A reader’s-eye view

By Maggie Masterson, Pollard Fellowship recipient

Without question, the highlight of my year in the M.Phil. in Children’s Literature has been time spent in the Early Printed Books reading room, researching the Pollard Collection of Children’s Books. The students on my course are lucky enough to have a tour arranged by our lecturer, but don’t let a lack of formal orientation stop you from finding your way up there. Marvelous things await your visit.

When you enter this hallway, keep moving forward, and try to dispel any notions of what a great setting for a horror story or dystopian novel this would be. When you get to the end of this hall, you’ll turn a corner to be faced with two choices: a clunky lift up to the reading room, or an even more claustrophobia-inducing stairwell. If you choose the stairs, you will be tempted to give in to your doubts a second time when you see signs for the way out, but keep going up. And up.

What awaits you at the top is worth the journey. Tucked away at the end of the Old Library, above the Long Room, is a light, airy room with plenty of desks for you to ogle that Shakespeare folio with a hand-written inscription by Ben Jonson, or sit and read that first edition copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Or perhaps hold a beautifully bound copy of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and imagine, as I did, what it was like to receive such a book when it was first printed.

Once you’ve reached the reading room, you can access the catalogs on computers there, find plenty of green call slips for requests, and have a chat with the lovely staff working the desk to get a clear idea for how long it will take. Keep in mind it takes time for staff to retrieve whatever it is that inspires you, requiring you to return after a few hours, or a few days, depending on where the book is held. While waiting, don’t be afraid to peruse the reference collection. I got lost in volumes offering insight into book history and printing practices, the hand press period, typeface, illustration, and subjects I never thought to explore before. In fact, my time in Early Printed Books started simply as a way to read the required texts for the M.Phil. in their original formats, but it soon fostered my desire to become a book historian, and encouraged my first bibliographic study, which I pursued for my dissertation.

I am the grateful recipient of the first Pollard Fellowship, which offered financial assistance in the summer months while I compared Irish and British editions of Maria Edgeworth’s The Parent’s Assistant in the Pollard Collection. There are over thirty editions of this work in the Pollard, only some of the three hundred Edgeworth titles held in this amazing collection, bequeathed to Trinity by Mary ‘Paul’ Pollard. To say this collection is a treasure trove of research possibilities is an understatement. Recently catalogued in its entirety, comprising over 12,000 titles published before 1914, there is so much potential for scholarship here. As a relatively new addition to Early Printed Books, the collection is largely unexplored.

If a space can be both comforting and exciting, both quiet and eventful, that’s what Early Printed Books was for me. A mature student returning to college after years of work as a children’s librarian, I found the reading room positively inspiring. To be lost in book history, or reading a first edition when EPB staff throw open the blinds in the late morning, letting light fill the room, is nothing short of heaven. The Early Printed Books reading room was, for me, a place of infinite possibilities for research where exploration was encouraged. A place where old books opened up a world where my potential as an academic was unbound.