Matthew Coneys discusses his work scoping Romance language collections held across Senate House Library and SAS Institute libraries, with a view to making them more accessible to researchers of Modern Languages
Since April I have been working to scope the Romance language holdings in Senate House Library and the libraries of the School of Advanced Study research institutes. The project seeks to uncover some of the hidden treasures within the collections, as well as their broader areas of strength, and to promote these resources to Modern Languages researchers. This rewarding task has involved working with a wide range of material across languages: from medieval Italian prayer books and early manuscripts of Voltaire’s short stories to illustrated editions of Catalan nationalist poetry and pamphlets of Che Guevara’s political speeches.
The biggest initial challenge was knowing where to begin. An enormous amount of Romance language material is held across the libraries: Senate House Library, for example, displays 69,000 items in French alone on its open shelves. I have benefitted from the advice of librarians across the institutes who have pointed me in promising directions, provided useful data and allowed me to access areas normally off limits to the public. Some of the most interesting material I have found was stumbled upon by accident, such as a collection of early Baedeker guides to southern Europe and a seventeenth-century Italian manuscript containing the reflections of a papal diplomat on a possible marriage between the future Charles I of England and the Spanish Infanta.
Much of my work has focused on special collections, with the aim of highlighting the value of unique material to specific groups of researchers. This objective informed the organisation of a recent workshop on the Eliot-Phelips Collection, an exceptional body of printed primary sources on early modern Spain. I have also spoken about various areas of my work at conferences and study days, and will be introducing the Romance collections as part of the IMLR and Senate House Library research training programmes. The most tangible result of the project will be an interactive guide to the collections on the IMLR website, offering an overview of the libraries’ holdings and facilitating access to finding tools and other guides.
It has been especially interesting to explore how the different libraries complement each other, offering a range of perspectives on, and resources for, certain fields of study. One such area is eighteenth-century France, with Senate House Library’s outstanding holdings of legal documents and revolutionary pamphlets supplemented by rich sources for the study of French local and regional history in the library of the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). Another area of cross-institutional strength is the history of travel writing: the IHR and Warburg Institute libraries contain comprehensive holdings of edited early modern travel accounts, which together with manuscripts and early printed books in Senate House Library and collections of more recent publications in the Institute of Latin American Studies and Institute of Commonwealth Studies offer a unique resource for research in this area.
Working with the collections has been a privilege. I have spent numerous mornings consulting manuscripts and printed books in the Special Collections Reading Room, and afternoons wandering the closed stacks in Senate House tower. On the odd occasion when I bump into a librarian, I am often told how lucky I am to be able to wander around looking for interesting books. Hopefully, this project will encourage others too to spend time browsing the unique range of Romance language material to be found in the University of London.
Matthew Coneys, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Romance Languages)
- MS361 Proposed marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales, and the Infanta Maria (c. 1623) fols. 15r. With permission of Guildhall Library, City of London (held in Senate House Library)
- Pedro de Medina ‘Libro de grandezas y cosas memorables de España’ (1549) [E.P.] MQA [Medina] fol. SSR. With permission of Guildhall Library, City of London (held in Senate House Library)
- Octave Uzanne ‘L’Ombrelle, le gant, le manchon’ (Paris, 1883) [Uzanne 007]. With permission of Senate House Library