‘You work in a library? It must be lovely to get to read books all day.’
Anyone who works in any kind of library has surely encountered this reaction more than once. And sometimes it’s challenging to respond tactfully, when what you have spent all day doing is frantically trying to finish a complicated report and produce statistics.
Of course we do lots of fun stuff every day too, but opportunities to sit down and actually read the amazing things in our collections are very rare treats – maybe when preparing for teaching a class or researching an exhibition, or to answer a detailed enquiry. So when we were casting around for a blog theme to follow our very successful and enjoyable 52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, the idea of committing to exploring the textual content of our collections was very appealing.
So in 2015 we will be Reading the Collections. The notion is that contributors will read the entirety of a work held in Special Collections. As we can’t take these books home to read on the bus or in the bath, lengthy works may need to be read in digitized form or a modern edition (note to concerned managers: we aren’t really going to be spending all our working hours reading), but everyone will spend some time with the original. Then we will post a review, or a personal response to the text. The emphasis will be on reading for pleasure, but posts will include some historical, literary, or artistic context too. I’m delighted that we have managed to convince some keen readers from other sections of the Library to join us in our endeavour, so there will be an even wider variety of insights and experiences to be shared.
Some people are viewing this blog theme as an incentive to read something they’ve never read before – and there have been a couple of challenges between colleagues to pick up something formerly dismissed with contempt, but never read – while others want to share an old favourite, and luxuriate in reading a first edition or original manuscript of something previously only encountered in paperback or pixels.
While to some extent this theme encourages rummaging for escapist novels, from the works of Ann Radcliffe to yellowbacks, there are plans to feature more canonical writers too. Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson and Virginia Woolf are all on the list, as is the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Douglas Dunn. Other themes already emerging as people sign up are travel and exploration literature, minutes of student societies, manuscript letters and diaries, and an intriguing number of non-textual projects, including ‘reading’ photographs and maps. The series will launch next week when the new Head of Special Collections reflects on reading Peter Pan for the first time.
For a group of insatiable readers, this promises to be a stimulating and invigorating year. It’s also, more seriously, an opportunity to learn more about what we have here in Special Collections and why it’s important. We hope to highlight particular treasures, and to engage with our collections intellectually and imaginatively. I hope our enthusiasm will encourage readers of the blog to seek out copies of some of the texts we feature and read them for yourselves.
So, are you sitting comfortably?
Rare Books Librarian