An Interview with Special Collections at the University of Bristol

On 10 December 2014, Sebastiaan Verweij (Lecturer in Late-Medieval and Early Modern English Literature) interviewed Michael Richardson, Special Collections Librarian at the Arts and Social Sciences Library at Bristol. Special Collections (SC) looks after the Library’s rare books and manuscripts (and other fragile or rare materials), but is open to all readers on appointment. The following is a transcript of the interview.


George Bate, Pharmacopoeia Bateana (London, 1694). Detail of royal binding for William and Mary.

SV: Can you tell us something about the history of Special Collections at Bristol: what is it, and how did the collection come about?

MR: The collection dates back to the pre-University days, when the institution was known as University College Bristol.  The early library included books given to the College by several benefactors, for instance, the leading economist Alfred Marshall and his wife.  In 1899 an enormous amount of books was given by the mathematician John Thompson Exley. This gift included mathematical books, but all sorts of others too, for instance medical texts in French and German. SC is only currently coming to understand the depth and range of this bequest, because of a renewed effort in cataloguing and provenance research (that is, the history and ownership of books). Yet further books came from bodies which merged with the college and university, for instance the Medical School (which in turn included the libraries of local Bristol hospitals). The medical collections included many books in related sciences, e.g., botany and chemistry. SC also incorporates a great collection of architectural works from the Bristol Society of Architects, as well as law books that came from the Bristol Law Society and were purchased for the University by a member of the Wills family, the first Lord Dulverton. William Luther Cooper was Bristol’s first professional librarian and he diligently collected early English fiction (novels), which was not customarily collected by academic libraries at the time of publication.

Jane Austen, Pride and prejudice (London, 1813). The first edition in a binding with the armorial stamp of the Earl of Minto.

Jane Austen, Pride and prejudice (London, 1813). The first edition in a binding with the armorial stamp of the Earl of Minto.

SV: Does Special Collection at Bristol have an acquisitions budget? In other word, can you still buy more books?

MR: No, except in one sphere, which is early geology and related disciplines, such as mining and mineralogy. Our principal collection in this field was bequeathed by Joan Eyles in 1986 as one of the most important collections of geological material in private hands. Books can still be bought in this area because an endowment fund came with the bequest.

SV: What sort of use do researchers, students, and readers at Bristol (and further afield) make of the riches of SC?

MR: Special Collections attracts readers from all over the world, pursuing a wide variety of disciplines at all academic and amateur levels.  There is great potential in the collections, not least for teaching undergraduates and postgraduates, and for research students. Especially since a huge amount of information about the books is now on the online catalogue, the books are becoming more accessible. Most departments in the Arts faculty have used the collection for teaching purposes. As an example, doctors Batt and McTague of the Department of English brought students in to look at eighteenth-century English literature. Bristol teachers and others wishing to make use of the collections are extremely welcome get in touch.

SV: I think almost all librarians and curators are asked about their ‘favourite’ item or book, so let me ask you a slightly different question instead. If there were a single item that you could purchase for the library in Bristol, irrespective of how much it would cost, what would it be?

MR: What I would like to have is a copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle in German. SC owns the Latin Chronicle (printed in 1493; the German version followed in the same year), which is rumoured to have cost the entire annual acquisitions budget of the German department when it was purchased for Bristol. At first sight the Nuremberg Chronicle is a fantastic medieval coffee table book, but of course it is also far more than that. It is an amazing record of a renaissance polymath, Hartmann Schedel, who formed a large library of manuscripts and printed books in the period, which witnessed the dawn of printing technology. Schedel in the Nuremberg Chronicle created a history of Creation, of the world, and an astonishing reference work, and it would be very nice if SC could unite its Latin copy with its German counterpart.

Hartmann Schedel, [Liber chronicarum] (Nuremberg, 1493). Images of Pentecost and St. Edmund of Canterbury

Hartmann Schedel, [Liber chronicarum] (Nuremberg, 1493). Images of Pentecost and St. Edmund of Canterbury

SV: We have so far talked a little about provenance, and the history of book ownership. Of course such information can only come to light by virtue of people writing in their books: noting their names, scribbling in the margins, and more. I wonder to what extent this has influenced your own view about writing in books. Is this acceptable practice?

MR: That depends a lot on whether you own the book in question! I wouldn’t encourage it in Bristol’s students sitting upstairs in the library. It is very difficult to use a text that is extensively annotated (read: defaced). Yet perhaps in several hundred years Special Collections will house a few annotated textbooks that were annotated by a future Nobel Prize winner. It would be interesting to compare multiple copies of the same book annotated by students all at the same time – but no, the Library cannot of course condone writing in University Library books.

Thomas Hughes, The scouring of the White Horse, or, The long vacation ramble of a London clerk (Cambridge, 1859).

Thomas Hughes, The scouring of the White Horse, or, The long vacation ramble of a London clerk (Cambridge, 1859).

SV: Do you write in your own books?

MR: I write in the books that I privately own, but in pencil only. I also own rare books, but I do not write in these.

SV: What do think about Bristol as a book city? Are there any particularly bookish places that you would recommend, or that have been important for the history of this city? Are there perhaps any bookshops worth visiting?

MR: Let me put in a word for the wonderful Bristol City Library, which has been going since the seventeenth century. It has the collection of a Bristolian archbishop of York, and a very interesting history. There is a very strong collection of local interest books, and I would urge everyone to use this library, not in the least since librarians need to be able to convince directors that collections are in demand by readers! In this current era of austerity, it is absolutely crucial that we can protect these bastions of cultural activity and knowledge. There has been a decline in bookshops in Bristol. When I came here 25 years ago, you could still find rare books, and buy these for next to nothing. I bought my first sixteenth-century book at Blackwells, but such books are no longer sold there. Internet book selling has a lot to answer for! For this reason, I think that it is great that some booksellers still put together paper catalogues and send these out to customers. The relationship between sellers and collectors and readers is still very important.

SV: Is there anything else that you would like to add to this interview?

MR: It is possible for academics and students and researchers in the UK to rather write off the library collections of the red brick universities. But many works, which are extremely rare, are housed in such libraries, as well as interesting accumulations in particular subject areas, say, the books of particularly erudite collectors. This process of book collecting may be much easier to study in the special collections of red brick libraries where some collections have been kept together, than in some of the major research collections at, say, Oxford, Cambridge, or the British Library, where material may have been dispersed throughout the stacks. There is a wealth of material here that is well worth our attention!

Angelo Carletti, [Summa angelica de casibus conscientie] (Venice, 1499)

Angelo Carletti, [Summa angelica de casibus conscientie] (Venice, 1499)

SV: I could not agree more! Special Collections is a gem in the crown of the University of Bristol Library.

[SV was subsequently shown around the stacks of the collections, and was astonished to see the range and amount of important and rare books. He was delighted to discover the vast knowledge that was acquired by Bristol’s dedicated librarians relating to these books, and the journeys taken, over the course of centuries, by the books from all over the world to Bristol. He would urge all readers, students, and staff alike, to make the most of Bristol’s Special Collections.]


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