Access to the MERL and Special Collections Library: May 2017


Due to essential maintenance work, we regret to inform you that access to the MERL and Special Collections open access library corridor will be restricted or unavailable on the following dates:

  • Tuesday 16 May – Thursday 18 May
  • Tuesday 23 May – Friday 26 May

This will affect access to Special Collections and MERL open access library material, including books, periodicals and pamphlets.

Please accept our apologies for this inconvenience.

If you are planning to visit the Reading Room on these days, please inform of us of any requests you have for library material in advance by contacting

Please feel free to contact us for further information.


Cliveden House Exhibition

At the end of February, staff from Special Collections were joined by students of the history department at Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire to showcase material from the Nancy and Waldorf Astor Archives. The material for the exhibition was chosen by the students as part of their discovering archives and collections module during the autumn term when they spent several weeks in the reading room at Special Collections. During that time they helped to catalogue the myriad of names in the Cliveden visitor books, got the chance to shadow archive staff and organise the material that formed the basis of February’s exhibition.

Students with Dr Jacqui Turner and Guy Baxter (University Archivist) in the reading room (Photo: Jacqui Turner)

Students with Dr Jacqui Turner and Guy Baxter (University Archivist) in the reading room (Photo: Jacqui Turner)

This is the second year in a row that students have had the chance to co-curate an exhibition at Cliveden and it proved just as popular with visitors as last year, if not more so. The exhibition offered a rare opportunity for visitors (including hotel guests and staff, as well as the National Trust staff that work on the Cliveden estate) to see original documents in their original setting.

Students at Cliveden House with general manager Sue Williams (Photo: Jacqui Turner)

Students at Cliveden House with general manager Sue Williams (Photo: Jacqui Turner)

You can see more of the display and find out more about the project in this short video:

The exhibition was separated into different themes including women’s suffrage, the Cliveden estate and the Cliveden stud. Hear more about the aspects of the exhibition in this conversation between Dr Jacqui Turner and two of the students who co-curated the exhibition:

The Nancy and Waldorf Astor archives can be accessed in our reading room. For more information about accessing our collections, click here.

An interview with Nitisha, Archives Assistant

One of our volunteers,Whitney, has been interviewing MERL & Special Collections staff about their roles. Today she talks to Nitisha, a Law graduate who now works as a Conservation & Archive Assistant. Though she started out with little experience in Museums & Archives, volunteering with our Conservator gave her an opportunity to learn about that field of work. In the first of two posts she discusses her role as an Archive Assistant, working on the Beckett Collection. 

Nitisha in the camera room

Nitisha in the camera room

  1. How did you get started in Museum work and what is your background training?

I met Rhi [Dr Rhi Smith, Director of Museum Studies, University of Reading] at a field project at Silchester Roman Town, and she advised that I volunteer at the museum. I volunteered for about a year at MERL and then I got a short term contract. I had done some work experience in the past working for law firms but felt that was not my calling and I had always wanted to explore Archaeology. So I did a short course at the University of Oxford in Archaeology.

  1. What is your main job role?

My role in the archive is specifically more geared towards the digitisation of the Samuel Beckett collection. A while ago the University acquired a manuscript well worth over more than £million. Since then, the University has decided to digitise the whole of the Samuel Beckett collection because the collection is so widely and regularly accessed and to facilitate the work of those researchers.

  1. Is that transferring documents to the online space so people can view and access them online?

Not specifically with the Samuel Beckett collection because there are copyrights on the documents and manuscripts. It’s mainly to digitize it at the moment and preserve it for the future. After I’ve digitised them I then print off copies because the copies that are currently available for the readers are not very good ones. That’s why we are going through this process of digitisation. Also, if there are other colleagues who need some pictures to go on online, or on social media, I can do that as well.

  1. So can researchers then use those images and publish them in books?

That’s right yes, but I think they would have to go through a process of applying to the University to seek authorisation to use those images, but yes they would be able to.*

  1. What aspects of archiving interest you the most?

When I am able to make a difference, for example digitising the Samuel Beckett collection to make it accessible for future researchers and enabling them to get better quality copies, so this in turn enables them to do their work.

  1. What are your thoughts when you come across people that may not necessarily value the importance of working in a cultural or historical setting?

I personally feel a deep connection to heritage, and cultural heritage in general. I feel that I perform best when I can link my personal passion to my work. It’s important to preserve the past because you can only learn from the past to make yourself better in the future. If we don’t preserve the past we will just lose our roots. It’s really important to have people who are guardians of heritage.

Whitney: Wow, so it’s really about coming to terms with and understanding a past you may not have been involved in and being cultured. It’s really amazing to be able to explore spaces and places through the span of history and gain a different perspective of life through that.

