Tuesday 12 September 2017

Wickchester University Library special collections

Last week a couple of the TFF editors paid a visit to the special collections department of the Mary Anning Library, at Wickchester University. As well as the manuscripts we were there to consult (probably not of much interest to you), some of the more unusual items and curiosities the very friendly curator showed us were super interesting, and might serve as writing prompts or inspirations to any of you. Sadly we were asked not to take photographs inside, but some of our favorite items included:
  • Several boxes of historical wax seals, dating from Elizabethan England to the Victorian colonial administration, mostly in a poor state of preservation, but one famous example (which we weren’t allowed to touch) is a poorly copied but generally believed contemporary forgery of the seal of Robert Carr Viscount Rochester, dated 1612. It’s impossible to disprove the theory that a third party forged an official letter from Rochester as part of some political intrigue, but the whole story is lost to history.
  • A late Victorian Handbook of Botany for Ladies entirely embroidered (including the words) on thin linen sheets. Not a huge book, the 60-odd pages already make it thicker than most print volumes, and the spine is now in bad shape, but as far as we know this is a unique copy, not a mass-produced title. The curator suggests that this was an attempt to make the formal study of science by young women acceptable, by combining it with home economics!
  • A former curator’s handwritten notes for a never-executed exhibition of fakes, including 19th cent. forged Greek vases; a rubbing of the epitaph of Christopher Marlowe; a clumsily emulated and photocopied “manuscript” of Mary Shelley; a collection of modified playing cards used by medium and charlatan Eusebius Shaw in the early 1900s (that was sold for surprisingly high price at an auction in 1937, before being donated to the library in the 60s); letters negotiating the loan of 20th century forged Latin lead curse tablets from the local archaeological museum; an “Egyptian” figurine gifted to a Wickchester biology professor as a bribe by a student; the Rochester Seal mentioned just now; a draft proposal (never sent, and presumably doomed to failure) to request the loan of the Piltdown Skull from the Natural History Museum in London; a spurious plaster model purporting to be a cast of the right hand of the composer Arthur Sullivan, clearly made well into the 20th century.
  • Collection of photograph albums, rubbings, and notebooks full of transcriptions from a local graveyard enthusiast. Very incomplete, dated 1922-24 and 34-38, and with an eccentric focus—perhaps (we wondered) on cemeteries where relatives of the enthusiast were buried.
  • A set of 17 scrapbooks filled with newspapers cuttings, pasted over every inch of the page, often overlapping or exceeding the margins, detailing every murder committed in Wickchester between 1968 and 1992, the death of the compiler. This item is on restricted access because of some disturbing hand-written comments in coloured pencil. The librarians apparently gossip that police were briefly considering whether this should be considered evidence.
I bet every research library has a collection of shit like this! If you ask your local librarian and come up with any good stories, please let us know.

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