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John Willis Clark and The Care of Books

The photographs of medieval English and continental libraries, recently discovered among the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collections, were purchased, commissioned or taken by John Willis Clark for the illustrations in his 1901 publication, The Care of Books. ‘The subject was entirely new’, wrote Clark in the preface to his published lectures on European library buildings and their fittings. The Care of Books researched what we may now describe as the material culture of libraries, tracing the earliest rooms for housing collections of texts in Assyria, Greece, and Rome, and focusing on the medieval inheritance of Europe. The ‘care’ of books embraced their preservation by regulation as well as by physical ordering, and Clark’s methods of study drew on archival, architectural and archaeological sources. In many ways, this breadth of scope reflects his extraordinary range of interests. The photographs capture something of Clark’s contemporary eye for telling detail.

The captions are transcribed from the notes penned by J. W. Clark on the mounts which support the photographs.

John Willis Clark (1833-1910) was born into an academic Cambridge household, and made the University his career: Fellow of Trinity College, Superintendent of the Museum of Zoology, Registrary of the University. His activities combined his grasp of detail and his enjoyment of ritual and spectacle, particularly in his support of the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Club. He completed the four-volume Architectural History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge (with Robert Willis, 1886) and his personal collection of books about Cambridge was bequeathed to the University Library. In many ways one of the modernisers of Cambridge University, his appreciation of the past informed his work.

We celebrated the centenary of The Care of Books and the life of its remarkable polymath author through a conference at Trinity College, Cambridge (30 November – 1 December 2001) and through this selection of the recently discovered photographs.

Website originally created by Stella Herzig for The Fitzwilliam Museum, June 2001, conference with Susie West UEA

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