Nitisha: I think you’re quite right there, and I think with law I was not able to express myself creatively. I had to follow rules and even at the end of a case, you might have gone through a set of rules and realise it’s not necessarily fair. That would annoy me a lot and would conflict with my personal values.

  1. How do you feel once youve come to the end of a project? What emotion runs through your mind?

It’s a very good feeling when you’ve finished a project and you’ve given it your best. I feel a sense of accomplishment that I’ve finished something, handed it over to the next person and accomplished what I was meant to do.

  1. What new things have you discovered about either yourself or job role since working at MERL?

I’ve discovered that I’ve always wanted to do something but have never known what it was! After I started volunteering here at MERL it really confirmed my desire to work in the heritage sector. Although it’s very tough to get a job or progress within the heritage sector I still very much enjoy it and want to carry on.

It was a pleasure talking to Nitisha about her role as an Archive Assistant, understanding her approach to her work and all the different opportunities that have presented themselves through her time here at MERL. Next week we’ll be exploring some of the exciting work she does over in the Conservation department.

*As Nitisha has stated, we only copy items in the Samuel Beckett Archive for preservation purposes in order to reduce the handling of the originals, which are in high demand. Other copying is done for a wide range of purposes and for both internal and external users. For every request we take copyright into consideration. Anyone wishing to use copies of material in our collections – whether in print or online – should contact us in the first instance (

The second part of Nitisha’s interview, where Whitney talks to her about her role in conservation,  can be found over at the MERL blog

From the cradle of printing to binder’s waste: incunable leaves in the John Lewis collection

Written by Erika Delbecque, UMASCS Librarian

Earlier this year, we shared some exciting early printing finds from the John Lewis Printing Collection on this blog. In the past few months, I have been researching these leaves, so that they can be catalogued and the collection can be made more accessible. In the first instance, I have been focusing on leaves from incunables.

The cradle of printing

Incunables, from the Latin incunabulum (“cradle”) are books that were printed in Europe before 1501, in the infancy of the art of printing with movable type, which was introduced by Johannes Gutenberg in ca. 1450. These books from the cradle of printing can give us a glimpse into the early stages of one of the most significant human inventions.

Often a hybrid between manuscript and print, with hand-painted initials and decorations sitting alongside the black ink of the printed text, incunables embody the gradual transition from a world where the manuscript was the prime medium for the transmission of knowledge to one where the printed word took on this crucial role.

Hand-painted initial (Alighieri, Dante. La Commedia. Venice: Wendelin of Speier, 1477)

Hand-painted initial (Alighieri, Dante. La Commedia. Venice: Wendelin of Speier, 1477)

Hand-painted initial and decoration (Beauvais, Vincent of. Speculum historiale .  Strassburg: Johann Mentelin, 1473)

Hand-painted initial and decoration (Beauvais, Vincent of. Speculum historiale. Strassburg: Johann Mentelin, 1473)

Some of these craftsmen reach an astonishing degree of esthetical perfection in those early stages. Consider, for example, the woodcut from a leaf from the famous Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) below, or the leaf from Plutarch’s Vitae illustrium virorum, printed by the Venetian printer Nicolas Jenson in 1478. The typeface that Jenson designed for his printing business would later be praised by William Morris for its elegance and beauty, and it continues to influence type design to this day.

Detail from a leaf from the Nuremberg Chronicle (Schedel, Hartmann. Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493)

Detail from a leaf from the Nuremberg Chronicle (Schedel, Hartmann. Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1493)

Jenson's celebrated roman type (Plutarch. Vitae illustrium virorum. Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1478)

Jenson’s celebrated roman type (Plutarch. Vitae illustrium virorum. Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1478)

We owe the survival of these leaves to the thriftiness of early modern craftsmen. Rather than wasting new paper, which was a relatively expensive commodity, bookbinders recycled leaves from earlier documents to reinforce the spine and covers of a book. Some of the leaves in our collection provide clues as to why they ended up in the bookbinder’s stack of wastepaper: the pages of this double leaf from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a romance that was printed by Aldus Manutius in 1499, are in the wrong order.

Pages printed in the wrong order (Colonna, Francesco. Poliphili Hypnerotomachia. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499)

Pages printed in the wrong order (Colonna, Francesco. Poliphili Hypnerotomachia. Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499)

Incunable leaves in the John Lewis Collection

Although it is uncertain how these leaves ended up in the collection of John Lewis (1912-1996), a typographer and graphic designer whose collection of ephemera we purchased in 1997, the foreword in his book Printed ephemera provides a clue:

A dozen years or so ago, I bought from a bookseller in Ipswich, Suffolk, an album compiled about the year 1820 by a Dr Lodge, sometime librarian to the University Library at Cambridge. Dr Lodge’s album contained a wide variety of printed matter including […] an Indulgence printed by Thierry Martens.
As librarian to a great library, Dr Lodge’s opportunities for collecting pages from damaged books and packings from broken bindings were extensive. It would seem that this particular Indulgence may well have lurked for three hundred years or more inside some vellum or calf-bound volume, doing duty for the paste-boards which in those days did not exist.

