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Second round of Exeter’s rare books up for adoption

By June 19, 2017January 26th, 2021Member News & Updates

Exeter Library’s Adopt a Book initiative has launched a second series of ancient books for adoption, following the return of the first two fully restored items to Exeter’s Special Collections Archives.


The Adopt a Book initiative was launched in December 2016 by Exeter Library senior supervisor Joanne Cousins. Now, six months on, the scheme has raised more than £3,000 and seven out of the 10 original books have been adopted in full, meaning that work on the restoration of these items can be completed to keep them safe for future generations to enjoy.


Two of the first books have now been fully restored and returned back to Exeter’s collection. The Incunable, the oldest book in the Special Collections Archive dating back to 1480, and Engravings from Munich, a huge volume of beautiful black and white prints, have had their bindings re-sewn, their corners repaired and their covers oiled and 'fed'. These repairs mean the books can now be handled and exhibited without danger of damage.


Joanne, who has worked at the Library for several years, launched the scheme with the support of Carnegie UK Trust, after falling in love with the rarely seen collection housed in Exeter Library’s archives.


As well as attracting adopters in Devon, the scheme has caught the attention of people from all over the UK, with donations received from individuals in locations such as London, Hampshire and Sussex.


Joanne said: “I’ve been really overwhelmed by the response and the generosity of people from across the country. It’s lovely to know that these items have touched the hearts of people in the same way they touched mine. One adopter wrote to me to tell me they were adopting the book on behalf of their nephews, who may not appreciate the gesture now but would hopefully value it in the future. It’s wonderful to think that these boys may one day travel to Exeter to see and feel the book in real life, a little piece of history that they have helped to preserve.”


She added: “With the success of the first round of adoptions we decided to go-ahead and pick the next items that will be available. It’s difficult to choose from the 6000 items in Exeter Library’s archives, but I hope we have selected items that will be of as much interest to the public as they are to us. Anyone interested in the Collections has the chance of having a closer look on 20th July, when we are holding a free talk on some of the rarest and oldest books.”


Joanne has carefully selected another 10 items that are now available for adoption. Dating back to 1640, the new collection includes a book on roads in England and Wales, an illustrated history of insects and a general phrase book from 1693. Donations start from a recommended £25, with each item requiring restoration ranging from £170 to £280.


The oldest book, Theatrum Botanicum by John Parkinson, was published in 1640. John Parkinson (1567-1650) was one of the last English herbalists, and this book was used as a guide for apothecaries for more than a hundred years after his death. The huge volume features beautiful woodcuts and has been well-used over the years, resulting in damage to the spine and pages. The book requires repairs amounting to £280, which includes repairing the spinal leather and the refolding of pages.


Another unique item up for adoption is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, published in December 1898 as part of the ‘The Sixpenny Series’. Kept safely inside this paperback edition is a clipping from The Times from April 4th 1928 which details the sale of the original Alice in Wonderland manuscript for £15,400, a record sale of a book in Britain at the time. This item requires repair to paper and paper covers, unpicking and re-sewing of old stitches and incorporating the covers into the new binding with hard covers to further protect it from wear and tear.


The new selection also includes a book of sermons by Robert South, published in 1698. Twelve sermons upon several subjects and occasions: The third volume, has a hand-written note inside the front cover by well-known Manx clergyman, scholar, novelist and playwright John Quine, which tells the story of how the book came to be in his belongings.


Joanne said: “The books within Exeter Library’s archives are so valuable, not just to us locally, but on a national scale. Some of them are likely to be the only remaining copies of their kind and some are from very limited print editions. They each offer a rare insight into people’s lives at the time they were published, and offer a valuable resource for any historian or those interested in our country’s history.


She continued: “One adopter, who was an alumnus from the University of Exeter, told me they studied here 35 years ago, but still felt an affinity for the city. They made a really generous donation which has gone towards the restoration of several of the books. We are so grateful for people’s support. It’s wonderful to think that these books will now available for generations to see and enjoy for a long time to come. Many of the adopters have contacted me because they wanted to express their excitement at being involved in this project.”


Simon Timms, who adopted Collected Love Poems of Three Roman Poets, by Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius, published in 1502, said: “I am delighted to have the chance to support the conservation of one of Libraries Unlimited's heritage books. Holding my adopted book in my hands has given me such a thrill. It's 515 years old and, once it's been repaired, there's a chance people will still be able to look at it in another 515 years' time!”  


Each of the books come from Exeter Library’s special collections archive, which consists of around 6000 items dating from 1480 to 1900. All of the books require varying levels of restoration, ranging from repairing damaged corners, lifting stains, re-sewing bindings and restoring damaged spines. Some will also have bespoke boxes made to protect them from any further damage.


Ciara Eastell, Chief Executive of Libraries Unlimited, the charity responsible for the running of Devon’s library services, said: “The support that this scheme has received has shown that people of Devon and beyond truly have a passion for history and want to play a part in maintaining and protecting it. It takes a lot of resource to protect the special collections archive, but thanks to the support from the public we are now able to do just that.


“Libraries Unlimited aims to develop new and innovative services for libraries across the county and this project is a perfect example of the sort of work we are rolling out across the county. Myself, Joanne and the team would like to thank each of our sponsors and everyone who has supported the project so far and are looking forward to beginning the restoration work and finding sponsors for the remainder of the books.”


Joanne was granted funding through the Carnegie Library Lab, a fund created by the Carnegie UK Trust, enabling the launch of the conservation programme in December 2016.


The Adopt a Book initiative has been set up in order to raise the necessary funds to restore and protect these unique books and all of the money raised will go directly towards the restoration of the priority items or towards purchasing materials for Exeter Library’s Special Collections Archive. Those that adopt a book or make a donation will receive a certificate, updates about Exeter Library’s Special Collections Archive and the donation will be recognised online and in Exeter Library’s annual Adopt a Book exhibition.


More information about the books and the adoption scheme can be found at


Event details:


The Printing Revolution, Exeter’s Oldest Book, Thursday 20th July, 6:30pm – 8:00pm. FREE. Tickets available from Exeter Library.


For more information about Libraries Unlimited, visit or follow Libraries Unlimited on Twitter @LibrariesUnLtd or Facebook/LibrariesUnlimited.