Behind the Scenes: Rare Books

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By | In the Library

High summer finds us in the cool basement stores where the Rare Books are kept. Nearly 70,000 printed books and pamphlets published up to 1850 are shelved here, making up one of the most comprehensive collections of early medical literature and containing titles by all the key authors in this field. One of nearly 650 incunabula, the earliest book in the collection was published in 1467: De sermonum proprietate, by Rabanus Maurus, Archibishop of Mainz.

“This collection, which contains a significant proportion of books unique to the UK, is a valuable resource for researchers; consequently the collection is very popular with our visitors,” according to Julianne Simpson, Rare Books Librarian, who has managed the collection for the past five years. Some of the most interesting items include those on alchemy and the early history of chemistry, the “anatomical fugitive sheets”, printed ephemera, books from the Medical Society of London Library, 1,500 books from the library of Ernst Darmstaedter, and over 200 books from the library of William Morris.

Many of these books were collected in the early 20th century by Henry Wellcome (founder of the Wellcome Trust), but new titles have been added since, and continue to be added. Julianne sources relevant and unique titles from a number of trusted booksellers and auction houses. All new accessions are included in the Library catalogue.

Julianne may be seen regularly invigilating in the Rare Materials Room, but she also provides support to researchers by answering enquiries about the collection (for example, providing information about the unique aspects of specific editions or copies held here). Julianne works with the Photography team in approving book scanning for readers; with Rowan on lending books to exhibitions both internal and external; and with the Cataloguing department.

Several books from the collection are on display in the current Skin exhibition in Wellcome Collections, and even more have been identified for the High Society exhibition planned for autumn 2010. This allows the public to view these rare and fascinating books otherwise accessible only to visiting researchers or as images online. Many illustrations and some cover-to-cover photography is available on Wellcome Images, or via the Library catalogue (for example, The Christian’s Refuge, 1665 which can be downloaded in full as a PDF).

Christy Henshaw

Christy Henshaw

Christy Henshaw manages digitisation at the Wellcome Library. @Chenshaw. Linkedin

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