Digital Cicognara Library

Reviewed by:
Natalia Lonchyna
Retired Librarian (formerly at the North Carolina Museum of Art)

Libraries are all about accessibility. One may have the most beautiful library in the world and yet, if no one knows about it, it is only available to those who can physically be in the space and experience the tomes tactilely. We now live in the exciting time of digital resources which has made a significant difference to scholarship, has made resources available to those who lack the funds to travel, and has opened an incredible world to all researchers for scholars and amateurs alike. Although the experience of seeing a book in person is always preferable, it is quite remarkable to have access to such treasure troves as the Digital Cicognara Library.

Count Leopoldo Cicognara (1767-1834) was a renowned art historian who amassed over 5,000 books in his library collection–art, art history, archeology, and related disciplines. Cicognara published an  inventory of his library collection, Catalogo ragionato de’ libri d’arte e di antichità. This serves as the guide to his collection which was purchased in its entirety by Pope Leo X and became part of the Vatican Library. Phillip and Reina Fehl began a decades-long project to produce a microfiche collection of the contents. Subsequently, the microfiche collection and digitized books held in participating  libraries became the Digital Cicognara Library. 

This digital resource is available free of charge and is easy to navigate and search. In addition to the search box, the homepage provides the following headers: About (history of Cicognara and his library), Community (participating institutions), Contact (e-mail content provider), News (relating to the development and status of the project), and the option to subscribe to Twitter (if you would like to follow the tweets produced by this project).

The simple search box will give results of titles, no matter the language. For example, if you type in architecture, the result list will contain the works in the language of the appropriate subject, not only in Italian or Latin, but English, French, German, and Spanish. Dropdown menus can further refine the user’s search by language, year, and other options. An advanced search is also available. On the “Browse full catalogo” page, access to the bound version of the original catalog is provided through an external link to the Vatican’s website as well as the listing of the catalog for browsing  by subject matter according to Cicognara’s categories (for example, “Architettura teatrale antica”).  In both the search results page and the browse page, the list of titles includes the Cicognara catalog number, the hyperlinked title of the book, and, if available, an annotation in Italian. If you search using the Chrome browser, the Google translate option appears. The translation can be a hit or a miss but does provide the gist of the annotation. 

Logos of participating Institutions of the Digital Cicognara Library

In both the search results and the browse page, the titles of the books are hyperlinked to the microfiche version and the actual book held at the Vatican or participating library if available.  The digitized versions, whether the microfiche or the books from the participating institutions, are powered by IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework), which allows the user to turn the pages and zoom in closer on images or text.  One can download the microfiche version in its entirety as a pdf or individual pages from the books of particular libraries. For text, the digitized microfiche version is very readable; for images, the digitized book form will be more desirable. A need to see another version of the same title comes into play most when viewing illustrations. The sidebar for the entries indicate the possible versions available. As an aside, those who are interested in the physical aspect of the book can also examine and zoom in on the binding and endpapers. The expanded cataloging record underneath the viewing platform explains the version that you see, as well as comments on the imperfections and useful information, i.e. lack of digitized pages and others.

Record result which includes both the microfiche version and the digitized book version.

Many digitized libraries require memberships or subscriptions; however, the Digital Cicognara Library is an open access source for professional researcher and amateur alike. The fact that this project is supported by many different libraries (The Vatican Library, Getty, Princeton, Harvard, National Gallery of Art, etc.) gives gravitas to its importance in the world of scholarship. Because of the partnership, the Digital Cicognara Library is available through many different venues, which makes it accessible to even more researchers than through a single point of access. The Getty Portal, Hathi Trust, Internet Archive also provide access, as well as the individual libraries that participate in this project. Researchers therefore have numerous options for accessing these titles, among them the richly contextual Digital Cicognara Library website. Scholars not only of art history and architecture, but of the historical time period (16th through 19th centuries) will hopefully be delighted to have these digital resources at their fingertips.

Imperfect History: Curating the Graphic Arts Collection at Benjamin Franklin’s Public Library

Laurie Palumbo, Cataloging and Metadata Librarian, Art + Design Subject Coordinator
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

The Library Company of Philadelphia is an independent research library that supports the study of American history through its collection of rare books and graphic materials. Founded by Benjamin Franklin as a subscription library in 1731, The Library Company serves a varied constituency and is well respected for its exhibitions, public programming, fellowships, and digital collections. Imperfect History: Curating the Graphic Arts Collection at Benjamin Franklin’s Public Library is their latest project. Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Graphic Arts Department, it provides the opportunity to reexamine and reinterpret longstanding collections through the complex narrative of racial biases and cultural influences.

The multifaceted, multimedia site offers access to the various grant-funded project outcomes including exhibitions, catalogs, videos, a workshop, and symposium. While an impressive amount of content is available, navigating the offerings can be confusing. There is little differentiation in the font and color of the selections, some of which may benefit from stacking in drop-down menus under key events. The digital exhibition is only accessible within the introductory page of the in-person exhibition, while the digital catalog is only accessible from the main project page.

Once in the digital exhibition, there is a hamburger menu to navigate the six sections, each thoughtfully tackling topics such as visual literacy, stewardship, and intrinsic value. The viewer scrolls down to view high quality images of lithographs, daguerreotypes, maps, drawings, and scrapbooks. An interactive magnifying glass is a fun feature that appears when an image is clicked on, allowing movement around the digital object to inspect details. The intent of the arrows on each side of the image is unclear, as they do not lead to additional views nor back to the exhibit.

Screenshot of magnified section of the engraving by Thomas Holme, titled “A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America.” This map was sold in England, circa1812

The digital exhibition culminates in a timeline featuring key moments in the history of The Library Company and the Graphic Arts Department. There is a block in the department’s timeline with images of several past exhibits and catalog covers, which makes the viewer curious for more. It is perhaps a missed opportunity to not have enhanced the timeline with an interactive element, connecting viewers to more information or images of the highlights.

The standalone digital catalog features three objects interpreted by four guest “catalogers,” chosen for their unique expertise. Again, navigating the project page can be confusing as linking across the top duplicates access but also restricts interaction. One of the more successful sections is the Catalog. Here, the viewer selects a title to connect with the digital image and a guest cataloger’s content, formatted as a cataloging record. The image stays in place while arrows at each side of the record allow the viewer to move the entries back and forth for comparison. This effective feature examines the concept of objectivity in traditional library cataloging and description through the juxtaposition of interpretations by the contributors.

The impact of the past two years is apparent throughout this project, both in the ideas and offerings. Rather than a limitation, it feels appropriate to the project and speaks with urgency to the times in which we live. While navigation is not always intuitive, the digital projects are aesthetically appealing and exciting to move through–it feels special to visit and learn about the works included. The easily accessible content offers simultaneous historical reflection and a prescient contribution to the telling and interpreting of the complicated history of the United States. The digital projects are valuable tools for students, scholars, and curious citizens interested in making connections between graphic materials, past ideas, and present considerations.