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Uncovering silenced voices in our rare books: the Liberating the Collections volunteer project

Erika Delbecque10 February 2022

For most of recent history, access to the means to read, write, publish and collect texts was restricted to society’s most privileged. Most of the 150,000 rare books that are looked after by UCL Special Collections were donated over the past two centuries by members of the same privileged group. Collecting books is never neutral: the choice to purchase books in a certain discipline, or on specific topics or by particular authors also implies the choice not to purchase other materials. The interests and prejudices of the collectors themselves and the society they lived in deeply influenced those decisions.

Portrait of a Muslim woman in formal garb.
Jaʻfar Sharīf, Qanoon-e-Islam, or, The customs of the Mussulmans of India. 2nd ed. (Madras, J. Higginbotham: 1863) [WHITLEY STOKES 113.k.19]

The result is that the rare printed collections that we have inherited overwhelmingly document the experiences, achievements and concerns of white men of European heritage. The experiences of less privileged people – those of non-white ethnicity, women, those living with a disability or people who are LGBTQ+, for example – are much more difficult to find.

Uncovering obscured histories

To start addressing this challenge, we set up a volunteering project called Liberating the Collections in 2021. Thirteen volunteers searched our catalogue for books, pamphlets and journals that relate to the experiences of people from marginalised groups. Focusing on topics such as women book owners, same sex love and desire and BAME authors, they compiled a list of 650 books from our collections that provide glimpses into some of those obscured histories. A new display at the Student Centre, which is opening on 15th February ’22, will showcase a selection of images from the items that the project has uncovered.

Complex questions

Signatures of Mary Rich and Margarit Riche. John Harington. Orlando Furioso in English heroical verse (London: Richard Field, 1591) [STRONG ROOM OGDEN B 2]

Searching for these underrepresented voices in our collections brought up many questions that don’t have easy answers. Are descriptions of non-Western traditions by representatives of the nations that colonised these countries examples of preservation or exploitation? How do you uncover women’s histories when the surviving historical evidence is scanty? Can we apply modern notions of sexual identities to texts that were written by historic people?

These issues are reflected in some of the items that are included in the display. There is a copy of a sixteenth-century epic poem that was signed by Mary Rich and Margarit Riche, whose identities we can only guess at. Another item in the display is a volume of poetry by Katherine Philips (1632-64), who some consider to be a lesbian poet, although others have called this reading anachronistic. Also included is an illustration from Kaladlit okalluktualliait (1859-61), an anthology of Inuit folk tales that was published by a Danish colonial official.

Next steps

Portrait of Katherine Philips in Poems by the most deservedly admired Mrs Katherine Philips (London: H. Herringman, 1669) [STRONG ROOM OGDEN A QUARTO 168]

Listing items from our collections that relate to underrepresented and marginalised groups is only the first step in amplifying these voices. Through updating our catalogue records with the findings of the volunteers, we will make these items easier to discover. For example, where volunteers have identified women who previously owned books in our collections or women printers who used their late husband’s name, we are adding these names to the catalogue record. We are also planning to digitise some of these items so that they are freely available online, and we are using the list as a basis to diversify the items we use in our exhibitions, classes and events.

The Liberating the Collections project has only scratched the tip of the metaphorical iceberg, but already we are finding treasures as the ice starts to melt.

Word as Art: Beauty in the Margins

Sarah S Pipkin27 October 2021

A brown square with a banner at the top that reads ‘Library Services, UCL.’ The text in the square reads ‘Word As Art: Beauty in the Margins. October 2021-July 2022. An online exhibition featuring items from UCL Special Collections and the work of students at the Slade School of Fine Art. ucl.ac.uk/library/word-art-beauty-margins. #UCLWordAsArt.’ The square is decorated with a black and off-white floral pattern and a small drawing of a kingfisher.

Our new online exhibition, Word as Art: Beauty in the Margins, is now open!

Writing is an essential part of everyday communication. It permeates every element of our society so that it is easy to forget its prevalence. Yet every time we put words down on a page or type them on a screen, we are creating a piece of art unique to us.