Thus, it is possible that these leaves spent centuries sitting undisturbed in the bindings of their younger relatives on the shelves of Cambridge University Library, before ending up here at the University of Reading through the rather dubious collecting efforts of this Dr Lodge…

On the trail of early printers

Identifying what work these leaves are part of often requires quite a bit of detective work, as the features by which an early printed book would normally be identified, such as the title page, the incipit or the colophon, are lacking.

The first step is the identification of the text. Search engines like Google are immensely useful for this purpose in many cases, but for more obscure texts skim-reading the pages or translating a part to form an idea of the content is more fruitful. This can be particularly challenging when dealing with a text in heavily abbreviated Latin, which many of these leaves contain! Then, a search on incunabula catalogues, such as the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue and the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, will reveal which editions of this text were printed in the fifteenth century. Finally, a comparison with digitised copies, if available, will let you determine what edition the leaf was once part of.

Fifteen leaves have been identified in this way. They are currently being catalogued onto Enterprise, our library catalogue, and our holdings on the ISTC have been updated. However, four leaves remain unidentified. If this blog post has inspired you to try your hand at researching an incunable leaf, have a look at the photographs of the leaves below. Let us know in the comments section if you discover anything about them!


Lewis, J (1976) Collecting Printed Ephemera. London: Cassell and Collier Macmillan.

Finding Items in the Cole Library

Written by Helen Westhrop, Library Assistant

Next week I begin the reclassification of the Cole Library; by this I mean to give each item a place on the electronic catalogue. Until now, some of the items have been added to Enterprise, the Library catalogue, while the rest have only been accessible by the card catalogue. When the collection was held at the Main Library, it was browsable (and still is, by appointment with the UMASCS Librarians), but is now held in closed access storage and needs to be accessible via the Enterprise catalogue to make it easy for readers to request items for consultation in the Reading Room at Special Collections.  

The Cole Library holds approximately 8,000 volumes of printed books and scientific papers, covering the history of early medicine and zoology in general, and more particularly, comparative anatomy and reproductive physiology, from earliest times to the present day. Among these there are 1,700 or more pre-1851 works, including many continental books. Many significant works in the history of the biological sciences are present, by authors such as Galen, Fabricius, Belon, Wotton, Gesner, Bartholin, Swammerdam, Harvey, Ray, Haller, Leeuwenhoek, Linnaeus, the Hunters and Darwin.  There are also some individual works like: Pliny’s Natural history, Venice : Jenson (1472) with illuminations; Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica 1st ed., Basle (1543) and 2nd ed. (1555); in a contemporary Swiss binding and a substantial run of the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society, from 1665 that attract a lot of interest from visitors.

The collection was originally the private library of Professor F J Cole (1872-1959), F.R.S.,  Professor of Zoology in the University of Reading from 1907 to 1939. He was a book collector and bibliophile from his schooldays until his death. His major historical work A history of comparative anatomy(1944) was based substantially on his own collection.

For this project, I will begin by adding items to the database to ensure that each book is findable.  I will be working alongside a cataloguer who will be noting the illustrations, illustrators and any fine binding on folio sized books so I will have an expert on hand at all times to ensure the collection and all information is shared as much as possible.

We have looked forward to this project for a long time; we are excited to be making the Cole Library more easily and widely searchable to students and raise the profile of the collection to a much wider number of researchers.  I will encounter much dry material such as fish morphology; however there will also be some incredible texts to to make the task enjoyable.  During my task I will be on the lookout for non-science texts; for example, history, culture and literature and will also be watchful for nineteenth-century medical holdings or anatomical atlases.

So there is a lot to do and week by week I hope to post images from the collection by way of a progress report.

Explore Your Archive: Woolworths

As part of the Explore Your Archive campaign, we’ve been looking at the role of archivists. Here we look at the work involved in dealing with a newly acquired collection, and preparing items for use by researchers.

Woolworths was a major retailer of books, clothes and pick and mix sweets. Shoppers in the UK considered ‘Woolies’ British but the brand was global, originating in America as F W Woolworth to include more than 3,000 stores around the World. There were 800 shops operating in Britain in 2008 but in 41 days all the shops were closed.

The Woolworths archive was offered to the University of Reading. After consideration it was agreed to accept the collection for two reasons; because of the significant academic support and as it would complement the WH Smith Archive which is already held in the Special Collections.

The archive arrived on 4 pallets covered in shrink wrap in August 2015 after being stored at the headquarters of Shop Direct.

