Monday, 7 July 2014

ARLG London and South East Visit to the Royal Library at Windsor Castle

On Thursday June 26th I took part in an enjoyable afternoon visit to the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, organised by ARLG-LASE. I took the day off work and spent the morning exploring the Castle itself, before meeting the others at the Visitors' Centre in the afternoon, to be escorted through the grounds to the Library.

The Royal Library is the third such collection: the first two made their way to the British Library. It contains around 43,000 items, many of which were donated. The Library was built in the 1830s, in the suite of rooms that used to belong to Charles II's Queen (hence why, when you tour the Castle, you only see the King's chambers).

I was surprised to learn that Prince Albert had a hand in developing the Library: he apparently had an enthusiasm for organisation and cataloguing, insisting that the books should be organised by subject rather than size, introducing bookplates, and trying to get more shelf space (nothing new there then). These days, the Library is used rarely by researchers: there are only a few dozen per year, as to gain access you have to specify what you want to see, and it has to be something that isn't available, or else is very rare, anywhere else.

The Library has some amazing items, including Charles I's copy of the works of Shakespeare, the title page of which he annotated with 'better' titles to some of the Bard's famous plays. To my mind he displayed a distinct lack of imagination: for instance, he wanted to rename Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick. There are also miniature books which were originally sent for Queen Mary's doll house.

The collection contains volumes from across the rare books spectrum. Among the Library's incunabula is a volume of Wynkyn de Worde's Polychronicon of 1495, as well as a copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle. There is also a copy of Aesop's Fables, printed by William Caxton, from the later 15th century. More recent items include books printed by William Morris's private press, Kelmscott, and an edition of the Holy Gospels, published in Venice, which was a coronation gift to King George V from the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, and which has an absolutely stunning mother of pearl binding.

Plenty of other books are notable for beautiful or unusual bindings. Materials used to bind these books include velvet, lacquer, horn and snakeskin. An 1867 volume by William Perkins, woodcutter to the Queen, is about the legendary Herne's Oak in Windsor, and is bound in wood from that very tree.

Not all the items in the Library are books. There are prints by artists as distinguished as Leonardo da Vinci, random objects presented to the Royals over the years, and even a piece of the Berlin Wall.

I really enjoyed my visit, and the chance to see inside a library that is not normally open to the public.