Commonplace Book Crosses the Pond

Every now and then, while sorting through boxes and boxes of donated material, the Trinity College Friends of the Library come across an item that puzzles even their experienced and expert sorters. In this case, it was a small manuscript (handwritten) book which, if the dates written on the inside cover could be trusted, was produced sometime during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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Thinking that this is something the John W. Graham Library could add to its rare books and special collections holdings, the Friends asked if we could take a look at it. Sylvia Lassam, Trinity’s Rolph-Bell Archivist, identified the item as a commonplace book, a scrapbook or notebook of sorts used to record, in this case, poems, sermons, prayers, and letters. The book’s author, a woman named Ann Houghton from Cambridge, England, seems to have been inspired to write in the book by the deaths of at least one close male relative, and as a result death is the central theme of all the book’s entries.

Perhaps the most important thing noted about the book was the presence of two purple stamps with the words “BIBLIOTHECA BODLEIANA” around the edges. Those familiar with Latin will immediately recognize the Bodleian Library, Oxford University’s primary research library. It seemed as though we were dealing with a case of misplaced property.

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Contacting the Bodleian yielded no more solid information as to how the book ended up with the Friends of the Library, but the stamps inside did indicate who the book belonged to and gave us an answer to the question “What should we do with it?” At the end of August, this small commonplace book was shipped back to the U.K., to (re)join the Bodleian Library’s collection of other commonplace books. So, the next time you come across a book that has a stamp or mark from a library and it isn’t clearly labelled as discarded, let them know about it. It’s likely that they will be very grateful to get it back.

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