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Connecting past and present

By Abigail Smith (MA in Public History at UCD).

Sole Survivors: The Rarest Books in the World’ is an exhibition that is running at Marsh’s Library in Dublin. The exhibition centres on some of the 387 books contained within Marsh’s Library which are the only surviving copy in the world.

These books are exceptionally rare pieces of history.

Lindsay Doyle, co-curator of the exhibit and a student in the UCD MA programme in Public History, notes: ‘The reason why some of these books are the only copy is because they weren’t widely popular during their time-period. These were books that no one really cared to preserve, that’s why many were lost or destroyed and only one copy remains.’ That does not mean, however, that the books are not vitally important historical materials. ‘The exhibition is an example of how relevant everyday materials are in the greater historical narrative. A lot of these pieces are ephemeral materials that no one considered important at the time but now give us a greater insight intowhat was happening during the period that they originated.’

Within the ‘Sole Survivors’ exhibit, Marsh’s Library will display 32 of these incredibly rare books and materials for the public.

Ranging from children’s schoolbooks to wedding day poetry to what might be understood as an example of the #metoo movement in eighteenth-century Irish Theatre, the items in this collection demonstrate a wide array of human experience throughout history.

Doyle explains: ‘One of the examples of the collection is an account from an English shoemaker who very accurately predicted a lunar eclipse. Sometimes when we think about common people in the 18th century we might consider them scientifically inept by today’s standards, yet here he is without modern scientific equipment, but still accurately describing an astronomical event. We were even able to verify the validity of the details of eclipse using a NASA database.’

Interview with Lindsay Doyle about ‘Sole Survivors: The Rarest Books in the World’.

With their dates of publication ranging from 1507 to 1747, the items are special for both their uniqueness and age. Many of the pieces are ephemeral materials, meaning they were not meant to last and were often printed on cheap materials.

Many survived only because they were collected and bound together. According to Doyle, ‘we owe a lot to scholars like Elias Bouhéreau, the first keeper of Marsh’s Library, who collected a wide range of materials and helped preserve these books and texts.’

This exhibition is based on a unique premise, according to the Library, ‘this is the first time that an exhibition of unique surviving copies of books and pamphlets from these centuries has ever been displayed anywhere in the world.’

Marsh’s Library was founded by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh and was formally incorporated in 1707, giving it the distinction of being Ireland’s first public library. The library houses books and other materials that were printed and distributed all over the world, with books in the current exhibit originating from Dublin, Cork, London, Venice, Louvain, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Poitiers and La Rochelle.

‘Sole Survivors: The Rarest Books in the World’ will open to the public at Marsh’s Library on Thursday 17 May 2018, and will continue until Thursday 17 January 2019.


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