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.
- 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.
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