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!

Behind the scenes: Volunteering at Special Collections

Today’s post comes from Eleanor Wale, a former volunteer for our library team as well as in MERL. Eleanor’s volunteering stood her in good stead, and she is now the Library Graduate Trainee for Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Labelling Landscape Institute books

Labelling Landscape Institute books

Having been a volunteer at both the University of Reading’s Special Collections and the Museum of English Rural Life, I was fortunate to get a glimpse behind the scenes in heritage and information sectors. While the hands-on nature of being a tour guide at MERL engaged my enthusiasm for history, it was volunteering at Special Collections that appealed to my love of libraries and my passion for books. While volunteering back home at my local public library during my GCSEs and A Levels gave me experience in public libraries, it was learning of Library Graduate Trainee Schemes during a careers session provided by the University that spurred me to seek further library experience in academic or research libraries while studying for my history degree. This was how I began to volunteer at MERL and Special Collections.

I first answered the door once a week to visitors of Special Collections, so that the Reading Room desk remained manned, while transcribing a Longman Publisher’s ledger into an Excel spreadsheet, a task that was worked on by many volunteers. This was a pleasant and useful task – and as I have since discovered, anyone interested in working in libraries must be able to perform this type of task adeptly, without losing either enthusiasm or concentration! As this duty became redundant I was then asked to help with the re-indexing of the library cuttings. These have often been acquired from external sources. Despite not getting through as many as I had wished, re-indexing was a thoroughly enjoyable task. The process of indexing the cuttings under the library, not museum, system not only rationalised and explained the classification system used but also showed me various interesting and amusing clippings.

The last major task I helped with was the labelling of books from the Landscape Institute. Although hours of typing and cutting labels down to size might not be the most interesting task for some people, I personally enjoyed using the Kroy machine and exploring the classification system further; now working with the Library of Congress Classification system I have found that using a non-Dewey system at MERL and Special Collections was immensely useful!

During my final year of my degree I also worked in the University’s main library. Yet, having begun to work in Christ’s College Library Cambridge where I will begin my traineeship in September, it is certainly my volunteering experience at MERL and Special Collections that has confirmed my love of library work. Without a doubt the volunteering I have been fortunate enough to undertake at Special Collections gave me a wonderful insight into the workings of academic libraries, particularly where the collections are unusual and unique. I can only hope my traineeship at Christ’s will be as enjoyable a time as I had at MERL and Special Collections!

Favourite finds: Eric Partridge and his war of words

This post comes from Brian Ryder, one of our volunteers here at Special Collections. Brian’s history with Reading collections is a long one; he used to be one of our project cataloguers and is now working his way through the Routledge & Kegan Paul archive.

From September 1943 until January 1945 A/C [Aircraftman] Eric Partridge was a clerk in the RAF living and working in Wantage Hall, a hall of residence requisitioned from Reading University.

Eric Partridge, lexicographer, in 1971, on a visit to Devon (photo by G88keeper, Wikimedia)

Eric Partridge, lexicographer, in 1971, on a visit to Devon (photo by G88keeper, Wikimedia)

Born in 1894 in New Zealand, Eric moved with his family to Australia in 1907. In 1915 he joined the Australian army and saw active service with the Anzacs in Gallipoli and on the western front. In the 1920s he came to England and taught at a school in Lancashire and the universities of Manchester and London before abandoning teaching to become a ‘man of letters’ and owner of a publishing house with the imprint Scholartis Press. One of its early publications – with the liberal use of asterisks – was Songs and slang of the British soldier which he co-edited with John Brophy using material they had accumulated during their own war service. The publishing house foundered in the depression but by the outbreak of World War II Partridge had established a reputation as a lexicographer and etymologist only for his main publisher – George Routledge – to be taken aback when in September 1940 he enlisted in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.

