A Cinderella of the Book World

Top team bring centuries old books back to life at the University of Ulster

Over 5000 rare and historic books currently being conserved by an international team of specialists at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus are now available for the public to view, giving a fascinating insight into life in the north west hundreds of years ago.

The books are part of the Church of Ireland Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Collection, which dates back to the 15th century. Described by one expert as 'a Cinderella of the book world', the collection is one of the most significant diocesan libraries in Ireland and considered to be a rich historical resource.

The contents cover a wide range of subjects ranging from Protestant and Catholic theological writings, books on dissent, Quakerism, Judaism and Islam, to historical political polemics. The oldest volume in the collection is a Latin Breviary printed in Venice in 1483, although the core of the collection was formed in 1729 by Archbishop William King, formerly Bishop of Derry.

Jenny Jarvis, from Virginia, USA, who has been appointed project director and chief conservator, heads the conservation team. She says that one of the more unusual aspects of a collection so old is that many of the books have never been rebound and because of this, have significant historic value.

'Books from this period are generally richly annotated and since most of the books in this collection have never been rebound, they still have their original notes in the margins and on the inside cover. This is a real hot topic for research at the minute as the notes provide a rich social commentary giving a remarkable and very interesting insight into diocesan life during this time.'

On the downside, however, Jarvis admits that because the books were stored on open shelving - some for hundreds of years - many are in a very poor condition. 'Down through the years the books were neglected and subjected to all kinds of outdoor air pollution and an accumulation of indoor pollution such as tobacco smoke, dust and grime that was never cleaned off.'

The first stage of the project saw the collection, which had been languishing in far from ideal storage conditions in the Synod House in London Street, officially handed over on permanent loan to the university to be stored in more suitable conditions in the purpose built Rare Books Room at Magee.

The conservation team has now progressed to the second stage of the project, ‘Conservation and Outreach’. The conservation work will involve cleaning and repairing the 5000-plus items in the collection and this will be carried out at Shantallow Library where Jarvis and her team will be based. In tandem with their work to preserve the books they will train a team of book conservators and facilitate a range of outreach activities.

By widening access to the books to the wider community, groups from across Northern Ireland will be able to share the books and explore their themes and history. This stage of the project is expected to take over three years and once completed, the books will be made available to the public.

Mary Delargy, from Derry, has been appointed outreach and learning officer. Delargy previously worked as a researcher at both the Institute of Ulster-Scots Studies and the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at the UU and was librarian in charge of the Languages of Ulster collection at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.

A fluent Irish speaker, Delargy is currently studying for her doctorate. She says that the Outreach programme will give local schools and groups a unique opportunity to see the conservators at work. 'Groups are welcome to make arrangements to visit Shantallow Library and see the work in progress for themselves. This is an excellent opportunity for people to find out more about the significance of the collection, not only in the history of the city but in the history of the island as a whole.'

Ulster has a proven track record in preserving rare book collections, best known of which is the Henry Davis Collection at the Coleraine campus. The Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Collection will augment the existing Rare Books Collection at Magee which is proving to be a valuable source research material for scholars from around the world.

The project has received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which builds upon many other generous donations received from individual supporters across the world, as well as a number of charitable organisations, including the Inner City Trust, The Honourable the Irish Society, the Garfield Weston Trust and The Heritage Council.

To date a total of around £700,000 has been secured for the project and fundraising efforts are continuing in order to raise the outstanding target of £40,000. To make a donation to the project and for other fundraising enquiries contact Sarah Hudson on 028 7032 4460 or email sl.hudson@ulster.ac.uk.