Historic Libraries Forum letter to the Royal College of Physicians regarding the proposed sale of books from the Dorchester Collection

Dear Professor Goddard and Dr Bullock

Sale of historic books from the Dorchester Library

The Historic Libraries Forum was concerned to learn of the proposed sale of some of the books from the Dorchester Library Collection to secure the Royal College of Physician’s financial situation. We understand that the books considered for sale may include one of the surviving copies of The Canterbury Tales, a psalter owned by John Dee, astronomer to Elizabeth I, and The Recuyell of Historyes of Troye by Raoul LefÈvre.

These books have been in RCP ownership for over 300 years, thus have survived earlier pandemics and world wars, yet are considered for sale now? These are challenging times for many organisations, but cherry picking particular treasures to sell from an established, donated collection is extremely short-sighted. The value of such books lies in keeping the collection together, where the story of how it was created and that relationship with medical history and the history of the RCP can be properly told.

Pre-Coronavirus the RCP celebrated its historic collections, joining the London Knowledge Quarter. The College hosted a highly successful exhibition of John Dee books which now appear to be among those considered for sale. The collections have attracted visitors to hire the building’s facilities, thus contributing to income generation while in situ. Selling books puts at risk the RCP’s Museum Accreditation, as well as attracting negative publicity and reputational damage, all of which will deter future visitors once this pandemic is over. Losing Accreditation would negatively affect the RCP’s ability to apply for funding grants in the future. Future donors to the RCP will be lost if they see that the College is prepared to dispose of bequests made in the past.

We would be more than happy to offer further professional advice during these discussions. Please do not hesitate to call upon us.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Jill Dye

On behalf of the Historic Libraries Forum


Historic Libraries Forum statement on proposed redundancies at the National Trust

The Historic Libraries Forum is extremely concerned to hear of recent proposals at the National Trust to make sweeping redundancies in its teams of specialist and lead curators across all regions. This will see the loss of the majority of its National Specialists (for furniture, pictures and sculpture, decorative arts, textiles, and photography), including the Libraries Curator Tim Pye and the 1.2fte post of Assistant Libraries Curator. These specialised roles will be replaced with ‘Senior National Curators’ who will be responsible for a wide variety of material objects which fall within their period of interest (16th century, 17th century, 18th century, and 19th-21st century). More broadly, there will be a general move away from specialist knowledge, focussing instead on providing a dynamic visitor experience, one which – surely – must be underpinned by the knowledge and interpretation provided by specialists.

The Trust’s collection of books and manuscripts, numbering some 600,000 volumes housed across 180 sites, is one of international significance which allows us to better understand the lives of their owners. The spectrum of social history which can be seen in the Trust’s properties (from grand stately homes like Blickling in Norfolk to humble farmhouses like Townend in Cumbria) is echoed in the Trust’s books: vast 18th-century Italian plate books reveal tales of Grand Tours and connoisseurship, whilst devotional books read by family servants hint at unexpected links between gentry and their staff. Specialist staff are key if these stories are to be (1) discovered and understood, and (2) presented to the public in the wider context of each property. Great work has been done in recent years to bring books to the fore in many Trust properties, both internally (cataloguing, exhibition and conservation) and externally (through collaborative PhD projects and the welcoming of researchers), allowing a new appreciation of the place of books in our national life over the centuries. The loss of these specialist posts threatens to wipe out that progress.

We realise that, like many heritage institutions, the National Trust finds itself in a worrying financial position. Difficult decisions must be made if it is to continue its most basic work of sustaining the physical landscapes and buildings under its care for future generations. At the same time it must be recognised that expert knowledge has to be central to its work, and that no single curator – however experienced – can have expert levels of knowledge about art history, furniture, textiles and books alike. Without staff who have the necessary expertise to interpret and care for the Trust’s diverse collections, it puts itself in the position of seeming to care little for its own cultural legacy.

Anyone who shares our concerns is encouraged to write to the following individuals at the National Trust: (Director-General) (Director of Culture & Engagement) (Curatorial & Collections Director)

Conferences & events, The Bulletin

Collections care for historic libraries, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 21 June 2019

Over morning coffee, a diverse group of participants assembled, including Librarians, Reading Room Assistants and Photographers involved in digitisation projects. The workshop was led by Edward Cheese (Conservator of Manuscripts and Printed Books, Assistant Keeper) and Monika Stokowiec (Assistant Conservator) at The Fitzwilliam Museum. It demonstrated the wide range of professionals working with special collections who seek a deeper understanding of the preservation of library and archival materials. In my role as Events and Outreach Coordinator at a small but busy independent library in Manchester, I understand very well how important it is for every member of staff in contact with collections to understand the vulnerabilities, the risks and the methods of protecting our precious artefacts.