On 7 February 1941 he wrote to Cecil Franklin, managing director of Routledge, ‘I now have a commission in the Army Education Corps. … The enclosed pamphlet … concerns a subject dear to me; and it is needed. … If you’ll publish it before the end of March [it will] enable me to realize something on it in the [royalties] cheque you send me in May, for I badly need the money.’ To which Franklin replied, ‘I have read your pamphlet, ‘The teaching of English in His Majesty’s forces’, but I am very sorry that we cannot undertake its publication. We … cannot afford, at the present moment, to put money into … a pamphlet which is bound to be a failure.’

On 23 April 1941 Franklin felt obliged to write to Partridge again about his pamphlet: ‘May I congratulate you on The teaching of English in H.M forces? I presume you saw the leading article in The Times yesterday; and I understand there is an article on it in The Telegraph today. It is quite possible that we may get requests for copies.’ Indeed they did, for a couple of months’ later Routledge’s sales director was writing to Partridge to admit that ‘hardly a day goes by without an enquiry for your [pamphlet]. Have you any spare copies at all?’

This incident made no difference to the intransigence shown by Routledge in responding to Partridge’s suggestions for new books or for the reprinting of his back-list; all were declined, mainly on the grounds that they only had paper – which was rationed – for books they considered more important to the war effort. Almost every one of Partridge’s letters for the rest of the war protested his financial difficulties.

A letter from Partridge to his publishers asking that a new edition of his Dictionary of Cliches be issued

A letter from Partridge to his publishers asking that a new edition of his Dictionary of Cliches be issued

Partridge became a civilian again in January 1942, his reasons for this given to his publisher being health (he had recently told them of an operation for piles) and domestic. But on 31 August of that year he wrote to Franklin to say, ‘Are you perhaps forgetting that I must work for a living? Your rejection of my ideas renders it probable that, in three, or even two weeks’ time I shall be obliged to re-enlist in the Army (as a private) or to enlist in the RAF (ditto).’ War Office bureaucracy ensured that it took until December 1942 for him to be found in the RAF as a clerk, general duties.

During his later service when at Wantage Hall, Reading he would have been well-placed in any free time he had during the working week to check on Routledge’s claims to be unable to obtain paper for his works because the Paper Control Office of the Ministry of Supply was located in the Great Western Hotel near Reading railway station; however, his letters to Routledge contain no mention of his having done so. On leaving Reading, Partridge was to be found working in a Public Relations Office at the Air Ministry in Whitehall where he remained until demob in July 1945.

What good came from Partridge’s time in the forces? What made him enlist? Just one brief sentence in a letter to Routledge may give a clue – ‘My ears are open for R.A.F. slang and colloquialisms.’ In 1948 Secker & Warburg published A dictionary of Forces’ slang 1939-1945, edited, and the air force slang contributed by, Eric Partridge.

The University of Reading’s collections hold a great deal of Partridge’s correspondence. For more information, please see our catalogue or our records of British printing and publishing firms.

Happy birthday Beardsley!

The Peacock Skirt (Salome)

The Peacock Skirt (Salome)

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Aubrey Beardsley, a favourite artist among staff here. Aubrey Beardsley was born in 1872 and died from tuberculosis in 1898 at the age of only twenty-five. During his short and brilliant career he became notorious for his illustrations in two ‘decadent’ periodicals of the period, The Yellow Book and The Savoy. His designs and illustrations for books such as Le Morte D’arthur, Lysistrata, Salome and Volpone added to his notoriety as the most daring artist of the 1890s.

We’ve covered Beardsley before, in:

Please do take a look and enjoy his absolutely stunning work!

Plate: ‘The Toilet’ – Belinda at her dressing table.

Plate: ‘The Toilet’ – Belinda at her dressing table.


Rugby, cricket and sports – oh my!


WG Grace, one of England’s ‘cricket greats’

Today marks the anniversary of the birth (1848) of WG Grace, one of the world’s great cricketers. It has been a good month (or two months!) for English sport. 1 July saw the anniversary of the 1812 death of WW Ellis, who is often credited with the invention (of sorts) of the game of rugby – and of course we’ve all been swept away by the World Cup, the Tour de France and the upcoming Commonwealth Games.