Our new online exhibition, Word as Art: Beauty in the Margins, explores the permeable borders between art and writing. We examine manuscripts, printing, textiles and objects that celebrate the way in which we have embellished the word, making it far more than just a means of communication.

In addition to items from the Library collections, the exhibition includes three pieces of art by students from the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL. Their interpretations of writing and communication demonstrate that the books, manuscripts, and letters of the past continue to inform and inspire creative practices of the present.

The inspiration for the exhibition is the Slade 150 anniversary year, celebrating fine art teaching and research since 1871.

The exhibition runs from October 2021-July 2022, with plans for a physical presence in the UCL Main Library from December 2021.

To view ‘Word as Art: Beauty in the Margins’ visit our exhibitions webpage.

A two page spread decorated with gold leaf and floral patterns. At the centre of each page is two column or writing in Farsi script.

‘Word as Art:’ Call for Slade Student Art Submissions

Sarah S Pipkin30 April 2021

Decorative image that says 'Word as Art: Call for Art'

UCL Special Collections is asking for submissions from current undergraduate and postgraduate students at The Slade School of Fine Art who would like to be included in an online exhibition with the working title ‘Word as Art.’ This exhibition will help highlight the historic artistry of the written word while connecting it to the present legacy of The Slade School of Fine Art. 

‘Word as Art’ is an exploration of the artistry that takes place whenever we make words physical. It includes manuscripts, printing, textiles and objects that celebrate the way we have embellished the word and make it more than just writing on a page. We are inviting students at The Slade School of Fine Art to join a collaborative exhibition of selected works from UCL Special Collections and contemporary arts worksWe would like to see reflections on words and writing that challenge us to think about how writing reflects ourselves as much as the meaning of the word on the page. 

Three candidates will be selected for inclusion in UCL Special Collections Library Exhibition celebrating the artistic works present in UCL’s rare books and archives collection. It will be displayed online alongside rare books, manuscripts, and archival items. By being featured alongside items from UCL Special Collections it can help provide a new perspective on the exhibition themes as well as connect the artistry of the past to current practices.  

Due to Covid and space restrictions, artwork will be displayed online. Digital artworks are welcome, alongside photos and videos of physical or performative artworks. Currently there are no plans for a physical art display, but we will re-assess this on a case-by-case basis.  

The selected artists will receive a £100 prize for successful submissions and the opportunity to publish a brief statement about this work in the exhibition catalogue.  

If you would like to contribute, please send your artwork alongside a brief explanation (no more than 200 words) as to how your artwork ties into ‘Word as Art.’  

Deadline for submissions is midnight on May 31, 2021We aim to reply to all applicants in mid June and the exhibition is expected to go live in September 2021. Please send your submissions to library.spec.coll.ed@ucl.ac.uk. 

Image of MS Pers 1, an item that may be included in the exhibition. It features arabic caligraphy with a decorative border

Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan, a proposed exhibition item. (MS PERS/1)

A Sampler with decorative elements

Sampler, a proposed exhibition item. (HUGUENOT LIBRARY ARCHIVES. SAMPLER BOX)

Books, buildings, and people: an exhibition on the making of UCL Library Services

Helen Biggs28 November 2019

How do you make a library? In our current exhibition in UCL’s Main Library, we suggest that all it takes is three basic ingredients: books; somewhere to keep the books; and people to read and look after the books. Nice and easy… right?

Of course, From Small Library Beginnings: A brief history of UCL Library Services very quickly shows us that it’s not that simple. Tracing UCL’s libraries back to the start of UCL itself, we find that a lack of funding meant that the planned Great Library was never built, and the very first library was named instead the Small Library – a diminutive start for a university library service that today supports over 40,000 students.

Buildings need to be built: it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re occasionally difficult to come by. But even at a university, people can be in short supply, too. Certainly, the library doesn’t seem to have ever lacked for users, and one never has to look far to see traces of past borrowers in the form of notes scribbled in the margins of textbooks*. However, staffing a library can be a different matter, and for some 40 years, until 1871, UCL dispensed with the role of Librarian entirely, employing only an assistant – sometimes. A lack of funding was once more to blame.

