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Senate House Library

University of London


Edited by Christopher Pressler & Karan Attar


London: Scala Publishing, 2012

Hardcover. 139 p. ISBN 978-1657597905. £25.00 / $40.00


Reviewed by Peter Stansky

Stanford University



This is a charming, erudite, interesting but from a scholarly point of view a not particularly important book. The publisher, Scala, has issued a series of similar books illustrating treasures from some of the greatest libraries in the world: among others the British Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library. This book is a miscellany: illustrations and short unsigned texts on sixty selected treasures ranging chronologically from 1395, an illuminated manuscript about Edward Prince of Wales, the Black Prince, to 1938-44, a manuscript notebook by Barbara Wooton about her interviews of possible extra-mural teachers for the University such as T.S. Eliot and Harold Wilson. Oddly, although the first page of William Morris’s great Kelmscott Chaucer provides the frontispiece for the book and there is one illustration from it in connection with another text, it is not one of the 60 items. (One can discover from the splendid William S. Peterson & Sylvia Holton Peterson, The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census (2011) that in fact the University of London Library has two copies of the Chaucer.)

It is not emphasized here that there is, in fact, an occasion for the book: the 150th anniversary of the firm establishment of the University Library in 1877. The University started acquiring books in a rather haphazard fashion from 1838 on, two years after its foundation. The rather random nature of this book reflects the somewhat hodge-podge story of the origin of the University itself. It, Oxford and Cambridge, are the three most eminent Universities in England. In some senses London is parallel to the Ancient Universities although its constituent parts are not quite as closely integrated with a central administration as they. All three Universities are testing bodies that administer examinations to those who are prepared for them by its constituent institutions of higher learning. In the case of the University of London, a College came first, University College, which espoused the radical idea that a man need not be an Anglican in order to receive higher education. It was founded in 1826 and then partially in reaction the Anglican King’s College was established in 1831. (In 1878 London was the first University in England to admit women on the same terms as male students, commemorated in this book by a 1884 degree certificate for Fanny McRae.) The University itself was not established until 1836 as an examining body. Unlike Oxford and Cambridge there was not a requirement for physical proximity for the students. So to this day the various parts of the University are scattered around London ranging from Goldsmiths’ in the south-east to Royal Holloway in Egham in the far west. Probably, however, the greatest concentration of University buildings is near the Library in central London. More dramatically, the University was willing to examine and award external degrees to those from elsewhere in England and indeed from around the world. The Library itself too rather moved about London: first Burlington Gardens off Piccadilly and then in 1900 to the Imperial Institute in South Kensington. In 1937 it established itself at its present location in the purpose-built Senate House, the first skyscraper in London. Its architect was the great modernist, Charles Holden, famed for his underground stations. For years it was seen as an intrusion upon the charming squares of Bloomsbury, not helped by being, as the headquarters of the Ministry of Information during the Second World War, the model for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Now when there are so many more skyscrapers in London it is seen as a more modest building and is viewed with some affection.

There isn’t an explanation of how the choice was made of what items to be illustrated and discussed. Each of the 60 mini-essays is highly enjoyable to read and adds to our knowledge. Appropriately there is an emphasis on textbooks. There are four items about magic, witchcraft, and séances because of the Library’s possession of the great Harry Price collection. So too the Library is extremely strong in economic history, being the possessor of the great Goldsmiths’ Collection of Economic literature, illustrated here by three items: a 15th-century manuscript by a law professor from Bologna about restitution, an 18th-century English matrimonial dispute, and a 19th-century publication about the railways. The greatest single source of the jewels of the Library is the Sterling donation, with eight texts illustrated and discussed, ranging from a 15th-century manuscript of Piers Plowman to an Alfred Tennyson manuscript as well as examples of the Arts & Crafts movement. Sir Louis Sterling also represents the change of patronage for libraries to the world of business. He was born in 1879 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1903 in a rather contrary direction for an East European Jew, he went, with $30 in his pocket, to seek his fortune in London, which he indeed made many times over in the record industry. In 1956, two years before his death, he gave his great collection to the Library, including a full set of Morris’s Kelmscott Press. Quite irrelevantly, I met him on my first trip to London in the summer of 1950 as a callow American college student, totally unaware of his collecting interests. He was the brother of one of my family’s closest friends in New York. One of the pleasures of this book is learning more about him and his collection. It is a demonstration of the way British society is open to talent and money, symbolized in the photograph of Sir Louis showing a book to the late Queen Mother at the celebration of the acquisition at the Library. So a personal bonus of this book is learning about Sterling. In an infinitely more modest way ultimately I shared with him many years later his interest in British Arts & Crafts and the British private press movement.

This is an enjoyable book with a valuable brief introduction on the history of the Library and an illuminating few paragraphs about each of the sixty items splendidly illustrated. There is no particular focus to be found in this book yet nevertheless one is provided with a good sense of a very important library.


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