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A Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Edited by B. C. Bloomfield. 2nd ed. London: Library Association Publishing, 1997. 740 p. ISBN 1–85604–063–1.

During the first half of this century, Sir Frank M. Stenton and his wife, Lady Doris, were both eminent British historians, specializing in the Middle Ages. What British library now possesses their books, manuscripts, correspondence, and family papers? What Welsh library has a collection of works published by the Gregynog private press? Under what conditions does the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh permit access to its collections? When was Waterford Cathedral Library (in the Republic of Ireland) formed, and what are the main subjects in its collection? Why is there a German Occupation Museum on the Island of Guernsey, and what sorts of printed material does it hold? These are the sorts of questions which can be answered by the present Directory, a massive compilation which must have required a vast amount of labor. I did not attempt to count the collections described herein, but there are surely hundreds.

The editor makes several interesting points in his Introduction. One is that this is probably the last hard-copy edition of the work. Another is that some curators of small collections, unpaid, with their libraries in premises which may be insecure, are reluctant to tempt thieves by specifying all of the desirable items in their collections. A third is that “many librarians and curators are lamentably ignorant of the contents and importance of their collections, and a few, on being confronted with the evidence of their entry in the first edition of the Directory, have indignantly demanded to know where I found this information!”

Geographical Scope & Arrangement. The work covers England and Northern Ireland (by county, and then by town); Scotland, Wales, and the Republic of Ireland (by town); the Channel Islands (by island, and then by institution, listed alphabetically); and the Isle of Man (by institution—all three of them! — listed alphabetically).

Institutions. The collections described in this book are held by all sorts of institutions, such as public libraries (county or city); public record offices; societies and associations (e.g., the Royal Photographic Society; British Cement Association; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; Reading Pathological Society; Society of Friends [Quakers]; and various historical societies); cathedral libraries, parish libraries (more than seventy of them), and the libraries of abbeys and priories; manors and castles (e.g., Windsor Castle); universities and colleges; museums and art galleries; “public” (i.e., private) schools (e.g., Eton College; and Kingswood School, founded by John Wesley); and commercial enterprises (e.g., Harvey's Wine Museum; and the Imperial Tobacco Company).

Basic Information. Data given at the beginning of each entry are the address, telephone number, and fax number (I did not notice any e–mail addresses, or Worldwide Web sites); when the collection is open; and how to obtain admission, and whether admission is restricted. (It is frequently necessary to make application in writing. Very rarely – as, for example, with Sotheby, Parke Bernet auctioneers – there is no public access.) There is also mention of any special tools or services available – microform readers; photocopying or microfilming or photographing facilities; illuminated magnifiers; ultraviolet lamps; a Hinman collator; or an online catalog which can be consulted from outside the institution.

Materials, Formats. What sorts of items are taken note of, in the descriptions of collections? All kinds of modern books and serials, including books printed by private presses, miniature books, and little magazines; incunabula and other early printed books; public records and other documents; printed ephemera; catalogs of publishing houses, and of book auctions; manuscripts and letters, from the Middle Ages to the present; pamphlets and tracts; chapbooks; playbills; clippings; photographs, prints, and drawings; type specimen sheets; fine bindings; and genealogical card–files and family trees.

Length of Entries. Most of the special collections are described in paragraphs of from two to five inches in length. Although some institutions have only one special collection, others, such as universities, have a good many – and the British Library has so many that it takes more than forty–five pages to describe them all!

Bibliographical Aids, Finding Devices. If there is any sort of catalog or index or handlist, it is mentioned. Some of the formats are “Typewritten schedule”; “MS. schedule”; “Entries in main cat.” (when the holdings of a particular special collection are listed in the main catalog of the parent institution); “Bookseller's cat.” (for collections which were purchased en bloc); “Printed cat.”; and “Card cat.” In addition to such catalogs, there are references to hundreds of books and articles about the various collections, or about the persons who assembled or donated them.

Subjects of the Collections. You can find libraries with special collections of works by and about Lord Acton, Hans Christian Andersen, Aristophanes, Auden, Francis Bacon, Thomas Bewick, Boccaccio, Bunyan, Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson, Sir Basil (Henry) Liddell Hart, Lord Macaulay, Napoleon, Orwell, Rabelais, Ruskin, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Shelley, Stendhal, Swift, Swinburne, Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, Toynbee, Yeats, and hundreds of other persons.

If you're interested in books & printing, there are entries for libraries with collections of the works published by important private presses, such as Ashendene, Kelmscott, Limited Editions Club, Officina Bodoni, and Strawberry Hill; or of books published by Baskerville or Bodoni or Tauchnitz. Other bibliographic topics are book collecting, design, illustration, book jackets, the book trade, bookplates and heraldry, and typography.

The other subjects to be found in these special collections are so numerous that they can only be hinted at, for example, advertising, alcoholism, anatomy, anthropology, antiquities, apiculture, apothecaries, architecture, Argentina, art history, arts & crafts, Asian affairs, astronomy, atlases, botany, law, mining, polar research, railway studies, and....

All of the collections are described in readable prose. Their genesis is mentioned and their provenance is traced. Precise figures will often be given for parts of a collection. For example, we are told that The Jewish Museum (London) has, among other things, “17 Torah and Megillah scrolls, 25 illuminated marriage contracts (1524–1896), and 25 15th–18th cent religious mss”, as well as – and exact numbers are given – so–and–so–many bookplates, trade cards, prints, and paintings and drawings. If a library has incunabula, or books listed in the Short–title Catalogue (STC) or Wing, that will be pointed out. For example, The Douay Museum, “with probably one of the finest collections of Recusant books in the country”, has “c3,600 v, of which cl,100 are STC and cl,000 are Wing items.” (Recusants were English Catholics who refused to attend Protestant church services, and were consequently fined and in other ways persecuted under regimes from Henry VIII through George II.)

Indexing. The index struck me as quite thorough, and my spot–checking disclosed very few errors or omissions. It combines, in one alphabetical array, subjects and the names of institutions. Longer entries, containing more than one page reference, have helpful subdivisions, like this:

  • Civil War 209, 480
  • newspapers 634
  • pamphlets 1,291,511
  • sermons 669 tracts 669,
  • 680

This is praiseworthy. So many books, after all, have indexes in which a term is followed by a clot of undifferentiated page numbers, thus forcing the reader to turn to all of them before finding the one he wants.

Conclusion. I found this book to be more interesting than most novels. In fact, it's hard to put down. As you leaf through it, you can imagine yourself visiting some of these intriguing libraries, and studying the carefully–preserved – and often unique – materials in them. (I say “carefully preserved”, but in a number of places there is mention of the damage caused by the Second World War.) Although it is expensive, I recommend it to all research libraries, and – of course – to Library Science Collections.


Theodore Spahn is Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University, River Forest, Illinois, U.S.A.

© 1998 Dominican University



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