Behind the scenes: getting to know readers old and new

Hello, my name is Erika Delbecque and like Louise, I am new to UMASCS. I am, however, not new to the University of Reading; I worked here as a Trainee Liaison Librarian a few years ago. I have now returned to Reading as one of the two part-time UMASCS Librarians. In this role, I will be looking after the Special Collections and the MERL library.

These collections are incredibly varied and broad in scope, and I am really excited to be working with them. I have already come across a few fascinating items. For example, I encountered the following volume when I assisted at a class for third-year English students on Editing the Renaissance:

The title page of the 1640 edition of the works of Ben Jonson, with a portrait of the author on the opposite page

The title page of the 1640 edition of the works of Ben Jonson, with a portrait of the author on the opposite page

This is an edition of the works of the playwright Ben Jonson, printed by Richard Bishop in 1640. One early reader of this book has crossed out several words throughout the text. For example, this picture shows a fragment from Cynthia’s Revells, a satire first performed in 1600:

RF 822.34 VOL. 1 - Jonson

The words that are crossed out are faith, ‘fore heaven, and a pox on’t. In this way, this reader, who appears to have objected to swearing and mentioning religion in secular plays, has consistently removed all oaths and references to faith from the text in this play and several others in this volume. Although this reader did not actually write anything in this book, we can deduce a lot about him or her and the period he or she lived in by the blotches of ink that are scattered throughout the book.

Traces of previous readers like this one remind us of a book’s journey before it reached its place on the shelves at UMASCS. Starting at the printer’s office in 1640, this book travelled through the ages on a journey from owner to owner, before it was presented to the University of Reading by Professor D. J. Gordon in 1960. In this way, the traces that previous readers left behind can provide fascinating glimpses into the history of a book. They are one of the things that make being a Special Collections Librarian so exciting.

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