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Treasures from Two Millennia
Fifty Treasures from Glasgow University Library

introduction by David Weston, keeper of special collections


This year the University of Glasgow celebrates the five hundred and fiftieth anniversary of its foundation in 1451 by the Bull of the humanist Pope Nicholas V. This event, which positioned the University simultaneously both at the twilight of the Middle Ages and at the dawn of the modern world, was coincident with the invention of printing by moveable type, itself a major contributor in the subsequent transformation of European culture and society. Now as we stand at the door of the twenty-first century, the beginning of a new millennium, new technologies are progressively eroding the primary position enjoyed by the book throughout the typographic era.

When the papyrus roll (volumen) of classical times acquiesced to the papyrus, and subsequently, the parchment codex, as early as the second century A.D., the way the information contained in the text was accessed was signally transformed. The codex, the standard book format in the West for nearly the last two thousand years, involved a radically different use of the text bearing space. By utilising both sides of the sheets of papyrus, parchment or paper, and by allowing immediate access to pages at any point in a text, it greatly facilitated the ‘skimming through’ of documents.

The rapid multiplication of texts enabled by the invention of printing which involved the infinite grouping and re-grouping of individual pieces of type, was later in the century coupled with the increasing technical developments in woodcutting. As a result the production of harmonious and integrated typographic books was made possible, now liberated from the need to invoke the manuscript traditions of rubrication, illustration and illumination to render them complete.

Electronic texts in similar fashion possess their own distinctive features; infinite connectability, offering a new spatial dynamic, which challenges the linearity of conventional texts, and fluidity reminiscent of the manuscript era. Nonetheless, a more atavistic characteristic, prevalent in many current texts ‘born digital’, is their tendency to mimic the typographic page, despite the absence of any intention for them to be realised as ink on paper.

This virtual exhibition highlights fifty treasures from Glasgow University’s immensely rich library collections. All items represented are preserved, due to their age, rarity, and cultural significance, in the Special Collections Department, where they may be consulted by those able to visit in person. However, in the current, digital era, it is possible to extend our reading room to embrace all who have on-line access via the Internet. At minimal cost this exhibition may be viewed by infinitely more people than any physical presentation of the items included, and with no risk to the originals. Throughout the year it will also expand, offering more images of certain items, and further electronic links to features such as a time-line, tracing the development of the University Library within the University.

Almost all book production techniques and materials are embraced in this display, from manuscript to photography, and from papyrus to parchment and paper. The subject coverage too is broad, including fine examples of mediaeval religious and secular illumination, scientific illustration, literature and music. Half of the exhibits were once the property of Dr William Hunter (1718-1783) a former student of the University and distinguished anatomist. His personal library of some 10,000 volumes, received in 1807, not only augmented the library's stock by fifty percent, but also brought distinction and character to an adequate, but undistinguished academic collection. His benefaction, which included his collections of coins, paintings, minerals, shells, anatomical and natural history specimens, attracted further bequests and gifts from others throughout the nineteenth century, thereby ensuring for Glasgow University Library a place amongst the great libraries of the world. I hope you enjoy our selection.

View the exhibition
chronological listing of the treasures treasures by subject & format