Uncovering Hidden Histories: Provenance research internships in the Edward Clark Collection
During July, the University’s Heritage Collections department hosted two student interns whose intrepid research skills greatly helped us to find information about past owners, donors and custodians of the rare books held within the Edward Clark Collection. Here, Natalie Quinn (MSc in Publishing) talks about their experience of their internship.
My Experience as a Special Collections Intern
You might think that completing an internship, alongside writing a 15,000-word Master’s dissertation and working a part-time job, sounds like a crazy idea. You would be right. However, when I saw the opportunity to work with the library’s special collections department to identify provenance marks in books in the Edward Clark Collection, I just couldn’t let that pass me by. Earlier this year, I volunteered at a charity shop to help with the sorting, pricing, and shelving of books. This experience ignited my interest in the journeys that books go on as they pass between owners, and the notes left inside that tell us more about their histories. Therefore, I was immediately attracted to this internship and couldn’t wait to see which little remnants of history I would uncover.
[Figure 1: Inscription reading “Henry E. Napier to Lady Augusta Fox, Florence, Sept[embe]r 17th, 1838. ‘Pochi compagni avrai pepl’altra via; Tanto ti prego piu, gentile spirto, non lafear la magnanima tua impresa.’” (ECC E51).]
This internship has involved me going through many of the books in the Edward Clark Collection, from enormous tomes to the tiniest volumes, and looking at every page to record any evidence of where the book came from and who may have owned it. From something as inconsequential as a leaf pressed between the pages to bookplates and inscriptions bearing the names and dates of the books’ previous owners, these books had so much to reveal. My focus was on books from the nineteenth century, an era in which I am particularly interested, and I really appreciated how I was able to tailor the internship to my own curiosities.
[Figure 2: Inscription reading “J.W. Frampton, from his affectionate father, August 12th 1859” (ECC E68).]
I have gained so much from this internship, from learning that small drawings of hands with a finger pointing to the text, called manicules, were used for centuries in the same way we might use a highlighter to draw attention to important text, to discovering that a different calendar was used in France for twelve years following the French revolution. The latter I discovered from the one word I was able to decipher from a French letter stuck in the back of a book, the owner of which I later uncovered was in Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo and recorded his experiences in his journal.
[Figure 3: Letter pasted in the back of the book entitled Napoléon en Prusse: poème épique en douze chants (ECC E3).]
This experience has made me feel like a detective, scouring the internet for records of the names I found and feeling such a sense of accomplishment when I was able to find information on their lives.
This internship has inspired me to record more of myself in my own books and leave more notes as a record for the future. I have already decided to get my own personalised book stamp and will be updating my own collection so that one day it will chart the course of my life. One of my favourite gifts to give and receive is a book with a personalised inscription and I love the idea of someone in hundreds of years reading them and trying to piece together the context of the message and try to find out more about who wrote it. I have found it very amusing to think that centuries ago someone wrote their name, doodled, or made comments in the margins in a book and I’ve recorded it in an excel spreadsheet. It has made me realise how something so seemingly insignificant can become such a fascinating window into the lives of the people who came before us.
[Figure 4: Inscription reading “Thomas Henry Clifton, from his affectionate Godmother, [?] Lowther, March 29th, 1845 (ECC E84).]
One message I would leave to the people of the past, and to anyone leaving notes in books today, is to make your handwriting legible!
[Figure 5: Inscription reading “H. Castellane a Lady Augusta Fox, le 7 avril 1859 a Florence” (ECC E54).]
By Natalie Quinn
Read more on our special collections in the article on the War Poets