The Cardiff Rare Books Collection

History: towards a national archive

The recent acquisition by Cardiff University of the Cardiff Rare Books Collection presents a significant opportunity for research into English literature spanning the 15th to the 20th centuries. Totalling around 14,000 items, the collection was assembled by Cardiff public library from the late 19th century from donations, purchases and bequests when it had aspirations to become the home of the National Library of Wales. Accumulated as part of Cardiff’s heritage, these books reflect all of the major stages in book production from the earliest printed works to modern fine bindings, and engage with many of the cultural and literary trends in Europe over the last 500 years.

Representing core English and Continental works from the municipal collection, the Cardiff Rare Books were acquired by the University in 2010, with the assistance of the Welsh Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales. The acquisition of a collection of this size, depth and quality will enable Cardiff University to move into the senior league of humanities research collections and to create opportunities for collaborative research across Wales, the UK and internationally.

The collection is now permanently housed in Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR), in the Arts and Social Studies Library, which is located just inside the University’s Colum Drive campus, near the junction of Corbett Road, Park Place and Colum Road.

About the collection: overview and highlights

The international significance of the Cardiff Rare Books Collection lies in its inclusion of a number of extremely rare and some unique items. Among its strengths are 175 incunabula (early printed books before 1500); a cross-section of Early Modern works that encapsulate the Renaissance and Reformation; around 500 Bibles; a world-class collection of Restoration drama, including rare Shakespearian material; significant holdings on natural history, topography and travel; and an extraordinary set of books from British private presses operating in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of the 14,000 items, initial surveys estimate that approximately one third of the collection can be classed as literary works. Another major feature of the collection is the rich strain of illustrated material that runs through the entire collection.

Many items in the collection are almost certainly not held in any other library collection in the world, and further books are only held in one other library. But the real value lies in the groupings of works: for example, a major set of 17th-century editions of Shakespeare is extremely rare, and the Restoration drama collection appears to be unique in its comprehensiveness. In addition to its Anglophone publications, the collection contains books in other European languages by Continental authors, with its incunable material representing outputs from the major centres of the early printed book (including Venice, Lyon and Nuremburg).

Although we are only beginning to uncover the sheer plenitude of research value that such a corpus will unlock for future generations of scholars, the following list represents highlights of the Cardiff Rare Books collection:

  • Over 500 years of rare and esoteric material, ranging from A Trojan History (1472) to DanielS Jubb’s flipbook of photographs, Bookcase(1994).
  • A large body of works by major and minor literary figures of the 16th to early 18th centuries, with a particularly focus on Restoration drama: Cibber (28 vols), Congreve (16), Cowley (26), Dryden (128), Lee (44), Milton (51), Ottway (34), Shadwel (32), Shakespeare (236).
  • Substantive materials from other periods:Chaucer (19 vols), Cowley (26), Defoe (19), Goldsmith (20), Smollett (38), Sterne (15), Swift (31), Yeats (31).
  • A sizable collection of works from other cultures, in both their native language and translation:Boccaccio (81 vols), Dante (23), Homer (45), Horace (26), Ovid (38), Virgil (62).
  • Works by key Western European theologians and mystics, including Aquinas, Calvin, Luther Tindale and Zwingli; as well as more esoteric volumes by Cornelius Agrippa, Apianus and Glanvil.
  • A variety of other works in smaller numbers but bearing significant cultural freight, among them: early collections of Newton, Swift, Johnson and Boswell; originals and translations of Lope da Vega, Cervantes, Descartes and Voltaire; Bibles in numerous languages; sermons; political pamphlets; novels; poetry; specialist works on medicine, botany, topography and travel, to illustrated private presses including 38 volumes from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

The full scope of the collection will become clearer as cataloguing continues, and Information Services staff are currently processing and prioritising works for conservation, online cataloguing and selective digitisation in a three-year programme, which has already won an Esmee Fairbairn external grant of over £90,000 to begin the cataloguing, and another £25,000 from the Colwinston Trust for conservation work.

Digital intersections

A further exciting prospect of the Cardiff Rare Books acquisition lies in the opportunities it provides in bringing together rare and unique archival materials into a 21st-century context, in light of recent advances in the digital remediation of cultural artefacts. Issues regarding preservation and accessibility are at the forefront of current debates about literary capital, and are driving policies that are shaping the new canons of the digital age. Cardiff University has had a long-standing record in combining traditional literary scholarship with digital humanities, particularly in a number of research projects based in the Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research (CEIR) since its inception in 1997. The Cardiff Rare Books collection will enable CEIR to expand beyond its typical focus on the long nineteenth century and illustrated works, and to apply expertise in bibliography, textual scholarship and digital humanities across a much wider literary corpus in new and transformative ways.

Scholars and archivists are already working to digitise material from the Cardiff Rare Books for easy access by members of the public. As part of a Wolfson Foundation grant to the University Library Service, SCOLAR has purchased two forty-inch touchscreen kiosks and Turning the Pages software to show, in full-colour, some of its oldest and rarest documents. The touchscreens allow readers to ‘touch’ pages of the digitised rare books, so that users can turn the pages in real-life 3D mode, zoom in, magnify images and admire some of the magnificently illustrated books and manuscripts in our collections—which are rarely seen by any but the most serious researchers. Some of the works which can already be read using the devices include a 14th-century music manuscript, a 15th-century illustrated history, a 16th-century Bible, a 17th-century atlas and an 18th-century edition of Shakespeare, complete with its 300-year-old handwritten annotations. This ground-breaking technology, used in Cardiff for the first time ever in Wales, enables the community to discover the fascinating historical research collections in the University Libraries.

Other key collections for literary scholars at Cardiff University

Cardiff University has acquired and developed special collections and archives to support teaching and research ever since it was founded in 1883. Most of these collections are now housed in SCOLAR. Notable collections which complement the Cardiff Rare Books Collection include:

  • Salisbury Library: an internationally renowned and wide-ranging repository of materials of Welsh and Celtic interest from the 16th to the 21st centuries, which also includes significant collections of items relating to the English border counties of the Welsh Marches.
  • Carmarthen Collection: rare books and scientific equipment from the Carmarthen Academy, founded in the early 18th century; among the 5000 books are many rare theological, philosophical and scientific volumes.
  • Reece and Morse Collections: around 3000 volumes, ranging from the 16th to the 20th centuries, from the library of a former Mayor of Cardiff who was also an antiquarian book collector, and from a former University academic’s collection.
  • Periodicals collection: a range of major and lesser-known British periodicals from the long 19th century, including the Gentleman’s Magazine, Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, The Strand, Christian Observer, Baptist Magazine, and many others.
  • Corvey Microfiche Edition: around 3300 titles by nearly 1300 writers, dating from 1790 to 1830, microfiched and catalogued. The novels section comprises approximately two thirds of the collection (for which it rivals the British Library’s holdings in terms of completeness), along with 400 poetic works and nearly 200 dramas. Other prose forms included are fairy tales, legends, fables, and children’s stories, as well as biographies, essays and contemporary literary criticism, travel writing, periodical work, and over 100 anthologies.
  • Longman Archives and Archives of the Royal Literary Fund: these two microfilm collections provide access to papers from two of the most significant print-cultural institutions spanning the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. Together, these archives offer detailed information about accounting practices, contracts, print runs, profits (and losses) and the case files that anecdotally detail the circumstances of both major and minor writers in their own words.

 Click below to view a podcast about the Rare Books Collection from Cardiff University

Find out more about the Collection by visiting Cardiff’s Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR) homepage.



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