Rare books and manuscripts ‘potluck’ online in 2021

Public and university libraries have faced the pandemic with a multitude of inventive new ways of connecting books and readers, such as ‘Grab and Go’ book deliveries limiting the time of physical visits. What about special collections libraries, whose materials cannot be taken out of the institution? Temporary closures or limited access to reading rooms have meant a pivot towards more provision of digital resources, and archivists and librarians have been active in unearthing treasures to share on social media.

The lockdown period has also been an opportunity to explore what can be done in new ways and even to push beyond the usual patterns of scholarly discourse. Online meeting platforms and visualizers (the modern version of that classroom standby, the overhead projector) lend themselves to the visual exploration and discussion of related items, collections, or genres of material held in institutions that are geographically distant.

Using this technology and adapting seminar formats to online presentation, at the Bodleian Libraries Centre for the Study of the Book we have found new opportunities to participate in cross-institutional events in 2021,  sharing collection material with other libraries via online platforms and learning from their expert staff and unique items. In the style of a potluck meal, each institution brings a copy or a witness to the online gathering which fills out the whole intellectual smörgåsbord.

29 Jan 2021 Coverdale’s Goostly Psalmes [follow link for recording]
‘Translating, Singing, Printing the Reformation. The Queen’s College Sammelband with Myles Coverdale’s Goostly Psalmes’, with a showing of The Queen’s College copy and the Bodleian and Beinecke Library fragments
(Oxford Seminar in the History of the Book)
Henrike Lähnemann, Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford
Matthew Shaw, Librarian of The Queen’s College, Oxford
Sarah Wheale, Head of Rare Books at the Bodleian Libraries
Kathryn James,  Curator for Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Library
See blogpost with downloadable foldable ‘fragments’ and links to facsimiles

1 Feb 2021 Medieval book coffers [follow link for recording]
Bodleian and John Rylands curators
‘Newly acquired medieval book coffers at the Bodleian and the John Rylands Libraries’
(Oxford Palaeography and Manuscripts Studies Seminar)
See the 3D image of the Bodleian coffer on Cabinet, here.

Coming up:

4 May Dante 1481: the Comedia, illustrated by Botticelli [follow link to register]
Bodleian Libraries; University College, London; Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze; Morgan Library; British Library; John Rylands Library; Trinity College, Cambridge
(Bibliographical Society of America event and in conjunction with special series Dante 1321-2021: A Man For All Seasons)

22 June Yiddish and Russian Children’s Books [registration opens soon]
YIVO and Bodleian Libraries

And doubtless more to be added …

The Cheney Archive at the Bodleian Libraries

from Isobel Goodman, intern (2017) Rare Books, Bodleian Libraries Special Collections

The Cheney archive documents the history of Cheney & Sons, an independent family printing firm based in Banbury. The firm was in operation from 1767 to 2001, working primarily as jobbing printers but also printing some books. The archive, acquired by the Bodleian Library in 2010, includes 17 volumes of printed ephemera, books, and manuscript material, and demonstrates both the longevity of the company and their adaptability through over two centuries of politics, wars and changing technology.

The company was begun in 1767 by John Cheney, the innkeeper of the Unicorn Inn in Banbury. From there it passed through various generations of Cheney until it finally closed down some 234 years later. A particularly interesting aspect of the firm’s history is during the period 1821 to 1854, when Esther Cheney, the wife of the founder’s son, Thomas, was the head of the company. A letter sent out by her to clients informing them of this change of leadership is within the archive[1], as well as another one from when Esther handed control to her son in 1854[2].

Several items within the archive thus bear the imprint E. Cheney[3], and according to the Cheney’s own history, Esther was a formidable woman of renown in Banbury. Apparently the people of Banbury used to frighten naughty children by threatening to call in Mrs. Cheney! Her position is interesting as she was clearly acting as head of the company in her own right, an action that was not necessarily the norm at the time. For more detail on the history of the firm, Cheney and Sons printed their own history, which is also part of the archive[4].

The archive sheds light on the print trade across over two centuries. The Cheneys produced several specimen books containing numerous examples of their work[5], showcasing the variety of commissions that the Cheney family could undertake, as well as demonstrating the types, colours, materials, and finishes that they could offer. Specimen books like these were, and remain today, a very practical way of showing potential clients the services offered by a company.

