Library of the Bibliographical Society moves to Essex

The Centre for Bibliographical History is proud to announce the arrival at the University of Essex of the Library of the Bibliographical Society.

Bib Soc Library

The Library of the Bibliographical Society of London in its new home at Essex and under the care of Special Collections Librarian, Nigel Cochrane.

The collection is a renowned resource and will be available for consultation in the Special Collections Room. The Bibliographical Society was founded in 1892 to promote and encourage study and research in historical, analytical, descriptive and textual bibliography. Since then its scope has widened to include the making and use of manuscripts, the history of printing, publishing and illustration, the study of bookbinding, and the history of the book, as well as the history of libraries and the study of provenance, readership, and book collecting.

The Society’s library, for many years housed at Stationers’ Hall in the City of London, moved in January 2007 to Senate House, Malet Street. At Essex, the books are housed in the Albert Sloman Library. They remain physically identifiable as belonging to the Society, but available for consultation to all Essex library card holders.

Second Batch of Lost Manuscripts Released

Lost MSS 71215

Today sees the second instalment of the Lost Manuscripts pilot project made publicly available. The project takes as its focus the manuscript fragments to be found in the bindings of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett, Archbishop of York (1561-1631). He bequeathed his library to his hometown of Colchester, for the edification of the local clergy. In the twenty-first century, they are used by other seekers after knowledge as they are now housed at the University of Essex in the new extension to the Albert Sloman Library.

This latest instalment involves just over a score of fragments, eight new lost manuscripts and three highlight pages. The items include ones which remind us that the process of dismantling old manuscripts did not have to wait to the Reformation to begin, and others which reveal to us some of the different practices among binders, with some more concerned to use pristine parchment and so cut the margins off the text, recycle those margins and discard the text itself. The batch also includes the first example of a fragment in the English language, and adds to the small number of fragments with musical notation.

If you have any questions or information about these fragments, do drop us a line.

Report on ‘Concepts of Knowledge’ Conference by Lucy Gwynn

Doctoral student and Librarian, Lucy Gwynn, tells of her intrepid visit to our campus for the conference ‘Concepts of Knowledge in the later Seventeenth Century: Thomas Plume in Context’

One learns as a postgraduate that conferences come in all shapes and sizes, and may be hosted in the unlikeliest of places. This conference, organised by the Centre for Historical Bibliography at the University of Essex, was small, but perfectly formed, and hosted in an environment which – we were assured – was inspired by the towered hill-fort of San Gimignano, but which offered the visitor a bewildering landscape of corridors, multiple floors, and scattered carparks.

The determined delegate was amply rewarded for their persistence. The conference provided a series of exhilarating papers on concepts of knowledge in the later seventeenth century, by academics at the top of their respective fields. We were treated to Richard Serjeantson’s insistence on the centrality of university disputation in the intellectual life of the period, to Isabel Rivers’ tracking of the adoption and appropriation of seventeenth century Anglican meditations by later nonconformists, Stephen Clucas’s erudite gallop through contemporary astronomical texts, Fiona McCall’s survey of the multifarious forms of loyalism, and Kenneth Fincham’s narrative of the afterlife of Laudianism – starring Peter Heylyn, the ‘Laudian Rottweiler’. The effect was a bracing readjustment of one’s assumptions about the period and its intellectual culture.

Thomas Plume conference photo 2

It was a particularly fruitful approach to the study of a seventeenth-century library. The programme allowed for the presence of Thomas Plume and his library without insisting on its dominance, freeing the discussion to move across disciplinary boundaries and beyond the confines of the collection. David Pearson gave a timely reminder that a library’s holdings cannot function for historians as a mirror of the mind of its original owner, but can instead act as a springboard for the discussion of his and his circle’s intellectual concerns. The day was marked by an awareness – being asserted increasingly loudly by historians of libraries – that the library is not a discrete institution bounded by walls and frozen in time. Instead, their contents reflect communal habits of study, contemporary political and social pressures, the vagaries of the book trade and the erosions of time and accident.

