Not Just to Admire: Reading the Reformation Today

Reformation books are featuring now for exhibition purposes, with people looking at and reading about the books as if they were viewing items in a museum. It is a valid use of the material. But it is not the purpose for which the books were created. This was to be read: to persuade, to convince, to educate, to edify, and to entertain. In a 21st-century library context, education remains a role: typically, to shed a window on the Reformation through its primary sources. Our exhibition began in June 2017 and ends in December; teaching with the material is ongoing, as this report of two American visits earlier in the decade shows. The collections mentioned below all feature in the exhibition. So does one specific title, the King James Bible. Holinshed’s Chronicles and Shakespeare’s First Folio do not, but another chronicle, that of Richard Grafton (1569), and a later edition of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night do. Truly a case of engagement on two levels!

Title page of the New Testament of the King James Version of the Bible
New Testament of the King James Version of the Bible

On two separate occasions, staff members in Special Collections at Senate House Library extended every courtesy to groups of eighteen American college and university professors who travelled to London to study early printed books under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The study topic for the 2012 visit was “The Reformation of the Book: 1450-1650” and that for the 2014 visit was “Tudor Books and Readers: 1485-1603.” Librarians very generously organized book exhibitions that drew heavily on the Sterling Library, the Incunabula Collection, the Ethel M. Wood Biblical Collection, and other holdings of rare early printed books. Treasures on display included Shakespeare’s First Folio, titles by Boccaccio and Ariosto, the first edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1532), Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577 and 1587), a complete run of English translations of the Bible ranging from the Coverdale Bible (1535) to the King James Bible (1611), and much more. Access to the extraordinarily strong holdings of Senate House Library collections was essential to the success of these postdoctoral seminars. We are exceedingly grateful to the librarians who contributed very considerable time and energy to these programs.

Dr John N. King is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, Ohio State University, USA. The Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings exhibition season runs at Senate House Library until 15 December 2017.

Blog post details

  • 4 Sep 2017

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