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Saving Cardiff's Rare Books Collection

For decades, Cardiff Council Library hid a treasure – a collection of 18,000 rare books purchased and donated in the nineteenth century for the benefit of the people of the city. During the twentieth century, the books were almost forgotten – the catalogue which had recorded their existence destroyed; the hoard presumed to be an insignificant, lesser copy of greater collections elsewhere.

In fact, like any rare books, the Cardiff Council holdings were truly distinctive. Industrialised printing, developed in the nineteenth century, produces identical copies. Print with moveable type, used in European book production from the mid-fifteenth century, created books as part of a slower and more flexible process. Binding and colouring vary from one exemplar to the next , and even the text itself can vary within one print run, as the manufacturers modified text in response to political events and censors' reactions. Readers frequently added their own notes in ink, even to lavish and costly books: this was seen as a way of adding value to the material. Every item in a rare books collection is a unique artefact, offering new information about the past.

There's more still to the Cardiff collection. After it was announced in 2007 that the books were to be auctioned off, scholars protested and began a long overdue investigation of the collection. Among recorded holdings, they found 175 incunabula – the most treasured of rare books, printed before 1500: estimates for the number of incunabula editions worldwide are only 28,000. They found rare seventeenth-century editions of Shakespeare's works, with copious handwritten notes from early readers. Other highlights include scarce civil war tracts, atlases and herbariums, Welsh-language material and art-house prints. We have much more to learn about this collection: statistically, it's highly probable that it contains titles unknown anywhere else in the world. There's no doubt that its contents can help to update and revise our grasp of past events. But its mere existence is significant for Cardiff's history: the donors and purchasers of these books firmly believed that the city needed a truly world-class library, and that the books they collected would be appreciated first and foremost by the general public.

For this reason, the Cardiff Heritage Friends group campaigned for the books to be kept in Cardiff and made available to its people as the donors intended. We were delighted to learn, earlier this month, that the collection will now be preserved for the city thanks to a shared initiative between Cardiff Council, Cardiff University, the Welsh Assembly Government, and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). For more on the books and the campaign, see the Cardiff Heritage Friends website.