But Cheney & Sons took every opportunity to demonstrate their printing skill, for instance the archive contains several promotional calendars  which were given as gifts to clients at the end of the year[6]. These calendars not only showcase the artistic skill of the printing firm, but also allow us to see changing tastes in artwork through the years. They also show that maintaining client loyalty and goodwill was an important part of running the business, and the further examples within the archive of these kinds of tokens of thanks[7] (SDC11230) printed by Cheney & Sons for other businesses, suggest that business-client relationships were much more personal in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is interesting to discover, through the archive material, the different ways in which print was utilised through the late 18th to 21st centuries, and the insight these materials can give us into social history of the time.

The Cheney archive affords a wealth of examples of printed documents relating to entertainment. There are numerous notices for concerts[8]  and plays[9] , as well as a dance card to the Banbury ball of December 1897[10] , listing the dances and with room for a lady to write in a partner for each. Also, there is a poster printed by Potts[11] and a newspaper article by Cheney[12] detailing the celebrations planned for the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation, showing how, in a time before television allowed live viewing of the actual event in London, the people of Banbury (and presumably other towns too) enjoyed coronation day: with dancing, sports, and an ‘immense fire balloon’!

Another lovely example of Cheney & Co’s involvement in local entertainment is a book printed in 1907 to commemorate the Oxford Pageant[13]. The pageant was organised to raise funds for the Radcliffe Infirmary and the Oxford Eye Hospital, and involved the people of Oxford dressing up in historical dress and re-enacting the history of Oxford. My personal highlights are the Vikings landing, Queen Elizabeth and her court being photographed school-photograph style, and a recreation of the St. Scholastica’s Day ‘Town and Gown’ riots!

Several volumes of the archive are full of printed ephemera related to politics, further demonstrating the Cheney’s connection with the general public. Some are open letters from MPs at election time. Others record contemporary reaction to political changes, for example some notices refer to the change to a secret ballot in 1872, instructing voters how to cast their vote properly[14]. However, some are perhaps even more relevant to the present day: vicious tirades against fellow MPs[15] , and satires describing the election as a horse-race, with a notice of betting on the contestants, and a summary after the ‘race’[16]. . These satires were published by various different printers in Banbury and the surrounding area, and so the archive demonstrates a wide range of political affiliations, showing elections from several different perspectives. It is interesting to see how, in a world without social media, politics could be equally as cut-throat, and printed ephemera clearly played a very important role in this.

Fashion is another particular strength of the Cheney archive. Several catalogues and pamphlets for different shops can be found, including one for Elliston and Cavell Ltd., the shop that used to be situated at 7-12 Magdalen Street, Oxford, where Debenhams is now[17]. The catalogues offer insight not only into trends for men, women and children, but also into how the fashion trade operated in the 20th century.


Outside of examples of work printed by Cheney and Sons, one manuscript letter[18]

written to ‘Mr Cheney Guild-der’ describes quite a curious commission received by the Cheney firm. Richard Barton asks Cheney to ‘put’ images of angels, Jesus and a small child on two clarinets. The letter is not very professionally written, as the writer starts over three times and runs out of space at the bottom of the page. He also states that he doesn’t want to ask the usual man, because he’s always drunk! This seems quite a strange request to make of a printer – but serves to show another side of the Cheney firm, which was gilding.

The archive does not just include work by the Cheney firm, though. It also includes the work of other local printers, including J.G. Rusher, who printed a large number of chapbooks in the early nineteenth century. These are small, paper-covered booklets relating children’s stories, folk tales, ballads, poems and riddles, often accompanied by illustrations. Chapbooks were a medium of popular literature in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and the large number of them printed in Banbury by Rusher, Cheney, and other local printers sheds light on the history of production and distribution of such popular literature. Many of the chapbooks relate well-known stories such as Jack the giant killer[19] , Dick Whittington[20] , Cinderella[21], and Jack and Jill[22] , to name but a few.

The range within the Cheney archive material is very broad, as such a lengthy timeframe is likely to afford. Some of the archive material relates to World War II, including notices relating to the blackout and air raids[23].  One notice includes a watermark for ‘Cheney and Sons, Banbury’ . It is clear that the longevity of the Cheney firm stems not only from printing commercially viable popular material, but also from their ability to adapt and change their work to suit current events and extraordinary circumstances.

The archive thus demonstrates the breadth of the uses of print through the late 18th to 21st centuries, and the real integration of a printing firm into every aspect of a community’s life. As we move increasingly further away from a world of print and into a digital age, it is fascinating to see how crucial print has been right up to recent history, and to track some of these changes through one family and printing firm.


