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A very Special Collection

8 July 2013

With half a million items dating from the fourth century to the present day, UCL Special Collections certainly lives up to its name. Here, Rare Books Librarian Dr Tabitha Tuckett gives Ele Cooper a glimpse into the fascinating – and at times eccentric – archives, rare books and manuscripts.

An object-based learning session in the Grant Museum

A central principle of the Special Collections is that items relating to one another should be kept together in order for their provenance and significance to be more readily apparent. This explains how a collection started before UCL even opened its doors in 1826 now comprises around half a million images, letters, books, manuscripts and papyruses.

A treasure trove this colossal is not easily housed, and the storage is in something of a limbo state: most of the Special Collections are being held at the National Archives in Kew, awaiting the realisation of the UCL Estates Masterplan. This makes access tricky, although UCL Library Services’ Digital Collections do, to some extent, make this less problematic.

There is, however, a small teaching collection that has been kept onsite at UCL and is therefore more readily accessible. Object-based learning is an increasingly popular method for HE teaching as it helps students develop skills in problem-based learning, teamwork, communication, lateral thinking and research. Tabitha explains that staff interested in using items from the Special Collections for this purpose can either teach the session themselves with a member of the Special Collections team on hand to supervise, or they can co-teach alongside a member of Special Collections (read a case study on this here), or the session can be led by someone from Special Collections. A very popular example of the latter is Preservation Librarian Fred Bearman’s classes on the history of parchment-making using animal skin, and Tabitha herself also regularly leads object-based learning sessions.

Unsurprisingly, many Special Collections items are extremely valuable. Furthermore, the collections are so huge that many items haven’t been properly discovered or catalogued yet: a PhD student recently booked an appointment to look at a parchment charter but found that it hadn’t been opened in a very long time – or, quite possibly, ever – so it had to be taken to conservation experts and dehumidified for two weeks.

Collectible curiosities

Some of the more unusual items contained within the Special Collections include…

  • A copy of the first fully illustrated edition of Vesalius’s De Corporis Fabrica (an anatomy textbook published in 1555) complete with pop-up genitals on one of its anatomical diagrams – the original plate contains Latin instructions on how to cut, fold and stick the paper. This copy came from the UCL Medical School, where it was in use as a textbook until sometime in the 19th century.
  • Captain Cook’s handwritten navigation manual, which includes tips on where to drop anchor and the muddy patches to avoid.
  • Notes, drawings and photographs charting 20th-century genetics research, including Francis Galton’s skull measurements of criminals and an image merging photos of several different people into one, which Galton claimed would give an idea of what a criminal might look like.

The Special Collections also include items that might not be quite what they seem: “We have some forged Shakespeare papers from the 19th century and it’s very easy to get excited about them before you realise what they really are,” says Tabitha. “In fact one time I was a bit mean and asked a tutor when he thought they had been written. He offered quite a reasonable date as a guess, without realising they were forgeries – it’s a useful lesson that you need to be a bit cynical when working with historical objects.”

Despite their less than ideal accommodation arrangements, the Special Collections team are ambitious. A key aim is to make all first-year students aware of the Collections and the vast wealth of material they contain. This process is already in place in some departments: “The physicists have a session in the first week of their first year in which the lecturer introduces them to the key figures they’ll be learning about during their degree,” says Tabitha. “Of course, Newton is one of them, and halfway through we go in and show them a first edition. This is the book that his ideas were first printed in and the students get so excited; you can’t get that same excitement from a picture of the book.”

Public engagement is another significant priority for the Special Collections. Anyone can make an appointment to see objects or books, so Tabitha spends a lot of her time corresponding with external researchers, and she also works on outreach events and projects. One, only completed recently, involved working with UCL Art Museum, women’s community groups and asylum seekers training as guides at the Wallace Collection. This resulted in many of the women who participated creating artworks based on what they’d seen, which are now on display in the UCL Library. “We also showed them early maps and they had quite a lot to say about migration. We learned a lot from them,” Tabitha says.

Working with the Special Collections is understandably inspiring. “I’ve never worked with such a rich and stunning collection that spans so many different periods. It’s a complete privilege,” says Tabitha. With people as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as this on hand to advise and work with, it’s not surprising that the Special Collections is in high demand for teaching projects – and with object-based learning firmly established on the UCL teaching and learning agenda, this popularity shows no sign of abating.

Further information

Page last modified on 04 jul 13 16:29

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