The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 16, Number 4
Aug 1992


Profil: An International Database of Watermarks

The Institute of Modern Texts and Manuscripts (ITEM), which is part of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, based in Paris, used to be called the Centre d'Analyse des Manuscrits. It was established to study the creative process in modern writing, especially literary writing. Drafts and manuscripts of over a dozen 19th and 20th century authors-most of them French, but some German or English writers-are currently being studied. The work involves analysis of both handwriting and papers.

For the paper project, ITEM is collaborating with the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris to produce a Descriptive Standard for Modern Manuscripts, develop a database, and gather iconographic and bibliographic reference material. These tools enable the researchers to identify the paper of the manuscripts by determining its date and place of production.

The descriptive standard has circulated internationally since 1985, and is available in French, English and German at the ITEM office (61, rue de Richelieu, 75084 Paris Cedex 02, France; Fax 011 33 1 47.03.89.40).

In collaboration with the Bibliotheque national, ITEM has been developing an experimental database named Profil over the last five years, relying on the sections of the Standard dealing with watermarked papers. Over 20,000 pages of literary manuscripts from the 17th to the 20th century have been examined in the Bibliotheque nationale; over 400 types of watermarks (mainly French, but also from the Netherlands, Italy, Great Britain and Germany) have been selected and reproduced by beta radiography. All the documents selected are described on computerized forms on IBM personal computers. The beta radiographs are scanned and the image is sent to the A3 format screen, appearing beside the descriptive form.

The description has 40 fields, grouped into four sections:

  1. Watermark description: Detailed identification of the image and, if needed, of the written part of the watermark, as spatially divided into "mark" and "countermark"; position on the chain-wires; historical data (connection with files on papermakers, mills and placenames) and bibliographic references.
  2. A brief description of the paper (hand or machinemade, laid or vellum type, color, original size of the entire leaf, distance between chain-wires).
  3. Identification of the document chosen for reproduction (library mark and folio, author, textual contents and, when possible, phase of the genetic process, as well as information available on date and place of production of the text).
  4. List of instances of the same watermark found in other documents (same author and others).

All fields are indexed to allow a selection of items according to one or more criteria (i.e., the various watermarks of the same iconographical type, found in the works of one or several authors; the different papers produced during the same period or in the same mill, that have been used in literary works, etc.~any word or number appearing in the descriptive form being considered as a potential keyword. Finding aids consist of a hierarchic tree of iconographic terms (leading, for instance, from animal to bird and from bird to dove), and vocabularies of both technical and iconographical expressions used in the base.

ITEM hosted an international meeting on watermark description, reproduction and registration in Paris on February 22, 1991. Representatives from Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and France shared their experiences and discussed ways of facilitating exchanges between specialists all over Europe in the coming years.

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