We were led to our classroom, in this case the Founder’s Library, a gorgeous 19th century library and an ideal space for our purposes. Our instructors started right at the beginning of Western book making. The group was shown the line of progression from the earliest techniques and materials all the way to our modern-day paperbacks. The level of detail was impressive; even parchment, leather and paper making techniques were described. We learned the importance of knowing the inherent qualities and tendencies of materials, as well as the processes they undergo, in order to predict how they will react under adverse conditions.

A holistic and historical approach showed us how the development of printing, the
proliferation of book production and the changing storage implications over the centuries affected, in turn, the ways that books were designed, crafted and manufactured. For instance, clasps were necessary on 12th century books to limit any disfigurement of the parchment leaves within. The small number of books produced at this time also meant they could be stored flat. By the 17th century, with leaves made of paper and the skyrocketing demand for books, clasps had lost their function and books were stored upright to make better use of space.

With a crash course in the history of book production under our belts, we moved on to the various forms of chemical and physical degradation and how they come about. This led to a discussion about working with conservators to prioritise and execute work on collections in ways that are efficient, economical and sensitive to the objects.

After lunch we returned to our work. The afternoon covered handling, cleaning, housing, exhibiting and emergency planning. What a lot to cover in short space of time! But the level of planning and preparation that went into the workshop made this achievable. We even had time to try building our own cleaning stations made of paper, designed to trap dust and debris.

After the workshop we were provided with extremely helpful supplementary guides on cleaning books, building display cradles and planning for emergencies, which we could keep for future reference. Such detailed theoretical explanation and very practical demonstrations, guides and tools would help any person who wishes to enhance their own knowledge and elevate conservation practices at their place of work. In fact, I would highly recommend this workshop for any member of staff working in an organisation with collections at its heart. Speaking as someone with an equal enthusiasm for conservation and engagement, it seems clear that shared understanding incentivises cooperation across disciplines and lays a strong foundation for successful collections care. In any case, what booklover wouldn’t be thrilled to know more about such a fascinating subject?

Aoife Larkin
Events and Outreach Coordinator, The Portico Library, Manchester
BA Art History, MA Contemporary Curating
Currently studying MA Preventive Conservation


NBK/COPAC Update for Historic Libraries Forum Members

The National Bibliographic Knowledgebase (NBK) underpins the new Jisc Library Hub Discover service, which is scheduled to entirely replace COPAC and SUNCAT at the end of July 2019. On Monday 10th June, Bethan Ruddock from Jisc gave an online update on what the NBK project means for historic libraries.  The webinar is now available to view in full here.  In this post, Jill Dye, (HLF chair) summarises some key points from the session.

COPAC and SUNCAT are vital tools within the UK library profession, brilliant for identifying specific titles in other repositories and, for some historic libraries, acting as back-up or stand-in for their own library catalogues. The announcement that these platforms were closing, therefore, caused worry to some HLF members, so we arranged for Bethan from Jisc to introduce the replacement service and answer some burning questions from those in historic libraries or with historic collections.

Bethan began by introducing some key terms. NBK is the “data lake” which underpins the Library Hub Discover service. It is this service which will replace COPAC and SUNCAT (among others), remaining free and open to everyone. While it is still in pilot and some of the search functions aren’t yet working, the potential benefit of the update is already evident (faceted searching, greater coverage of online materials, searches by region or consortium).

The root of members concerns is that data will not simply be migrated from COPAC/SUNCAT to NBK, for very valid reasons that Bethan outlined (permission must be sought, data needs to be current). This means that past contributors to those platforms who’ve not already been in contact with NBK should do so as soon as possible – data will not be moved across without that contact.

Bethan summarised some key points for existing and would-be contributors:

  • Anyone can request to contribute to the NBK whether they contributed to COPAC or SUNCAT or not.
  • If your collections are on COPAC and are static (i.e. not added to) you can request that the existing COPAC data be added to NBK (they need your permission to do this).
  • There is no time limit for sending data to NBK, but COPAC/SUNCAT will no longer be available after 31st July.
  • You don’t need perfect data to contribute. The minimum requirements are that the data is processable (not a PDF, but could be a spreadsheet) and that the title field is not blank.
  • You don’t have to contribute everything. You can just add your special collections if you decide that’s most important.