[1] Cheney d.2 (4)

[2] Cheney d.2 (12)

[3] Cheney 144 and Cheney 161

[4] Cheney 159

[5] Cheney c.6/2; Cheney c.9

[6] Cheney c.20

[7] Cheney albums 15

[8] Cheney d.2 (9)

[9] Cheney b.4 (1)

[10] Cheney c.9

[11] Cheney a.5 (51)

[12] Cheney a.1 (2)

[13] Cheney c.10

[14] Cheney a.3 (5) and Cheney a.4 (34)

[15] Cheney a.1 (13) and Cheney a.3 (60)

[16] Cheney a.4 (47) and Cheney a.4 (44)

[17] Cheney c.17

[18] MS. Cheney d.1 (1)

[19] Cheney 29

[20] Cheney 38

[21] Cheney 18

[22] Cheney 22

[23] Cheney c.23

Marks in books: laying breadcrumbs in provenance research

Bodleian Tanner 942(2) title page
William Dowsing’s annotations on the title page of Bodleian Tanner 942(2) (and a library note of another copy)

I’ve been looking at the neat handwritten annotation at the top of a page in the Bodleian Library’s copy at Tanner 942(2) of A moste sure and strong defence of the baptisme of children, published in 1551, guided by Dunstan Roberts (Cambridge) in the latest of the master classes convened at the library by Will Poole.

The annotation is by William Dowsing (1596-1668) of Suffolk, noting his purchase of this short book in November, 1627. At the end of the pamphlet, he notes the dates that he read this work, over two days in the following February.

A tidy mind is a wonderful thing. Was this useful in Dowsing’s later role as ‘Commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition’, carrying out the ordinances of Parliament in 1643 and 1644? Dowsing’s collection included several books of the 16th-century Reformation, which he seems to have pored over, refining his sense of Puritan outrage at any idolatry or beliefs unsupported by scripture, annotating with chapter and verse where the earlier authors were sloppy in their references.

Roberts presented Dowsing as a case of the long historical tail of the Henrician reformation. In the process, he pointed to several bibliographical puzzles and possibilities.

One was the tantalizing detail in which Dowsing recorded not only the date of purchase, but the date and duration of his reading of books. How the history of reading would benefit if all readers were so systematic!

A puzzle was the fate of Dowsing’s collection of pamphlets. His systematic re-numbering of the pages in his own collected volumes laid a trail of clues to his collecting and arrangement of books that are now broken up and dispersed.

How can modern scholars find, and share, these small traces that can add up to a picture of larger lost libraries? The series convener of the master classes on printed books with manuscript contents, Will Poole, has reconstructed the library of Francis Lodwick from lists in the Sloane manuscripts at the British Library and from clues in Bodleian and British Library books, such as marginal annotations and shelfmarks (The Library, 7th Series, vii(2006), p.377-418). The Hans Sloane printed books project has followed Sloane’s distinctive marks to identify his own printed books inside and outside the British Library. http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelprestype/prbooks/sloaneprintedbooksproject/sloaneprinted.html

The American Library Association rules for descriptive cataloguing of rare books specify that provenance information for copies held by a library should be included in catalogue records for those copies. We also know that librarians and scholars have been keeping independent records of this sort of information for years, as in this example from a card catalogue compiled by the late D.M. Rogers at the Bodleian, recording coats of arms, autographs, and notes and sometimes reproducing these.
DMRogers card
This kind of information might be useful only as threads to knit together collections long since scattered. What methods will help scholars to find information on a book they are looking at, and what will enable their contribution to a collective effort to increase the knowledge held in libraries about the history of the books and manuscripts in their care?

The database of Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) hosted by CERL, gathers provenance information for incunabula. http://www.cerl.org/resources/mei/main.

David Pearson’s list of English book owners in the 17th century is a PDF file available on the Bibliographical Society website simply organized alphabetically by name of owner, with links to images showing autographs and other distinctive marks. http://www.bibsoc.org.uk/content/english-book-owners-seventeenth-century

Can researchers be empowered to contribute information as they find it in libraries around the world? On LibraryThing, Legacy Libraries (http://www.librarything.com/groups/iseedeadpeoplesbooks) enables collective efforts to build a virtual library catalogue by adding records of editions that were owned by an individual.

The CERL web portal offers a question board, for those who are confronted with an unknown bookplate or signature. http://www.cerl.org/resources/provenance/can_you_help.

