Writers and their Libraries at Senate House

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Collections at Senate House Library were well represented at the recent Institute of English Studies conference “Writers and their Libraries”. Anne Welsh, who is currently writing a doctoral dissertation about Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), began by discussing the books which constitute De la Mare’s working library. Looking especially at the poetry, she noted the proportion of his books which were poetry, and pointed out that about half of these were annotated, mostly with lists of page numbers at the back. The paper fitted in excellently with a theme of the conference, demonstrating how a writer’s demonstrable reading fed into his writing.

Walter de la Mare is one of two contemporary literary writers with a working library held at Senate House, and it was ideal to have both represented at the conference. The working library of the writer and designer Thomas Sturge Moore (1870-1944)  was the subject of conference co-organiser Wim Van Merlo’s paper, “Revision in the Margins: T. Sturge Moore and the Social Theory of Reading”. This showed how many books in Sturge Moore’s library contain his reworking of published poems, such that ultimately, the working library and Sturge Moore’s marginal practices can be understood as a network encapsulating past tradition and present creativity.

The mathematician and mathematical historian Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871), a writer of a very different ilk whose books constitute the founding collection of Senate House Library, was well known for annotating his books. His library, much larger than the collections of De la Mare and Sturge Moore at Senate House, was the subject of Karen Attar’s conference paper. This had a very different emphasis from the other two: after describing briefly the nature of the library and of De Morgan’s annotations, the paper moved on to the library within its institutional context, looking at how it has been described and curated, and what modern catalogue records tell us about De Morgan’s treatment of his books.

The cluster of papers about named special collections at Senate House Library must be a first. As many of the publications about special collections at Senate House Library are descriptions of collections told from the perspective of library history, it was exciting to hear papers from a new angle about how the collections are used for current literary research, exploring the relationship between writers’ books and their creativity. Because the conference was on home territory, we were able to complement the talks with books exhibited from all three collections.