New Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the UK and Republic of Ireland and the RLUK “Hidden Collections”

Dr Karen Attar is currently editing a new edition of the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland: http://specialcollectionsdirectory.org for the Rare Books and Special Collections Group of CILIP. Here she reflects on how it relates to RLUK activity:

Recently I was looking again at the results of the survey carried out by the London Library and RLUK in 2010 on hidden collections: http://www.rluk.ac.uk/work/hiddencollectionsreportwork, conducted to gather evidence about the ongoing need for retrospective cataloguing. Findings included the facts that hidden collections are a problem (because, not being known, they are becoming marginalised and therefore cannot be earning their keep in terms of use); that some sectors have more hidden collections than others but that the problem is cross-sectoral; and that special collections, both printed and archival, form a significant proportion of the hidden collections. An intriguing point of the survey was its sheer breadth of coverage: not just the university and national libraries that are especially strongly connected with RLUK, but such diverse places as the National Portrait Gallery, Hull City Libraries, and the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution.

Editing the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland makes one very aware of just how fascinating some of these hidden collections can be. Like the survey, the Directory aims to cover all libraries that are willing to make their holdings open to bona fide researchers: national libraries, university libraries, school libraries, ecclesiastical libraries of different levels and denominations (how many people know about the French Protestant Church’s library in London, which has existed since the early seventeenth century?), museum libraries, professional libraries, subscription libraries, club libraries, company libraries, and more. The only restriction is that they must contain printed rare book or special collections of at least fifty volumes. Libraries are asked to provide brief collection level descriptions providing the date range of material, subject matter, and other salient features; the provision of urls enables potential users to investigate in more detail from each library’s own website. Especially exciting is to see reports from libraries not represented in the previous edition of the Directory (1997) – some, but by no means all, new libraries. Take the following, for sheer diversity:

    • The Congregation of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God in Brentford, Middlesex. This international Catholic religious order was founded by Frances Margaret Taylor (1832-1900), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Margaret_Taylor who established a considerable reputation in the late-nineteenth-century as a journalist, author, and translator. It is to her that the order owes the origin of its library, which focuses on the various editions of the literary works of Fanny Taylor (aka Mary Magdalen Taylor) and her friend Lady Georgiana Fullerton. Given the century, this might sound pedestrian – but in fact Copac shows her output to be held in few libraries, mainly Oxford (16 titles), Cambridge (18 titles), Trinity College Dublin (10 titles) and Heythrop College, London (8 titles), and no library on Copac holds everything.
    • Prison Service College Library, Rugby. Here there are some 200 volumes, mainly related to prisons, including some by the early prison reformer John Howard (1726-1790).
  • The Laurence Sterne Trust http://www.laurencesternetrust.org.uk/the-collection/ at Shandy Hall, near York.
    Marbled page featured in 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'

    Marbled page featured in ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. Image reproduced with permission of the Laurence Sterne Trust.

    Founded in 1967, this holds the world’s largest collection of first and contemporary editions of the works by Anglo-Irish curate and writer Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), as well as a comprehensive run of later editions and of translations into more than fifteen foreign languages, and other books, manuscripts, and ephemera relating directly and indirectly to Sterne.

  • The Grey Coat Hospital School, London. Headmaster William Dear bequeathed his collection to the school in 1728, and the subsequent donations enriched the library: mostly mathematical and Christian texts, reflecting the school’s history as a religious foundation that prepared its pupils to be ships’ navigators.
  • The Mills Archive, Reading (founded 2002). http://www.millsarchive.org/. Its library contains about 3-4,000 rare, out-of-print or hard-to-find books and pamphlets on mills and milling worldwide from primitive technology through to the present day. Most titles were published in short runs or privately printed; about one-quarter are in foreign languages.

    The Mills Library

    The Mills Library. Image reproduced by permission of the Mills Archive.

Not all these collections are hidden. Some have opacs accessible from their own websites – and the definition for the ‘hidden collections’ study is that collections are not catalogued online; it does not look at how or where they are catalogued. Very few collections being reported to the Directory have no finding aid at all: many still count as ‘hidden’ for want of online cataloguing, but it is unusual not to have a card catalogue, a printed catalogue, or a handlist of some description, and sometimes this is mounted on the web. But one needs to know that an organisation like the Mills Archive or the Laurence Sterne Trust exists in order to go to its website and use its catalogue, and here the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections meets a need by recording the presence of collections rich in editions of Emanuel Swedenborg (the Swedenborg Museum), economic pamphlets (the Marshall Library of Economics at the University of Cambridge), Regency novels written by women (Chawton House), and so forth.

A desire arising from RLUK’s hidden collections report was for an online register of retrospective cataloguing. The Directory does not quite provide that, but it goes a long way towards providing all the information by noting a large number of collections and by recording when they are not catalogued online, and noting the alternative method of accessing the contents. RLUK’s ‘Unique and Distinctive Collections’ project is intended to show ‘how RLUK members and other libraries can make the most of their collections in challenging times’. Reporting their presence and holdings to the Directory is a good start.