workshops. The first day had the aim to share best practices across many Italian institutions, open data users and projects. The objectives for the other days were to enable tech and non-tech people to hack around ideas, to define requirements to be transformed into code and projects or just to rush on an idea or a group of datasets transforming them into real things. A great addition to this year’s conference was the late afternoon “ask a civic hacker”-session, where non-tech people could chat with tech people to get help on specific situations.

One of the hackathons involved the analysis of the data structure of the CulturaItalia dataset in order to provide the data to the public domain calculator, a project by OKF France. The CulturaItalia portal declares as the main objective the “guided access to the world of Italian culture”.  It exposes a set of curated explorations of the content, as well as a SPARQL backend. During the hackathon we explored the data and analyzed its quality, and the result is not amazing, but at least comforting: the data is exposed in a very complicated manner and is very difficult to manage, even due to performance problems, but it is very complete and detailed, a factor that is very important in discussing about GLAM data (maybe even more important than the ease of use).

Other groups worked on other non-GLAM datasets and projects, like infographics / datajournalism (Real estate confiscated from Criminal Organizations), epidemics and roundtables on the evolution of the Italian citizen-driven funding monitor (, discussions and sprints within the Italian OpenStreetMap community, and much more.

Markham’s Masterpiece

Michael J. North - July 1, 2014 in Curator's Choice, Featured, Public Domain


Michael J. North, Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in NLM’s History of Medicine Division, takes a look at one of the most important books in the history veterinary medicine – a seminal 17th-century work on the care of horses.

A foldout found in the 1644 edition of Markham’s Maister-peece [Masterpiece], Containing all Knowledge Belonging to Smith, Farrier, or Horse=Leech, Touching on Curing All Diseases in Horses.

One of the most important and enduring books in the English language about the care of horses is by Gervase Markham (1586?-1637), an author of poetry and practical guides, including books on horsemanship and home economics. His most famous work, however, was Markham’s Maister-peece [Masterpiece], Containing all Knowledge Belonging to Smith, Farrier, or Horse=Leech, Touching on Curing All Diseases in Horses, which was first printed in London in 1610 and came out in dozens of editions under a number of titles for over 200 years.

This edition of Markham’s Maister-peece printed in London in 1644 and held in NLM’s collection is divided into two parts focusing on “physical cures” and “surgical cures,” the former handling mainly internal physiology and pathology with herbal or dietary remedies, and the latter covering external illnesses which required hands-on treatments like bloodletting, purging, and bandaging.

Title page from the 1644 edition of Markham’s work in which the title is surrounded by nine images of people working with horses.

Markham’s work followed the prevailing philosophy about health and illness in this period for humans and other large animals: the humoral theory of disease and wellness, whereby the four humors of the body (blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile) needed to be kept in balance, and illness was a result of a lack of balance in these substances. These texts carry information about physiology and health of the horse that would be almost unrecognizable to us today. Maintenance of the fluid balance was important, as was diet; at different times of the year, maintenance was performed on people and animals such as horses in the form of bloodletting or feeding special foods that would hopefully bring the humors back into balance. For example, beginning on page 37 he tells his readers that: “…in bloud-letting, you must take but halfe so much from a young colt, as from an old horse … letting of blood is either to divert sicknesse and preserve health … not forgetting that April and October are the two principall seasons of the year for that purpose, except urgent occasion be ministred.”

By the mid-17th century, Markham’s treatise on horse care was considered authoritative by the public and was printed again and again in England for over two centuries, and eventually made its way to the British colonies as The Citizen and Countryman’s Experienced Farrier, printed in Wilmington, Delaware in 1764. This edition was nicely “Americanized” to cover special climatic conditions in the New World and included hints on the use of local plant remedies by “Discreet Indians.” The Library’s copy of this book contains numerous handwritten home remedies, a common practice at the time, including this one on page 145 for the botts, a loathsome condition caused by the larvae of the bot fly:

Cure for the Botts:
Take half-pint of vinegar
Half pint of soft soap
Half pint of gin
Half pint of molasses
Shake them together
Give it to the horse while foaming
In five minutes he will be free from pain
Certain Cure, Jan 21, 1846.

The Library has also digitized a later edition of the same book printed in Baltimore in 1797 which contains a handwritten home remedy for a child’s whooping cough written on the final blank page.

Left: page from the 1764 U.S. edition featuring a hand-written “Cure for the Botts”. Right: final page from the back of the 1797 U.S. edition upon which someone has written a remedy for the whooping cough.

The National Library of Medicine’s collection includes an extensive array of veterinary literature dating from the 1480s to the 1850s. Most of the material in the collection deals with the horse, as did most veterinary literature dating before 1800, primarily because of its military and economic importance compared to other animals. Much of it is really quite stunning from a visual standpoint, with skilled illustrations of horses and treatments. The texts themselves are also fascinating, revealing a great deal about what sorts of people were healing animals and what they did to take care of them before more scientific veterinary research began in the 18th century.

Michael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

To browse more of the National Library of Medicine’s great pool of public domain material visit their Digital Collections section. We also highly recommend checking out their excellent Circulating Now blog, from which this piece from Michael North was cross-posted.

This post is part of our Curator’s Choice series, a monthly feature consisting of a guest article from a curator about a work or group of works in one of their “open” digital collections. Learn more here.

See this post in all its full page width glory over at The Public Domain Review.