Tuesday 24 May 2016

Visit to Eton College Library, 12 May 2016

The following post has been kindly supplied by Jeremy Crumplin, who joined other members of CILIP Thames Valley on a visit to the Library at Eton College.

A group of 15 library staff met early on a Thursday morning at Eton College to visit the library. We met the Librarian, Rachel Bond, and her colleague Mandy Smith, who introduced us to the library and some highlights from its collections.

It is unusual to have a rare books library in a school – this was originally the private library of the Provost and Fellows, and boys were not admitted until the early 20th century. (There is another library to support day-to-day teaching; some departments also have their own libraries.) Eton College was originally a religious foundation, so the early collections were largely theological. The library was initially chained, with the books physically attached to the premises. It moved to its current space in the late 17th century, and grew thanks to donations from generations of Provosts and Fellows. By the end of the 18th century, the library included around 20,000 volumes and the book stacks were full. Consequently there was little change for around 150 years. In the 1960s, the library began collecting again, focusing on Old Etonian authors and items with an Eton connection, as well as material related to Thomas Hardy. The library also began to actively support the curriculum; there is now an optional sixth form course relating to the library collections. There are now 4.5 (full-time equivalent) staff, all rare books specialists, supplemented by periodic visits from project conservators.

A selection of items from the collections was on display, including: 
  • The oldest western manuscript in the library, an anthology of Latin poetry dating from around AD950, written on poor quality skins with occasional irregular holes.

  •   The original manuscript of Thomas Gray’s poem Elegy written in a country churchyard, including numerous amendments and sections which were not present in the finished work.

  • A book featuring the earliest known image of Eton and Windsor, dating from the reign of Henry VI.
  • A book from the original chained library, still retaining its paper label protected by a translucent horn shield.

  • The first one-volume edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles with a letter from Thomas Hardy.

  • An original manuscript letter from Lord Byron, and a forgery purporting to be written by him.

  •  The original manuscript of Susan Hill’s novel The woman in black.

  •   The oldest manuscript of all, a fragment of a 9th-century Koran. This was a recent acquisition, and relevant to the curriculum as Arabic is taught at the College.

  •  Artefacts from the First World War collection, including a trench map, scrap books and letters from the trenches. These are used to support the teaching of history; a new teaching course has been introduced this year based on this collection.
  • A lock of Sir Isaac Newton’s hair.

  • A manuscript including the only English Medieval reference to Robin Hood (all the other Medieval sources are Scottish).

On the floor above the library, there is a small gallery space, currently housing an exhibition of Shakespeare-related artefacts, marking the 400th anniversary of his death. The display includes examples of the first four folios and several other early editions, as well as the first folio edition of the work another Elizabethan playwright, Ben Jonson and an 18th-century forgery of a play purporting to be written by Shakespeare. Also on display were artefacts relating to Shakespeare’s plays and characters throughout the last four centuries.

We were very grateful to Rachel Bond, Mandy Smith and their colleagues for showing us around and preparing the displays. The library is open to readers by appointment and details can be found at http://www.etoncollege.com/CollegeLibrary.aspx.

Monday 9 May 2016

Visit to University of Reading Special Collections Library

On Thursday 28th April, CILIP TV ran a visit to the Special Collections Department at the University of Reading. The following account of the trip has been very kindly supplied by Sophie Dorman:

 Our trip to the special collections at the University of Reading began with some of us having an informal chat while we waited for everybody to arrive. The different people in the tour group came from a wide variety of backgrounds and careers so it was really interesting listening to everyone’s different experiences.

Our guide for the event was Erika Delbecque, one of the librarians for the University Museums and Special Collections Services. The event began with a quick introduction and a tour of the building. The special collections service shares a building with the Museum of English Rural Life (which was unfortunately closed during our visit), and the building was originally a hall of residence for the students at the university. As such, it was not at all purpose built for a library, and it was very interesting to see how the staff had made the most of the space they had available. Our tour took us to the Reading Room and into a room which housed the Samuel Beckett collection. There were several other rooms which contained other collections as well. After the tour we sat down for a short talk about the service and the collections which can be found there.

The collection has many strengths, including children’s books, the history of publishing, and rare books about science and medicine. Erika explained that their collection development policy generally focussed on building on existing strengths rather than developing new ones. However, since the existing strengths already cover an extremely wide range of subjects the librarians find that very academically diverse groups of students and researchers make use of the service, and users are not limited to one or two areas of study. We also found out more about the acquisitions process, with many books being donated to the collection but others being especially picked out and purchased by the library. It was interesting hearing about the compromises that had to be made in order to house the special collections in the building, including how a separate area needed to be built in order to provide things like climate control for the preservation of rare books.

Photo courtesy of
Jeff Howarth TUC Library Collections

The highlight of the event for me was the showcase of some of the items in the collection. These included a 15th century printed book still with its original binding (and with contemporary notes written in the back!), one of the Orlando (The Marmalade Cat) books by University of Reading alumna Kathleen Hale, and a souvenir from the Great Exhibition. We had plenty of time to examine and ask questions about these items, and were even allowed to take photographs. Once the event had finished we also had the opportunity to have a look around the special collections’ Ex Libris exhibition, which concerned marks of ownership in rare books.

All in all it was a very rewarding trip, and I found it especially interesting as I have an interest in special collections but currently work in an environment which is very far removed from what we saw on the trip. A big thank you to Erika for being our guide and to Sonja for organising the event.