Woolworths pallettes

As soon as we started to unpack the items, it became clear that they had not be loaded onto the pallets in any particular order and that they were dirty.

Woolworths CG

All the items need to be cleaned. We have started this process but it is time consuming.

Woolworths conservation

Then we need to create order from the chaos and box the items ready for cataloguing to allow access to the collection.

Woolworths collection

The archive contains minute books, premises records (including plans and photographs) and ledgers showing sales from each store.

Woolworths floorplan

We hope to make the collection available for research during 2016. Contact the reading room at for details.

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.

Behind the Scenes: A Tour of Treasures!

Hello! My name is Louise Cowan and I’m a new member of staff here at UMASCS.  Although my official role is ‘Trainee Liaison Librarian’ and I will mostly be based at the University Library at Whiteknights Campus, I am excited to be spending one day a week working with the Special Collections team to support and contribute to their fantastic social media channels!

Today was my first official day and as part of my induction I was treated to a behind the scenes tour by UMASCS Librarian, Fiona Melhuish.

The special collections store at UMASCS

The special collections store at UMASCS

The large store rooms are amazing treasure troves of rare books full of beautiful illustrations, archives of documents with fascinating stories, and unique ephemeral collections.

As an MA graduate in Children’s Literature one of my favourites from today’s tour was the popular Children’s Collection; in particular, this beautiful copy of ‘Peter and Wendy’, illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell:

Peter and Wendy by J.M.Barrie

Peter and Wendy by J.M.Barrie


I also love the John Lewis Printing Collection which consists of roughly 20,000 items illustrating the history of printing from the fifteenth century to the present. This little Christmas card is a treat:

Philosopher dogs, Group XI : 3 Juvenile : c1850-

Group XI : 3 Juvenile : c1850-

And as it is officially #MusGif Day  I couldn’t resist making a Gif from this charming trio of cats:

Christmas Cats, Group XI : 3 Juvenile : c1850-

Group XI : 3 Juvenile : c1850-

I’m really looking forward to delving in, learning more and sharing the collections with you.   Make sure you follow us on Twitter: @UniRdg_SpecColl and Instagram: @unirdg_collections to keep up-to-date!

Rip Roaring Reading Room News: Full opening from Monday 28 September 2015

Our Reading Room

Our Reading Room

Great news everyone! We have extended our Reading Room opening hours. Up until now, although you have been able to visit our wonderful Reading Room Monday-Friday, 9-5, we have operated a restricted service on a Monday. This meant that, on a Monday, we opened later (10am) and we were unable to retrieve material from our store.

But we are delighted to say that from (and including) Monday 28 September – our Reading Room will be ready for your visit and fully accessible, open and with staff making trips to the store to retrieve material throughout the day:

Every Monday to Friday – 9am to 5pm!

Our last retrieval from the store is at 4.15pm and we collect all closed access material in at 4.45pm.

(Allowing for a brief hiatus in retrievals from the store while our Reading Room staff take a hard earned lunch break between 1-2pm)

Our Reading Room

Our Reading Room

So why not pay us a visit?  You can find more information on using our Reading Room here.  If you have any queries or would like to order up material in advance, you can contact us at

Behind the scenes: digitisation of East German WW2 propaganda films

Ramona Salzgeber from the Centre of Eastern German Studies is working with us at Special Collections as an intern. For research purposes she is working to digitise propaganda films from WW2 and films from the DDR from the CEGS archival collection which will later be transferred to Special Collections for storage.

VHS tapes Ramona is working too digitse here at Special Collections

VHS tapes Ramona is working to digitse here at Special Collections

Working with old film material can be very interesting. Most of the films that are dealt with at the Centre of Eastern German Studies are propaganda films and films from the DDR time. The propaganda films show mostly the “happy and fun” time from WW2 and would not make you think of war time or pre-war time. Additionally, films from the DDR can be under censorship which did not allow any references to the war at all.

As the films are on old video cassettes, they have to be digitized in order to save the. Most of those films in the Archive were recorded in the 80s and 90s when people still had to process a lot from the past century.

What a lot of people may have forgotten about those old video tapes, is that every time you play the cassette it gets slightly broken. Therefore, a cassette cannot be played forever. That’s when my part in the Archive starts. I copy the films in real time, which means I also watch every film I archive. If you are interested in history this is definitely a dream job!

Many of those cassettes are not working properly anymore and digitizing them can be quite difficult. The sound can change sometimes and pictures start to flare occasionally. It is important though to keep going as this might be the last chance to save all this old film material. This is part of history and it should be available for later researching purposes.

It is to say that there are also many documentaries which might be depressing sometimes, as they are from WW2 times. But this is why we work with history, to learn from it and hopefully to prevent it from happening again!

Please contact us at for more information.