Director’s Choice is here

Director’s Choice is out! This is the first popular book dedicated to items in Senate House Library’s collections – other publications have been academic and text-based. Director’s Choice is generously illustrated and is an attractive general introduction to some of the more unusual holdings – printed and archival items which are rare, quirky or both. Some are old favourites and frequently exhibited, such as a copy of Das Kapital inscribed by Karl Marx and Caxton’s second printing of The Play of Chess (1483); others rarely make an appearance, such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, a best-seller when it appeared in 1789. The design on the back cover is a manuscript note by the 19th-century mathematical historian Augustus De Morgan on his copy of John Leland’s Commentarii de Scriptoribus Britannicis (1709), beginning: ‘This book has never had a good name’ – not, we hope, a verdict to be transferred to Director’s Choice.

Director’s Choice is a personal selection of favourite items. Which one of the thirty do you like best? Is there a book or manuscript in the accompanying exhibition (which includes items from the long list for the selection in the book) which would have been in the book had it been your choice? Would you have liked to feature anything you have come across in the LIbrary that is in neither the book nor the exhibition?

Celebration of cycling

23 July 2012: As Britons rejoice in Bradley Wiggins having won the Tour de France, our thoughts turn to bicycles and cycling in our library collections. The transport section of the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature focuses on railways, but also contains a work from 1869 on the velocipede. The book is recorded in few British academic libraries, with copies other than ours being recorded only in the national and legal deposit libraries, LSE and Warwick. It tells the reader ‘how to ride a velocipede, straddle a saddle then paddle and skedaddle’. In the preface the author predicts about bicycles: ‘It seems probable that the machine will become increasingly popular, and if constructed upon sound principles, and of good material, we see no reason why it should not deserve its popularity’. The work ends 103 pages later: ‘And now, in leaving the indulgent reader who has followed us thus far, we do not know that we can give him any better parting wish, than that when he has finished his course along the level roads, and up the steep hills of life, he may glide as smoothly down its incline, as when directing a descent on his own bicycle’.


Chaucer comes alive for the NEH

17 July 2012: a group of nineteen guests from the National Endowment for the Humanities (America) came to the Library for a class on Chaucer conducted by Professors A.S.G. Edwards and Julia Boffey. Items displayed included manuscripts contemporary with Chaucer and landmark editions of Chaucer printed from 1492 onwards. The seventeen students and two teachers were enthusiastic about the books and manuscripts and fulsome in their praise, observing how fascinating it was to see ‘real books’ from the fifteenth, sixteenth, early seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries at close quarters. The book as artefact retains its excitement in this digital age!

Friday the 13th …

According to Nathaniel Lachenmeyer’s 13: the World’s Most Popular Superstition (London, 2004), which can be found in our Harry Price Library, superstition surrounding ‘Friday the 13th’ is a twentieth-century construct, entering the popular imagination with the success of Thomas W. Lawson’s 1907 novel Friday, the Thirteenth. The superstition that it was unlucky to have 13 people at a table finds expression in several seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works cited by Lachenmeyer, and developed during the nineteenth century into a broader popular conception of 13 as an unlucky number. Reginald Scot’s famous work The Discoverie of Witchcraft, the 1584 first edition of which is also in the Harry Price Library, makes no mention of 13, although it does refer to other, still familiar, popular portents of misfortune, including spilling salt, a cat crossing one’s path, putting a shirt on inside out, or putting a left shoe on the right foot (‘which Augustus Caesar reputed for the woorst lucke that might befall’). All of which Scot dismisses in a marginal note as ‘O vaine follie and foolish vanitie!’.

From the Reading Room

All this week Dayton Haskin has been working in the reading room, a professor at Boston College, Newton, Massachusetts, USA; he has been looking at some material from the University of London Archive.  I asked Dayton why this material was of particular interest to him and how it was relevant to his research.

‘I am working on a book about how English Literature was turned into an academic subject in American colleges and universities, c. 1870-1910.  These institutions created ‘English’ departments and associated curricula ahead of the Oxford English School (c. 1904) and the Cambridge Tripos for English (c. 1917).  However, precedents for faculties such as these had already been set in other British Universities as evidenced by, for example, the UoL BA exam papers and the University Extension Lectures.  The exam questions and associated syllabi found in the University Calendars and material in the Extra Mural studies archive are my main sources.  I have been aided by two catalogues compiled by Piers Cain, 1982, one regarding the Extra Mural department and the other Examination Registers.  Within English Literature I have been concentrating on how Shakespeare and Milton were made into academic subjects.’

The University Archive

These are the records created by the University’s Central Administration, which are listed online.  These records reflect that, from its inception, the University of London was at the forefront of fundamental change by its inclusion of non-conformists, women, and external students from all around the globe.

This was my book …

‘The Early Modern Book in England’ has been one of the LRBS courses this week. Seventeenth-century ownership has been one of the topics discussed. Senate House Library provided examples of books with well and less-well-known former owners. In the former category came a copy of Francis Mathew’s A Mediterranean Passage by Water from London to Bristol (1670) with the inscription of the antiquary and biographer John Aubrey (1627-1696). Having enjoyed its possession, Aubrey then passed it on: ‘for my worthy good friend Mr John Collins R.S.S.’. This was the mathematician and scientific administrator John Collins, who was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1667. Not noted in the class because extending beyond the period set for discussion, but of interest to Senate House Library, is the additional inscription of Isaac Reed from 1772; Reed (1742-1807) was a literary editor and book collector whose friends included the Shakespearean scholars Richard Farmer and George Steevens.

From the Reading Room

As part of a regular series, we ask one of the researchers using the Historic Collections Reading Room to describe how they are using the collections in their research.  Katherine Johnston, a visiting PhD researcher from Columbia University has been using the microfilm collection Plantation Life in the Caribbean, which reproduces material from the Vanneck-Arcedekne papers, held at Cambridge, and the Simon Taylor Papers (ICS120), part of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies collections at Senate House Library.  As well as bringing together two important archive collections, the microfilm is also important as a surrogate for the fragile original papers.

I have been reading the papers of Simon Taylor, a planter who lived in Jamaica in the late eighteenth century.  He wrote numerous letters to a friend and absentee planter in England, and this week I’ve been looking through about thirty years of correspondence.  This material is incredibly rich, filled with accounts of the weather, plantation management, and the health care of the enslaved populations.  I find his letters to be of interest in part because he discussed political issues, such as debates about the abolition of the slave trade and the French and Haitian revolutions, but mostly because he provides some excellent accounts of health care on Jamaican plantations.  My research focuses on concerns about health in the eighteenth-century West Indies and Taylor’s letters provide the most comprehensive source I have seen to date.  He was not a doctor himself, but was preoccupied with combating illnesses such as yaws and lockjaw that severely affected enslaved people.   

The collection is part of a range of archival material in Historic Collections on slavery and plantations; other important collections include the Newton family Papers (MS523), the Hewitt Papers (MS522) and the Castle Wemyss Estate papers (ICS101).  These resources are complemented by print holdings on slavery and abolitionism in the Goldsmiths Library and Porteus Library.