Bindings for the London Rare Books School

Wednesday, 27 June: The Library provided about forty books for one of the London Rare Books School classes on bindings. Only one of the bindings in question could be described as fine, and some, chosen specifically to demonstrate sewing structure, were definitely the worse for wear – but it was interesting to hear under Nicholas Pickwoad’s expert tutelage just how valuable ordinary books are for showing binding techniques of different periods in different countries. Among other books taken out was an almanac from 1768, Rider’s British Merlin, sporting a cottage style binding: interesting because this is a Restoration-style binding which, outmoded generally, remained on almanacs one hundred years later. Especially piquant was a copy of Abbot Benedict’s De Vita & Gestis Henrici II, published in Oxford in 1735, bound in what is now rather scuffed calf in Oxford, in a style known as the Cambridge panel. Our copy stands out for its inclusion of the binder’s invoice for two shillings.

Illustration, Book History and Research Facilitation

A copy of the Art Libraries Journal, 37(3) arrived, including an article by Karen Attar, ‘Illustration, Book History and Research Facilitation: Some Observations’. The timing was excellent, as much of the article discusses library support for the London Rare Books School, which is running at present. The article highlights the importance of physical books in an age of increasing digitisation, and dwells on the value of library staff being well acquainted with their collections in order to help researchers as effectively as possible. While Senate House Library is well equipped with early printed books, the article is encouraging in pointing out that vast numbers are not in fact necessary to support quite a lot of teaching.

Poem in the H. G. Wells Collection

We are currently cataloguing the H. G. Wells Collection here at Senate House – a collection of editions of works by H. G. Wells put together by the Library and by the H. G. Wells Society, which received a welcome injection of books from the Society earlier this year. We came across this manuscript poem in Tono Bungay (1909). The unexpected finding personalising the volume amused us, if also bemusing us for its apparent lack of relationship with the content. We couldn’t trace any reference to the poem’s author, not being sure of the surname’s spelling. Could somebody help?

The London Rare Books School

London Rare Books School students were using Historic Collections materials today, for a bibliography course in the morning and a manuscripts class in the afternoon. Among other items they enjoyed seeing two late-fourteenth-century manuscripts of Piers Plowman, a roll from 1557 showing the funeral of Anne of Cleves, and a book of hours produced in the second half of the fifteenth century for urban owners – a mid-range manuscript rather than a de luxe one, but nonetheless exquisite with illustrations and decoration. It is exciting for staff, too, both to realise afresh what we have, and to see users appreciating it.

The London Rare Books School kicks off for 2012

The first week of the London Rare Books School for 2012 began. It is hard to realise that LRBS is in its fifth year already. Students enjoyed the introductory lecture about Senate House Library and its collections of manuscripts and printed books, and seeing the accompanying exhibition. It was startling for us to realise that Shakespeare’s First Folio was by far the least rare book on display, if the most iconic. Exhibits this year included a late-fifteenth century Italian manuscript acquired by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence from the Phillipps Collection, and a copy of Pietro Paolo Vergerio’s educational treatise ‘De Ingenuis Moribus ac Liberalibus Adolescentiae Studiis Liber’.

Alec Craig and the ‘rational and wideawake outfit’ at Senate House.

This inscription, in a copy of Charles Knowlton’s ‘Fruits of Philosophy’ (Peter Pauper Press, 1937) reads: ‘To Alec Craig insightful and courageous defender of freedom of inquiry & discussion against legal obscurantists, pious prelates of cant and other enemies of the cherished liberties of man. From Norman E. Himes. Dec. 21, 1942.’

Among the list of named special collections at Senate House Library, that of Alec Craig (1897-1973) may require more introduction than others.  A somewhat forgotten figure, he was a formidable and tireless champion of a bewildering number of social causes, including sex education, the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, the reform of divorce law, the abolition of the monarchy, and the freedom of nudists. However, his most abiding target was literary censorship, and his most influential work The Banned Books of England (1937), updated in 1962 as The Banned Books of England and Other Countries.

On his death, Craig’s library of roughly 3,000 volumes was donated to the Borough of Camden. However, his collection of previously censored or banned volumes which, ‘because of its […] subject, would have to be used in the controlled academic library situation’ (Camden 1974, p. 1) was transferred to the University of London Library, now Senate House Library. The Library had been recommended to Craig by his associate Gershon Legman as a ‘rational and wideawake outfit’ (1/4/57, MS 1091 / Box 1), and so a safe home. While it includes work by authors forever associated with censorship, such as de Sade and D.H. Lawrence, it is a surprisingly rich and diverse collection, including many rare and limited editions as well as books by now securely canonical figures such as Havelock Ellis, Sigmund Freud, Andre Gide, J.K. Huysmans, and A.C. Swinburne. 

While there is much in this collection of a sexual nature, it trivialises Craig’s intention to categorise it as erotica. Indeed, Craig could be as vociferous as any censor when railing against ‘the dreariness of even the most esoteric pornography’ (1937, pp. 152-3). What he strove towards was the eradication of pornography, believing that ‘the proper cure […] is rational sex education’ (1937, p. 155). Literature was part of that process, and making it ‘free from all shackles legal, economic and social’ was ‘essential to the continuance of civilisation as we know it’ (1942, pp. 108-9). In this, he saw the librarian as a key ally, and potential insidious opponent; he lamented that ‘in the vast majority of cases no books dealing with sexual matters are allowed on the shelves’ of libraries (1937, p. 90).

It is therefore fitting that these titles came to rest in a library which, very soon after their acquisition, came under the control of D.J. Foskett, who asked his profession ‘who are librarians that they set themselves up as censors?’ (1962, p. 6). Foskett argued that if the library was guided by the creed of ‘no politics, no religion, no morals,’ it might yet become ‘a formative factor of the highest importance in the shaping of the society of the future’ (p. 13). These are lofty but legitimate aims, and by preserving and, in due course, cataloguing the Craig collection Senate House Library is fulfilling its responsibility to document and disseminate the immense, and redemptively transgressive, power of the printed book.

Dr Richard Espley
Research Librarian – British, Irish and Postcolonial Literatures and Languages

Craig, Alec. (1937). The banned books of England. London: George Allen & Unwin
Craig, Alec. (1942). Above all liberties. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Foskett, D. J. (1962). The creed of a librarian: no politics, no religion, no morals. London: Library Association.

‘Footeball play’

The Library’s first edition of Positions … Necessarie for the Training up of Children (London, 1581) by the sixteenth-century schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster contains a nice passage on the subject of football.

Mulcaster attributed the sport’s popularity to its benefit ‘both to health and strength’ but criticised the current state of the game: ‘with thronging of a rude multitude, with bursting of shinnes, & breaking of legges, it be neither civil, neither worthy the name of any traine to health’. He goes on to recommend several reforms to improve the sport: a ‘judge over the parties’ (i.e. a referee) and a ‘smaller number’ of players ‘sorted into sides’. He concludes that football, properly conducted, could be ‘good for the bowells’ and ‘helpeth weake hammes’.