This morning I had a tour of the safes; six floors of restricted material that is conserved under lock and key in carefully conditioned accommodation. Though the library prides itself on its liberal lending policies and its ratio of open shelving to restricted access material, it is crucial that these relics of biblophilia are maintained to the highest standards. The status of the books is due to an amalgamation of reasons; most of the books are both valuable and old. Some have been locked away due to legal reasons and some contain controversial or frowned upon content.
The material is stored in locked shelving spaces with temperature, light and humidity controls. Future plans of the library involve upgrading the storage spaces and better equipping them to provide optimum conditions. Some of the older books have visible signs of insect infestations… who knew book worms were real? It is a sad but true fact that pages of literary genius can synonymously be excellent breading grounds for certain book pests. This is why optimum conditions are essential.
Amongst the collection there were certainly some exciting artefacts such as the King James Bible which is beautifully bound with metal cornices. The item somewhat controversially contains a typo that mistakenly expresses “she” instead of “he” triggering outlandish speculation.
A Henry III book shared similar notoriety for its infamous religious doctrines that so manifestly opposed the pope. Initially stemming from an attempt to obtain permission of a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII admonished Rome’s claim on The Church in England and in 1534, decreed the Royal Act of Supremacy, reclaiming the powers that Rome had appropriated. The next few years saw increasing alterations to religious doctrine encouraging evangelical attitudes. Yet another hot slice of history pie that the library has served up.
The library also holds elaborate bindings published by the one and only William Morris, the pre-Raphaelite whose own death was said to have been diagnosed as “being William Morris”. The ubiquitous aesthete spent his lifetime applying himself exhaustingly to a multi-faceted array of endeavours, including textile designing, poetry, social activism and literature, a lifestyle that very few people could realistically maintain.
Moving seamlessly from aestheticism to decadence, the library also holds, as part of its rare book collection, the “yellow book” of the fin de siècle. The journal celebrated the more decadent aspects of turn-of-the-century literature, art and poetry which had a heavy French influence. The usual suspects were affiliated with the publication such as Arthur Symons, Henry James, H.G Wells and Yeats with Aubrey Beardsley designing the iconic covers.
Other notable collections were that of The Roxburgh club, of which the library holds a complete set. Established in 1812, The Roxburgh club is an elite alliance whose membership is restricted to forty people at any time. As a prerequisite for being a member the individual must produce a book to their own expense. Though the content of the pages is down to the individual, the rules stipulate that the book must be finished to the highest standards of the club. Publications are often limited so the collection is rather rare and exclusive. Just the name of the club is enough to induce images of brandy-swigging, pipe-smoking, monocle-clad, posh old men reclining in audacious red velvet upholstered arm chairs.
Our tour host all the while filled our hungry minds with true stories of real life book thieves that operated in this very library and others across Europe. One man was incarcerated and deemed “A sad little man” by the judge who condemned him; amusingly this fact is reiterated in the front of the books on a conspicuous, laminated plaque, may the book thief be forever shamed.
I have fully relayed the zeniths of the tour but potential future blog posts may well probe further into the findings of these interesting artefacts. Sometimes the end of something is actually only the beginning.