The Stationers’ Company allowed me to spend a short but insightful week, in and around the Company’s building; and on Thursday, 13 July I spent the majority of my day in the Library and Archive. Whilst having a strong literary interest, I have never particularly had the opportunity to be at such close quarters to books that in their age, and in some cases rarity, between them and through the omissions and gaps in the documentation, begin to expose the interweaving social and cultural influences on the world from the times at which they were written. This opportunity gave me much to think about in terms of the place of these books in modern society and what that might mean to us.
The depth of material within the archive is astounding and Ruth Frendo, the Archivist, pointed out to me that each book's value as a resource significantly plummets when it is separated from the collection as a whole.
She cited ‘On the Exactitude of Science’ by Louis Borges, to emphasise the need for a sense of conciseness in a book, even amongst the breadth of detail that can be retained, by scaling down the information in books to successfully manage and extract the core information, which can provide an abstract of the past without overwhelming the researcher with copious excess material.
The pride of the collection comes in the form of the many beautiful editions of Almanacs, which range in age and content drastically over the time span they cover. I was particularly drawn to the attitude towards medicine and knowledge of the physiology of the body as understood by the 16th century man. These are illustrated by incredible diagrams of the human body painstakingly labelled with star signs relating to each body part, which in some way would relate to some disorder or weakness in that body part that would be affected by the waning of the moon in a certain month. There is a certain beauty to the way in which medicine and astrology were so unquestionably, intrinsically linked in the Almanacs, and these historical records show a time when, although they may not have been entirely accurate, people saw the interdependent relationship between the earth and its shifts and changes, and the health of its inhabitants.
The bulk of the material stored in the Library and Archive, are records relating to the history of the Company itself. I felt that these really represented the values and priorities of the Stationers’ Company, for example, Ruth informed me that the widows and orphans of deceased Freemen and Liverymen would always be looked after by the Company in the past, and that image struck a deep cord with me. I was struck by the way in which the Company encompasses the history of a member, seeing it as integral and important to the Company; as much so as the members themselves. This was represented by the extent of the history of the Company which was stored in a small but clearly well-loved room even though the minutes from a meeting held in the 1700s perhaps do not have quite the significance to the daily running of the Company as they did at the time they were written. In the same way that the family of members were cared for when necessary so the roots and history of the Company are also looked after and tended to.
Whilst the beauty and incredible atmosphere caused by being surrounded by these documents was interesting enough in itself, what brought this very much to life was the breadth of knowledge and insight of Ruth. Whilst being shown the different materials and poring over handwriting that to me was illegible, I was assured that with the right training they could be understood. We discussed the meaning that could be taken from the seemingly dry entries in documents and what the socio-historic context of these implied. We also discussed the changing role of archives in a digital age, which seems a poignant topic with the digitisation of the archive nearing its completion. This linked neatly back to the previous comment about Borges’ short story, which described a map so detailed that it covered the size and stretch of the entire Kingdom, thus failing in its purpose. Whilst this point was mused over in a very uncritical way, but simply in light of anticipating change, it struck me that that was exactly why the archives were so important in the first place. They hold together the basis for the mythos of our history in the minute detailing of what has been selected as important from day to day life, rather than allowing the overwhelming content of the amount of information available to become meaningless grazing grounds for ‘an occasional beast or beggar’.
In conclusion of the day and of my thoughts on the archive, I felt that the documents it holds, are works which ought to be kept and protected, but also which ought to be shared. The Stationers’ Company represents and keeps alive, a culture and way of life, that seems to be fading away, in so very many ways. I found the seeming step into another world in the beautiful walled garden and the Library in the middle of the industrialisation of London, but without falling out of step in any way with modern life which was a wonderful experience. I would firmly hold to the idea of the preservation of history, shaving away the excess material but keeping a grip on those important meanings and traditions that can exist beside the ever-transforming cultural backdrop of human existence.