On Wednesday 16 May, USTC Director Andrew Pettegree and Project Manager Graeme Kempt flew to Dublin to help celebrate the launch of Marsh’s Library’s exhibition of their ‘Sole Survivors’: books from their library of which they hold the only known surviving copy. ‘Sole Survivors’ displays 32 of the most interesting unique items in collection. This represents less than 10% of the 387 books in Marsh’s Library which survive in only one copy. This exhibition was designed in association with the St Andrews book project group’s programme Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York, of which Marsh’s Library is a founder member.
Although Marsh’s library has some exquisite editions, including early editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the real treasures are their ‘ugly ducklings’: cheap, inexpensive items, often printed on poor-quality paper, which frequently show severe signs of wear and tear. Such items rarely have illustrations and are often covered with recycled wrappers or bindings. These books were produced for a mass market but tend not to survive as they were often read or worked to death. Around 1,000 of the ugly ducklings in Marsh’s Library are exceptionally rare, by which we mean that they survive in three or fewer copies across the world.
The earliest of the 32 items on display in this exhibition was printed in 1507 and the latest appeared in 1747. The books on display are in a range of languages: English, Irish, Latin, French, Italian and Dutch. They were published in cities large and small across Europe: Dublin, Cork, London, Venice, Louvain, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Poitiers and La Rochelle. They include children’s schoolbooks published in 1587, 1593 and 1694; a poem produced for a bride on her wedding day in May 1643; the so-called ‘silly ship’ invented by the Dutch in 1653; and the first ‘#metoo’ moment in the Irish theatre from 1747. In his remarks at the launch, Professor Pettegree praised Marsh’s Library for their exceptional record of active curation, evident in this exhibition and others drawing on different aspects of their collection. By publicising their sole survivors, the library not only shares some unexpected treasures, but advertises the fragility of our knowledge of this aspect of the print world. Exhibitions of this sort, and programmes like Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, can play a key role in protecting this critical part of our cultural heritage.
The exhibition was curated by the Director of Marsh’s Library, Dr Jason McElligott, and Ms Lindsay Doyle, an MA student on the new Public History degree in University College Dublin. An online version is now available on the website of Marsh’s Library.