A Seventeenth Century Camera: Johann Zahn and the study of optics 

by Alexandra Caccamo Special Collections Librarian

Digitisation is an important part of our work in the library. It increases access to our collections and helps us make them available online to a greater number of people. With the development of our Digitisation Suite and the arrival of the scanner to the library, it is interesting to look at our collection for early descriptions of the camera. 

The Russell Library holds a number of books that deal with the study of optics. One such item is by Johann Zahn (1641-1707) Zahn was the canon of the Premonstratensian monastery of Oberzell near Würzburg. He had an interest in natural philosophy and published several works, with the most notable being ‘Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium‘ or The Long Distance Artificial Eye or Telescope. This work was published in 1685 in Würzburg. 

Plate depicting Zhan’s design for a portable camera obscura

The book is a treatise on optical instruments and their uses. It describes magic lanterns, telescopes, microscopes and other projection types. Zahn also outlines and illustrates the first portable camera obscura. A camera obscura consists of an entire darkened room with a small hole at one end through which an image is projected. It should be noted that he was not the first to describe a camera-like device. The Han Chinese philosopher, Mozi (c. 470 – 291 BC) described the principle behind the camera obscura and detailed how light travels in straight lines from its source thus inverting an image when projected through a small hole. However, Zahn was the first to publish a design for a portable mirror-reflex camera, which you can see here. Although it is still relatively large, and perhaps not what we would think of as portable today, it was innovative at the time. This design did not become a reality until almost 140 years later. 

Plate showing how light travels in straight lines.

‘Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus…’ has 190 pages. The title page is printed in black and red ink, with an additional richly engraved title page facing the printed title page. This engraving depicts an oculus artifci, literally artificial eye or a telescope. The book is illustrated throughout and contains 8 double-page tables, 30 engraved plates and numerous engraved and woodcut illustrations. Many of the plates are quite elaborate including one examining optics and the structure of the eye. 

Plate showing the structure of the eye.

There are also a number of plates which depict the refraction of light. 

Although, cameras have come a long way since the seventeenth century, we are still developing new ways of capturing images. In the New Year, we hope to be able to image, digitise and share more of our collections online. 

Jack Cornfield in ‘Liberty’: Exploring the Creative Process of Seán Ó Faoláin 

By Róisín Berry, Archivist, MU Library 

Whether writing a blog post, a short story, or a novel, the creative process of each writer is unique and can vary from project to project. One of the most exciting aspects of being an archivist is examining how a work of literature can evolve, from a few scribbled notes on a scrap of paper to a final published work. This process can involve the development of themes, characters, timelines, and revisions, supported often by extensive research and fact-checking. Understanding this process can provide researchers with a much richer experience of a writer and their work. 

Foreign Affairs and Other Stories by Seán Ó Faoláin

In 2018, Maynooth University Library was fortunate enough to acquire a fascinating letter written by writer Seán Ó Faoláin (1900-1991). The four-page document reveals how Ó Faoláin researched the main character, Jack Cornfield, for his short story ‘Liberty’ published in a collection of his work, Foreign Affairs and Other Stories in 1976. Ó Faoláin was regarded as one of Ireland’s leading short-story writers at the time. Not confined to fiction, he also produced travelogues, literary criticisms, and historical biographies. The letter is dated 24th February 1973 and is addressed to Dr Burke, who appears to be a mental health professional. In the document, Ó Faoláin describes his short story character, Cornfield, and outlines plot lines for the story, requesting that the doctor assess their feasibility. Cornfield is a patient in a psychiatric asylum, and the fictional story revolves around his relationships, sanity, and freedom.

Ó Faoláin notes in his letter that the story is based on the memory of a man who used to sit outside the psychiatric asylum in Cork. He recalls him on fine days sitting outside the front gate on the low wall backing on to the fields above the River Lee, chatting with anybody who passed. Ó Faoláin mentions his wife knowing him a little as a girl, her father having worked in the asylum at the time, and notes ‘between them they gave me the image of a quiet and cultivated and gentlemanly sort of chap.’ With this ‘meagre memory,’ Ó Faoláin describes how he has invented a history for Cornfield to ‘explain why this apparently sane chap was there and what he may have been through.’