Bethan also explored some of the new features that data in the NBK would be able to provide. This includes, for example, some useful tools on how to assess the strength of individual collections. She also briefly demonstrated Library Hub Cataloguing, where MARC records can be shared. Jisc is also working on a simple online cataloguing tool with which volunteers could put data straight into NBK. This would be excellent for the many members struggling to justify the cost of a library management system (but we’re warned that it’s not a priority for this phase, so won’t appear until Q3 at the earliest).

To summarise, those worried about losing COPAC and SUNCAT for searching across multiple collections need not worry. However, data for some collections might not move across in time for the closure of COPAC/SUNCAT, so the coverage may be a little different for a while.

Those using COPAC as a library catalogue (Bethan’s example was the Cathedral Libraries project) need to be aware that data will not simply be transferred from one platform to another without permission, or without making sure that the data is up to date. Bethan demonstrated this very clearly using an example from York Minster library. In these situations, the advice would be to get in touch as soon as possible, because the NBK team are very keen to find a solution, and can’t do that without contact.

Bethan ended the session by reminding us that anyone with questions about the project, or about contributing data can email Thank you to all those who attended, and thank you to Bethan for leading the event.

View a recording of the session

Conferences & events, The Bulletin

Provenance Workshop with David Pearson

Led by David Pearson, was held at Norwich Cathedral Library on Monday 9 July.
David Pearson (Research Fellow, at the Institute of English Studies in the University of
London) led this workshop looking at various aspects of provenance. David began the day with an introduction to recent developments in provenance work, and its importance, and then the rest of the day was split between sessions considering different aspects of provenance. Each area was introduced with a PowerPoint showing examples, and then we looked at real examples from the collection at Norwich Cathedral.

The first session covered frustrations of provenance research, such as indecipherable
writing (see also palaeography below), or ciphers or other cryptic marks which cannot be interpreted without supporting evidence. We saw books where the provenance evidence had been removed, either by clearly being cut out, or by being scratched or torn out – this was surprisingly more difficult to spot, as a tear lacks the clean, hard edge of a cut, and so doesn’t stand out so clearly. Other ways of deliberately obliterating inscriptions included erasures, crossing-out, and washing-out (particularly used in incunabula). Rebinding of books, with the attendant trimming of the textblock, can remove all or part of an inscription or marginal annotation.

Next came inscriptions, and things written in books. We saw different styles of
handwriting over ages, typical schoolboy doodling and pen trials. We learned that if a
particular individual is known to use a certain motto, this can be used to extrapolate
ownership even when the name is not present. Inscriptions may record purchase or gift;
inscriptions especially in bibles may indicate much more information such as dates of
birth, baptism, marriage, death. Booksellers’ codes may also be found, although it may
not be possible to understand them. Occasionally, marks may be a form of censorship,
particularly when something such as a prayer book continues to be used after certain
saints have been declared unacceptable.

After lunch we had a palaeography session. When you set out to read a document from
whatever period, you are faced with a body of text, within which letters will appear more than once, so you can get to know the hand, and learn how it works. With provenance research you are more likely to be faced with at most a short inscription, so the chances of being able to compare forms to decipher particular letters are slim at best. Furthermore, when working with a collection of books ranging in date across three or four centuries, you will encounter the full range of possible handwriting styles. So palaeography, whilst a vital skill, is at its most difficult when applied to provenance research. David suggested that a good palaeography handbook is an essential part of your provenance toolkit, along with as much experience as you can gain. Even so, there will be some inscriptions that you simply cannot decipher; in such cases noting the presence of an inscription in a catalogue entry at least recognizes its existence, and might one day encourage attention from another reader who can interpret it.

Bookbindings can be a fruitful source of provenance evidence: stamped initials may be
identifiable; more elaborate heraldic devices are more likely to be traceable through
published sources. Armorial evidence may indicate ownership, but it may also be a sign of a gift; appearance of royal arms is possibly more likely to be a sign of adherence to the royal cause, rather than actual royal ownership. Institutional arms may mark ownership of the books (but may not!); prize bindings – a book given by a university to a student literally as a prize – are quite easily identifiable once you know what you are looking for. Occasionally particular binding styles or tools can be associated with a town or even workshop.

The overall message of the workshop was that there is no real substitute to gaining hard
experience – look at as many books as you can! But the real beauty for me of a workshop
like this is having an expert explain to you what it is you have seen: I might have seen it, but not recognized it for what it was. Now I feel considerably better equipped to recognize what I see before me, and indeed scarcely two weeks after the workshop a book was placed before me which contained two of the distinct forms of marking which David had mentioned, one of which I had not seen before outside of the workshop; this made me very happy – in a librarian sort of way!

Gudrun Warren, Norwich Cathedral Library