After an all-day day trip to Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon Wednesday, our group on Thursday afternoon entered the church-like environs (on the outside anyway) of King’s College, a public university near The Strand in London. At Maughan Library, the research library arm, we were greeted by Katie, the head of Special Collections, and John, who is in charge of donations. There we encountered a surprisingly quirky catalogue.
We started in the Foyle Special Collection, with interesting items laid out for our perusal, ranging from the 1500s to late in the last century, including signed books by beat novelist Alan Ginsburg. Pride of place was even given to The Junkie, a cheap paperback from the 1950s written by Ginsburg under a pseudonym, to show that not everything in a collection is necessarily rare or expensive or conventionally “worthy.” More traditional archive items included a panoramic print from Wenceslas Hollar of London, called The Long View of London, that dated from before the Great Fire of 1666, when London had only one bridge (London Bridge) and the original St. Paul stood.
King’s College was founded in 1829, which is not particularly ancient as English universities go, and has been fluid in that time, absorbing some operations from other libraries and resources, and merging with others. The library has received items from two teaching hospitals so is loaded with medical and scientific items. King’s College Hospital also has a reputation for excellent trauma treatment, which London has had all too much of during our trip.
One major coup for the library happened in 2007, when the collection of the Foreign Commonwealth Office was transferred to Kings, a motherlode of often quirky historical items, many ephemeral, some unique, reaching back 500 years. It’s the research wing’s most heavily used collection, and was the source of the items we saw today.
They took part in the Rare Books London event, but with a typical twist, King’s didn’t merely display just the rare and significant works, but ephemera that becomes rare through obsolescence, like chapbooks. These small, cheaply done volumes were not sold in bookshops, and were sold for the entertainment of the semi-literate: Subjects include fairy tales, gruesome crimes, folklore, and plenty of pictures. In another example of saved ephemera, Katie displayed examples like a selection of pharmacy (drug) labels from long-gone products.
King’s College had eight archivists on staff, which sounds pretty generous, though Katie had the impression that the United States library system funds its archive departments more generously. They try to keep temperature at the Maughan stabilized within a range. When an older book is accessed or about to go on display it gets bumped up the chain to see if it needs any attention. One old book accessed did need some TLC so a conservator gave it a new half-spine.
The acquisition budget is limited, but they do try and fill gaps in their collections when they can. They have strengths in science and health. The library had no Shakespeare First Folio (I think we’ve been spoiled with First Folios on this trip), but did have one from playwright Ben Jonson, a contemporary, friend and rival of Shakespeare: Every Man Out of His Humour, a sequel to Jonson’s popular Every Man in His Humour. Some guy named William Shakespeare acted in Every Man Out… — the playwright was in the acting troupe The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (which eventually began performing solely work by Shakespeare himself).
Katie showed us a poignant item — Anti-Nazi, a sort of magazine, published in Germany in 1930, not bound, but produced in single sheets to make it easier to pull out and access for the purposes of speaking out at Nazi events. It was also for concealment, because even in 1930 one could not bring a book into a Nazi meeting. With nothing for the conservator to put together, it was placed for protection in a plastic binder. It may be the only copy extant.
John noted it was not the easiest thing to do to make book exhibits interesting, all that black text on white paper, so the library tried to find things with interesting backstories or some other novelty.
Our group was split in two, and we crossed to the other end to see the classical reading room ceiling, made of zinc as a precaution against fire, one of the few remaining from the Victorian era.
After the lecture and tour we were escorted to an impressive reception room with a chapel feel where we were served tea and cookies. This room turned out to be the old Domus Conversorum (Latin for “House of the Converts”), where converted Jews could live, after Jews were expelled from England in 1291. This antique space was meant to be incorporated into King’s College, but the architect, Sir James Pennethorne, found the chapel too unstable, so the only thing left of it are the stained-glass windows.
Katie was charming and asked where we had been (I told her it was all a blur) and about our studies, which made me talk too much about poet, novelist, theologian, historian, critic, and dogged editor Charles Williams.