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School of Advanced Study
Senate House Library

London Rare Books School 2024: a bibliophile's paradise

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Written by
Dr Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art, Senate House Library

Dr Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art at Senate House Library, shares the highlights from the 2024 London Rare Books School.

21 June 2024 – and the conclusion of the London Rare Books School for this year. Running since 2007, each year the School brings together booklovers from diverse backgrounds to the Institute of English Studies. In 2024, 109 students from the UK, Europe, America and Israel attended 13 courses over two weeks. Topics ranged from mediaeval illumination to ‘The Book Historian's Digital Tool-Kit’, and from European bookbinding to publishers’ archives and natural history illumination. 

Students learned fascinating facts. For example, how many people know that ‘checky or and azure, a fess gules’ describes a heraldic shield with a checked gold and blue background and a red horizontal band across the centre - useful knowledge for book provenance. A staff member who invigilated said: “I came away from the class with a greater knowledge of the development of bookplates and stamps, valuable tools for provenance research. And, to my surprise, a little enamoured with the world of heraldry.”

A key feature of the School is viewing books in libraries, especially Senate House Library. Tutors, students and support staff alike marvelled at the items on display. Some are well known, such as the Black Prince manuscript (ca 1385), an illuminated manuscript providing an eye-witness account of some of the battles of the Hundred Years War. Others are less prominent, like a mathematical notebook from Florence from about 1500 and a nineteenth-century treatise on wood engraving.

A Royal Irish Academy librarian described the medieval illumination course as showcasing "Fantastic exemplars of scripts, decorative motifs and miniature painting styles". Dr Anna Welch, Principal Collection Curator, History of the Book at the State Library of Victoria in Australia, helped invigilate several courses. Her highlights included a 1495 Venice-printed copy of Constantine Lascaris's Greek grammar Erotemata, one of Aldus Manutius's earliest imprints, corrected in his own hand. Also notable was Samuel Jeake's 1643 manuscript copy of John Willis's stenography work, stab-stitched in 15th-century manuscript waste, and beginning with Jeake's personal white wine ink recipe.

Carlton MS 35/12(iv): Samuel Jeake’s manuscript copy of a work on shorthand
Carlton MS 35/12(iv): Samuel Jeake’s manuscript copy of a work on shorthand

Despite having worked with the rare books at Senate House Library for over twenty years, I too continue to be amazed. The ‘Anatomy of the Book’ course featured the final page of a 1649 quarto pamphlet signed by imprisoned Levellers John Lilburn, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton. A contemporary annotator wrote "was a good soldier" next to Lilburn's name, and "honest men" for Walwyn, Prince and Overton.

Dr Welch described the School as "Bibliophile heaven" – and it's right on our doorstep.

Pamphlet from 1649, annotated in a 17th-century hand
Pamphlet from 1649, annotated in a 17th-century hand