Application of IT solutions in paper history research on the example of watermark databases

Anu Lepp
Institute of History and Archaeology, University of Tartu

Throughout time, watermarks found in handmade paper made of rags have revealed information about the owners of paper mills, papermakers, or the place, time or even quality of papermaking and the range of offered products. It is generally known that watermark bestows on paper a value of proof, which allows identifying forgeries and dating documents. Furthermore, the analysis of watermarks also sheds light on the subsequent destiny of a piece of paper and its applications for the end consumer, which, in turn, allows drawing intriguing conclusions about the cultural and economic contacts of different regions.

This requires performing not only detailed but also quantitatively representative comparisons of the material over a large geographical territory. By now, advances in information technology have led to the digitization of existing card file databases of watermarks as well as the establishment of new online databases. But the question remains: how to merge the numerous databases compiled according to different principles to ensure the most efficient combined search over these databases? A possible solution is an all-European digital environment which has grouped the most important paper and watermark databases under a single online portal, and enables a combined search according to textual, visual and combined parameters. The database of Early Estonian Prints, a project managed at the Tartu University Library, is part of this joint digital portal. The database contains items of the nearly 1,500 prints issued at the Tartu University printshop during the Swedish rule and held in Estonians libraries and archives, and also describes in detail the paper and watermarks used in these. Along the way, the merging of databases has introduced various information-technological, terminological and content issues, some of which are discussed at greater length in my paper.