Launch of the Woolworths Archive

Woolworths Archive material

A fixture of our high streets for many years, most of us will have fond memories of  browsing Woolworths for books, music, toys and sweets.

The University of Reading has recently acquired the corporate archive of Woolworths UK.


The Centre of International Business History (CIBH), at the University of Reading’s Henley Business School, is delighted to announce that has been donated to the University of Reading Archives at the University’s Museum of English Rural Life (MERL).

To celebrate the launch of this archive, CIBH is holding a reception on Friday 10th March, from 18.00-19.30, at the Henley Business School (main Reading University campus). This will also include an exhibition of materials from the Woolworths archive collection.


Henley Business School, Whiteknights Campus

University of Reading


Friday 10th March, from 18.00-19.30, at the Henley Business School (main Reading University campus).


Contact Valerie Woodley on to register.

Click here for more information.


Event: Why read Mills & Book romances?

On the 8th day of Christmas, my library gave to me...8 Mills and Boons (from our Mills and Boon library)

Val Derbyshire, PhD student at the University of Sheffield, is giving two public lectures at Sheffield University’s Festival of the Mind in which she will explore the literary value of Mills & Boons romances. On Saturday 17 September there will be a panel discussion between 1 and 2pm, followed by the lecture at 2pm, and on Thursday 22 September the lecture will run from 4:45pm.

The University of Reading holds the Mills & Boon publishers’ archives. The collection consists of the editorial correspondence of both John Boon and Alan Boon, script registers, publicity material and some administrative records, and a large proportion of the back catalogue of Mills & Boon books.


Discover our collection strengths – new Special Collections web pages

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

A new set of web pages for the Special Collections website is in production to help researchers discover more about our collection strengths. The new pages will provide more thematic entry points into our collections, and hopefully encourage a more integrated, cross-collection exploration of the University’s resources which will help researchers make the most of our collections.

To browse the index of pages, go to our home page and either click on ‘Explore our collection strengths’ on the main page or click on ‘Collection strengths’ under the ‘Collections’ tab on the left-hand menu as indicated below:

SC homepage


Collections strengths page


In addition to an existing page on authors’ and writers’ papers, two further pages have been published, one on book history and another on children’s books [see below], with more to follow on themes such as business history, literature and art of the 1890s, the First and Second World Wars, and science, medicine and mathematics, so watch this space!

If you have any comments or suggestions to make about these pages, please let us know.


Childrens books web page


New exhibition: Ex libris – marks of ownership in rare books from the University of Reading Special Collections

Rare books often contain a variety of features which make them important and interesting historical artifacts beyond their texts. Marks of ownership and provenance can reveal not only who once owned a book, their profession and an indication of their interests and character, but also where they acquired the volume, what they paid for it and their opinions about the text. Ownership marks also serve to document the unique history and journey of a book as it passes through the hands of different owners over time.

Our new exhibition, ‘Ex libris – marks of ownership in rare books from the University of Reading Special Collections’, invites the viewer to explore the private relationship between readers and their books, and the variety of different ways in which book owners (both famous and long forgotten) from the seventeenth to the twentieth century have indicated ownership of their books through the use of bookplates, decorated bindings, inscriptions and annotations.

view of exhibition


One of the items that is on display is this extraordinary binding on a 1664 edition of Justin’s History, in which a wax portrait was inserted. Before the 1830s, when automated bookbinding was introduced, bookbinding was carried out by trained artisans working individually or in small workshops. Customers often had their bindings personalised, usually by having their initials or coats of arms stamped onto the leather. This previous owner, however, appears to have come up with this original way of conveying his ownership of the book.



Iustini historiarum ex Trogo Pompeio lib. XLIV. Amsterdam: Elzevier, 1664. RESERVE–878.9-JUS


This book, a set of six metaphysical exercises, was designed for university use. A previous owner has had several additional blank pages added to the book, and filled them with copious notes in shorthand on metaphysical problems.


Thomas Barlow. Exercitationes aliquot metaphysicæ de Deo. London : Richard Bishop, 1640. RESERVE 110 BAR


The exhibition also includes a large selection of bookplates. A bookplate, or ex libris (meaning ‘from the books of’), is a small print or decorative label, usually produced as an engraving, for pasting inside the cover of a book to express ownership. The use of bookplates as marks of ownership dates back to the last quarter of the fifteenth century.


The exhibition will be on display in the staircase hall at the Special Collections Service until 1 July 2016.

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.

‘My Favourite Ladybird’ exhibition on display at University Library

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

If you are visiting the University Library, take a look at our new colourful exhibition on display in the entrance area!

The exhibition, entitled My Favourite Ladybird, features a selection of favourite titles from the University of Reading collection of Ladybird books, chosen by staff, volunteers and community group members associated with the University Library and the University Museums and Special Collections Service. The titles that have been chosen include well-loved stories such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Elves and the Shoemaker and non-fiction titles such as Richard the Lionheart and What to look for in Winter.

