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.

Soncino Bible 035
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.

IMG_8073
The archive storage area under construction, with the floor newly laid for rolling stacks
IMG_8076
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.

IMG_8077
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!

Something Old, Something New

This article was written by the Deputy Director of Development, Tessa Stanley Price, and appears in printed form in the 2015 edition of Exon magazine.

Exon was sent out in August 2015 to alumni and Friends of the College. An electronic version can be viewed here.

…..

Picture the scene: 0th Week of Michaelmas Term 2016, just over a year from now. Our returning Finalists are heaving their belongings into College after the Long Vac. Nothing unusual about that, except this time they are not unpacking on Turl Street, but on Walton Street in Jericho. Exeter’s long-awaited third quadrangle is finally open for business.

Exeter was always clear that its new campus had to be much more than a glorified dormitory building or a secondary annexe to the main College. Yes, additional student accommodation was sorely needed, but so too was teaching, study and relaxation space. The brief for our architects was therefore to develop a full quadrangle that would represent the “collegiate ideal”, where students and scholars live, teach and learn alongside each other. The support of a great many alumni and Friends has enabled Exeter to transform this vision into bricks and mortar.

2344-A0061-A1
Ground floor plan of Cohen Quadrangle

One of the challenges presented by the physical expansion of the College is the connection of the two sites – how can we link a 21st century building to historic Exeter, with its 600-year-old Palmer’s Tower, 19th century chapel and Jacobean dining hall? One way is by bringing some of Exeter’s creative past onto the new campus. The College’s original William Morris carpet has been removed from the Rector’s Lodgings to be cleaned and restored before being hung on the ground floor of Cohen Quad, and display units nearby will feature changing exhibitions on College history.

Next to the Morris carpet will stand a proud acquisition for the new quadrangle: two stained glass windows designed and executed by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, who met as undergraduates at Exeter in the 1850s. The stunning windows portray scenes from four biblical parables. They will be purchased from a church in north London thanks to the gifts of many Exonians and Friends, including six members of one family in memory of their husband, father and grandfather. We hope these installations will help to merge Exeter’s past, present and future.

P1000460
The Moneylenders in the Temple, one of four parables depicted in the Morris/Burne-Jones stained glass windows

“History” is also represented more literally on the site: one of the quadrangle’s five ground-floor seminar rooms will be named the Maddicott Room in recognition of the service Dr John Maddicott, Fellow in History from 1969 to 2006, has given Exeter. Dr Maddicott remains active in writing and research, and published Founders and Fellowship: The Early History of Exeter College, Oxford to coincide with Exeter’s 700th anniversary in 2014. Many of his former students have chosen to make a donation in his honour and we hope to reach our £100,000 target by Christmas. From five-figure donors to the recent graduate who gives £20 a month, everyone is doing their bit, at the level they are comfortable with.

Architect's impression of a teaching and seminar room at Cohen Quad
Architect’s impression of a teaching and seminar room at Cohen Quad

The first, second and third floors of the campus are residential. Each student will have a single room with generous desk space and an en-suite bathroom. Older Exonians will no doubt be glad to hear that students no longer need to wander down lengthy corridors, nor cross quads to basement bathrooms, to perform their ablutions! The bedrooms are available for naming and many people have already made donations to secure “their” room on the site.

Student Room
Architect’s render of a student bedroom

On each residential floor there will be kitchens for student use, the largest of which will be the Cairncross Kitchen. Named in honour of Rector Frances Cairncross and her 10 years’ service to the College (during which time she conceived the vision for a new campus and oversaw Cohen Quad’s purchase), it will be a place for students to come together, cook and relax. 135 generous people have given nearly £140,000 to honour Frances and provide this shared space, which to her represents such an important part of collegiate living.

The College has a long tradition of making use of subterranean space (think of the Saskatchewan, Quarrell, Balsdon and Stapeldon Rooms, and the College Bar). Cohen Quad is no exception. Its basement will house our 30,000 rare books and manuscripts; the first time they will have been kept in one place and in climate-controlled conditions. An adjacent reading room will open up access to these special collections in an unprecedented way.

Architect's rendering of the reading room at Cohen Quad
Architect’s rendering of the reading room at Cohen Quad

All these projects would be no more than pipe dreams if it hadn’t been for the enormous generosity of Exeter alumni and Friends over the last few years, through gifts large and small.

Cohen Quad, the most significant expansion in Exeter’s 700-year history, will be for everyone. It therefore shouldn’t be a surprise that so many people have contributed to its creation. We hope that even more will choose to do so as we countdown to the 2016 grand opening.

Supporter Stories: Neil and Debra Blair

Neil Blair came up to Exeter to read Jurisprudence in 1986.  He worked hard and was acutely aware from the very start of the privilege of living and working in such a beautiful and historic place.  He feels that, in many ways, being at Exeter launched his professional career and he looks back on his student days with gratitude and affection.

Now a literary agent, Neil’s days are filled with books and writing.  He has spent time over the last few years visiting some of Exeter’s ancient printed books and manuscripts and understanding their varied provenance.  He admits to being amazed that a 30,000-strong collection of rare books could have lain under his feet in the basement of the College Library without his knowledge while he was a student, and he fully supports Exeter’s aims to make these volumes more accessible to all.

Two years ago, Neil and his wife Debra chose to make a donation to support the construction of the climate-controlled archive space and reading room at Cohen Quadrangle.  They believe strongly in opening up access to ancient collections so that students, scholars and visitors alike can learn more about these treasures.  They are excited about what this storage and study area will mean for Exeter’s special collections and archives.

IMG_3956
Neil Blair at Cohen Quadrangle.

“I have always been passionate about literature, something which grew throughout my time as a student at Exeter and which is fundamental to my professional life.  So when I learnt about the opportunity to restore Exeter’s most precious books and move them to the best possible storage space on the new quadrangle, I was delighted to help.  I am excited to think that these amazing collections can be preserved for the future and made better available to more people for study and research,” he said.

Neil, Debra and their friends visited Cohen Quad during construction in the summer of 2015 and were the first visitors to enter the basement archive section under construction.  Standing on bare concrete with builders working all around, the group were amazed to think that in eighteen months’ time the first precious books would have a permanent home in this very spot!

IMG_3957
Neil and Debra Blair survey the construction of the special collections storage area at Cohen Quad.
2344-A0060
Basement plan of Cohen Quad with the rolling stacks for Exeter’s special collections visible at the top left-hand corner of the image.

To learn more about Exeter’s special collections, follow the College’s Librarian’s blog and read our previous post on this site.

Exeter’s special collections to move to Cohen Quad

Exeter has a 30,000-strong collection of special treasures in the form of documents, papers, early printed and rare books, and manuscripts.  They are some of the College’s most precious treasures and are an important resource for historians and other academics.

In spring 2017 they will be moved to purpose-built facilities at Cohen Quadrangle. For the first time, all our special collections will be stored together and shelved on rolling racks in the appropriate environmental conditions.  There will be an adjacent reading room with comfortable furniture, including a large desk for consulting documents and plans, making our special collections more accessible than they have ever been.

College Librarian Joanna Bowring has created a dedicated blogsite to showcase some of Exeter’s special collections in advance of the big move.  Her weekly blog posts will highlight a selection of the books and documents in this extraordinary collection.

The blogsite can be viewed at http://exetercollegespecialcollections.com/

Architect's rendering of the reading room at Cohen Quad
Architect’s rendering of the reading room at Cohen Quad
One of Exeter's special collections
One of Exeter’s rare books