Paradigm, No. 15 (December, 1994)

Textbooks at the University of Bristol Library

Nick Lee
Special Collections,
Arts and Social Sciences Library,
University of Bristol Library,
Tyndall Avenue,
Bristol BS8 1TJ.

 It was with a growing sense of panic that I approached my task of getting together an exhibition for the Textbook Colloquium which was to meet in the University of Bristol Library in March 1994. The term 'textbook' was a familiar if unexamined one, but what did it mean in terms of our collections at Bristol? If I used the word in its most general sense, then the collections were composed of nothing but textbooks, but if I applied a more rigorous definition I was likely to end with an exhibition slimmed down to the point of invisibility. Then a practical exercise suggested itself: I would approach the shelves with no expectations at all, and select only the most well-thumbed books: those that booksellers described as 'tired'. These were not in short supply. I warmed to the task and soon accumulated a heap of exhausted, even ruinous books, villainously bound, overwritten with manuscript comments, signatures and jokes, bulging with place-markers, dog-eared, bearing signs of former use as place-mats and bread-boards. These were quite clearly the genuine article. All, from the fifteenth century books (our earliest) to those on current reading-lists bore a certain family resemblance.

These were books that you used: you did not have to like them or even think that they were any good; you just had to master them, because that was what was expected of you. They did not have to look good, that was clear enough; on the other hand, they told you quite a lot, if you were prepared to notice, about yourself, the age, the system, the transformation of a good idea into a subject of study.

In this way, the exhibition more or less created itself and I was to learn a great deal about textbooks from the talks and discussions at the Colloquium, although I am still at the stage where any new piece of information strikes me with the force of revelation. But a new burden was quickly set up for me: I had to write a short piece for this august journal on the subject of our collections. It was hard to know how to begin.

Perhaps I should say first that were are a relatively small and newly-founded library into which older collections have been gathered. What we call 'Special Collections' are an ever-smaller part of this whole and perhaps seem even less significant because they are spread between no less than nine branch libraries. But what is a minor headache for us to administer is simple for the reader or visitor to use. The Branch Librarians know their books very well and they are pretty good at grasping what it is you want. Indeed, a colleague of mine in search of a piece of information was recently likened by a reader to a ferret who had scented blood. He was not sure whether or not to be flattered by this.

We do publish a guide to Special Collections, but not all of it is of equal interest to textbook enthusiasts, and so I will mention only a few of the collections it describes. Indeed I am myself only just getting to know them. This is particularly true of the very few collections in the Medical Library which date from the early eighteenth-century, 150 years before University College Bristol was even a gleam in the eyes of certain Clifton teachers and intellectuals. There must be more than two thousand medical textbooks from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, arranged in publication-date order in the strongroom of the Medical Library. A further, much more pleasant room contains, intact, the Library of Dr. Caleb Parry, a Bath physician and author of several medical textbooks, who died in 1822. This includes the original sheaf catalogue, a rarity in this age of online access.

Rather better known to me is the Exley Collection in the Queen's Building Library. This is part of a larger library of books built up by a father and son, both well-known Bristol teachers, Thomas and John Thompson Exley. This was left to the new University College in 1859. What we call the Exley collection has only 250 well-chosen titles, mainly mathematical texts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and it is clear that even some of these actually come from the Library of the Bristol Education Society, established in 1770. I think it would be possible, with the aid of our old manuscript accessions register and the card catalogue, to track down the present whereabouts of the entire Exley Library, but it would be a labour of love.

As is right and proper, the Education Library is home to a small but very interesting collection containing many textbooks: the creation of Donald Oldham of Bath. Publication dates range from 1785 to 1945, but most of the material is nineteenth-century. It provides a colourful and accessible introduction to children's literature and to the nursery and school life of the period.

But it is with the collections, some of them quite large, in the Arts and Social Sciences Library that I am most familiar. One of these used to be known as 'British Philosophers' but is now, less misleadingly, called 'Early Science and Philosophy.’ After the Medical Library collections it is certainly our most distinguished. It contains about 1300 titles, mainly treatises that were destined to become the standard university textbooks. That some of the fifteenth-century volumes in the collection were produced for student use is obvious from their appearance: many short texts cobbled together in cheap vellum wrappers and bearing much evidence of ownership by a succession of people, some of whom could not restrain themselves from adding their own comments, as students have always done. We go on buying books for this collection even though the history of science and of philosophy are no longer taught here; a triumph of obstinacy over commonsense.

Another happy hunting-ground for textbook-fanciers is the mysteriously-named Butler Case Collection. I remember the Butler Case, an ornate, glass-fronted erection in the Wills Memorial Library, our home until we moved in the 1970s to our concrete cube further up the hill; but who Butler was and where he kept his Case are unknown to all now living. The Case may have gone but the books are still kept together: twenty yards of famously unfashionable classical texts, from an elaborately-commented and illustrated fifteenth-century Terence to an early nineteenth-century Eton College Ovid, by way of Aldus, Elzevier, the Delphin Classics and the Foulis. These have not been in heavy demand for the past half-century, and so it was with a sense of discovery that I raided them to provide discovery that I raided them to provide illustrative materials for one of the talks [Anne Becher on Phaedrus) at the Colloquium.

Surrounding the massive oak refectory table in our reading room are cases containing the Eyles Collection, the pre-1850 section of the Library of Victor and Joan Eyles, considered to be the finest accumulation of early geology books and maps in private hands before it was bequeathed to the University Library in 1986. Its 1500 titles include textbooks of many dates, in many languages and at several levels, the most interesting visually often being the elementary ones. Many of them played an important part in assimilating the once highly alarming new geological discoveries into the contemporary world picture. And, interestingly for us, they were produced in an age when development in lithographic printing made possible for the first time a pictorial approach to the subject which is clearly related to that of the modern textbook.



Lee, Nick (compiler) The Brunel Library (University of Bristol Library; December, 1993) 16 pp.

Special collections in the Library of the University of Bristol (University of Bristol Library, December 1993) 16 pp.

Roberts, A. E. S. 'On the history and growth of the Bristol Medical School Library' Bristol Medico-Chirurgical Journal , 85 316 (October, 1973), pp. 93-100.

Rolleston, H. 'Caleb Hillier Parry MD FRS' Annals of Medical History, 7: 3 (Autumn, 1925), pp. 205-215.

Spittal, C. J. 'Three generations of the Exley Family in Bristol Education and Methodism 1800-1901' Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 121 (1993), pp. 201-213.

[This paper is based on Nick Lee's description of the collection given at the Bristol Colloquium. Ed.]


Paradigm Catalogue Textbook Colloquium