I knew I wanted to move into working with books in foreign languages, preferably as Head of German at the British Library, or with rare books, and was fortunate to be offered a job at Senate House as a Rare Books Cataloguer two or three days after submitting my library school dissertation. ​

Senate House Library's Hidden Treasures:
Rare Books

While many students are familiar with the main collection highlights, at least to some extent, SHL also holds some hidden treasures. Our committee was surprised to learn of the Universities own art collection and its expansive rare book collections when we first spoke to Karen. And now, she is giving everyone a brief overview of her areas of expertise!

Karen grew up in Australia and did her first degree in English and German at the University of Sydney. Then came a scholarship to do her Ph.D. at Cambridge, in Old Norse, and it was some years after that that she undertook the library course at UCL.

After getting a job at SHL, she has since advanced internally there. She has also been awarded a Research Fellowship at IES, which she regards as a tremendous honour.

You are a Curator of Rare Books and University Art at SHL. This sounds like a lot of work! What does your job entail?

Basically, making the collections available and accessible to users at all levels. That includes cataloguing material; exhibiting it at various levels, from one-off visitors to major exhibitions; writing blogs and web pages about it; answering queries; delivering conference papers; and teaching with it and supporting others in their teaching, especially for the History of the Book course and the London Rare Books School run by IES. I also buy books for the collections, write the occasional report and do general administration. It’s wonderfully varied.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Making a difference to other people. One woman cried with emotion at being brought face-to-face with a Shakespeare First Folio. The Development Office was trying to give her a good time and was delighted.

Just focusing on Rare Books: The term seems all-encompassing. Have you got any tips on how to navigate the collection?

Start off with the computer catalogue. I always use what we call the Classic Catalogue because it shows more information about the books, including descriptions about provenance and sometimes binding, than the interface with which users are automatically presented. We haven’t yet catalogued everything online, so if you don’t find what you want on the computer catalogue, try the card catalogue. The web pages about specific named special collections, which I’m currently upgrading, provide extra more general information. Finally, if you want to know something like what seventeenth-century books contain manuscript annotations or how to find books published an a particular place at a particular time—anything out of the usual–do ask. My email address is karen.attar@london.ac.uk.

What topics or themes would you say are most represented in the rare books collection, if there are any?

Economic history is very strongly represented, on the basis of one very large, internationally renowned collection: the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature. We also have one of the world’s best collections of shorthand.

Otherwise, English literature is probably the subject most strongly represented, arising from a couple of general collections and several devoted to single authors, with a cumulative effect: Austin Dobson, H.G. Wells, Walter de la Mare, and to a lesser extent, J.B. Priestley.

One of the general collections of English literature, the Sterling Library, has first and fine editions from a mediaeval manuscript of Piers Plowmanonwards. Between them, the collections are good on outstanding printers: the early scholar printers, the Elzeviers who dominated the Low Countries in the seventeenth century –the subject of a whole named special collection – and English private press printers in particular.

Students coming to SHL are from different subject areas and backgrounds. Are there any questions or topics that come up often when you are asked about the collection?

Students tend to be fascinated by financial value and want to know what the most valuable collection item is in financial terms. They ask a lot about copy-specific matters – things like books with manuscript indexes, or books formerly owned by women. I think that that’s because this is information that it can be hard to establish for oneself without staff guidance.

Are there any hidden treasures in the collection and what is your personal collection highlight?

Oh, yes! You could say that anything not on the computer catalogue is hidden. But there’s also a lot which is on the catalogue, but doesn’t hit you until you see it – and then you say: “wow”! Recently I was looking through posters from the First World War: such things are easy to see online, but it isn’t the same as having one of the items directly in front of you, actual size.

There are so many special items that it’s hard to select a single highlight. But I like a small book of logarithms by Edmund Wingate, published in 1625, for the long humorous note Augustus De Morgan wrote at the front about how he acquired it, wheedling it out of an initially reluctant acquaintance. I was also ecstatic when I first came across a Bible from 1867 inscribed by Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, to J.C. Lawrence, a forebear of one of our collectors. That is because Lord Shaftesbury is one of my heroes. Through his handwriting he came to life.

Why not have a look at the other special collections and their hidden treasures?

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