Letter from Seán Ó Faoláin to Dr Burke on Jack Cornfield character

In the document, Ó Faoláin asks Dr Burke specific questions as he attempts to create a plausible backstory for his character, which includes a violent attack on his wife and the potential repercussions. He enquires ‘Here is the first practical q.:- She commits him to asylum. Is this possible? Or was it ever? But she agrees later that he be sent at her expense to a private mental clinic (? Right word?).’ He also observes ‘No least sign of instability has been given by Cornfield since he was first committed. Yet he continues in the public asylum year after year, tacitly recognised as harmless…and bit by bit he achieves so much respect…that he also achieves this liberty, and virtual equality so that he can wander about the grounds, stroll outside the gates, sit on the wall outside, smoke and chat.’

Detail of letter to Dr Burke

Ó Faoláin observes ‘I am sure you must be chuckling at all these complications and I rather feel myself that so many would bend the credibility of the story.’ He refers to the boyhood image of this patient sitting happily outside the asylum in the sun writing verses and reading books that has stayed with him for fifty years, concluding ‘…as I don’t know his story I am obsessed by the wish to invent it. I suspect I’ve been too inventive.’

An enthralling insight into an artistic mind at work. For further information on our Seán Ó Faoláin collection, please contact: library.specialcollections@mu.ie

Digital, not dusty – the role of digitised primary sources in our special collections

By Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections.

One of the questions that curators often have to ask themselves is “what is a special collection?”. This question is next to impossible to answer definitively, as what is special to one group may not resonate with another.  So, while this was always a challenge, the rise of licensed digital primary sources adds an extra level of complexity – albeit in many ways a welcome one.

These resources are licensed, digital collections, typically consisting of text, image and audio-visual content.  Typically, they represent a digital version of an original analogue primary source, such as an archival collection.  Thus, although the original resource may well have been unique, the digital version is not – it can be subscribed to by any library. 

In some ways the great benefit of these collections is that they are far more accessible than the original, which may require a researcher to travel to a repository to view it.  Of course, being digital, there is powerful functionality available to help you search at scale and right down to the full text for example.

Given our longstanding traditions in the humanities, the library has worked to complement its print collections with access to as broad an array of digital sources as possible.  We offer access to a wealth of these resources such as State Papers Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Early English Books Online, the Irish Newspaper Archive and much more.

But the question remains – are these special collections?  If the original archival item was housed in our library, we would unquestionably consider it to be part of our special collections. However, what it is often argued with these collections is that they are simply surrogates and, in that sense they are no different from a microfilm of an archive for example.   Perhaps the key issue is not to impose a categorisation on them, but to appreciate that these digital primary sources have clear relationships to their physical equivalents in our care.  So, for example a resource such as UK Parliamentary Papers has strong links and provides additional primary context to many of our archives, such as the Littlehales Archive, the Marquis of Sligo Archive, the Sadlier Archive and more. With rare book databases such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online we can see other printings and editions of books which are held in our collections.  The ability to compare and contrast printings and editions is of inestimable value to bibliographic scholars and in some cases the digital surrogate will more than suffice.

These resources have continued to be available and used during the various lockdowns, when access to our special collections has been heavily curtailed.   But even beyond simple matters of access, they will continue to represent a critical part of our collections and an invaluable adjunct to our physical special collections – if not part of our special collections themselves.

Image from Parliamentary Paper showing record of John Sadlier’s attendance at committee.
Screenshot of the 1762 edition of Hume’s History of England which is an earlier edition to a copy residing in Special Collections.

Cataloguing the Troubles

By Ruth O’Hara, Special Collections and Archives, Maynooth University Library

Figure 1: Selection of items from the MUL Tony Keane Troubles collection Northern Ireland

Maynooth University Library (MUL) is the custodian of a unique collection of books, pamphlets, periodicals and ephemera relating to the Northern Ireland Troubles. Dating mainly from the 1970s and early 1980s, these items provide a vivid insight into the lives of all parts of a society in conflict. We have over 600 items, ranging from political flyers and posters to newspapers, prayer leaflets and romance novels, that encompass all shades of opinion. Many of the pieces in this collection were never meant to be kept or they are the only copies of short-run prints, making it unique in terms of our library holdings but also in the Republic of Ireland more generally.

It is such an interesting time, one hundred years after the 1920 Government of Ireland Act and in the midst of ongoing Brexit negotiations, to be working with a collection which, in the main, was produced in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles by groups and individuals from all backgrounds. As librarians working in a publicly funded institution, we have an ongoing responsibility to actively capture the spectrum of memories of such a contested era. It is our obligation to preserve and protect the sources and objects not only of our “official history” or “memory” but also of those periods and groups we might want to forget, which don’t reflect well on us or which represent a viewpoint we may not agree with or even have never considered before.

