Hidden Treasure in the Library

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Hidden Treasure in the Library

The old Town Library in Saffron Walden is discreetly hidden away on the top floor of the flamboyant Italian-styled building that houses the public library in the Market Place. It was formed in 1832, when the Saffron Walden Literary & Scientific Institution was founded for "the promotion and diffusion of useful scientific knowledge". The original collection reflects the wide-ranging tastes and interests of the Victorians so that the 17,000 volumes in the Library range from a beautifully hand-written medieval psalter produced in about 1350 to several hundred Victorian pot-boilers, many of them by obscure and long-forgotten novelists. There is a small but important collection of original English civil War publications, including rare Leveller and Ranter tracts, as well as key works in topography and early Archaeology. Stepping into the reading room is to walk back in time. A wooden Victorian clock ticks quietly over the mantle-piece, and the walls are lined with original glass-fronted mahogany book cabinets, full of leather-bound volumes. These include the personal botanical collection of George Stacey Gibson, a 19th century Quaker benefactor of the Library, who was the author of the first Flora of Essex published in 1862.

Gibson has been described as a "keen and discriminating bibliophile", and many of the greatest treasures in the collection came from his personal library. These include a first edition of Camden's Britannia, and a set of Cities of the World by Braun and Hogenberg (Cologne, 1574-1616). There are some interesting early Herbals with wood-engraved illustrations and long runs of some of the most important journals from the 18th and 19th century, including the Annual Register and the Gentleman's Magazine. Gibson was keenly interested in the early science of photography and many of the earliest books containing photographic illustrations can also be found on the shelves. In 1960s the Literary Institute was unable to keep going financially, but the members had seen similar libraries forced to break-up and sell their collection, and were determined to avoid a similar fate. In 1967, after negotiations with Essex County Council, the Trusteeship of the Town Library was transferred to the Council. The Town Library is now administered as a charitable trust with the County Council as trustees.

Following a report on the collection by the distinguished historian Professor H J Dyos, it was agreed that the Town Library should form the backbone of a Victorian Studies Centre, and during subsequent years many new volumes have been added reflecting the strengths of the original collection, and dealing with the history and culture of the Victorians. The Victorian Studies Centre provided the Town Library with a practical purpose which was to prove vital in attracting a continuing flow of students and researchers from a wide area. The expansion of Higher Education and distance learning has created an expanding group of students who have been able to benefit from use of the Library. Source material and contemporary research materials including a wide range of academic journals are available for use side-by-side within the same institution. In recent years the Town Library and Victorian Studies Centre have worked closely with Anglia, initially co-operating in a series of day-schools held in Saffron Walden and then through the establishment of the MA in Victorian Studies. Two years ago the Town Library Society co-ordinated a £100,000 appeal to improve the storage and study facilities in the Town Library. The Appeal was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Pilgrim Trust, Essex Heritage Trust and many individuals and organisations, including Anglia Ruskin University, which provided a grant towards making the catalogue of the historic collection available online.

Martyn Everett
First published in: Aspects, Alumni Magazine, Anglia Ruskin University, Autumn 2005


The Great Exhibition 1851