David talked about the importance of books as material and social objects, of value and importance beyond the texts they contain. Studying books as physical objects – their size and shape, condition, binding, inscriptions and annotations – can tell us so much about how they were bought, sold, owned, used, circulated, regarded and valued. By looking at books, we can learn something of their provenance, their owners and users and their social impact.
As David pointed out with regard to early printed books, their contents are increasingly available online; many historic libraries are under financial pressure and collections are under threat of dispersal. Librarians and scholars need to raise awareness that individual copies and collections have their own unique and distinctive histories; they are rich sources of valuable cultural and social information.
The talk drew upon some fascinating examples of early printed books from Emmanuel College’s own collections which were exhibited nearby, including a small modestly-bound volume owned by the poet John Donne side by side with some sumptuously-bound examples from the collection given to the College by Archbishop Sancroft (1617-1693). My favourite book was a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy printed in Venice in 1544 which is inscribed on the flyleaf: ‘Servatus ex incendio londinensi sept. 1666’ (saved from the Fire of London, Sept 1666).
After the talk we had a chance to see the newly refurbished and extended library building at Emmanuel which was designed by the same architectural firm as the new Parker Library reading room and vault.