Barbara Williams Ellertson's picture
Primary Discipline

Primary Discipline: 

  • Old HierarchyHistoryEarly Modern Europe
Secondary Discipline

Secondary Discipline: 

  • Old HierarchyInterdisciplinaryRenaissance and Early Modern Studies


After a career in academic publishing and small business administration, I became an independent scholar and launched the BASIRA Project in August 2013. This database project operates at the boundary of book history and art history; we hope to track and explore the ways that art (primarily painting and sculpture) in western Europe explicates the changing roles of the book across the centuries--before and during the Renaissance. Our initial paper, "The Painted Page," was published in The Independent Scholar in December 2015; we were deeply honored when it was awarded the Eisenstein Prize in 2016.
We are working with the University of Pennsylvania to make the database open and available to any interested researchers; this is an alliance with the Schoenberg Institute of Manuscript Studies (SIMS).
My formal academic work was in history and religion at Duke University, although only at the undergraduate level. As an outgrowth of BASIRA, I’ve developed and taught a course in European book culture for the continuing education program (OLLI) at Duke for two years. Was able to audit a graduate course in art history technology, also at Duke. The National Coalition of Independent Scholars has opened doors that would otherwise be inaccessible to someone like myself with limited credentials.
A note about my name: Barbara Williams was my working name. In retirement, I now use the last name Ellertson, one shared with my spouse, who is as passionate about typography as I remain about books.
Our BASIRA website is located at

Current research areas: 

History of the book; European art history during the Renaissance; history of Western printing; history of reading.
Database of tagged images of European Renaissance art. Digital art history.

Recent scholarly activity: 

With the University of Pennsylvania, was awarded a Kress Foundation Digital Art History grant in November 2019; funds will be used to move the BASIRA database to an open-access platform at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies.
Attended Rare Books School at the University College London, and an Oxford University short course in digital humanities, June 2019.
Attended Rare Books School, "Histories of Reading" taught by Peter Stallybrass and Lynn Farrington, June 2021.
Board member of the Digital Humanities Coalition of North Caroline (as of July 2020).
"BASIRA Project" : Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art. We have constructed a database of Renaissance images which include books. Even though books are featured prominently in a large percentage of European paintings and sculptures of the period, their presence has been largely overlooked by both cultural and art historians. We have designed the BASIRA database to foster analysis of trends in artists’ portrayals of books: ways that books were held, displayed, and read. We'll be examining such variables as region, patrons, faith communities, aesthetic traditions, and/or access to technology. 
In examining and analyzing artists’ portrayal of books across time, we may discern patterns not yet explored. After the spread of printing technology, as literacy increased and books became more widely available, how did artists’ artists’ changing portrayals of books reflect the changing cultural norms and expectations about power, literacy, class? And how did trends in the visual arts of the time echo our 21st century experiences with rapid change in reading technology.
Research Affiliate, Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Recent publications: 

"The Painted Page: Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art" published in The Independent Scholar, December 2015. Co-authored with Janet K. Seiz. Awarded the 2016 Elizabeth Eisenstein Essay Prize for best article or book chapter published by a member of NCIS.

Other activities: 

Renaissance Society of America
Society for the History of Authorship, Publishing, and Reading (SHARP)
Liturgical art
Local history

Contact us

National Coalition of Independent Scholars