Arts/Theatre

Book ‘Em Danno

19 August 2015

I’m turning the pages of a Second Folio of Shakespeare’s work, dating from 1632. The history washes over me like some kind of weird radiation. The pages are old, but the words printed on them are as vibrant as ever.

But I’m not fossicking with a torch through the Tower of London – as much fun as that would be – I’m still in Melbourne, at the University. In the Baillieu Library.

How many of you know that the Baillieu has a Second Folio? Or a page from the Gutenberg Bible? These innocuous bundles of paper shaped the world as we know it today. If more modern literature is your thing, perhaps you’d like to know that we’ve recently acquired a full set of Verve magazine, dating between 1937 and 1960, with contributions from Matisse, Picasso, Miró, Joyce, Sartre, Camus and Hemingway?

The Baillieu’s Special Collections holds over 250,000 items and, in my opinion, perfectly strikes the “balance between access and preservation,” as Susan Millard, the Cultural Collections librarian at the Baillieu, explains it to me.

Susan takes me to the Rare Book Room, which was started from the private collection of the University’s first consultant bibliographer, Dr. John Orde Poynton.

The books within not only include the Second Folio and Gutenberg page mentioned previously, but an early edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince, an ‘artist’s book’ with words by Dadaist Tristan Tzara and art by Surrealist Joan Miró, a Schoeffer Bible (Gutenberg’s apprentice) and a Nuremberg Chronicle – one of the earliest world histories.

The oldest item in the room dates from 1350: a medieval illuminated manuscript small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. The University only owns one half, with the other housed somewhere in Oxford. Manuscripts like this one, along with the Nuremberg Chronicle and the works of Gutenberg and Schoeffer, are referred to as incunabula – early printed texts, dating pre-1500.

Poynton’s collection also includes an entire room of the works of Sir Walter Scott. Edition upon edition crowd the shelves. Susan tells me she thinks it’s “a psychology thing… the collecting bug.”

Looking at a collection like this, I can believe it. Poynton was not the only contributor after all: there’s the Ian McLaren Collection – one of the largest collections of Australian literature and ephemera – and the BX Collection, where histories of Scotland rub shoulders with Casanova’s diaries. In the 1960s, anything published pre-1900 was taken from the Library’s open shelves and moved to this collection.

I ask Susan if she has a favourite. “How can you?” she says. It’s an answer that makes a lot of sense.

In short – there are a lot of incredible books in that library of ours. The texts on display on the ground floor (currently showcasing “Japanese Wonders”) are just the tip of the iceberg.

But that’s not even the best part.

Some people describe the Rare Book Room as a ‘museum of the book’. But, when I ask her about the future of the book in general, Susan hopes that this is not how it will be remembered. So far in 2015, 220 students have attended classes examining and better understanding up to 234 rare books. These books are not locked away in an ivory tower. They are all around us, not only to be treasured but also to be enjoyed and experienced. Student engagement is still very much what the Baillieu is all about.

I do my journalistic duty and ask Susan for the one thing she would say to the readers of Farrago. “Please come and visit our wonderful collection,” she replies with a smile.

There are those who say the book is dead. Those people haven’t visited the Baillieu.