Saturday, 23 May 2009


On Thursday, I had the privilege of visiting the British Library for an event run by the CILIP Rare Books group (CILIP is the professional body for librarians, of which I am a chartered member) called "Great Books of the British Library" which aimed to give librarians working with special collections the chance to have hands on experience with some significant texts.

I'd only been to the British Library once before, to see the Religious Books exhibition a couple of years ago, so I took the chance to also have a bit of a nose around and to catch the Henry VIII exhibition. Unfortunately it was one of my poorly days, so I only had the chance to briefly skim the Henry VIII, but it was worth it just to see the original manuscript of Pastymes with Good Company, attributed to Henry VIII. This is one of my favourite brass band pieces, although I don't think I've actually played it since my Lympstone days (1998-2002). The exhibition was interesting though, particularly since I only studied the Tudors at a very basic level, so I learnt quite a lot (I was ignorant of the fact that Henry when born was only 2nd in line to the throne). And there were a lot of lovely books and artefacts too.

The British Library seems to have a pretty good set up.   There is lots of sitting around space in the foyer, a cafe (with an amazing tower display of rare books behind glass), a gift shop, and several free exhibitions. They have a Treasures gallery, showcasing all sorts of wonders - the things you'd expect to see like a Gutenberg bible, a Magna carta, Shakespeare's first folio etc etc, but other unusual items - I spotted Beethoven's tuning fork. There was also an exhibition on nonsense poetry!

Anyway, the main reason I was here was to experience some "Great Books". We were taken up to the executive floor where about 35 items awaited our attention. Six of the curators took turns to introduce the books that they had chosen (falling into categories such as "Bibles", "travel", "literature", "19th century printing"), and then we were able to go around and examine the items ourselves, and ask questions. The books had either been chosen for their significance in terms of content or significance in terms of their bibliographic history (i.e. sort of printing).

Some highlights:
* The first quarto of King lear (which differs from the first folio edition of King Lear)
* a bible with amazing foreedge printing - no picture was visible when the book was closed, but when the pages were splayed out, it revealed an illustration of Samson - I had not seen this sort of decoration before.
* an edition of Virgil's Opera which is the first example of italic printing
* Aesop's fables with early woodcuts
* Copernicus' De Revolutionibus
* a beautiful Kelmscott press version of the Canterbury tales
* first edition of Darwin's origin of the species
* first editions of the King James Bible and Book of Common prayer
* Mrs Beeton - issued in a series of pamphlets
* the first edition of Tristram Shandy (I'd not encountered this book ever, but it is fascinating with marbled paper pages and blank pages and black pages all forming part of the text0

I felt quite overwhelmed by the end of the day having seen so many wonderful things!

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