Figure 2: Catholic Church relief committees: ephemera (LY (SP TCNI(E) 12/1-2)

Perhaps the most vivid evidence of life lived in a society in conflict is captured by the ephemeral items in the collection. Beside numerous election leaflets, there are many pieces produced by paramilitary and pressure groups who had limited access to the media for propaganda purposes and so cheap print publications were how they got their message across. However, it is objects like the church circular providing information on relief services for communities facing food and electricity shortages that bring home the reality of what life was really like at that time.

Figure 3: Danger. Keep out. Stay away from derelict buildings…they may be booby-trapped. Great Britain. Northern Ireland Office. LY (SP TCNI (LF) 6)

Our Troubles collection also includes several posters whose striking imagery is a visual testament to the events and controversies of the period. There is, for example, a poster issued by the Northern Ireland Office warning the public not to approach derelict buildings that might be boobytrapped. The posters in the collection are highly emotive with some even being collected from the gateposts of houses in the immediate aftermath of a horrific incident.

The events of this period impacted every aspect of society as in evident in the newspapers, pamphlets and even the romance novels that we have also preserved. This growing collection offers a bridge to those interested in finding out what happened and what was really written and produced during this turbulent period of history.

Mgr. Seán Swayne’s Bequest

By Yvette Campbell, Russell Library Cataloguing Project

Monsignor Seán Swayne, an internationally renowned liturgist, was the first director of the Irish Institute of Pastoral Liturgy at St Patrick’s College, Carlow, and was chairman of the Irish Episcopal Commission for the liturgy and parish priest of Graiguenamanagh, Co. Kilkenny. Following studies in Paris, he was appointed to the faculty at St Patrick’s College, from where he helped to found the IIPL. The institute has attracted students from all over the world to take part in its one year programme.

In 1989 Father Swayne was appointed monsignor in recognition of his lifelong promotion of the arts, liturgy and architecture. He died in May 1996. His bequest to the Russell Library, Maynooth included 100 books printed before 1850.

SW 100
Armorial bookplate – SW 100

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The Chemical History of a Candle


By Saoirse Reynolds, Special Collections & Archives, JPII Library.

‘From the primitive pine-torch to the paraffin candle, how wide an interval! Between them how vast a contrast!’

The Chemical History of a Candle – by Michael Faraday (1791-1867).

faraday 2
Michael Faraday 1791-1867

The book was edited by William Crookes (1832-1919) and published in London by Chatto and Windus, 1870. The lectures were first printed as a book in 1861 and it has numerous illustrations.

Ever wish you could receive a lecture from one of the great scientists? With this book you can!

This book is a series of six lectures on the chemistry and physics of flames which was given by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution in 1848. It was part of a series of Christmas lectures for young people which was founded by Faraday in 1825. These lectures are still given there every year and are televised. They were popular lectures and Faraday really enjoyed delivering them to the juvenile audience, passing on his enthusiasm for science to them and the public.

Front cover of book

Charles Dickens requested Faraday to write up his lectures and wrote to him in May 1850 saying “it has occurred to me that it would be extremely beneficial to a large class of public to have some account of your lectures you addressed… to children”. Faraday didn’t comply immediately but did eventually agree to have a stenographic record of his lectures undertaken.

The lectures were very entertaining and Faraday included serious chemical principles and used fascinating experiments to make them seem real. For example, copper chloride is used to colour a flame green, and a candle is relit from the vapour of an extinguished candle.

faraday 3
Experiment with lime-water

Other demonstrations were used and included the production and examination of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The properties of water were also studied and the volume of steam produced when water is vaporised.
Many of the demonstrations could be tried out at home and Faraday comments on the proper attention to safety, with suitable adult supervision.
What drew me to this book was the idea of taking something as simple as a candle and breaking down what happens to it scientifically. It is an easily accessible and informative  book for a beginner and someone interested in the history of science. The book offers a fascinating insight into the mind of a great physicist of his time.

The Chemical History of a Candle, can be viewed in Special Collections & Archives,  John Paul II Library in the Reading Room

Opening Times: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday
Mornings – 10am-1pm
Tuesday 10am-5pm. Closed for lunch 1pm-2pm
Special Collections is closed on Fridays

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Different kinds of flames produced



Frank A. J. L. James, ‘Faraday, Michael (1791–1867)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9153, accessed 26 Oct 2017]

W. H. Brock, ‘Crookes, Sir William (1832–1919)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32639, accessed 26 Oct 2017]