Ladybird_Upright Case_Jan 2016

Part of the ‘My Favourite Ladybird’ exhibition at the University Library


Ladybird books were first produced during the First World War by Wills & Hepworth, a jobbing printer. Initially they were simply children’s story books, but after the Second World War the firm started to produce educational books which increased sales enormously. Remarkably, the price stayed the same at 2s 6d from 1945 to 1971, a feat achieved by strict production rules and increasingly large print runs.

The University of Reading Special Collections holds about 700 boxes of original Ladybird artwork, proofs and some documentation from the 1940s to the 1990s, including examples of the work of notable artists such as C.F. Tunnicliffe, Rowland Hilder and Allen Seaby. The collection covers the wide range of subjects Ladybird published, ranging from What to Look for in Spring to Transformers: Laserbeak’s Fury.

Ladybird_Autumn_Jan 2016

The collection also contains an incomplete set of over 1,000 Ladybird books. Pat Hanby, one of our Special Collections volunteers, has spent the last couple of years sorting out this collection and dealing with several recent gifts of Ladybird books that we have received. Thanks to Pat’s hard work, the collection is now almost fully catalogued on the University Library’s Enterprise library catalogue, making it easier for both researchers and staff to locate and access these wonderful titles.

If you would like to know more about accessing the Ladybird artwork and book collection, please contact us.

Can you spot your favourite in the exhibition? Let us know about your favourite Ladybird book(s) via Twitter @UniRdg_SpecColl

Abbey Junior School explore our rare book collections

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

A fortnight ago, we were delighted to welcome three groups of UII (Year 5) girls from the Abbey Junior School with their teachers and the School Librarian, to view items from our Children’s Collection, the Great Exhibition Collection and the Ladybird Books archive.


Pupils from Abbey Junior School examining the pop-up Victorian farm house

We started off each session by exploring what a ‘rare book’ is, and the groups were introduced to some of the special features of rare books, including marks of ownership such as bookplates and special bindings, which make them fascinating historical objects beyond their textual content.

As the girls had been learning about the Victorians at school, the Victorian era formed the main theme of the sessions, and the groups had the chance to see some of the highlights from the Great Exhibition Collection including a luxury edition of the exhibition catalogue with a lavish decorative binding, and a souvenir diorama or ‘peepshow’ from the Exhibition, which opened out to reveal a view down through the Crystal Palace.


Pupils from Abbey Junior School looking through the peephole of the Great Exhibition diorama


Inside diorama2

The view down through the peephole of the Great Exhibition diorama!

The groups also had the opportunity to see some examples of Victorian children’s periodicals such as The Girl’s Own Paper, illustrated children’s books by Kate Greenaway and a miniature children’s library from 1803. Also on display for the groups were some examples of original artwork for the Ladybird book of Charles Dickens, and other highlights from the Children’s Collection and related collections, including some of the ‘Orlando the Marmalade Cat’ books, a first edition of the Wizard of Oz story and a twentieth-century pop-up Victorian farmhouse book.


A copy of ‘Orlando the Marmalade Cat : a seaside holiday’ by Kathleen Hale, from the Children’s Collection

After some handling guidance and with supervision, the girls were able to handle the items on display. The girls really enjoyed being able to handle the books for themselves, to peep through the hole of the diorama and to look at the tiny books which made up the Victorian child’s small wooden box library.

Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian, showing one of the groups the Victorian miniature children’s library from the Children’s Collection



The miniature children’s library – ‘Book-case of knowledge, or library for youth’ [1803] CHILDREN’S COLLECTION–BOX 001

The girls wrote up their impressions of the visit at school – here are some of their comments:

‘The trip was fascinating and really gave us a better feeling of what children read in the Victorian times’: Erin

“I really enjoyed it … My favourite book … was the one that you stretched out and looked through the hole and it felt like you were walking through the Great Exhibition”: Ava

“It was really interesting … My favourite object was a mini bookcase that was the size of a child’s hand. It was full of tiny books on arithmetic, history, geography and prayers …“: Isabella

We are hoping to run these sessions with the Abbey Junior School again next year, and welcome enquiries from other teachers who would be interested in organising similar sessions for their school groups to explore some of the treasures of Special Collections!

Another chance to see the ‘Voice of the Stars’ almanacs exhibition

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

If you missed the exhibition of almanacs at the Special Collections Service earlier this year, you have another chance to see it as it is now on display at the University Library (on the ground floor, either side of the lifts) until 24 January 2016.

The exhibition, entitled Voice of the stars : almanacs from the collections of the University of Reading, was curated in partnership with the Department of History at the University of Reading, and brings together examples of almanacs from various University collections, and examines the use and production of these fascinating publications.

