Monday, 11 June 2018

Westcountry Studies, 3. Summer 2018.

Westcountry Studies

bibliographical newsletter

on Devon and its region

Issue 3

Summer 2018

This is a shorter newsletter than issue 2 back in January as bibliographical work has been intermittent over the past months, but the opportunity is now being taken to direct attention to a few pages that have been recently updated.

Books about Devon and the Westcountry published in 2018
As usual the most recent publications are responsible for the greatest changes in the bibliography. The listing for 2018 has been updated, largely to cover recent weekly issues of the British National Bibliography. The opportunity has also bee taken to update the listings for 2017 and 2016 for which records are still drifting in. Little attempt has been made to search Amazon and to seek out on-line documents as information is difficult to integrate, for example the many facsimile reprints of early items by the publisher Forgotten Books, which does not indicate the date of the original publication. The same is true for websites which are separately listed in the Devon digital archive which has also been updated and now has about 1350 records. Some PDF files have been added to the annual bibliographies. 

Place listings
No further place listings have been added but extensive work has been undertaken on editing the 27,000 records in these files, recently retrieved from the Way Back Machine, which contain considerably more detail than the skeleton records in many parts of the chronological listings. They will be gradually integrated with the main chronological sequence.

Celebrating Sir Thomas Bodley
In the January issue there was a report on preparations for a celebration surrounding the rededication of the blue plaque to Thomas Bodley on the corner of High Street and Gandy Street in Exeter. On 11 August the Exeter Civic Society will be holding an event in St Stephen's Church in the High Street, Exeter entitled Celebrating Sir Thomas Bodley to commemorate the greatest librarian Devon has produced. In 1602 he managed to wheedle more than ninety manuscripts from the Cathedral Library - a great loss to Exeter, but it is probably thanks to his actions that Exeter retains, albeit scattered to the four winds, one of the finest surviving medieval libraries in Britain. Images from a selection of thirty of these manuscripts will be seen in Exeter for the first time in more than four centuries in a pop-up display provocatively entitled Exeter's Elgin Marbles. Doors open at 1.30 and at 2.00 Ian Maxted will be giving a talk on Bodley the librarian. The event is intended for members of the Exeter Civic Society. Non-members who are interested in attending should contact Ian Maxted in advance as numbers are limited.

The book in medieval Devon
In connection with the events surrounding the relaunch a sort of prequel to the Devon bibliography has been added, a listing of Devon medieval manuscripts,. This listing takes the story back more than 500 years before the introduction of the printed book into Devon. Its nature however is considerably different. It aims to list manuscripts owned by Devon libraries or individuals, produced in Devon scriptoria or written by Devon authors in the period up to the dissolution of the monasteries. The content is based on surviving manuscripts as well identifiable works recorded in medieval library catalogues or inventories, and other documentary sources. It is in the early stages of compilation and is an extension of the concordance of the medieval inventories of Exeter Cathedral with surviving manuscripts originally attempted in 1987.

There are many problems involved in identifying and listing medieval manuscripts in a format which is compatible with printed books. Medieval cataloguers were often vague about providing details of author and title, or describing the full content of compilation volumes. Works were often wrongly attributed and authors were listed under a bewildering variety of names. This has given rise to problems in assigning standard headings for authors, a problem compounded by the fact that for medieval writers (a period united by the common language of Latin), present-day cataloguers across Europe have very different ideas of how to refer to an individual, as reference to the CERL thesaurus demonstrates only too clearly. I have tended to use the Latin form of the name, except for English writers but have not been entirely consistent in this.

The resulting list, which is still in the early stages of development, represents something very different from the listings of printed and published documents. Being limited to manuscripts once listed as being in Devon libraries or by Devon writers, it represents a cross-section of all European knowledge of the period. It reveals an international coverage, with the common language being Latin, with few works in English or French or by English writers, nor is there any significant level of content relating to Devon. It should be pointed out that many of the service books were not held in the library but in the church itself or the side-chapels, nor does this listing at present take account of archives, which were normally kept in the treasury or a similar location.