How well do any of these methods enable a researcher a) to learn what is known, about a book or an owner; b) to find out what is still unknown; c) to estimate the costs and benefits – (Is It Worth It?) – of pursuing an anonymous annotator or of reconstructing a lost library?

And in what format can this help be provided? When is the information best conveyed by standard vocabularies and thesauri, integrated with authoritative bio-bibliographical information? Or on the other hand by visual databases of distinctive marks shared among researchers labouring in the same vineyard? Online folders of snapshots already enable libraries to organize evidence into groups (bookplates, inscriptions) for visual identification and matching, as here from the Bodleian Libraries CSB: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oxford_csb/ and the much more extensive Penn Provenance Project image stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/58558794@N07/.

A controlled vocabulary in a prescribed format, or a gallery of graven images: what would William Dowsing say?

John Wallis and the idea of a universal library

A cryptographic manuscript book by John Wallis (1616-1703) shows text mark-up at work in the early modern period. The symbols Wallis identified in this code include pairs of symbols that ‘signify that what is between is to be deleted’, and one symbol to delete that which is before it. The work by Wallis, who had decrypted letters during the Civil Wars, was a book of deciphered letters, intended to teach the skill to another generation.
MS. Eng. misc. c. 382

Louisiane Ferlier’s master class on October 14 examined books donated by Wallis to the Bodleian and other Oxford libraries. Cryptographer, mathematician, founding member of the Royal Society and controversialist, he was the Savilian Professor of Geometry from 1649 until his death, and was elected Keeper of the University Archives in 1657.
His donations to the Savilian Library (kept privately within the Bodleian) and to the Bodleian itself were the subject of Dr Ferlier’s discussion, as she examined the means and possible motives of his presentation of printed books, pamphlets and manuscript books. Manuscript publication of books of letters intercepted in cipher, which Wallis had deciphered during the Civil Wars, he presented in order, he wrote, to teach others how to decrypt codes. Other materials seemed particularly aimed to strengthen the Bodleian’s holdings of material intended to show the truth of Protestant religion.
see: Cultures of Knowledge calendar and edition of Wallis’s correspondence and The Wallis Project, an investigation of his works on grammar, on logic and on music theory.

The Cadiz pirates

Portrait of Elizabeth I (1533–1603)  by Wilhelm Sonmans
Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
by Wilhelm Sonmans
(c) Bodleian Libraries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Dr Anders Ingram (National University of Ireland, Hakluyt Edition Project) used copies of the second edition of Hakluyt’s Principle Navigations (1598-1600) to explore the nature of censorship in Elizabethan England. At issue was the passage describing the Cadiz Expedition of 1596, led by the Earl of Essex and Lord Howard, during which English and Dutch troops sacked the Spanish city.

But the failure to capture the Spanish treasure fleet, and the conduct of the leaders, including the distribution of the booty, led to royal suppression of Essex’s own account of his actions. Two years later, Hakluyt included in his Navigations a “brief description” written by the doctor who travelled on the Ark Royal. The pages containing this episode were later excised from many copies of the work, and a new title page was produced omitting mention of the Cadiz expedition. Examining the physical evidence in three copies of Hakluyt’s Navigations from Bodleian collections, Dr Ingram showed that these represented different variants, and called into question the reason for the removal of these leaves: was this censorship, or action by the publishers in advance of the appearance of Hakluyt’s second volume, printed in 1599, which had found a sponsor in Robert Cecil, one of the examiners of the costs of the expedition during the controversy?

The copies examined contained: (1) The edition intact with the Cadiz episode as originally printed and a title page dated 1598; (2) The Cadiz leaves intact, but with a new title page dated 1599; (3) The leaves containing the description of the Cadiz episode replaced with a later (c. 1720) reprint, in different type and differently set.

Thomas Barlow’s legacy of manuscript additions

A grasshopper; from John Guillim, A display of heraldry (London, 1638), Bodleian I 2.9 Med, a painted copy.

Will Poole’s masterclass in treating a collection of books as a primary source took the example of Thomas Barlow (1608-1691), Bodley’s Librarian, Provost of the Queen’s College, Oxford, Professor of Divinity and Bishop of Lincoln. As Dr Poole remarked, the examples shown in the class demonstrated that in Oxford, early modern books couldn’t be neatly divided into printed books and manuscripts. The class examined extensive additions and annotations made by Barlow to his books. Some annotations fall into the category of marks of reading but others extend to subject bibliographies or biographical notes on authors. Many record politico-theological disputes of the time, with Barlow’s own vehement remarks on the pertinence of the contents. In effect, Poole pointed out, these printed books contain working notes for Barlow’s own academic life as a polemical theologian.
Locating all the copies that belonged to Barlow has taken Poole into some detective work in the Bodleian’s own archives and in the archives of the Queen’s College, two institutions which shared in Barlow’s bequest. Librarians were interested to hear what further copy-specific information could be added to catalogue records on the basis of Poole’s research.

