Exploring the Special Collections

Exeter’s Special Collections Centre at Cohen Quadrangle will be unlike anything the College has ever had before.

The College owns around 30,000 rare books and some 80 medieval manuscripts, as well as 700 years’ worth of archive material (referred to all together as the Special Collections). These are currently stored in the basement of the College library and underneath staircase 9 in cramped and dusty conditions, inaccessible for scholars who may wish to consult them.

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The Soncino Bible, part of Exeter’s Special Collections. Printed in 1488, it is the first printing of the entire vocalized Hebrew Bible text
One of Exeter's special collections
Detail from the 14th century Bohun Psalter, owned by Katherine of Aragon

In February 2015 the College announced that Cohen Quad’s basement area will be developed expressly to house its rare books and manuscripts in a Special Collections Centre. This in turn frees up an entire wing in the library on Turl Street, enabling the College to provide additional and much-needed study space for students.

The large archive storage area at Cohen Quad will have brand new rolling stacks for easy access.  A smaller side room will act as a high-security storage area for the College’s most precious collections, including the 14th century Bohun Psalter (owned by Katherine of Aragon herself), the Soncino Bible (see image above) and a manuscript copy of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars with marginal notes by Petrarch himself.

The rooms will have inbuilt temperature and humidity regulators to ensure optimum conditions for all these precious pages. They will be protected from fire and flooding with thick walls and metal doors, giving an extra four hours’ protection. They will also be fitted with a gas suppression system which forces oxygen out of the atmosphere, thus extinguishing fire without the need for sprinklers.

The rooms will also be highly secure, with alarmed entrances and CCTV footage throughout.

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The archive storage area under construction, with the floor newly laid for rolling stacks
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The high-security area for Exeter’s most precious books and manuscripts

This is the first time that Exeter’s rare books and archive materials will be kept in one place and under climate-controlled conditions. Not only this, but an adjacent reading room will open up access to the collections in an unprecedented way.

The reading room will boast a large table to be shared by anyone wishing to study these materials. The walls will be panelled in glulam and cherry veneer, echoing the materials used across the rest of the site. It will be cleverly and sensitively lit, mostly thanks to a large ceiling light that draws in natural light from the North Quadrangle.

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The reading room as it looks now…
Architect's rendering of the reading room at Cohen Quad
… and a render of the finished room

Joanna Bowring, the College Librarian, said:

Librarian Joanna Bowring

“The new Special Collections Centre at Cohen Quad will be nothing short of transformational for Exeter’s archives, manuscripts and rare printed books. For the first time, all of these historic collections can be kept together, in the correct environmental conditions. Exeter has extraordinary special collections and it’s so exciting that we can make them accessible and bring Exeter’s history to life in this way.”

To read more about Exeter’s special collections, please click here.

Exeter is looking forward to welcoming students, Fellows and visiting academics to the Special Collections Centre at Cohen Quadrangle, and is grateful to all the supporters who have made this project possible.

All in all, this is a basement with a difference!

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