Thomas Plume conference photo 1

James Raven pointed to the methodological challenges of relating the man Thomas Plume to the collection of books which bear his name. Particularly elusive are the motivations around the creation of the library. Was it composed of current material, or did it act as a museum or store-house for perpetuity? Did Plume assemble the collection with its future purpose in mind, or was it initially intended for his own use? Is it, therefore, a personal or an institutional library – or both at once? Was it subject to continual growth, and were books acquired upon publication, or via more circuitous routes? How do we account for the inevitable losses? These are questions which colour the evidence such libraries have to offer on their owners and users. This was, for me, the core insight of the day – that book collections, like all historic documents, are fluid, incomplete, subject to over-interpretation. The mechanics of accumulating a library and ensuring its survival need to be understood if its contents are to be subject to meaningful analysis.

Thomas plume conference photo 3

The Plume Library, substantial, broad in scope, and still extant in Maldon – associated with ‘one relatively minor clergyman, Thomas Plume’ – proved to be an ideal ground for playing with these issues. The organisers are to be congratulated on a thought-provoking day which, like any good library, ranged far beyond its declared boundaries.

Lucy Gwynn is a doctoral student at QMUL and a librarian at Eton College Library. Her thesis is on the library of the physician and essayist Thomas Browne (1604-1682), and is part of the AHRC-funded Thomas Browne project ( She tweets at @LucyGwynn.

Welcome to Babel

Today sees the moment when the project the Centre’s been developing goes live. In reality, it has been there for a few weeks but we have not advertised it to the world yet, to allow for responses to early feedback. As that suggests, this is a site which is ‘live’ in both senses – available and growing. The intention is that it should develop in response to your suggestions, do contact us.

The site is called Lost Manuscripts. It has big ambitions – to build up, over time, a union catalogue of manuscript fragments in the British Isles – but starts small. The pilot project has been to identify and digitise the binding fragments in the Harsnett collection held in the Sloman Library of the Centre’s host institution the University of Essex. What is now available is a small proportion of those descriptions – more will follow. What is in place is the main elements of the architecture of the site which make clear the rationale followed in the catalogue. It involves what we call double-cataloguing: recognising that each fragment is worthy of description in its own right but is also precious evidence of what we have lost, allowing us some insight into a manuscript that once existed.

Where might those manuscripts which are lost but can, to some extent, be reconstructed live. We need a conceptual home for them and, as the website explains, we have imagined that as Babel: come and visit.

Lost Manuscripts, being an ongoing project, should be considered a beta site. The project has been generously funded by the University of Essex and its ongoing maintenance is being supported by its History Department, but, as with any project, there have been constraints of time and finance. So, it comes with some caveats. You might want to read these before using it:

  • only the first batch of fragments is presently uploaded. More will follow in the coming months, with further entries on the highlights page
  • the functionality of the search page is still being built but, at the moment, you should be able to find what is in the catalogue by searching for author, subject or title. Some search tips are available
  • not all fragments are provided with images – some are simply impossible to photograph because of their location in bindings – and some of the images are not to the standard we would like. Those will be replaced as funding allows
  • we are human! There may be mistakes and there may be oversights – and we welcome all comments and feedback

We will be posting updates on this site as we build up the catalogue. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy using this new resource.

Harsnett on Flickr

It was not only manuscripts that were cut up and used in bindings for new books in the sixteenth and seventeenth century: printed texts could suffer the same fate. There are about fifty examples of this in the collection of Samuel Harsnett, Archbishop of York (d. 1631), now held in the library of the University of Essex. They include several interesting specimens, for instance:

  • an English text printed by Wynkyn de Worde which, as Francesca Galligan has shown, may represent an unnoticed printing of Rycharde cuer de lyon
  • two partial copies of a royal proclamation to butchers of 1535, in a binding localisable to London and datable to before 1537
  • a mid-seventeenth century advertisement for a school being set up by one Andrew Minet on Lime Street, London
  • a folio from Erasmus’s De copia (Basel, 1534) re-used in Cambridge in the late 1570s or early 1580s as a flyleaf in a binding for a copy of the Italian émigré Protestant reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli – an interesting hint at changing priorities within a half century

For various reasons, these printed pieces are not the focus of the present project to catalogue and put on-line the fragments in the Harsnett collection – but it would be a shame not to make them publicly available in some form. So, the Centre has set up an album on Flickr with some images already uploaded there. This news comes with a request: taking our lead from places like the Harry Ransom Center and initiatives like the Sion College Library Provenance Project, run by Lambeth Palace Library, we want you to invite you to engage with these images and add to our knowledge of them. So, friends in the republic of letters, do let us know if you have information about them we don’t have – and we will make sure you are acknowledged.

