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Rare and ancient books in Exeter to be given new lease of life

By November 30, 2016January 26th, 2021Member News & Updates

A special collection of rare and unique books is to be given a new lease of life, thanks to a conservation programme launched by a supervisor at Exeter Library.

Joanne Cousins, senior supervisor at the library, was granted funding from Carnegie Library Lab, a created by the Carnegie UK Trust to support and develop innovation and leadership in the public library sector across the UK and Ireland.

Joanne received £5,000 to put towards the launch of a new ‘Adopt a Book’ initiative, after she fell in love with the collection of ancient books stored in the library’s archives. The scheme will allow people to ‘adopt’ an item of their choice and help fund its restoration.

The special collections archive at Exeter Library consists of around 6000 items dating from 1480 to 1900. The oldest is an ‘Incunable’ (a book that was printed rather than written before 1501 in Europe) written by a Benedictine monk born in Sicily in 1386. This book dates back to 1480 and is one of only 80 copies in existence.

Another special edition in the archive is English Men of Letters: The Life of Thomas Gray, by Edmund Gosse. This book was the only surviving book after Exeter Library was heavily bombed during the Blitz of 1942. It was wrapped in brown paper to protect it from any further damage, a state in which it has remained ever since.

Joanne said: “I have worked at the library for years, and these books have always been there, kept safely in the archive so that their state doesn’t deteriorate any further.

She continued: “I started to really pay attention to the books and how they ended up in this room, and I felt that is was a shame that they weren’t able to be put on display so that the people of Devon could enjoy them and get to know their stories. Not only are there some brilliant works of literature, they all have their own unique story to tell and play a part in Exeter’s history.”

Amongst the archived items is The Works of Oscar Wilde, published in New York in 1909. This set of volumes brings together his fiction, poetry and essays as well as his well-known dramatic works, and Exeter Library’s copy is set number 447 of a print run of just 1000.

The Infant’s Cabinet of Birds, made and sold by John Marshall in 1800, is a beautiful wooden box containing 28 hand-coloured cards, designed to teach Victorian children about different species of birds. The Cabinet has been well loved over the years and has sustained damage to the wooden box and the interior lining.

All of the items require varying levels of restoration, ranging from repairing damaged corners, lifting stains, re-sewing bindings and restoring damaged spines. Some of the items, including the Incunable, will have bespoke boxes made, to protect them from any further damage whilst maintaining this vital part of Devon’s heritage.

Ciara Eastell, Chief Executive of Libraries Unlimited, the charity responsible for the running of Devon’s library services, said: “Joanne has done a fantastic job in setting up this vital initiative. The special collections archive is such a fantastic asset, but it takes a lot of resources to keep the items safe and secure and to prevent any further wear and tear. The Adopt a Book scheme gives the people of Devon a chance to take ownership of this small piece of the city’s history. These books all have a fascinating story to tell and it’s wonderful that more people will be learning about how they each came to be here in our city, where we hope they will remain. 

Ciara continued: “I’m also very proud that Joanne was selected to take part in the Carnegie Library Lab programme. She was up against some very tough competition from across the UK and Ireland. As a new organisation, Libraries Unlimited aims to develop new and innovative services and this project is a great example of the type of creative new ideas we aim to develop more of in the future.”

Joanne was granted funding through the Carnegie Library Lab programme in March this year. The programme is targeted at early to mid-career individuals and offers Joanne, as one of six Carnegie Partners in the UK, online learning, networking and mentoring as well as the funding to set up the Adopt a Book project.

As part of the initiative, Joanne has been working with a mentor at the British Library and Rebecca Newman, a professional book restorer, in order to understand the process each item will need to go through and the associated costs. The prices range from £100 to £600 per item, with a total cost of around £2767.00.

In order to raise the necessary funds to restore and protect these unique books, Joanne is launching the Adopt a Book initiative. The scheme allows anyone to adopt their chosen book, and contribute to its restoration.

Joanne said: “These books belong to the people of Exeter. They are rare and unique and they make up part of this city’s heritage. They are totally irreplaceable, and without this vital conservation work they would be lost. By contributing a small amount, people can ensure these invaluable assets remain at Exeter Library to be enjoyed by people for years to come.

She continued: “All of the money raised through Adopt a Book will go directly towards the restoration of the priority items or towards purchasing materials for Exeter Library’s Special Collections Archive. We are hoping that the people of Exeter will feel as passionately as we do about making sure these pieces of Exeter’s history are made more accessible for future generations. Once the restoration work is complete, I plan to hold exhibitions within the library, and all those that make a contribution will have their donation recognised.”

Jenny Peachey, Senior Policy Officer at the Carnegie UK Trust said: ‘Public libraries are valuable community assets, connecting people to knowledge, learning and one another. Adopt a Book is a fantastic initiative that facilitates and deepens these connections. Joanne has done a great job and we’re delighted to be able to support her through Library Lab. We are excited that Adopt a Book is launching and congratulate Joanne on all her hard work.’

More information about the books and the adoption scheme can be found at . A launch event is being held on 9th December where people will have chance to see some of the special collections archive, hear about the restoration and make a donation.

Twenty tickets to the launch event are being allocated to members of the public and are located in Exeter Library reception. These tickets are available on a first come first served basis, and are free of charge.

For more information visit or follow Exeter Library on Twitter @ExeterLibrary or Facebook/exeterlibrary