… and you don’t have to fight dragons to appreciate them.
Dunedin is very well served, for a small city at the bottom of the world, with its rather special institutions that have large and fascinating collections of books, literary ephemera and related items. Many of the items, and some whole collections, at the University of Otago’s Hocken Library and Special Collections, and in the Heritage Collections at the Dunedin Public Library, were donated by far-thinking collectors and specialists, who felt it was important for such items to be available for scholars and indeed anyone who wanted to see them.
A week ago, I went on one of the Dunedin Public Library’s Rare Book Tours – they were running just two for Heritage Week – and it was just astonishing! First we got to go into the temperature controlled, fire proofed storage area – shelves of bibles, works by Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson and also a few books we recognised – local histories of Dunedin and Otago. We concentrated very much on the Reed Special Collections which is just a small part of the whole and then we got to sit down at a table and the librarian, who was really informative and pleased to share, put a bean-baggy cushion and a low plinth on the table so that he could put some items out and we could pass them around, by handling what they were sitting on rather than the delicate and ageing objects themselves. First up was the famous ‘Golden R’, a piece of medieval manuscript collected by Reed – I have to say this image doesn’t even begin to capture the liveliness of the illumination and the charm of the cavorting animals and tangled plants:
One of the interesting things I found was that you were immediately confronted with the human-scale of the items – people painstakingly made them and then used them for worship or entertainment or information. You suddenly had a sense of connection to those long-ago people (some of whom wouldn’t even have dreamt of these islands existence while painting in their monasteries) and a sense of what was important to them – and there we were, a group of mostly strangers to each other, sitting in Dunedin on a dark, cold Friday evening, also finding importance, beauty and meaning in what they had created.
We also – hold your breath! – were shown the single page from the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Europe with moveable type in about 1454. Very few whole ones exist – this sort of collecting is the preserve of billionaires and oligarchs and the sometime lucky institutions they leave their collections to. How amazing that Mr Reed took the opportunity to buy a tiny piece of world history and arrange for all to have access to it.
We inspected a set of the original Bleak House by Charles Dickens, first published month by month, in installments – they were well thumbed, and obviously valued and avidly read by their first owners. The giant, metal bound King James Bible from 1611 first edition printing was a creaking but remarkably spry old behemoth of a book: I found it startling to see the olde worlde printing, which primes you for slightly difficult Shakespearian English, spelling out the beautiful clear, poetic, somehow so modern English that the King James Bible is famous for creating/capturing.
I would encourage you to have a fiddle about on the links above to the various Heritage Collections at the Dunedin Public Library – it is a really interesting site, explains just how broad the remit is and how deep too. Of course, access to the books and other items in the collection is restricted but they are available for any member of the public to see, you just need to arrange a suitable time, and there are details on their site about who to contact and the process for getting access.