Lost Manuscripts it is

And the results are in… Thank you to everyone who voted and made suggestions in our recent poll. The idea was to garner feedback about the naming of our small project which will provide an on-line database of manuscript fragments in the collection of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett and now in the Sloman Library of the University of Essex. We already had some thoughts on which we wanted your opinion and invited you to suggest your own. That created the result that the winner is… ‘Other’.

We received several ideas for names. One was ‘Fragments in Bindings’ which certainly describes well this pilot but as the intention is to build out from this and as many fragments, even when they were once in bindings, are now in guardbooks or loose, that does not reflect the future ambition. Other suggestions helpfully revealed how some might want to use the information: ‘Rediscovered Texts’ and ‘Texts & Paratexts’ imply a hope that new works will be found.  That, of course, would be exciting but we are also finding notably early examples of known works. What is more, we are finding that some binders consciously chose to use fragments with as little text as possible – while we are not going to record every blank scrap, we still need to acknowledge this reality. ‘Buried Treasures’ was another evocative suggestion which might conjure up the ghost of a bibliographical Long John Silver. Another proposal was ‘Bits and Pieces’ – nobody, though, came up with ‘Odds and Sods’.

Thanks go to those, especially, how took a moment of their time to send us these suggestions. As you can see, they were varied and there was no overlap between them. So if, in the end, we cannot launch the database to the world as ‘Other’ (tempting though it may be), we need to turn to those other titles which received several votes. Of those, ‘Books Reborn’ was the also-ran and ‘Fragments Reunited’ was just pipped to the post by ‘Lost Manuscripts’. We are intending, however, not to lose completely some sense of ‘reuniting fragments’ in our subtitle.

In the very near future, you will be hearing more from us: the printed fragments in the Harsnett books are not the main focus to this project but, as anyone who follows @DrDavidRundle on Twitter will know, there are some … buried treasures. We have plans for them.


Twitter, the book historian’s friend

If you are reading this, you  are probably the converted who need no preachifying. And if you retweet or favourite the link to this posting (go on, you know you want to), you certainly do not need to be told. But it is still worth taking stock. For all the headlines of trolling and the column inches of free but inane copy provided to newspapers, Twitter – or at least a little corner of it – has become a valuable tool of scholarship.

Here is one tale of how it acts as a giant noticeboard for the virtual globe. In Special Collections at St Andrews, they have been working on a small find – flyleaves in an early seventeenth-century printed book, taken from an incunable by the St Albans printer. They did some painstaking work on reconstructing it and its context, and the post they have narrating the process is a testament to how research is done nowadays, using on-line resources, sending colleagues e-mails, circulating digital photos… the only surprise, perhaps, is that they also used a telephone (and probably a landline to boot). We, at the Centre for Bibliographical History, knew nothing of this, until, that is, a tweet from Glasgow’s Special Collections linking to the post caught our eye. At that point, @DrDavidRundle saw the photograph uploaded of the binding and thought the centrepiece was identifiable. A tweet to the St Andrews that evening and the next day there was confirmation – via a tweet, with close-up photo – that it is, indeed, centrepiece xxxiv as listed by N. R. Ker (and supplemented by David Pearson), an Oxford tool in use at precisely the period the printed book would have become available. There are further implications to this discovery which are discussed on the St Andrews website but why we tell this story now is to show how Twitter works like a gossip or a facilitator, online networks’ omnipresent weak tie. The importance of this role is not to be under-estimated when the internet can seem so crowded with information that you may feel you are struggling to pick your way through the rubble that was the Tower of Babel.

