This blog post was written by Dr Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art at Senate House Library, University of London, and Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies. Senate House Library is one of the co-organisers of History Day and you will have the opportunity to hear more about the library’s work on the “Exploring History in the Digital World” panel at History Day 2020

Printed special collections at Senate House Library reach from the fifteenth century to the present. Books large and small, pamphlets and ephemera transport us to new worlds: new geographical areas, new awareness of our own cities, new worlds of science and learning, new ideologies. Old texts provide parallels to new challenges in an old world, as we read seventeenth-century lists of those killed by epidemics or eighteenth-century pamphlets about stock market crashes and financial crises.

Heaven on earth. As religious reformation rocked the sixteenth-century western world, Protestants especially used the printed word to further their cause. ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes’, prayed William Tyndale in a famous image in The Whole Workes of W. Tyndall, Iohn Frith and Doct. Barnes (1573), wanting Henry VIII to embrace the concept of a direct relationship between man and God. To us the image conveys the importance of visual communication in a society with low literacy levels. From Foxe’s massive narrative Book of Martyrs to sermons, music, sober history, and satire, in academic language and scurrilous earthiness, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century print enables us to immerse ourselves in the turbulence of the times. Take a glimpse through our exhibition:

John Foxe, Actes and Monuments of Matters Most Speciall and Memorable, Happenyng in the Church (Fourth edition, London: J. Day, 1583; classmark C4.2 [Fox] fol.)

Crossing the globe. Senate House Library’s earliest travel book is a Dutch translation of Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (1488; ‘Pilgrimage to the Holy Land’), which is the first illustrated travel book.  Starting at Venice, it is more extensive than the title may sound. The first edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Discovery of Guiana (1596, bound with two other early accounts of travels to Guiana) testifies to Elizabethan adventurousness. (Capture the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages more broadly with works from the Durning-Lawrence Library, which centres on Sir Francis Bacon.) Accounts of journeys to foreign lands and of the life there are scattered across the collections, from expensive and highly illustrated descriptions of the Grand Tour to the seventeenth-century Elzevier duodecimo series about different countries intended for actual and armchair travellers. Two named special collections are especially rich in travel:

The M.S. Anderson Collection of Western Perceptions of Russia, 1525-1917: accounts of Russia, its customs, and its history, and of countries crossed on the way. A note of warning: plagiarism accompanies genuine eye-witness account of what was seen as an exotic land.

Image from Sigmund von Herberstein, "Comentari della Moscovia"

Sigmund von Herberstein, Comentari della Moscovia (Venice, 1550; classmark [M.S. Anderson] 1550 – Herberstein)

The Bromhead Library: This collections includes early accounts of the settlement of Australia and life there.

Travel depends on transport. Discover how we enlarged our experiences particularly through the introduction of the railway, with travel accounts and even timetables in the transport section of the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature.

Our cities. New worlds are on our doorsteps with bits of our own cities of which we were unaware. Find guides of places to visit, descriptions of London suburbs, and accounts of Victorian poverty in London in the Bromhead Library. Learn more about poverty and attempts to attack it in the Family Welfare Association Collection, with such titles as Our Slums: The Whole Truth about Poverty, Drink, and Squalor Therein (Liverpool, 1906).

If your Spanish is up to it, explore Madrid in the Eliot-Phelips Collection.

Ideology. Political upheavals can turn the world as we know upside-down. Enter Nazi Germany with the Epcom collection of textbooks from the Third Reich. Not all the horror requires knowledge of German. The insidiousness of Nazi culture emerges in a physics textbook demonstrating the effect of wind velocity through pictures of a flag on a street corner, drooped and flying; it sports a swastika. Clusters of late-eighteenth-century pamphlets about the French Revolution and a simultaneous uprising in Belgium in the general special collections bring alive the events and their leading characters. See also Civil War pamphlets in the Bromhead Library, and narratives and other works which take us back to the First World War in the Playne Collection.

It isn’t all about armed conflict, as evinced by eighteenth- and early-nineteenth struggles against slavery in the Goldsmiths’ Library and part of the library of the London bishop Beilby Porteus and twentieth-century British pamphlets with left-wing leanings in the Heisler Collection and Pelling Collection.

Illustration from "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavaus Vassa, the African"

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavaus Vassa, the African (London, [1789]; classmark [Porteus] L9V/EQU)

Worlds of learning. Experience early editions of the literature emanating from your periods of interest, and how our forebears have interpreted the world and opened up our understanding, from Copernicus exploding notions of geocentrism in De Revolutionibus (1543), Hooke opening up the world of nature in his Micrographia (1665) and Sir Francis Bacon advocating empirical research in his Instauratio Magna (1620) to Darwin explaining evolution in On the Origin of Species (1859).

History is exciting, and your encounter with early printed books at Senate House Library will make it yet more so.

Find out more about Senate House Library’s printed special collections on the Senate House Library website.