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Caring for Collections

The Case of the Old Library at St Edmund Hall

Elsinore Timofeeva (MSt. Modern Languages)

The penultimate session of the History of the Book in Michaelmas took place in the Old Library of the (arguably) oldest educational institution of the university – St Edmund Hall. The talk, given by James Howarth, the college librarian, covered the history of the library and its collections, particularly the manner in which its texts were collected, stored and organised throughout the centuries. As the person responsible for maintaining the library, James Howarth offered the students an invaluable insight into the various approaches to studying the many books of the collection, and the practical questions arising from the studies.

A recording of the introductory session with College Librarian James Howarth
The Old Library, view from the staircase
A copy of library records

Despite the antiquarian atmosphere within the library (book dust and moderately bearable chilliness being some of its main characteristics), the Old Library of St Edmund Hall is actually far younger than the institution housing it. As our speaker explained, in the 1660s the Principal of St Edmund Hall, Thomas Tully, started the collection of books by setting a requirement for graduate students to donate books or silver. Although the library proper was founded only in 1686 by Principal Penton, this early initiative left its traces in the form of records, detailing the donations made to the collection and the usage of its contents. The surviving records, James Howarth continued, allow the modern scholars to study the curriculum of the past, and understand which texts were considered to be valuable for the contemporary education. The records, moreover, say a lot about the interests of the people in charge of the library. Later, the donations became much more varied. One of the 19th century donors, for instance, not only left texts on eastern religions, hermeticism and Kabbalah, one of them pictured below, but also newspaper clippings to the library.

In the early days of the Old Library’s existence, books were chained to rails running along the shelves and students had to pay a fee in order to borrow books from the library. The modern state of the library could not be more different. After the college gained its independence, the library became a consciously antiquarian space, whilst its main function as a source of information for students passed to the current main library of St Edmund Hall, the former church of St-Peter-in-the East. Over the years, the collection of the Old Library gradually shifted to focus on antiquarian specimen, its most recent acquisition being a miscellany (including one incunable on holy water from 1476) including a text by Edmund of Abingdon. The library also came to contain a variety of antiques, related to the intellectual life of the college, the history of the library, or St Edmund himself. The collection has been in-depth catalogued and classified, making the volumes searchable on the library system SOLO.

Not books, but a piece of skin of St Edmund
QQ 23. “Book from the library of St Edmund Hall” is written above the title.

The librarian of St Edmund Hall further spoke about the more down-to-earth aspects of library maintenance: climate control, humidity regulations, and the very careful use of the Old Library space as a venue for seminars and events. The impressive collection of the Old Library, containing more than four thousand titles, also requires an impressive amount of care. The continuous deterioration of books, both by wear and the passage of time, certainly raises questions regarding the need for a conservation programme. Far more urgent for the masters students was the need to vacate the premises of the Old Library on the account of an upcoming event, and the remainder of the seminar took place in the modern building of St Edmund Hall’s library.

The modern library in the medieval venue

Books in the Old Library, no longer chained but with a grille installed when the library was used as Smoking Room

The tour of the modern library of St Edmund’s Hall was brief and quiet, as talking is strictly prohibited in the main rooms of the building. Despite this part of the hall technically being the New library, the place still looked very much medieval and arcane. Thankfully, the fourty thousand books held in its collections are entirely accessible to the students of the college, unlike the rare texts of the Old Library. After a quick walk around the main room of the library, the students had to face significant perils during their ascent of the former church’s tower, where a further discussion of the current distribution of library spaces took place. Once the Q&A was over, and James Howarth was applauded for his wonderful talk, there came the time for the descent, and for a further exploration of the library’s chambers. The day concluded in the crypt of the library, not quite suitable for storing books but wonderful for discussing the value of repurposing various spaces for the needs of libraries. Coincidentally, the underground chamber is also where this blogpost will come to its end.

Inside the main library of St Edmund Hall

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