The Enlightening Signet Library

Fiona Mossman

As part of the MSc Book History and Material Culture, students can choose to undertake a work placement with an archive or library. This not only allows those of us on the course to gain hands-on experience, but deepens the ties between the institutes in question and the Centre for the History of the Book. I have been fortunate to be placed at the Signet Library, a library of undeniable architectural attraction but also home to some fascinating collections. My little empire within this library is the English History and Topography section, underneath the cupola in the Upper Library. For three months I get to dive into this ‘bibliographic terra incognita’, cataloguing and researching the books in this area, and putting what I find on the map, so to speak, of the online catalogue.

The Upper Library

The librarian of the Signet Library, James Hamilton, has been exceptionally welcoming and helpful. My brief upon arrival was to spend several hours poking around undisturbed in the shelves, getting a feel for what the collection holds, before picking out whatever caught my fancy to work on. This section, the product of the Enlightenment ethos that broadened the lawyer’s scope to all disciplines, is unusual in the Signet Library’s holdings both for its focus outwith Scotland and in the many forgotten survivors of the sales of 1959-1998, which had significantly reduced the library’s collections; as such, this is a welcome holdout that is only now being explored in earnest. Featuring history, topography, and antiquities, it is a treasure-trove of early archaeology, history, and travel writing, along with fine engraving, many different bindings, stories of provenance and much more.

One of my first challenges was cataloguing a nineteenth-century volume entitled ‘A Sketcher’s Notes’, written anonymously by Mary Webster as accompaniments to her drawings, signed ‘M.W.’ and well represented within the volume. I was able to bring two volumes of her work together, having been separated upon arrival at the Signet Library in 1914, and to credit her authorship for the first time in the case of the second volume. While the authorship of the first volume was attested in other libraries’ catalogue records, and was known by the librarian who processed them upon arrival, this information had since been lost and I was very pleased to contribute both to the accessibility of these books and new information about women’s authorship.

Mary Webster’s books reunited for the first time since 1914

The collection is very varied, and I have catalogued both a French translation of David Hume’s History of England belonging to Madame de la Bord, who I spent a while tracking down before identifying her as a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, and a twentieth-century privately published collection of photographs from ‘A trip to Iceland’. The earliest publications that I have come across date from the seventeenth century, while a 1779 book on Northumberland appears in the 1782 library catalogue, making it one of the very earliest non-legal works in the library as whole; but there are many more modern works, including, somewhat egregiously, a copy of Mein Kampf, sandwiched between two early printed books and a biography of Oliver Cromwell.

Preserving bindings with Cellugel (Madame de la Borde’s Hume is the sumptuous red book)

As part of this placement, I will also be curating a display at the upcoming exhibition ‘The Great Affair is to Move’. I look forward to getting stuck into preparations for this very soon, although it will, of course, involve having to pick and choose among my favourites!

The outcome of the cataloguing project—started by me but likely to engage further book history students in years to come—is to allow the material in this collection to be findable via the library’s online catalogue, as well as to enhance understanding of the many fascinating and diverse books held in the collection. I have certainly been learning a lot, and I hope that this has given a flavour of one of the work placements of the current master’s students.

Fiona Mossman and Signet Librarian, James Hamilton


Report by Fiona Mossman, current MSc student, Book History and Material Culture

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