Of course, for most of us, the first recourse for ‘finding stuff’ on-line is to tap terms into Google and we cannot – however problematic it may be – dispense with that. But Twitter does have two advantages. The first is that, while Google directs one’s searching through its criteria for ranking of hits (and even though a Twitter feed can be infiltrated by adverts), the process of promotion tends to be much more grass-roots, a sort of a democratic anti-algorithm. Related to that is the undeniable truth that discovery on Twitter is happenstance but that is no demerit: serendipity has always been a scholar’s greatest helpmate and, like all our chances, we can assist ourselves in making them. Welcome to the world of #twitterendipity.

The use of the hash-tag introduces another advantage to Twitter to those of a bibliographical bent, like us. Both those institutions who have care of special collections and those individuals who are those institutions’ most avid readers are notably well-represented on the little blue bird’s site. Like any community, they have made the social media work for them, by creating their own threads: search, in particular, for #MarginaliaMonday and #FlyleafFriday (alliteration is the alternative to algorithms in this world). The mode of expression in a tweet requires a curt prose style which would have made Tacitus a model twitteratus, the princeps twitteratorum. But it also invites supplementing the 140 characters with an image, which is easy to upload (though a salutary warning: this morning we found we could not do so in the Centre’s favoured browser of Firefox and had to swap to Chrome). The threads that share these hash-tags make best use of this functionality, making images available which are intrinsically useful in their own right but which can also help lead us to further discoveries.

This is all by way of saying that, in the weeks ahead, as the project to digitize Harsnett fragments develops, we will be using Twitter to alert people and share with them some of our finds and hint at some of their wider implications. It is not the only social media we will use – but we will talk about Flickr another time. For now, we would welcome any comments suggesting other ways in which Twitter can be the book historian’s friend.

Finally, an update: thanks to all of those who have so far voted in yesterday’s poll. We have had several further suggestions – ‘Manuscripts Lost and Found’, ‘Texts and Paratexts’ among them. But we have no clear winner yet, so keep the suggestions and your preferences coming!

Lost Manuscripts? Or Fragments Reunited?

We need your advice. Can you help?

This is an exciting day for the Centre as one of its projects starts in earnest. Generously supported by funds from the University of Essex, we are beginning to catalogue and to digitize the fragments – pastedowns, tabs and strips – that survive in the early bindings of the books once owned by Samuel Harsnett and now held in the University’s Special Collections. Today saw the first meeting with our web developer and in the midst of the discussion, a good question was asked: what’s the name of the project?

Truth be told, there has been some umming and more arghing over this. The one title which seems most obvious and descriptive is ‘Lost Manuscripts’ but there is a worry: is that too pessimistic? The fragments we are studying are witnesses to once-whole manuscripts but a key conceptual purpose of the project is to think how far we can extrapolate from the microcosmic element which is the fragment and reconstruct the macrocosm that once was the whole book. So, is what we are doing an attempt at creating ‘Books Reborn’? Or, as the intention is that this is a pilot for further cataloguing with the hope that disparate elements of one codex can be brought together, should we call this ‘Fragments Reunited’? This is your opportunity to help shape this project by telling us what you think.

That is not the only way you can help. We would also like to know what you would hope to see in a database like this. Why would you use it and what would help you find what you want from it? So, do send us comments, telling us these three things:

  • as [what type of user you would consider yourself to be]
  • I want [how you would use the site]
  • so that [what the purpose of this would be]

Your answers will really help us as we shape the architecture of the site – so thank you for your engagement.

The Centre and the Thrill of CHASE

Last week, the CHASE consortium of universities ran another of its successful workshops for doctoral students on Material Witness. This session took place at Lambeth Palace Library and, alongside its Librarian, Giles Mandelbrote, the Centre’s Co-Director, David Rundle, was one of the presenters. His theme was the material evidence books can provide for the journeys they have taken and consideration of what medieval and early modern catalogues can tell us about how the books were seen.

One of the students attending the session was our own Helen Kemp and she has provided a blog-post describing her experiences of the day. David and Giles engaging in a spot of biblio-archaeology (with thanks to @MatWitness)