St Bride Through a Stranger’s Eye

Author: Andrew Katz, summer intern at St Bride Foundation, student from University of Connecticut in Connecticut, USA

The St Bride Library, one of the world’s largest printing libraries is, admittedly, at first not much to write home about. It is open to the public two days a month, and must be reserved by appointment other days. People come from all over the world to view parts of its collection, submitting requests well in advance to look at obscure items, some of which can’t be found anywhere else.  The reading room is small and quaint, with a circular table in the centre designated for research and for visitors to view the volumes they request. It is a modern space, with airy windows and contemporary bookshelves, a place that feels like any friendly neighbourhood library. However, look beyond this anteroom, into the bowels of the library, and its significance and depth become clear.

The library first opened in 1895, but found its origin in 1891, when the St Bride Foundation was created to take care of the extensive book collection left behind by the passing of William Blades, esteemed printmaker.  His volumes were soon joined by those of John Passmore Edwards, a journalist and philanthropist. Today, the elegant auxiliary library and reading room are named for these men, respectively. In the 1950s, the collection was expanded beyond books to include physical items related to printing, like presses and type-casting equipment. This ever-expanding collection now boasts some 10,000 items, ranging from books to newspapers to artefacts and more. The Foundation and its library have gone through a lot of changes over the years, but have held true to one unwavering through line: providing research facilities and rare and unique items to all those interested in the illustrious history of printing.

St Bride Library Reading Room st bride library

I myself have always been a lover of all things book related – I am a marketing and theatre student back in the United States, and my classes have me constantly poring over old (usually British) texts and plays. The history behind printing is something I had never really thought about before coming to St Bride. Today we take for granted the massive impact that books have had on our day-to-day lives and basic structures of society, never considering the centuries of printing and innovation that had to occur to allow for the ubiquity and significance of books we experience today. After touring the St Bride Library, guided by the wonderfully warm librarian Heather, I held a finer appreciation for the importance of printing in history and why it’s so crucial that St Bride provides the services it does.

The first thing that stood out to me in the library was the overall size of the entire space; the library stretches backwards and upwards, far beyond the small research area. There are rooms filled with just newspapers and others filled with just type-cast pieces. Other rooms house rows of shelves that stretch far back, filled with volumes centuries older than my own country, just waiting to be requested for viewing. Nestled in a corner are on-going restoration projects, piece-by-piece attempts to preserve some of the older items in the collection. Another area is dedicated to British newspapers and (almost) every issue of a monthly magazine that has been out of circulation for decades. No one is allowed in this space by themselves – no cameras and its remoteness from the rest of the library means if you’re there alone, no one might even know you’re up there. The Passmore Edwards Room and the Blades Library are also part of this system of rooms, providing a space for more rare and delicate pieces of the collection.

Passmore Edwards Room and Door to Blades Libraryblades library

While this surprisingly large labyrinth of rooms is exciting to explore, the real heart of the library lies in, of course, its collection. Some items are so rare and valuable that they are locked away from the public, and can only be viewed if accompanied and watched by a librarian. One such item is William Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, an extremely valuable reprinting of Chaucer’s works. Of all the impressive items in the library, a few in particular stood out to me: mainly a fascinating play called The New Hamlet from the early 1900s and a series of American newspapers from the mid-19th century. As a theatre student, The New Hamlet was of special interest to me, an amazing play conceived by a family of actors/farmers that combined the characters of Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet to imagine happy endings for everyone. Bound between what are quite literally just two pieces of wood, this play ends with now revised couples Ophelia and Romeo, and Juliet and Hamlet, all living a peaceful (and continuing) life together. Its writing style and plot are mediocre, with various winks and nods to American politics and culture, but is so delightfully unique that it is a joy to hold and read.

The New Hamlet

The newspapers come from New York, housed in the collection mainly due to the printing employed to create them, but fascinating besides for the events they cover. One is from 1857, and reports on the Dred Scott case, a tragic blow at the time to the fight for black emancipation. Another is from 1863, one day after Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation. This decree, one of the most pivotal pieces of legislation in American history, is reported on in a small side column, not even the main story of the day’s issue. These two papers are over 150 years old, reporting on events that changed the landscape of American history forever; yet, in those moments, it was just the day’s news. These papers were incredible to behold, especially as I am unfortunately witness to growing racial divides and inequality in my own country and abroad.

Looking at those papers, I understood and appreciated what the library and all of the St Bride Foundation stands for: preserving the past so that we can better understand and learn from it. The library is welcoming to all, inviting in those who want to know more about printing or just the world around them. Like all libraries, it stands for knowledge and education, expanding minds as it brings pieces of the past to those in the present, so that they may look to the future. I am thrilled to have gotten the chance to see all of it and view some of the items. This small space carries an enormously significant weight, leaving its mark on me and countless others who have experienced all it has to offer. The St Bride library might not look like much at first, but as with most things, looking a little bit more closely reveals a thriving academic centre, teeming with knowledge, history, and value.

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