Browsing through the bookshelves of your modern university library – have you ever had a look at one of the conspicuously dusty of tomes that look like they would better belong in the restricted section of Hogwarts library?
The kind that, with their elegant gold leaf spines jutting out between laminated textbooks in tones of lurid orange or acid green, seem to exist almost outside of time?
Earlier this week, I attended the second ‘Objects in Focus’ workshop at Royal Holloway University of London, which brings together scholars across the arts and humanities to reflect on visual cultures within an interdisciplinary frame.
During our lunch break we were joined by the College Archivist, Annabel Valentine, who introduced us to some of the rare books available at the Archive – including Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. (1665)
During our conversation we discussed what constitutes a ‘rare’ book or material. This discussion inspired me to have a poke around the university library (in lieu of the archive) and see what rarities I might find. One quick sweep of the Modern Science department later – I came home armed with two Victorian natural history books!
A Year At The Shore (1865) by Philip Henry Gosse (the naturalist and populariser of the aquarium) contained some beautiful lithographs of marine life. The colour of Gosse’s illustrations were known to provoke not only awe but often disbelief. – His son Edmund Gosse recalls that several reviewers questioned the plates in Gosse’s work and ‘made a positive sensation [of The Aquarium (1856) which] marked an epoch in the annals of English book illustration’.
I also picked up The Natural History of Selborne (first published in 1789) by the naturalist and ornithologist Gilbert White.
This 1875 edition included not only an assortment of intricate illustrations but also a comparative Naturalist’s Calendar, some selected poems, and (most surprising of all) a foldout facsimile from the journal of the Rev. Gilbert White.
Leafing through the pages of physical rather than digital texts offers scholars an invaluable opportunity to reflect upon the ‘haptics’ of the book. – Bringing touch into our scholarly practice provides an recapitulative invaluable tool that allows us to re-inhabit lived nineteenth-century experience. This becomes particularly poignant when you imagine nineteenth-century students browsing, and studying from the very same pages as you!
This post, then, operates as a reminder (to myself as well as to possible readers!) to liberate your library books from their modern shelves – and that primary sources of historical value are not just to be found in the archives.
Side note – the charity shop can also be a great place to come across some unexpected treasures. I recently tracked down Philip Henry Gosse’s beautiful work of poetical science The Romance of Natural History (1860-61) .
For more information on the rare books and special collections at RHUL, including titles dating from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century, see the website – items may only be viewed by prior appointment under supervision in the Archives reading room, which is open Wednesday to Friday, 9.30-1 and 2-4.30pm.
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