This photograph, taken by Eric Guy during the late 1930s, shows a cricket match in progress. A group of villagers follow the score from the edge of the pitch (MERL P DX289 PH1/4393)

This photograph, taken by Eric Guy during the late 1930s, shows a cricket match in progress. A group of villagers follow the score from the edge of the pitch (MERL P DX289 PH1/4393)

There’s a wealth of sporting related material in our special collections (and in the MERL collections). From boy’s annuals to books on country life, sporting graces the covers and the pages of many of our best collections – there are even cricket books in our Beckett Collection! It is the Children’s Collection that really shines here, however, and a morning’s browse through the stacks turned up a few gems.


The history and uptake of rugby, cricket and many other sports in Britain is closely linked to children’s sports, and – like today – many of the children’s magazines and annuals were full of teams stats, match info and tips. Cricket featured early and often in children’s publications. Cricket’s origins date to the 16th century (at least!); in our collections, you first see cricket in books like the 1857 Book of Sports for Boys and Girls; the 1800s saw renewed excitement for cricket  following the establishment of county clubs, an international team (the All-England Elevens) and the debut of WG Grace, pictured above. Cricket doesn’t fade from fashion though, and we have modern children’s guides like the Ladybird Story of Cricket (1964).


The Boy’s Own Annual, v. 48 (1926)

Rugby is a less common feature in our collections; though Webb Ellis’s apocryphal run is attributed to 1823, the sport grew more slowly before the ‘great schism’ and the formation of the Football Association in 1863. It begins to appear in children’s publications more and more in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – quite probably as it featured more and more in public school sporting life. Images of ‘healthy and hale’ young lads playing rugby were a common feature on Boy’s Own covers and spines, and fictional stories dealt with sporting competition and friendships.


Cricket and rugby are by no means the only sports featured in the Children’s Collection; from golf to hopscotch, indoor games to football, the collection is a great way to explore the history of children’s games and sport – from what was considered appropriate for 19th-century little girls to play to which 1920s sporting figures caught the attention of Boy’s Own readers. For more info, see the collection webpages.

Rural Reads celebrates its 4th birthday

Rural Reads is the MERL book club, focusing on books with a rural theme in the atmospheric setting of the Museum or garden. There are plans afoot to expand the book club’s remit over the following year, and we’ll be looking at our publishing collections and other special collections material.

Even if you haven’t been before, do come along to the birthday party to help us decide what we’ll be reading over the next year – and enjoy some cake! For more info, see the Rural Reads webpages.



Rural Reas

The A-list archive: filming the Mills & Boon collection for the BBC’s Celebrity Antiques Road Trip

Today’s guest post from Judith Watts explores our Mills & Boon Collection. Judith is studying for her PhD as part of a unique collections-based research project at the University of Reading. The working title of her thesis, which explores the nexus between publisher, author and reader, is The Limits of Desire: the Mills & Boon Romance Market, 1946-1973.

Mills and Boon books

Judith shows off a selection of Mills & Boon books for the BBC

What happens when the archive you’re researching is a star attraction?

Since I began my PhD last October in the British Publishing and Publishing Archive at Reading, I have been thinking about how and why different people have used the Mills & Boon collection to tell a story or support a particular point of view. As mentioned in a previous blog post, the fact that Mills & Boon is a household name means that it has been the subject of a number of TV and radio programmes – especially around the 100-year anniversary of the company in 2009. If you haven’t watched Consuming Passion, Guilty Pleasures, or How to Write a Mills and Boon they are well worth the time. The people behind these projects have approached archival material in different ways to tell their tale of the house of romance. It’s now my turn.