Page from 'De Situ Orbis', showing handwritten student notes along with the book's own text.

Evidence of library users. (Side note: please don’t write in your library books.) [GRAVES 4.i.26]

That only leaves books. Here, it seems, UCL has been more fortunate. From the beginning a large number of books were donated, bequeathed, gifted and even bought, so while they may not have had a home or been well looked after, they were at least available to be read…

…Until the London Blitz, anyway. The Second World War saw the most precious books and manuscripts in the library’s collections sent to the National Library of Wales for safekeeping. Of those left behind, an estimated 100,000 were lost or damaged when the university was hit during a 1940 air raid.

We’ve been careful to label the exhibition as a ‘brief’ history, and it would certainly be difficult to present a full narrative of the service’s 17 sites and almost 200 years of existence in just one display. But you’ll still find plenty of fascinating stories here: a library bell made from 17th Century parts; the student life of famed librarian S. R. Ranganathan; the rise and fall of school libraries, and the impact of this on information literacy at universities.

For more on these stories and the items that tell them, download the exhibition catalogue, which includes an introduction by Anne Welsh from UCL’s own Department of Information Studies.

From Small Library Beginnings runs until Friday, 13 December in UCL Main Library, and is open to the public on weekdays, 9.30am-5pm.

*Marginalia can be fascinating and tell us a great deal about a book’s use and its previous owners. That being said, please don’t write in your library books.

Erasmus+ intern in UCL Special Collections

ucyliju21 November 2019

My name is Ibolya Jurinka. I am spending 3 months in UCL Special Collections as an Erasmus+ intern. Erasmus+ is not only a student exchange programme; it also provides overseas opportunities for all employees wishing to gain practical learning experiences from partner organisations in higher education.

I come from Hungary. I have been working as a librarian at the University Library and Archives of the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE).

The main reading room of University Library of ELTE

I catalogue journals, especially retrospective cataloguing. I mostly work with materials from 19-20th century, but I have also catalogued periodicals from 17-18th century and also from the 21st century. This summer I catalogued the oldest journals of our library with one of my specialist rare-book colleagues. These are from the 16th century:

Mercurii Gallobelgici, tom 1 (1598)

Cover of Mercurii Gallobelgici

I like this work and find it interesting, so wanted to gain more experience in this area abroad. This autumn I am cataloguing Little Magazines here at UCL Special Collections, and I have organized an exhibition about the most interesting magazines.

Little Magazines Collection

Basic information about Little Magazines

(source: SOAR, Geoffrey: Little Magazines at University College London)

‘Little Magazines are those that publish creative, often innovative work, with little or no regard for commercial gain. They sometimes have very small print runs and may last for relatively few issues. Most of them are from 1960s-1970s. The library of University College London started to collect Little Magazines from 1964’. It is a subsection of Small Press Collection.

Most of the Little Magazines are literary journals; they focus especially on modern, 20th century poetry and prose.

We can find colourful art magazines too in the Little Magazines Collection:

Cataloguing of Little Magazines

Cataloguing of little magazines is hard, because:

  • volume numbers and dates are often absent;
  • it is often hard to tell if a magazine is current or not;
  • many are published irregularly and often at widely spaced intervals;
  • many do not appear in official current bibliographies;
  • they are often visual and it is hard to identify the title.

Cover of Amaranth, no. 2 (1966?)

Visual Poetry in the Little Magazines exhibition, Main Library Donaldson stairs

Some of the Little Magazines contain visual and concrete poetry. This type of poetry appeared in the 20th century and became very popular. The exhibition focuses on little magazines containing visual poetry, whose title begins with the letter ‘A’. If you are interested in this exhibition, you can visit it from 24th October 2019 to 11th of December 2019 in the Main Library, either side of the stairs to the Donaldson Library. For more information, see the leaflets next to the exhibition cases.

Case 4 in the Main Library with 3 displayed items

One of the displayed items: Houedard, Dom Sylvester (D.S.H.): 12 dancepoems from the cosmic typewriter, no.11. In: Aplomb Zero, no. 1 (1969)