The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library has been awarded $261,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to describe and digitize a large group of annotated printed books from the hand-press era (ca. 1455–1830). The Clark holds one of the nation’s most comprehensive collections of rare materials related to the study of England and the Continent from the Tudor period through the 18th century.

A recent survey of its collection of printed books revealed more than 800 annotated volumes, nearly 300 of which contain a substantial amount of contemporary or near-contemporary annotations, comprising more than 2.5 million words of handwritten commentary, notes, and other marks.

The facsimiles of 76,600 pages — more than 90% of which contain annotations — will be hosted by the California Digital Library on its website, Calisphere — a free and open service providing access to hundreds of thousands of digital primary sources from the ten UC campuses and public and private institutions across the state.

Users from all disciplines and levels — ranging from K–12 students to academic researchers and genealogists — access the Calisphere site about a million times per year. Metadata is also shared with the Digital Public Library of America, a public directory to millions of digital items aggregated from institutions across the country.

Annotated books from the hand-press era reflect the questioning, acceptance and growth of early modern and Enlightenment ideas. Literacy and educational opportunities increased in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Reactions to what people read at the time — as expressed, for example, by their annotations in the Clark’s collection — offer a fascinating and insightful portal for students and their educators, as well as established scholars. Reading them leds to an understanding of the decisions made by political and literary figures; the paths of mathematical, scientific and religious developments; and the Zeitgeist, which is better understood when the thoughts and considerations of both well-known and anonymous men and women are taken into account. This age signals — to paraphrase Alexandre Koyré — the end of the closed world and the beginning of the infinite universe.

The digitization of and free access to the Clark’s holdings, now possible because of the National Endowment of the Humanities, will have a profound impact — both quantitatively and qualitatively — on the worldwide interest in researching readers through their annotations in printed books, administrators at the Clark Library said.