It is such a pleasure to have Jane Austen’s England on my bookshelves.
First, it looks so lovely. When Penguin published the book by Lesley and Roy Adkins in the United States and Canada in 2013, book designer Brianna Harden commissioned embroidery artist Sarah Cline to create a sampler of motifs representing topics in the book, such as a hot-air balloon illustrating the beginnings of air transport and a young boy carrying a handbrush and a sack used to sweep chimney flues of Georgian houses clean. The sampler was then photographed to produce the cover.
What’s more, the book is a well-told look at what life was like for commoners in the Georgian era. These English authors, historians and archaeologists have written other books on Georgian Britain, including Trafalgar, a biography of the famed battle in which Horatio Nelson was victorious, and Jack Tar, an account of life in Lord Admiral Nelson’s navy. They even write back when you contact them!
Best of all, it’s been my introduction to all sorts of other fascinating things. The Adkinses author engaging newsletters and blog posts in between books, updating readers on their speaking engagements and sharing items of historical interest. For example, I learned about an old English custom called “maiden garlands” in the June 2013 newsletter. When an unmarried woman died, her coffin was accompanied by a garland of flowers attached to a wooden hoop, with ribbons and paper cut in the shape of gloves on which her name and age were written. After the funeral, it was suspended from the church roof above the seat she had used.
Earlier this summer, the Adkinses wrote a blog post introducing their followers to Ivy Clarke, a British teenager who knit miniature woolen socks during World War II and sold them as good-luck charm “mascots” to raise money for the war effort. I was inspired to make my own version of Ivy’s mascot and share it with a couple of friends.
This week, the Adkinses shared how pleased they were to spot the jacket of Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago, the title that was given to their book when it was originally published in the United Kingdom, in a window display at the London Library. As it approaches its 175th year, the library is employing this display not only to promote its collection, but also to recognize its members’ contributions to the English literary and creative life. And then, in true Adkins style, they mentioned a fun fact about this library. That brings us to the reason for this blog post.
When the library was founded in 1841, Prince Albert became its first patron, donating both a £50 check and several German books to the collection. Today, the London Library is the largest independent lending library in the world. Its location on the northwest corner of St. James’s Square is the home of over a million titles. The scholarly subscription library is an independent charity, financed entirely from annual membership subscriptions, donations and management of its capital resources. Its humanities-based collection is particularly strong in history, literature, biography, art, philosophy, religion and related fields. Another founding principle that the library still follows today is that no book should ever be discarded.
In 1893, 31-year-old Charles Hagberg Wright was appointed librarian, a position which he held until his death in 1940. Wright devised a unique classification system by which the library’s books are shelved. First, he classified books on the arts and humanities, then moved on to other various topics. Wright’s orderly, methodical system begins with broad collections, including History, Literature, Biography & Biographical Collections, Science & Miscellaneous, Fiction, Topography, Religion, Art, Bibliography, Philosophy, Philology, and Genealogy & Heraldry). The collections are further subdivided into individual shelf mark sections that are arranged in alphabetical order and displayed in the book stacks. Browsing the shelves, particularly in the “Science & Miscellaneous” classification, leads readers in surprising directions, allowing them to create connections that might not have occurred to them before.
For example, the shelf mark for Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England is “H. England, Social &c (the social history part of the “History of England” section).” The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, edited by Alice Crawford, has the shelf mark “Bibliog. Libraries (the bibliography part of the “Libraries” section).” Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, has the shelf mark “Biog. Trevor-Roper (the Trevor-Roper section of “Biography”).” “H. England, Social &c” is far fancier than the corresponding Dewey Decimal number of 942.073, don’t you agree?
If you’re interested in learning more about the London Library’s classification system, you can download a complete classification list here. Subscribe to and read back issues of the Adkinses’ newsletter here, and follow their blog here.
You’ll also find this post on Special Connections, the blog of the Ohio Library Council’s Subject and Special Collections Division.