The Private Press Collection: A Curator’s Perspective

In this second post Stephanie investigates some of the curatorial issues faced when attempting to manage and care for our large collection.

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Kelmscott Press, 1896. Private Press R4833.

There are many day-to-day organisational concerns which govern libraries and special collections. The PPC report was produced to address some of these issues with a view to providing the JRL with more useful data about the present condition of the collection. All collections are subject to most of these conditions in one way or another, although the extent to which each topic applies will vary dramatically from one collection to the next. Below are some interesting sample issues and solutions faced by curators and librarians as applied specifically to the PPC.

Access. For a collection to be accessible it must be organised. One of the most effective ways in which to improve the visibility and accessibility of a collection like the PPC is to catalogue it as comprehensively as possible. As it currently stands, the vast majority of the books which make up the PPC have been catalogued. This enables researchers to locate items digitally. Cataloguing as a discipline, however, is continually evolving. Standards shift and are updated, and certain records may have been (retrospectively) completed to what is now considered a minimal-level or basic standard. The uniqueness of the material in the PPC means that items in this specific collection profit from more detailed bibliographic records, and many items in the collection have now had their records updated to include helpful information such as provenance, binding and place of publication. It is hoped that one day the remainder of the records can be upgraded accordingly.

Outreach and Public Engagement. The JRL have hosted many exhibitions to raise awareness of the collection. The Library has a gallery display which is rotated every few months with a view to highlighting the treasures held by the institution. The Oldham-based Incline Press is often represented in the gallery display and special interest groups, such as the Society of Bookbinders and the Society of Calligraphers, are regularly invited to view the collection. Future exhibits should continue to strive for a multi-dimensional focus, emphasising the collection’s relationships to culture, technological diversity, art, class, locality and gender.

Ethics. One of the major dilemmas faced by those in the information profession involves the mitigation of controversy. Controversial material is difficult to exhibit and poses practical difficulties in the reading room (readers consulting potentially offensive material may unwittingly expose non-consenting parties to the content, for example). In the case of the PPC, the artisanal nature of the work permits for experimentation and confronting illustrations and text are at times encountered. Librarians must weigh the financial cost of an item against its potential for exhibition and research. As part of that process staff should continue to be sensitive to both the potential for public offence and the importance of professional impartiality when planning for exhibits and acquisitions.

The research into the background of the PPC also led to some interesting statistical findings. The Kelmscott Press, the Doves Press and the Incline Press are the presses best represented within the collection, mirroring the chronological diversity of the PPC (the Kelmscott was established in 1890; the Incline in the 1980s). The scope of Enriqueta’s original donation is evidenced by graphs which demonstrate that in the early 1910s, after her passing, 100 proto-PPC items were accessioned by the Library in the span of a single year. The next (comparably dramatic) spike did not occur until 1989, when 74 items were added to the register.

One thing which quickly became apparent is that the PPC is unusually comprehensive. Other libraries with comparative holdings often lack material from a specific period, or else retain only one or two sample pieces from a wide range of presses. For other institutions, regionality is key. The Rylands, by contrast, focussed on collecting (past) missing material to gap-fill whilst simultaneously acquiring new and interesting private press works from multiple countries, the end result being that the collection is now one of the richest of its kind.

Looking to the Future (and the Past)

Interstices & intersections or, An autodidact comprehends a cube, Russell Maret, 2014. Private Press R223503

As has been mentioned, the items in the collection are exceptionally lovely. Some are medievally inspired whilst others contain contemporary cartoons, and subject matter ranges from the biblical to the comical. A collection as strong as this one merits continued investment and would present many exciting avenues for research.

Enriqueta Rylands was operating in an era dominated by industrial boom and innovation, but always emphasised that the Library was built to serve as a cultural resource for locals and visitors. The private press movement, meanwhile, concerned itself with aesthetic heritage and with the appreciation of traditional craftmanship, but also in its later years with experimentalism and technological potential. In both enterprises the gap between past and present, talent and commerce, is not only bridged but exploded. There is something in this collection, and, by extension, in its holding institution, for everyone, from all backgrounds and with all aesthetic preferences, traditionalist or non-traditionalist and everything in between.


Overall, it’s been a pleasure to produce a report on such a fascinating collection. With its connections to the Library’s founder and to the material history of the book, the PPC is an asset to the Library and a complement to Mrs Rylands’ vision of an institution built to balance industry and art.

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