The future of local studies documentation across Devon
The news that Libraries Unlimited has taken over the provision of public library services in Torbay highlights problems in maintaining the provision of local studies information across Devon. While public libraries are busily and successfully reinventing themselves, this scenario does not cover certain categories of collections: major reference collections, rare book collections and above all the local collections that in regions across the country echo on a local level the work of the British Library – whose involvement with local publications is limited. These collections are a mixture of printed archives and museums of the book, often with unique materials, but while their best location may be with archives in a heritage centre, the techniques of running them are related to traditional librarianship and they require dedicated qualified or experienced staff or cooperation with other library services. There are also differences in the approach to the materials between librarians and archivists, the way in which they are listed, the means of tackling subject analysis, the need to cover information provision on a day to day basis – recording the present – and the coverage of areas which are peripheral to archives, the natural environment, socioeconomic conditions, arts and literature etc.

So, what is the position of local collections which originally formed part of the public library service across Devon?

The Westcountry Studies Library was transferred to the South West Heritage Trust with no designated staffing, the withdrawal of general library support services and a drastically cut bookfund. The Trust has done wonders with a collection taken on without any endowment. It is redesigning the library catalogue and acquires some of the key historical publications that are appearing, but many periodical subscriptions have been dropped and microfilming suspended without access to digital archives, nor are periodicals indexed or digital resources listed. On 11 June the on-line catalogue listed 143 Devon publications for 2017. However these figures include many undated items and the Devon figures are swollen by the free publications that individuals have brought in. These are considerably lower figures for years before 2011..

Barnstaple local studies did not form part of service that was transferred to SWHT and remains at present with Libraries Unlimited. SWHT cannot take it on without some endowment (there is an analogy with the National Trust) and in the present climate, if it does, the resources for its care in a separate location will be minimal. LU has no designated local studies staff. In 2017 according to its newly relaunched on-line catalogue it acquired about 80 Devon titles for the county, most of them lending copies. However in Exeter interest has been shown by individual staff for the early printed book collections and imaginative projects have been undertaken, so there may be a spark that could be kindled for local studies collections across the county.

Torquay local studies is a major collection for the south of the county with extensive catalogues and an excellent tradition of indexing, much of which is accessible online. For 2017 its on-line catalogue records about 40 Devon items. Once transferred to LU its fate will probably be similar to Barnstaple. 

Plymouth remains independent and its on-line catalogue records about 30 Devon publications for 2017 but it is unclear whether this includes the local studies collection since there appears to be no on-line access to the local studies catalogue. There are of course ambitious plans in progress for a heritage centre, but the footprint of local studies libraries in this is unclear.

Bideford, Tiverton, Newton Abbot and other branches also have significant local studies collections as well as boxes of parish files supplied by the Westcountry Studies Library who also advised on the acquisition of items of local significance through a monthly booklist. The fate of the branch collections under LU remains unclear.

So whatever the final destination of local studies collections, the present prospect for the development local studies resources across Devon remains challenging to say the least. In many communities the most active collections are now in museums or community archives, but access for researchers is often restricted and cataloguing standards variable. In Exeter the Devon and Exeter Institution is the most active local studies resource in the county at present but again public access is limited and through its on-line catalogue, currently provided through the University of Exeter, it is difficult to extract all DEI acquisitions.

Perhaps the long-term answer is a shared jointly funded resource which could co-ordinate searching for, ordering, cataloguing and distribution of local studies reference materials across the county and also cooperatively index periodicals, theses and digital resources relating to the region. It could serve museums and community archives as well as libraries and enlist volunteers to assist in indexing. It could be attached to a library in Devon, perhaps one of the universities as the research potential could be immense and their interests cover many aspects of the community, past and present. It could also work towards a union catalogue or bibliography of resources – a Devon Union List for the digital age. The Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Exeter might be a suitable host for such a resource. Such a project might also attract lottery and other funding, especially if local community involvement were highlighted. In other words a good old-fashioned local studies librarian, based within the county.

Pie in the sky perhaps, but the present situation is certainly not tenable for equitable county-wide coverage of local studies across one of the largest counties in England. In the meantime the Devon bibliography will have to serve as the community memory. 

This page last updated 11 June 2018