The Newberry Library — whose collection of historical artifacts ranges from 600,000 maps to Shakespeare’s First Folio, from Thomas Jefferson’s Federalist papers (with his own annotations) to the personal papers of columnist Mike Royko — doesn’t normally hear from “warlocks and alchemists.”
But such self-described experts have been part of the “overwhelming” response from around the world that the Chicago research library has gotten since it posted pages online in mid-March seeking the public’s help in transcribing and translating pages from rare religious manuscripts dating as far back as the 15th century.
One reader — who described himself as a former Canadian alchemist with “a deep experience in magic” and “experience with Latin and Hebrew” — became engrossed with the project, according to Matthew Clarke, who works on digital initiatives at the Near North Side library. Another, a woman in Germany who publishes books on goddesses, also has helped with transcriptions, Clarke says.
Even better, the crowdsourcing “Transcribing Faith” project attracted the attention of a woman in Britain who thinks she might know who wrote the 17th century “Book of Magical Charms,” one of the magical transcripts in question. Though the manuscript is part of the collection of the Newberry, 60 W. Walton, the library has no record of who wrote it, according to Clarke. He says the staff is now working with the woman on what might prove to be a big discovery.
The library has been posting pages online, allowing people to make annotations to help translate and transcribe them — kind of a Wikipedia project for manuscripts on magic and witchcraft.
Dating to the early modern period, the texts deal with magic and religion, touching on subjects including the Salem witch trials and occult methods to cure a toothache.
Currently, readers can transcribe pages from the “Book of Magical Charms,” “Commonplace Book,” the “Calligraphic Commonplace Book,” “Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcraft” and “Italian Religious Broadsides.”
People need a basic knowledge of English, Latin or Hebrew, and the ability to decipher cursive handwriting, says Jen Wolfe, Newberry’s digital initiatives manager.
The project will be part of the library’s exhibition “Religious Change, 1450-1700,” looking at changing interpretations of faith. It opens Sept. 14.
It’s proving to be popular. In the past two weeks, the transcripts have received 70,000 page views, more than the Newberry’s digital resources usually get in an entire year, Wolfe says.
So far, about 2,000 pages have been transcribed, according to Wolfe, with multiple people making annotations on each page, at times correcting each other. As the team digitizes more content, Wolfe says the library will launch a similar project focused on the Midwest.
“Part of this project is to try to expand our audience from just scholars to people in Chicago,” she says. “We were hoping to get people more involved in the humanities.”
And you might learn something. Like how to get rid of any witches that might be hexing you. According to the “Book of Magical Charms,” just throw dung into their backyards. That should get rid of them.