...making decisions on the basis of what seems best instead of following some single doctrine or style.
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Monday, April 12, 2010

A Passion for Old Libraries, Guest Post with Stephanie Cowells

I feel very honored today to be able to bring you a wonderful guest post by the marvelous author Stephanie Cowells. As many of you know the Historical Fiction Bloggers Round Table is featuring her newly released book Claude and Camille for this months event. I want to tell Stephanie thank-you for sharing with us this wonderful post on Old Libraries. I think I can safely say that all book bloggers are groupies of libraries and book stores. Something about the smell and feel of books that turn us all on :-). This was a perfect guest post subject for my blog.

From Stephanie Cowells:

Nothing makes my heart beat the same way than entering an old library. There are many such libraries in New York City where I live, among them the Frick Museum and the Morgan. I used to have fantasies of being locked into the Frick all night and able to take down any book I wanted and read it. They are huge and beautifully bound. The Morgan has books way back before the dawn of printing.

When traveling to Europe and England, all anyone needs to say to me is, “Would you like to see the old library at…” and my pulse quickens. So I approached Duke Humphrey’s Library, whose books have sat on those shelves since 1488; it is part of the magical Bodleian at Oxford. For twelve days I lived in its shadow at Jesus College. And some months ago I went to Dublin to see the Book of Kells (gospels copied and illustrated on calfskin around 800) and then climbed the steps to the ancient huge Trinity Library at whose sight I was so stunned that I stood motionless while my eyes filled with tears.

I understood while writing my first novel (Nicholas Cooke, which takes place largely in Elizabethan London) that with an accredited publisher standing behind me, I could be admitted to research libraries and read the books. And so I studied the science of 17th century London from books published at the time; I also studied the invaluable Stow’s Chronicles of London in its first 1596 edition in which John Stow intimately talks about every street and shop he knew in London when Will Shakespeare was a rising writer and the Queen very old and very fascinated by Lord Essex.

Several years ago, the curator’s assistant at the famous Berg Collection of manuscripts in New York’s Public Library invited me over to see some special things. Did I like the Brontes? Well then! He unfolded what I remember was a small leather envelope which held a scrap of brown paper and on it, in her tiny, faded writing, was an early poem by Emily. I touched the very paper she touched over a hundred and fifty years ago in a parsonage in Yorkshire. Another time I went to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library and, in the vault of the adjoining Elizabethan Club where tea is served each day, I found and was able to study one of the 13 extant copies of the original publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It may have been his own copy; there were a few tiny holes in the pages where a candle spark had burned them.

But there is also a library I love dearly only a few feet away from my desk which has a good collection of books, if none of them as old as the Book of Kells. It is my library. I have a reproduction of Shakespeare’s First Folio and a friend gave me a Victorian housekeeping book printed 1848 in which I found very dry pressed flowers between the pages. Who put them there?

Old books and libraries! There time past is surely time present always.


  1. Thanks so much for posting this! This guest post was a true work of love for me! from Stephanie, the author of CLAUDE & CAMILLE

  2. Thanks, Stephanie for sharing your experiences and love of letters with us!

  3. Definitely a fabulous post, I enjoyed it very much!

  4. Thanks, Stephanie! I really enjoyed this post!!!!

  5. What a cool post! I can't imagine the feeling's that were going through Stephanie as she was surrounded by so much history. Just phenomenal. How I wish I could visit these places one day!

    Great post Stephanie!

  6. I haven't had the opportunity of going into any truely old libraries, but I do love going to my local library - they just hold such possibilities! Thanks for the great post.

  7. How exciting to be allowed into those libraries and share such special treasures. I have a fascination for old books. When I was in high school, I found my first one in the attic of an old house. It is an mid-1800's book on housekeeping and child rearing. In recent years I have found many wonderful little books. The craftsmanship that went into some of the books of the 1800's and early 1900's is wonderful.

    I like reading novels of a certain time period as well as some of the non-fiction. It is like a window into another world, one that has a different mind-set and view of life.

  8. Libraries always get me excited too! There is just something so special about the home of books that it just draws me in. Love the post Susie.


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