The display forms part of Almanacs, Astrology and the Origins of Weather Forecasting, an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) project, undertaken by Aoife Lintin and Dr Anne Lawrence. The research focused on the nature of the weather forecasts found, and the role of astrology in producing them.

The 'zodiac man' from the Cambridge almanack for 1773.

The ‘zodiac man’ from the Cambridge almanack for 1773.

Almanacs, which were produced annually, were amongst other things the forerunners of the modern pocket diary. They contained all sorts of useful information, including an accurate calendar for the coming year and lists of important dates and individuals like the Kings and Queens of England. They also made ‘prognostications’ for the weather and events of both political and national importance. They were as important to the ordinary individual in the past as the calendar is to us today.

The almanacs held in the University Special Collections cover a particularly broad range dating from the mid-sixteenth century to the late nineteenth century. Many of the almanacs had not been catalogued or studied before, and one of the highlights of the exhibition for me is the fragment of a sixteenth century almanac printed by John Herford [see image below] which Aoife found in the John Lewis Printing Collection. With a printing date of around 1540, this tiny fragment is the earliest almanac fragment in the University’s collections. The extensive John Lewis collection is not yet catalogued so we were not aware it was there until Aoife started researching our almanac holdings and made this exciting discovery (an example of how our readers often help us to get to know and document our collections!) There is also a nice local link as the fragment that we hold states the distances between towns in Berkshire, perhaps for fairs. We are now planning to individually catalogue some of the examples of almanacs in the John Lewis collection, as well as some of the other important early printed items which it contains.

A fragment of an almanac printed by John Herford, [1540?]. JOHN LEWIS PRINTING COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF READING MS 5317 Box 7:2 - the oldest almanac fragment in the University of Reading collections.

A fragment of an almanac printed by John Herford, [1540?]. JOHN LEWIS PRINTING COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF READING MS 5317 Box 7:2 – the oldest almanac fragment in the University of Reading collections.

A copy of the handlist that was produced as part of the research project is available to consult in the Special Collections reference book collection. Please note that for security and practical reasons, a number of the exhibits have had to be displayed in reproduction (including the Herford fragment). If you wish to view the original items, please ask a member of staff in the Special Collections Service reading room.

Nancy Astor: Reading and Parliamentary Archives collaborate on exciting new project

Special Collections are delighted to have been supporting this collaborative project, which celebrates the parliamentary career of Nancy Astor. We have been working closely with Dr Jacqui Turner in the History Department and with the Parliamentary Archives.

Viscountess_Astor (1)

Nancy Astor, sketch by John Singer Sargent, 1923. From:

A new leaflet has been produced to accompany the project.

Look out for more Astor news in 2016 as we continue to explore the archives of this amazing political family.

Display of annotated rare books at ‘Books in unexpected places’ event

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

While writing in books is generally discouraged, annotations and marginalia in books can offer valuable insights into the impact of books in their contemporary and later contexts. As part of the ‘Books in unexpected places’ event taking place at Special Collections this coming Saturday, a display of annotated rare books will offer a glimpse into the private relationship and interaction between reader and text where the distinction between ‘book’ and ‘manuscript’ becomes blurred and mass-produced texts become unique artefacts.

The display, entitled ‘Unexpected insights’, will be available to view in the Special Collections reading room throughout the ‘Books in unexpected places’ event on Saturday 21 November, and will give visitors the opportunity to closely examine a number of examples of annotated books dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, including some of our incunabula, or early printed books.

Book provenance and marks of ownership are among the most fascinating features of rare books, and looking for examples to include for this exhibition has been a very interesting experience for both me and my job share colleague, Erika Delbecque. Among the gems that we have selected for this display are a seventeenth-century gardening manual with practical hints added by a former owner [see image below], and a 1640 edition of the works of Ben Jonson, which has been censored by a previous owner who crossed out all oaths and references to faith in several plays.


Countrymans recreation

Annotated pages from ‘The country-mans recreation’ (London, 1640) – RESERVE 634.


The exhibits have been selected from a wide range of the rare book collections held in Special Collections, and are just a small selection of the many examples of annotated texts that we hold in the collections.

The ‘Books in unexpected places’ event is part of the Being Human festival 2015, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, and is a one day event exploring the idea of the book by thinking about writing in the past, how books were used and the books we find in unexpected places. Join us for a fascinating series of short talks, discussions and displays at the Museum of Rural Life/Special Collections on Saturday 21 November, 11.00am – 4.00pm.

You’ll find a full programme for the event here.

While admission to the event is free, places are limited so make sure to book in advance.

To see more examples of marks of ownership on rare books from our collections, including fine examples of bookplates, armorial bindings and ownership inscriptions, look out for ‘Ex libris : marks of ownership in rare books’, one of our forthcoming exhibitions which will be on display in the Special Collections staircase hall from 4 April – 1 July 2016.