UBC Library’s digital collections are accessed by scholars and students globally, and new content is added regularly. Here’s a glimpse of some recent additions:

  • Puban Collection
    Consisting of 45,000 hand-stitched volumes spanning Chinese history, literature and thought from the 12th to 19th centuries, the Puban Collection was acquired with the help of UBC professor Ho Ping-ti in 1959.
  • Discorder Magazine
    Devoted to in-depth coverage of Vancouver’s independent music scene, Discorder magazine is published by UBC’s student-run CiTR 101.9 FM radio station. All existing issues of the magazine are now available to view online, and new issues will be added as they are published.
  • BC Sessional Papers, Phase 2
    BC’s Sessional Papers document political, historical, economic and cultural history of British Columbia. New additions to this collection include committee reports, petitions, correspondence, maps, voter lists and more from 1887-1911.

image of books

To explore these and other digital collections, please visit the digital collections portal.
Be sure to watch for UBC Library’s new Open Collections website, a new, user-friendly platform for the Library’s digital collections. Launching summer 2015.


This story originally appeared in the Friends 2015 spring newsletter.

We’ve talked a lot about how we digitize, but have you ever wondered how we decide what we digitize? There are a lot of criteria for a collections digitization – durability, funding and interest are some – but one criteria point for digitization that is less well known is if the collection will help people learn something new.

One of the collections going through this process right now is the Trutch Family Fonds – currently stored at UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections. Much of Trutch collection are letters written to and from Joseph Trutch who was a well-known political figure in colonial times in Victoria, B.C. Today he is particularly noted for his hostile view of First Nations people, and his push for their forced assimilation. The collection includes many of Trutch’s personal letters. Scholars today review his letters for insight into the common prejudices of the time. Some of which look like this:


And some of which look like this:


Known as “crossed letters” the second set of letters is written in a style called cross writing or cross-hatching. It was once a common practice to have letters that contained two sets of writing written over one another. This usually meant the letter writer wrote to the bottom of the page, turned the paper, and kept writing!


A close up of cross writing

During the early days of the postal system this was done to save money on paper and expensive postage costs. Many postal systems charged by the pages per letter or even the size of the paper.

It might be hard to read at first but many find they adapt after a while. Once you become familiar you learn to ignore the other words. Or at least we hope that’s what happens!

Thankfully a relative of Trutch spent time and energy transcribing many of the letters, something that can be accessed with the collection at RSBC. The letters are also widely known and cited in historical research sources than many things at RSBC. It helps too that most people don’t usually want to squint through the actual letter.

The counter argument, for digitization, is Joseph Trutch was a well known historical figure. Many more people might enjoy seeing the letters digitally and comparing them side-by-side with the transcription.

Keep checking back! You never know, maybe someday you too can go cross-eyed reading cross-hatching.


In honour of our new exhibition, Papal Parchments and Blackletter Books, here’s a lesson on the history of the written word and why the text you’re reading now looks the way it does. Thanks so much to the exhibition’s curator, Robert Makinson, for this fascinating look back.

The Changing Written Word

The alphabet used by Western European languages today, including English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and many others, is usually called the Latin alphabet or the Roman alphabet because it was first used by the ancient Romans to write their language, Latin. But although the letter forms may look familiar, they wrote their books very differently, so differently that they are nearly unintelligible to modern readers:

Image of Roman alphabet

Rome, BAV, Vat. lat. 3256, fol. 3v

This image, taken from a reproduction of a Latin copy of Vergil from the fourth century, was produced during the later Roman Empire. While we can make out individual letter forms, such as the first seven letters spelling out the Latin word INFELIX (“unfortunate”), the text is very difficult to parse and read; this is because there are no spaces between words, no punctuation, and the letters are all majuscule, like our modern uppercase alphabet.

Four hundred years later, books would look very different. During the time of Charlemagne (c. 748-814), the emperor of the Franks (ancestors of the French), a new script was developed that was specifically designed for easy reading. Called Carolingian minuscule or Caroline minuscule—minuscule letters look like today’s lowercase alphabet—it allowed manuscripts to be produced with much fewer errors and eliminated much misunderstanding among readers.

Image of Carolingian minuscule

St. Gall, SB, CSG 201, p.48

Many familiar features are starting to appear: there are spaces between words and some punctuation is present. But most importantly, distinctions are made between majuscule letters, found in titles and at the beginning of sentences and phrases, and the minuscule letters present everywhere else. These minuscule forms are very similar to the forms used by most modern fonts, and Caroline minuscule would dominate European books for nearly four hundred years, even inspiring the script used by the papacy for its official documents like papal bulls. After 1150, however, Caroline minuscule was gradually supplanted by a more compact, angular script called textualis, better known today by the misnomer “Gothic.”

Image of Compendium Theologicae Veritatis

Hugh Ripelin, Compendium Theologicae Veritatis, p.24

Eventually, Caroline minuscule was revived by the Italian Humanists in the fifteenth century, who wrongly believed that it was the script used by the ancient Romans. This adapted version of Caroline minuscule, which came to be known as Humanistic minuscule, in turn inspired many of the typefaces used by early printers. The very modern- and familiar-looking typeface below is representative of many books printed during this early period.

Image of Elegantiae Linguae Latinae

Lorenzo Valla, Elegantiae Linguae Latinae, Venice: Rubes, 1476

These typefaces, though they were subject to changing tastes over the centuries, became the basis for the fonts that we use today. The way we read and write, then, descends directly from the innovations adopted and adapted during the Middle Ages, especially the time of Charlemagne.

To see some of these documents in person, please join us for the exhibition Papal Parchments and Blackletter Books: How the Middle Ages Shaped the Way We Read, 1245 AD to UBC, which runs from May 1-31, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Rare Books and Special Collections on the first floor of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. For more information, please contact Rare Books and Special Collections at 604 822-2521 or rare.books@ubc.ca.

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