Rare Books Cataloguer Sophie Floate introduces Balliol’s new project to make all of Balliol’s c.20,000 early printed books fully discoverable, and shares some of the highlights so far.
A new project to catalogue the early printed books collection at Balliol to a high standard began in January 2020. Over the years many books have been catalogued onto the University’s shared catalogue, SOLO, but very often these were lacking in the information now considered standard for early printed material, such as more detailed bibliographic information, provenance and binding descriptions. Following on from the Wellcome-funded project to catalogue the library of Nicholas Crouch, it is hoped that the cataloguing of the remainder of the extensive holdings at Balliol will bring new information to light on many aspects of the collection.
As with Crouch’s books, many of the historic bequests to the Library are now dispersed amongst the collection; while there are many sources relating to these bequests in the archives, such as the donations register, it will be much easier to bring this information together once the books are catalogued, allowing the collection to be researched more thoroughly.
Beginning with some of the smallest items in the library I have already encountered books which cover a wide variety of subjects, bindings and previous owners, the latter indicative of many of the discrete collections within the shelves. Books from the collections of Nathaniel Crynes (-1745), George Coningesby (1693-1766) and Henry Norris (whose son, also Henry, matriculated at Balliol in 1828 and who donated the collection) are much in evidence, as well as those given by Edwyn Birchenough (Balliol 1929) and his father, Charles (Balliol 1902) to name but a few. Interesting details are appearing relating to these previous owners: many of Coningesby’s books have manuscript notes and inscriptions by other members of his family, including his mother. He wrote extensive notes on the texts of many of his books, which is another useful way to identify them where they lack more obvious identification such as bookplates.
Tracing the ownership of a book prior to its donation to Balliol also throws up interesting connections, often linking now long-dispersed collections. For example, the Library has a volume (30 a 36) previously owned by Edward Gwynn, whose books have very distinctive bindings and have been reported by many other libraries across the world as detailed by the Folger Library.
Working along the shelf, book by book, can provide a fascinating glimpse into the wide range of subjects within the collection, since in many early printed collections the books have remained shelved by size, rather than by subject. You might find travel in Jerusalem in the 17th century next to a tract about Waldensian Protestants, or a curious collection of religious texts that purport to have been found inside a fish, John Frith’s Vox piscis:, or,, The book-fish : contayning three treatises which were found in the belly of a cod-fish in Cambridge Market, on Midsummer Eue last, anno Domini 1626. (London, 1627) [30 a 30].
Even within the first hundred or so books catalogued, a wide variety of bindings is already apparent, from the plainer sheepskin or calfskin, to more ornately decorated goatskin. Or this example of gilt brocade paper with a design of birds and foliage:
Somewhat incongruously, inside these covers are two theological works by the controversial Scottish Archbishop Patrick Adamson, printed in the late 16th and early 17th century, but bound a little later and given to the College by Coningesby (30 a 62).
An important part of the cataloguing project is contributing to the ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue) database. The ESTC is a union catalogue which aims to cover letterpress items printed before 1801, in British Isles, Colonial America, USA (1776-1800), Canada or territories governed by Britain in all languages. It also includes items printed in any other part of the world wholly or partly in English (or other British vernaculars) and items with false imprints claiming publication in Britain or its territories.
Any item catalogued which fits into any of the above categories is checked against the catalogue and any discrepancies reported. In the first few months of our project, six items were found not to have Balliol holdings reported, and one item not previously listed on the ESTC at all. This was the third part of the French writer and Protestant exile Pierre Bayles’ “Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de Jesus-Chrit [sic] contrain-les d’entrer; Troisiéme partie …” (30 a 16) printed a year after parts 1 and 2 in 1687. Although this part was not reported until now to the ESTC, there are a few other copies worldwide though apparently none in the UK. Its inclusion in the ESTC relates to the false imprint of “Cantorbery” which is probably why it has not appeared until now, as it is not an obviously “English” item. It has apparently long since been considered scarce, as the Balliol copy has a note in a 19th- or early 20th-century hand:
“Very rare 3rd part to go with my other 2 parts in one vol”.
The library also has parts 1 and 2, so is the only library in Oxford to hold a copy of this important work on religious toleration.
Another rare item is a volume of three bound tracts by religious and political controversialist William Sedgwick. Sedgwick studied at Pembroke College in the 1620s and went on to become rector of Farnham, Essex during the civil war period. Although he had impressed Cromwell with his evangelical style, there were doubts relating to his sanity in the following years, leading to his nickname “Doomsday Sedgwick”. However, his tracts about the outbreak of war were fairly balanced in assigning blame to both sides, though some accused him of being a Royalist. The tracts in this volume record his reflections on the whole period of the Civil War and Protectorate but copies are fairly scarce now, with the second bound item “Inquisition for the blood of our late soveraign, in an humble addresse to His most sacred Majesty” (printed in 1660) being one of only three known copies listed in the ESTC.
As the project progresses, it will be fascinating to see what other discoveries lie on the shelves and what we can learn about the history of the collection.