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It's Alive: Mary Shelley's first Work Gets Remixed

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By Angela Montefinise, The New York Public Library

Back in 1808, a 10-year-old Mary Shelley broke into the book business.

Her anarchist philosopher father William Godwin owned a publishing company, and was creating a children's book called, "Mounseer Nongtongpaw."

Little Mary - whose novel "Frankenstein" later made her a literary legend - seems to have created the story sketches for the book, which was based on a comical song from the 1790s.

With help from several adults, the lavishly-illustrated book got published, and a cherished copy now sits in The New York Public Library's Pforzheimer Collection, which houses the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle.

"It's probably the first book publication that Mary Shelley was involved in," said Charles Cuykendall Carter, bibliographer of the Pforzheimer Collection, which is in the Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42 Street in New York City.

"She may have only provided the preliminary sketch, but it's still interesting."

This treasure is one of many housed in The Pforzheimer Collection, which includes manuscripts and first editions of books, Shelley's first wife Harriet's suicide letter, a Lord Byron memorial ring produced in 1824, a lock of Mary Shelley's hair and a fragment of Percy Shelley's skull (seriously).

"We are probably the most specialized collection in the Library," Carter said. "At the center of the Collection are the manuscripts and literary remains of this one important family. But we also have materials relating to their friends, enemies, doctors, mistresses, creditors, upholsterers, etc. ... together with all the books, political pamphlets, prints and objects from the period, the Collection really allows researchers to reconstruct what life was like in Romantic-era Britain."

So how to inject new life into this amazing material, and create something accessible to an internet audience?

This is a question Carter pondered this year, as he prepared to help Pforzheimer Collection curator Elizabeth Denlinger promote an exhibit at Oxford University's Bodleian Library called "Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping The Image of A Literary Family." A version of this exhibit - which opened this week and includes 12 items from the Pforzheimer Collection - will come to NYPL in 2012.

He turned his attention to "Mounseer Nongtongpaw."

"I was trying to think of things that would be readily adaptable to an electronic medium," he said. "I thought this particular [book], because it's so heavily illustrated, would lend itself well to being animated."

Carter enlisted the help of award-winning British actor Simon Jones (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) to narrate the cartoon; in-house NYPL Digital Producer Jonathan Blanc animated the centuries-old book. It has over 5,000 hits on YouTube, with comments like, "It's so cute," "I love you NYPL" and "Delightful!!" The video has been featured on Boing Boing and Media Bistro.

"It was done in only a few weeks," Carter said. "And I'm thrilled with how it turned out. It's a new way of presenting the material, which is what we're always looking to do."

Shelley remixed a popular song; we remixed Shelley - all to get people excited about our collections.

"To generate interest in the exhibition, we decided to start sharing online some of the more surprising collection materials that we have," Carter said. "We'll try to showcase things, through the NYPL blog and online projects, that will have a wider appeal ... and like we've done with this video, make those library items -- that anyone can come in and access in person at the NYPL -- even more accessible."

Treasures of The New York Public Library's Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and his Circle
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