MS. notes and the title page of Alexander Cooke, Pope Joane (London, 1625), Bodleian A 3.13 Linc., with Thomas Barlow’s references to related material in the Bodleian Library, marks of ownership, and his note on the author.

Books and their readers: masterclass with William Poole, 29 Oct. 2012

Bodleian G 7.3 Th, note by Thomas Barlow [detail]

Will Poole examines the books belonging to Thomas Barlow (1607–1691) Provost of The Queen’s College and Bishop of Lincoln, in a masterclass to be held Monday, 29 October at 2:15, in the Pitt Rivers Lecture Room.

Extensive annotations and manuscript additions give clues to Barlow’s reading, including his notes (pictured) in Bodleian G 7.3 Th. [Nicholas Crosse], The Cynosura, or a Saving Star (London, 1670), criticising the dedicatory letter to the Countess of Shrewsbury – and questioning the morals of the countess herself.

Some of Barlow’s books and library records detailing their history, and the history of other early modern printed collections within the Bodleian, will be inspected during the class.

Dr Poole’s document on manuscript additions to printed books in the Bodleian Library collections can be found here

The classes on annotated books continue later in the term with:
26 November : masterclass
Felix Waldmann (Cambridge), ‘James Tyrrell, John Locke, and the text of Patriarcha non Monarcha (1681): the evidence from some Bodleian copies”
2:15, in the Pitt Rivers Museum Lecture Room

A tale of two bibles: Rare Books masterclass

The origins and early history of the King James Bible are very much intertwined with that of the Puritan Geneva Bible (1560), on which it drew but which it also, eventually, displaced. At a masterclass on 20 May 2011, Helen Moore, fellow in English at Corpus Christi College and one of the curators of the exhibition, Manifold Greatness (at the Bodleian Library and Folger Library in 2011), showed two examples of the King James Bible from Bodleian collections; Bodleian Library Bib. Eng. 1613 e.1(2), an edition printed in London by Robert Barker (the printer of the first edition of this translation, two years earlier in 1611 — this 1613 black-letter quarto was a “He” bible repeating the error in Ruth 3:15 of one of the 1611 printings), and another edition printed in Amsterdam in 1672, Bodleian Library Bib. Eng. 1672 c.1(1).

Moore examined the paratextual elements which affected how the Bible was read, quoted, and taken as a spiritual guide by 17th-century readers. These include the illustrations drawing typological parallels between Old and New Testaments, annotations explaining the text, and concordances or tables helping readers to find reference in Scripture to particular topics.

KJB or Genevan?

King James I’s invitation to scholars to produce a new version of the bible was an attempt both to mollify Puritans in the Church of England who wished to promote greater knowledge of the Bible in English, and to replace the Geneva Bible, at that time the most popular English version. The Geneva Bible, conceived and produced by English Protestant exiles who had fled to Geneva to escape persecution during the reign of Mary I, reflected their theological and political ideas. James I’s instructions were that the new version should exclude commentary entirely. The “Rules to be Observed in Translation” drawn up for the translators of the KJB stated that “no marginall notes at all [were] to be affixed”. But examining the books themselves helped to prove Helen Moore’s point that bibliographical study questions this “anti-paternal” relationship of the Genevan bible to the KJB.

With the two editions from library collections to hand, Moore showed how looking at the contents of these books enabled a more detailed view of what contents circulated under the title page of the King James Bible. In both of these KJB editions, “Genevan” elements were evident; the woodcut title page of the first black-letter quarto edition, from 1613, was a close imitation of the title page of black-letter quarto editions of the Geneva Bible; extensive marginal annotations were printed in the 1672 Amsterdam edition, in defiance of James’s “no commentary” rule; the woodcut used as a title page vignette for the New Testament in the 1672 edition was copied from the Geneva Bible woodcut illustrations.

As a cultural phenomenon, elements of the “Genevan” Bible survived long after the advent of the version that was meant to replace it.

An exhibition catalogue, Manifold Greatness: the making of the King James Bible, edited by Helen Moore and Julian Reid, is published by the Bodleian Library.