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 (http://www.thomasbrowne.qmul.ac.uk). She tweets at @LucyGwynn.

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