On Valentine’s Day this year I worked with the inspirational archives team here to showcase the collection using the ‘naughty notebook’. In selecting the ‘innuendo’ angle we were able to suggest in a short article how the language of love and desire has changed over time – a narrative which holds special interest for me. It led me to wonder how much we appropriate collections to enhance our own critical thinking or creative acts – and if our subjectivity helps or hinders when we want to engage the interest of others? On 9 July I had to think about this again when reading Special Collections hosted the Celebrity Antiques Road Trip team. This time it was a dual between presenter Rebecca Wilcox and her mother, Esther Rantzen (who had been a guest at the Evacuee archive the previous day). In part of the show the TV personality, together with an antiques expert – in this case, the charming Will Axon – visit a place of interest and are shown its treasures.

So how do you decide what to share when so much is so significant? Which letters do you extract from thousands to demonstrate the archive’s social, cultural and historical importance? Of the many and varied authors, who do you choose to best represent key parts of the story? Which covers are most evocative or cherished? Squeezing a whole collection into a five-minute broadcast means hard choice. Naturally you think of the audience. What might appeal to the widest range of viewers? How can you catch their attention without perpetuating the myths that exist? Fortunately the BBC researcher had done his homework – we needed to provide context, to cover how M&B grew and reflected the changes in society and notions of romance. But what criteria should I use to select material for its short moment of fame?

In the end I deferred to a thought-provoking article I’d read called Materiality Matters: Experiencing the Displayed Object. While it made sense to choose Betty Beaty and Violet Winspear as different yet representative authors, I selected the objects (letters, a photograph, a postcard, a sketch) which had ‘spoken’ to me, that I had connected with emotionally during my research. Through these evocative objects I felt confident about sharing my passion for the archive with Rebecca and Will. What I hadn’t expected to witness was the spark when Rebecca connected to a letter from Violet to Alan Boon. It referenced her forthcoming appearance on the BBC’s Man Alive programme. Rebecca’s father, Desmond Wilcox, had produced the programme in 1970 when Winspear achieved notoriety for her comments about male heroes. It was fascinating to experience the archive coming to life in this way. In some special way it reduced the distance between us all.

Judith and the BBC team 're-enacting' M&B covers

Judith and the BBC team ‘re-enacting’ M&B covers

The following day I read a letter in the files about how nice Desmond had been. I’m glad.
I have become very fond of Violet – protective even. She is too often characterised in the Mills & Boon story as the spinster who lived at home with her mother and cat writing racy books. Her thoughts on writing and desire have engaged me at a fundamental level, and I like to think that the archives can tell a fuller version of her story than they have so far. There is also so much more to write about how we attribute meaning and value to objects and how we experience them in archives. But for now I can say that exposing even a small part of the Mills & Boon collection for national TV was great fun – even if it took four hours of filming to create four minutes. Who knows what will make the final cut! I can’t imagine that I won’t be embarrassed when it airs in November, but I hope we managed to leave the viewers wanting more.

Further watching and reading:

And of course, Celebrity Road Trip in November!

With thanks to all the archives and library team for their help, especially Nancy Fulford for her role as ‘runner’.

Graduation parties notice

Wednesday 9 to Friday 11 July

As a University museum and service we are delighted to be able to host graduation day parties for students and their families celebrating the occasion. The Museum, exhibitions and reading room will be open as usual throughout the week, but our garden will be very busy, and not quite the usual peaceful haven for visitors! Our car park is not used by graduation visitors but there will be no overflow parking available on the adjacent Acacia Road, and the entrance is likely to be busy. We apologise for any inconvenience caused. If you have any queries, please call 0118 378 8660 or email


University Museums & Galleries: Engaging the public

UMASCS Director Kate-Arnold-Forster appears in a new University Museums Group video

UMASCS Director Kate-Arnold-Forster appears in a new University Museums Group video

The University Museums Group has released a new video exploring how university museums engage the public with research – take a look! It features our own Director Kate Arnold-Forster (and a glimpse of our MERL collections, from wagons to our Landrover).