Investigating the Image of the Book: BASIRA launches at the 2023 Schoenberg Symposium

November marked the launch of a compelling new digital resource hosted by the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies and the Penn Libraries. BASIRA, the Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art project (, is a new, open-access online database of representations of books and other textual documents in the figurative arts between approximately 1300 and 1600 CE. With the launch of the new database portal, users anywhere can browse and query thousands of images of books from a constantly expanding dataset. Dozens of aspects of a book’s depiction can be searched, including details of its binding, bookmarks, contents, and position. In addition, users may search for the particulars of who or what is interacting with the book, and how that action is taking place. 

The official launch of BASIRA was held during the sixteenth annual Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age (November 16–18, 2023), which was dedicated to the topic of The Image of the Book: Representing the Codex from Antiquity to the Present. The symposium featured sixteen speakers who investigated all manner of the book’s depiction over time: from wax tablets in Greco-Roman antiquity to pop bibliographic illustrations in playing cards from Magic: The Gathering. The proceedings began with a tour-de-force keynote address at the Free Library of Philadelphia by Jeffrey Hamburger of Harvard University, who investigated the manifold ways in which authorship could be depicted in high-medieval frontispieces. Over the next two days, speakers discussed the ways books and other documents were depicted across space and time, from 12th-century Germany to Ming dynasty China to the Ottoman Court. Additionally, there was a special presentation of an array of extraordinary book-shaped objects (“Blooks”) by conservator/collector Mindell Dubansky of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a live demo of a Virtual Reality manuscript-viewing environment by Sanna Zonno of the Huntington Library and the University of Southern California. With over 500 people registered in person and online, the event was one of the best-attended events in Penn Libraries’ history. The energy and enthusiasm surrounding the topic, and the new BASIRA database, were palpable.

BASIRA, founded in 2014, is largely the brainchild of independent scholar and SIMS research associate Barbara Williams Ellertson who, after a career in book design, turned her energies to the exploration of the depiction of documents in late medieval and early modern art. In 2019, Ellertson partnered with SIMS curator Nicholas Herman, with assistance from Doug Emery (Cultural Heritage Computing and SIMS) and other Penn Libraries staff, to transform the database and enrich its content. With the support of a transformative digital humanities grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and with additional student support from the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, Herman and Ellertson were able to work with Performant Software LLC to produce both a robust back end for database enrichment and a compelling public search interface, which is now live. Over time, the chronological and geographic reach of this resource will be expanded, making it a central hub for historic depictions of the book. As a project, BASIRA aims to foster connections between scholars, curators, conservators, and all other persons interested in book history and the visual arts. The BASIRA team encourages web users everywhere to explore the database for research and teaching, propose new artworks for inclusion through our online portal, and contact the project team with any questions or remarks.

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