From the Library: Analyzing a Mystery Book

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Peter H. Raven Library has recently been upgrading many of its rare book cataloging records. One such record is for a book published in 1764 by noted botanist Carl Linnaeus (the namesake of the Garden’s Linnean House conservatory) called Genera Plantarum, printed in Stockholm by Lars Salvius.

It was thought to be a second, duplicate copy that had not yet been accessioned into our collection, but upon closer examination it presented itself as an interesting treat to a bibliophile such as myself. It was not a duplicate at all!

At first glance these two copies do look identical, but there are actually many subtle but significant differences in the way the two copies were printed. Was this an additional printing of the book? A pirated copy? All the resources I found describing the book never noted two separate printings of the same work. More specifically, in the 253 years since this book’s publication, no one has ever noted that two distinct printings exist for this edition of Genera Plantarum.

I started the process with an examination of our current record to see what needed updating. The current record for our copy 1 of Genera Plantarum looked straight forward enough, with the second copy’s title page lining up with what is recorded in our current record. You can see a copy of our bibliographical record online here. For comparison, pictures of copy 1 that were digitized and can be viewed on our digital image website Botanicus. I then found a digitized version done by Madrid Botanic Garden that matched our second copy. I also found 2 additional digitized versions of copy 2; one done by the University of Lausanne and the other done by Ghent University. Because Madrid’s scans are color, I used them as a proxy for our copy 2.

When examining the notes field in our record relating to the book’s collation, I discovered a noticeable difference between the record, and the second copy which I was holding in my hand. The record notes the pagination should be “Pages 574-577 misnumbered 564, 517, and 566-567.” However, after examining our second copy of the book that was in hand, I found that it had two additional misprinting of page numbers: 113 as 11 and 210 as 102. This was not reflected in our record, and once examined against copy 1, did not compare with regard to the page numbers. My thoughts first moved to the idea that this was a minor misprinting that was eventually caught and corrected. But the mystery did not stop there.

Figure 1

The title page of each volume was examined and one anomaly immediately jumped out: the ornamentation used toward the bottom of the lines was noticeably different (circled in blue in Figure 1). Another thing to note on the title page is the foot of the ‘F’ in ‘FRUCTIFICATIONIS’ and how it lines up with the word ‘SEXTA’ below it. The blue lines are exactly the same length and reveal that not only does the text line up differently in both versions, but that there are differences in the amount of space between the line that has ‘FRUCTIFICATIONIS’ and the line containing ‘SEXTA,’ with wider spacing in copy 1 than in copy 2. This is revealed since the blue line extends down into the line beginning with ‘Cum Privilegio S. R.’ in copy 2. Finally, note that the blue line at the bottom of the page (both lines are again a duplicate of each other) extending from the top of the ‘7’ up to the ‘L’ of ‘HOLMIÆ’ end at different heights. This line also reveals the slight shift of the alignment of the ‘7’ when compared to the lines above it.

Figure 2

The other page drawing attention is page 210 (see Figure 2). Although the page number itself is obviously incorrect, many other differences can be pointed out; here only two others will be noted. First, the second line of text is different in each. Copy 1 starts with ‘Mich. 19.’ while copy 2 begins with just the ‘19.’ The beginnings of lines 8 through 10 are also different due to the composition of the type on the page.

Utilizing Worldcat and LinnaeusLink, I developed a list of institutions that held this volume of Genera Plantarum. Each institution was then contacted via email with a description of the discovery so far and asked to compare their copies against what were arbitrarily called copy A (our copy 1) and copy B (our copy 2). The vast majority of the institutions replied, 33 in all; several of the institutions holding multiple copies of this work. These were compiled into a spreadsheet that revealed that most of the institutions have a copy similar to our copy 2.

This examination is still in the preliminary stages. Thanks to use of the recently developed Traherne digital collator software (which works by lining up and superimposing the corresponding pages over each other, and then flipping between them), a systematic examination of each page to note any differences is ongoing. The initial step is to determine whether the page composition and typography are consistently different throughout the whole work. If there are any pages that are identical, this could reveal that at least some of the pages were printed at the same time or, at least, from the same forms. Stay tuned for further revelations as they appear!

Randy Smith
Senior Image Technician, Peter H. Raven Library

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