In March 2021 Alison Sinclair (Emeritus Professor of Spanish), with the support and input of CDH, was successful in being awarded £20,000 for a one-year project. This is to date items in the collection of Spanish Chapbooks held in the University Library. The money will be used to fund the work of a software specialist, Mary Chester-Kadwell, of CDH, and a specialist librarian, Sonia Morcillo at Cambridge University Library, in a project that has implications not only for Spanish specialists, but for a wide range of humanities research.

A chapbook may not be familiar to all. It’s a small pamphlet containing tales or ballads, sold in the streets by pedlars, and frequently ‘performed’ or read out loud to passers-by. Images on the chapbook, and sometimes on large placards, act as visual aids to understand the material. Cambridge University Library has rich holdings of Spanish Chapbooks, known as pliegos sueltos, particularly for the period 1700-1900. Literally meaning ‘loose folded sheets’, these pieces of street literature are of singular interest in terms of social or cultural history, but they are fragile, challenging to preserve, and difficult to handle for research purposes. As part of the AHRC-funded project ‘Wrongdoing in Spain 1800-1936’ (2011-14, PI Professor Sinclair) some 4504 pliegos sueltos had been digitized and catalogued (approximately half of the items coming from Cambridge University Library and half from the British Library) (see Spanish Chapbooks). Of these, 67% were without a date, and in their cataloguing had to have their dates estimated. This estimated date, usually based on the imprint, could often span several decades, and thus be of limited use for research in fields such as social history.

The aim of the research project is to provide relatively reliable dates where previously there has been uncertainty. The findings of the proposed project would thus help date material in ‘Mapping pliegos’, a broader project shared with colleagues in Spain. The work is to be carried out using software developed and supported by the Visual Geometry Group (VGG), Department of Engineering Science, Oxford University. After an initial extraction of images from the pliegos sueltos, the visual search engine will allow the team to compare prints made from the same woodcuts alongside their metadata to establish relative chronology.

Our hope and expectation is that the findings of the project could help to encourage far greater use and applications of image recognition and visual search for all kinds of collections in Cambridge and beyond.

  • Posted 31 Aug 2021

Cambridge Digital Humanities

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