Interview with Shan Robinson, Special Collections Co-ordinator

Shan Robinson, Special Collections Co-ordinatorShan Robinson, Special Collections Co-ordinatorCan you tell me a little bit about the library collections and their history?

The origins of the library and our special collections can be traced to W.J. Parry ‘the quarryman’s champion’. In July 1883, (before the University College was opened) Parry wrote to Colonel Sackville West to suggest that they start a College library to which he personally would present three hundred and fifty volumes.  In September 1883, Parry sent out a circular to a host of potential donors requesting their contributions to the collection.  In the circular, he wrote:

The Library of such an Institution must become, in course of time, an inestimable advantage and blessing to all North Wales.  It ought to contain copies of all valuable old Welsh Publications, Manuscripts and Books bearing on the History of Wales, besides Works of Modern Literature.  All Writers on Welsh subjects have for years felt that want of a Library, containing all works bearing on the History of Wales, and the History of its Literature.  It is my purpose to commence such a Collection that must become more precious and valuable from generation to generation.”

 In fact, many of our finest books came by way of the generosity of local benefactors and we still today receive donations by the public that enhance and add to our historic collections. We also, when finances allow, purchase items that fill any gaps in our special collection. It is very much a living collection and we are always on the lookout for books that may become collectable in the future.

Along with the kindness of local people, another advantage to the development of Bangor’s Library was the employment of a series of influential and brilliant librarians, Thomas Shankland, Thomas Richards, and Derwyn Jones.  Thanks to the aggressive collecting policy of these librarians, Bangor scholars have at their disposal an extremely high percentage of all the books of Welsh and especially local interest. Indeed, in 2004 Geraint Jenkins felt able to describe the library at Bangor University as “the real national library of Wales”. Due to the diversity of subjects taught over the past 130 years we are very fortunate to have built up special collections in the sciences and in the arts and humanities.  Most of our special collections and rare books are found in 3 separate runs in our Derwyn Jones Room, along with our named collections Brangwyn, Herbert Lewis, Cerddi Bangor, and Arthurian rare books. Other named collection like Owen Pritchard and the Cathedral Collection are kept elsewhere in the Main Library.  Many our special collections are kept at the Normal Library, as in the Welsh Children’s Books, Climbers Club, and Pinnacle Club Collections.

The library houses 3 official centres, R.S. Thomas Centre established in April 2000, The Stephen Colclough Centre for the History and Culture of the Book established November 2016, and The Centre for Arthurian Studies established January 2017. These are also referred to as special collections.

Can you tell me about any work you are doing on the collections currently?The Story of the Glittering Plain,William Morris 1891The Story of the Glittering Plain,William Morris 1891

My workday is extremely varied and what I’m working on depends on priorities.  At the present time I have a number of projects, jobs, and responsibilities they include

up-dating and creating new pages for the web-site, organising promotional events for the Centres, creating new promotional literature for the Centres, managing the digital projects, compiling workflow and practices for use when digitising, training interns and volunteers.  My daily responsibilities are to answer enquiries, fetch rare/special collection items for readers, shelve rare books, help out in the Archive when needed, simple conservation work when necessary which also included a cleaning rota for the various rooms where the collections are kept. I also give guided tours of the Centres, the Library and sometimes a historic walk around the building. This is not an exhaustive list of my duties and priorities can change very quickly. In order to up-date the web site I am researching our named collections starting with The Owen Pritchard Collection which is uncovering some beautiful books from late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Could you tell me a little about the Owen Prichard collection and why you think it is important?

The collection was formed by Dr Owen Pritchard between 1884 and 1920 and presented by him to the college in 1920. The Collection is strong in works printed by the private presses of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries.  The collection has copies from the majority of presses represented in the late nineteenth and twentieth century Private Press Movement. Presses like Ashendene, Kelmscott, Ballantyne, Doves, Eragny, Russell, and the Vale Press along with other books of interest to the true connoisseur of the published book.

