Downside Abbey and Library
Home to the Benedictine monks, an eclectic 200 year old book and archive collection, and one of the largest gothic Abbeys in England.
The collection requires cataloguing in order to make it accessible to researchers, and to enhance and promote the English Benedictine Community. The Downside Abbey community began its life in Somerset in 1814 with the arrival of exiled monks from France. Since then the monastery was raised to abbey status in 1935.
Conservation is about preserving the integrity and authenticity of the book, and in that sense, the volunteer project work at the Library at Downside Abbey is set to conserve not only items of religious value, but also those of historical value and material culture.
Let me be clear this is NOT about being a Library volunteer. This is my personal journal of a week spent with the team, on conservation and cataloguing a Library collection whilst the Library is renovated.
Day One – Induction and Conservation
The Project is run by the Keeper of the Library, the Archivist and the Librarian. A good, friendly bunch of people who prudently thought to bring cake on a Monday (you can tell they’re Librarians!). The tour of the Library despite its rather sorry state, was remarkable. Such an incredible archive (including living archive) collection of the personal writings of hundreds of Benedictine monks since 1814, and such an eclectic collection of books in various states and conditions, from the 16th Century.
Louise (Librarian) provided training on handling rare books: utterly important for all work at the Abbey Library. And then as a nice and easy introduction to rare books and taking a closer look at them before the cataloguing begins, some conservation work. Who knew that cleaning a 19th Century book took so long, and a 17th Century one, even longer! Its a delicate process.
Tools of the trade involve the all important cushion, soft brushes, book snakes, and sponges. For more significant disrepair, cotton ties, acid-free paper, and phase box card.
I’m not going to go into how rare books should be cleaned and cared for here, but only to note the most remarkable things that caught my attention today:
Before 1850 paper was not made of wood, but of other materials such as linen or rags left to rot, and made into ‘stuff’. So in my comparison of cleaning a 19th Century and 17th Century book, it was one of the most noted differences. In the earlier book, the binders end papers were noticeably of different quality.
Type and spelling. Of course although Dictionaries were starting to be used in the 17th Century, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that it stabilised into the language that we know today. Prior to this, such foybles as ‘VVinchester’ ‘contayne’ ‘discovrse’ and ‘downe’ were used. In fact spelling was completely subjective and different fonts were used throughout the text, which seemed to be the fashion of the day.
Binding. Today I handled only a few of the books, and I could already identify different bindings – half bound, vellum, spine replacement, and paper covered boards.
What is left inside a book. The most interesting things are left inside of books – ribbons, celebratory cards, foliage (from possible pilgrimages), as well as manuscript marginalia.
Things to look out for include brittle corners (never turn pages by the corner!), manuscript, spine degradation, missing pages, and any additional pastings.
What a lovely day I had, interacting with rare books and their keepers – nothing like a bit of 17th Century dust! Bring on tomorrow…
Day Two – Archives
Another interesting day, preparing personal items for cataloguing.
My first subject was Dom. Benedict Kuypers (1867 – 1935)
Its a very magical thing to be holding and reading artefacts such as a letter from Lady Emily Tennyson in 1894 to ‘Fitzgerald’. (Tennyson died in 1892). A letter from her son Baron Hallum Tennyson was also amongst a collection I was combing through, and personal letters pertaining to the submission of a dissertation for a degree, graduating from Cambridge in 1899. Father Kuypers was made Priest in 1893.
My second subject was Dom. Paul Brooks (1888 – 1959), Chaplain to the Forces, First World War 1917 – 1919, and also again 1939 – 1945. Became Priest in 1914. His fathers connection to Arthur Hallum, best friend of Tennyson was interesting, as was the mention of opium. One would almost think the Benedictine monks had some sort of loose connection to the renaissance poets, or rather that they were learned gentlemen of art and history.
Historically, when a monk died, an archivist was sent into their room to collate papers of interest which would then be archived. More recently, the Abbey has living archives, whereby the monks are archiving their own lives ‘as they go’.
Thought for the day….if I were to archive my own life, what would be in the box?
Day Three – Rare books cataloguing
Spending the day collating basic bibliographical information on the cleaned rare books ready for full cataloguing once the software arrives! This is good as it means I have had an introductory lesson in order to ease my way into the details required for the full bibliographic record. Cataloguing hand-press period books requires different call fields to be utilised. The wonderful Gaskell* has a very useful table for determining format (folio, quarto, octavo) but this does require some knowledge about how books were made during this period. Checking for which direction the chainlines run on the paper, measuring the cut pages, and counting the gatherings are ways of finding out the format. Leaves in the gatherings are marked by Signatures, and these are counted – so if a gathering is in 4s its likely to be a quarto etc. Signatures are usually letters of the alphabet and are different to pagination. Pages run on and numbers are marked both sides of the leaf. Of course due to the nature of printing during this period, with rare books it is important to check every page. Today I made records for 3 books and with all of them, there was mispagination. Also looking for half title, plates, frontis, tables, advertisements, imperfections and anything else that may be copy-specific, today was remarkably interesting. This job, I love. Its a studious pastime, but a very important one, and will endeavour to make the collection more accessible.
Cataloguing from the book also involves handling with care for all of the reasons above – brittle edges, binding fixed too tight, tears in pages, pencil manuscript etc. It was great to have an experienced and knowledgeable Librarian to hand to answer many questions, I thoroughly enjoyed my day!
*Gaskell P, (1985) A New Introduction to Bibliography. OUP: New York
Day Four – digging into the card cataloguing ready for computerising
A day spent on Excel work, computerising card records. This involved searching ESTC for the Downside books, of which I would say of what I got through, there was already a good 75% with full records on the ESTC. This exercise followed on well from rare books cataloguing as I was able to compare records – from the basic card cataloguing often with only a title and date, to a full record which included Signatures and former owners. Highly invaluable.
What happens next?
I work full time, so I used annual leave in order to obtain some hands on experience in an area of Librarianship that interests and fascinates me. I have managed to negotiate some regular time off to continue on this project albeit temporarily at first, I hope to continue for the full 3 years and see it through to fruition.