An Introduction to the Archive

A talk given by Alex Murray, Assistant Librarian on 23 February 2012, concerning the launch of the online library catalogue and the associated exhibition, Remnants.

I’d just like to say a few words on what I do here and also on my experience of working with the library and archive for the last year. I first came to the Swedenborg Society as a volunteer and eventually took the position of Assistant Librarian, a role I have been working for almost a year now. My main duty has been the construction of the online catalogue which is being formally launched today alongside the exhibition and Richard’s book launch.

When I first came to the society, I had no idea of its history, having only picked up an interest in Emanuel Swedenborg through the study of William Blake during my degree. I had also never worked in a library before, and, as such, I began a beguiling learning experience into the history of the society and also the range of materials and texts on offer, an experience which has been heavily punctuated by the act of discovery, whether that be on a personal basis, or one which has wider ramifications for the library at large.

It has also been quite a learning experience for me, especially in regard to working with manuscript material and other such things which the library houses. I don’t know how many people here have seen samples of 19th century handwriting, but it can prove quite impossible to penetrate on first inspection. So too can the identification of certain objects when one stumbles across them, and I can think of many times I have spent staring blankly at some document or note thinking, ‘I have no idea what this is’, before slowly piecing its provenance together.

Indeed, as most of our books, particularly the older ones have been donated by members throughout the course of the society’s history; there is a tendency to find a lot of these small discarded remnants of their lives included between the pages. Things such as train tickets from the 1930s once used as bookmarks, old personal letters, fragmented marginalia, various newspaper cuttings, small notes and dedications to friends and family, all of which can be found hidden away in any number of the books and files here (one of my favourites being a note I found, written in a juvenile hand at the back of a children’s book based on Swedenborg’s teachings which simply reads ‘I’m glad that’s over’). Some of these belong to famous members of the society, others to people lost to history.

Regardless of the importance of the object or its author or collector, the feeling upon the discovery of such an item is always the same, and that is the feeling of stepping briefly and fragmentally into some intimate part of another person’s life. To discover, perhaps, some mundane fact about them, never intended or thought to be preserved, which has nonetheless become a historical record of their existence, maybe even an important one. I find such objects fascinating and they really bring the library to life, imbuing the collection and its sum total of authors with a rich personality. Thus it adds flesh to the bones of the texts, allowing one the unique experience of peering into the day to day lives and thoughts of a given person and viewing them as more than just an author or a literary construct, but simply as a person like you or I. It also makes the collection stand as more of a living breathing memory to its many contributors, rather than just a collection of texts focused on the singular figure of Swedenborg.

And of course there is no shortage of curios and strange wonders to be found, some of which you will see tonight. The shelves of the library and archive are populated by many curious figures from varying walks of life, each having their own unique take on the importance and use of Swedenborg’s writings.  Thus we have publications, for example, from the abolitionist campaigning of figures such as Carl Bernhard Wadstrom; books from members of the temperance league, such as John Ellis who wrote no less than 6 publications on the subject of whether or not Christians should drink wine at mass; reports of séances and notes on the spiritual significance of various mythical creatures from the likes of James John Garth Wilkinson; and any number of texts on prophecy, Mesmerism, anti-vivisection movements, equal rights between the sexes, science, occultism, and a plethora of other subjects, all vying for space on the shelves.

The process of cataloguing all these and making them available to the public is still on-going, and one which I hope will bring about a far greater level of accessibility to the library, and also a greater level of interest in the society and its rich history.

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