Research Reserve

Created in 2010, the Research Reserve is composed of a variety of low-use print material including:

  • Print journals 2,700 titles
  • Books relegated from the libraries - 27,000
  • A valuable uncatalogued collection of nineteenth and twentieth century material. This collection is unique. It supports the establishment of the Research Centre for the Book, and contains a wealth of primary source material of value to researchers -- 35,000
  • Many special collections – i.e. Winton Thomas Collection
  • Welsh printed and published material (included in figure quoted for the uncatalogued collection)
  • Pamphlets and ephemera

Visits are made daily by the Library van to retrieve material requested by students and staff.

What do you envisage the work of the Stephen Colclough Centre will do for the collections?The Booke of haukynge, huntyng and fysshyng, 1496, printed by Wynken de WordeThe Booke of haukynge, huntyng and fysshyng, 1496, printed by Wynken de Worde

The Stephen Colclough Centre for the History and Culture of the Book will give our collections a focus. It will attract and provide research opportunities hopefully form all over the globe. The History of the Book has emerged in the last twenty years as a dynamic field of interdisciplinary enquiry and as such we intend the Centre to acts as a hub for research projects in the History, Culture, and Materiality of the Book.

Scholars working in the School of English Literature have undertaken a number of historical projects that investigate the material texts and reading practices of the medieval, early modern and modern periods, and have been involved in digital humanities projects, including the digitisation of the Bangor Pontifical and the expansion of the Reading Experience Database into an internationally recognised resource for humanities scholars.

The Centre will assist the University’s strategy in supporting and enhancing the student experience particularly in the areas of Arts and Humanities. It will also be important to our international students who value old books and their history and indeed the history of Wales and Welsh printers. This will emphasise the uniqueness of Bangor and also celebrate the Welsh language.

The History of the Book is more compelling than ever today due to the ever-changing landscape owing to media transformations. We intend for our Centre to be at the front-line of future debate in this field. With the rich resources at its disposal we are in a strong position going forward.

I understand you are keen to promote the collections and access to them - why is this important, and how do you make students/academics/the public aware of the collections?

Promotion! Promotion! Promotion. We have to take every opportunity to ensure that these books are read. An unread book is a very sad thing indeed, and while our catalogue lists all our holdings, in order to capture the imagination of people we have to give these items meaning and context. While supporting Bangor University students, researchers, and staff, is at the core of what we do, our collections have a wider significance than just the service of the reading needs of the University.  This is an important cultural resource especially important for the study of all aspects of local history and the culture and society of Wales. Therefore promotion needs to take on the challenge by providing opportunities for the entire community “Town and Gown”.

We need to be creative, collaborative, and inclusive. 

Finally, do you have a favourite book from any of the collections?

Asking me to choose a favourite book is like asking a mother to choose a favourite child.  However if pushed, I would have to say that the item in the rare collections that resonates with me the most is a book entitled “The Quarry Dispute”.  As a book it is something of a cheat to choose this one, because it is not just one book but a compilation of pamphlets bound together. The theme of the pamphlets is the Bethesda quarry strike 1900 -1903. This is particularly relevant to me personally as my family have a long history of working at the Penrhyn Quarry, and I live in what is called “stryd y gynffon” the street of the tails. These were houses specifically built by Penrhyn, in Tregarth, in order to attract striking quarrymen back to work. The tails refer to the base animalistic tendencies levelled at the strike breaking men who took up Penrhyn’s offer of housing.

The book includes examples of all the publications that were circulated during the strike.  These contain material on the origins of the strike, reports, appeals and summaries of events, all bound up in one useful book.  The original owner was W. J Parry, “The Quarryman’s Champion” as he was known. Parry was leader and secretary of the Union.  This book relays one of the largest and earliest disputes in the history of British industry which is equally of interest internationally as it is locally. And it takes us full circle to the origins of the library as this was one of the original items donated by W.J. Parry himself.

Publication date: 13 July 2017