24.3 ARCLIB Spring Visit, Part 1: Soane Museum: Research Library & Archive

A warm Spring day welcomed ARCLIB members to Holborn. The group was in high spirits, eagerly awaiting a private tour of Sir John Soane’s extraordinary house including his research library and archive. The museum, usually closed to visitors on Tuesdays, felt even more special as we enjoyed having the space to ourselves.

The visit began in the Library where we were greeted by Fran Sands, Curator of Drawings and Books. She explained that her job was to look after the 30,000 drawings and 7,000 books owned by Sir John, mostly on the subject of architecture, and a small collection of modern books about him. She explained that many of the books were available in other collections, so the majority of researchers are directed to other libraries to consult them – the library is compact! However, those with a special interest in the “marginalia” of Soane’s books, lectures and catalogues are welcome to study them, by appointment. Of particular interest are the annotated sales catalogues, for example, those of the John Nash collections in which Sir John noted the prices of items sold, helping us to better understand how contemporaries valued those objects.

Fran had carefully selected some books and drawings for us to peruse including a 1st edition of Palladio’s Quattro Libri dell’architettura, 1570; an illuminated manuscript by Giulio Clovio on the Commentary on the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans by Cardinal Marino Grimani, 1530; one of the earliest books on Japan written in English, E. Kaempfer’s History of Japan, 1727; and Daniel Defoe’s System of Magick, 1728; an eclectic mix indeed.

Just like our own libraries, Fran is expected to decommission some items from the collection and is currently using the criteria of “unused for 50 years” to inform that decision making process. She is hoping that a digital solution can be found in the future. The collection of 30,000 architectural drawings is already accessible on microfilm. To find out more, you can search the collection online.

I often ask first year Creative Writing students to write a short paragraph about their favourite, imagined library space. If I was asked to do this myself, I would base my imaginings on this comfortable, sunny, little library.

Report by Greta Friggens, University of Portsmouth

Photographs by Leo Clarey, London College of Communication 

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