Lines of Thought

culI’m not sure whether there is, or even whether there should be, a recognised collective noun for a bunch of booksellers, although the googleweb thrums with suggestions – a bind or a binding; a blessing (thank you);  a case;  a chapter – which has a certain historical basis, although it makes me think of printers rather than booksellers;  a commission;  a dickens or a trollope (but not apparently a shakespeare or an austen);  a doze of bookfair exhibitors;  an eccentricity;  an extinction (a little bleak);  a generosity (thank you, again);  a madness (speak for yourself);  a mildew (a little harsh); a poverty (a little too truthful) ; a quire;  a ream;  a remainder – which is quite clever;  a ring (careful!); a scruff (ouch!);  a set;  a shelving;  a shuffle;  a signature;  a stack;  a stealth (don’t know where that one came from, although it has a ring to it);  a treasure;  a volume (not least for the noise they make when assembled together), or even a whinge of booksellers (cruel). No doubt you can think of others – perhaps a corduroy or a tweed of booksellers.

Whatever we call ourselves, there was a gathering of many of our brightest and best at Cambridge University Library the other day. I won’t pick out names – but many of them have featured here on the blog at one time or another.  We had been invited there to celebrate an anniversary.  The library is celebrating its six hundredth anniversary this year (yes – 600 years – pause to consider that).  It’s a slightly arbitrary anniversary – to be precise, it is six hundred years since the first recorded mention of the library – two bequests were made to it in 1416, which implies that the library was probably already something of a feature in university life. There was even a library catalogue by 1424, although admittedly only listing 122 volumes.  Big oaks, little acorns – there are now over eight million items and more than 128 miles of shelving.


© Cambridge University Library. Geoffrey Chaucer, The workes of Geffray Chaucer newlye printed, wyth dyuers workes whych were neuer in print before. 1542. Sel.2.2, f. clxvii.

We assembled at the small exhibition which has been running all summer – “Lines of Thought” – a selection of some of the greatest and most interesting treasures.  Mark Purcell, Head of Research Collections, welcomed us with a generous and gracious tribute to the quiet but important part the book-trade makes in the building of great libraries. We met and mingled with the librarians and discussed what we do and what they do.  All exceedingly pleasant and good things shall surely flow. Lines of communication firmly established.  And the consensus was that more libraries should host receptions for the trade – in fact all libraries should, preferably weekly.

There was some intrigued speculation on who had and had not been invited – and why.  But I gather it was simply a matter of the librarians inviting booksellers they knew personally or had bought from recently.  Certainly it was an impressive group of the trade’s most scholarly and studious.


© Cambridge University Library. UMZC 17/Col/8/y/26, Columbia livia – domestic, almond tumbler. UMZC 17/Col/8/y/9, Columbia livia – ancestral, rock dove. Objects on loan from the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

As for the exhibition itself – small, as I say – not a vast number of books and two of them on closer inspection turned out in fact to be dead pigeons.  Close inspection was mandatory – the lights were low, very low.  Conservators are good people of course, but they do sometimes forget that the point of conserving things is to enable them to be seen.   Apparently people visiting the exhibition have taken to using their mobiles as torches, which rather defeats the object.  No such bad behaviour from the booksellers, obviously.

Isaac Newton

© Cambridge University Library. Isaac Newton, Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica. 1687. Adv.b.39.1, p. 3 and facing added leaf.

With so much wealth to pick from, the selection of what to include in this anniversary exhibition must have been far more searching and exhaustive than the question of which booksellers to invite. But under six basic themes – roughly communication, science, faith, history, genetics and anatomy – we were given the key moments  in the history of human thought.

Charles Darwin

© Cambridge University Library. George Montbard, Watercolour caricature of Charles Darwin in the ‘Gallery of Ancestors’, ca.1871. MS DAR 225: 178.

So many eye-catching things that it’s difficult to single a handful out – a Gutenberg bible and a first folio in the same room. The great works of Copernicus, Galileo, Halley – and Isaac Newton’s own copy of the “Principia Mathematica”, heavily annotated. A Stephen Hawking draft typescript for “A Brief History of Time” just across the way to bring us up to date.

Much on Darwin and then even more on Darwin of course – hence the pigeons (his observations on selective breeding were largely drawn from the work of pigeon-fanciers).  A curious display-case on one wall  with the great literature of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer – and Margaret Drabble (I make no comment).


© Cambridge University Library. Printing plate for Porto-Bello: or a plan for the improvement of the port and city of London. 1789. Maps.17.G36.

And a personal favourite – an eighteenth-century copper printing plate for a rather crude map of London. The etching and engraving unsigned, the workmanship far from the best, but how nice to see an actual printing plate for a map after spending so many years studying the engravers of such things.  All in all, a very pleasant day out.  The most enormous thank you to all concerned.  Do try and catch the exhibition if you can – it’s only on for a couple more days, but there is a very interesting online version too which will hopefully stay up longer (

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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