Published: 10 April 2014

Making the most of the Special Collections and Archives

Amazing Stories

English undergraduate Jack Graysmark has been getting to grips with the University’s Special Collections and Archives in the Sydney Jones Library:

“Tucked away beneath the Sydney Jones Library, the Special Collections and Archives (SCA) is a facility that most students are aware of but may not yet have visited. Perhaps this is down to a misconception that the collections are too complicated to use, or not relevant to your particular course. But this could not be further from the truth.

“The collection is open to both members of the University and the general public. All the materials can be found on the library catalogue and though each item is held in storage for security reasons, the ease at which an item can be reserved and made ready for you is remarkable. The material can then be browsed in the SCA reading room, and the staff will happily make photocopies should you request it.

“Because the facilities are open to the public, the Special Collections often get requests from all over the world as Jenny Higham, the manager of the facilities, explains: “We get a lot of emails from the States, and also Japan and China. Obviously a lot of the material we have here is unique, and of course we have the records of all the students that have studied at the University, which is useful for anyone wanting to know about their family history.”

“One of the most notable parts of the Special Collection is the science fiction hub. The largest collection of its kind in Europe, it comprises over 35,000 books. These are not just limited to the English language – should you wish to use them, there is a copy of every Terry Pratchett book in every language available. There are also over 2,500 periodic titles, comics and pulp fiction, including every issue of “Amazing Stories” – the first magazine dedicated solely to science fiction.

“There is more to the Special Collections than just science fiction, however. The range of material on offer is simply astonishing, from the extensive collection of children’s literature (featuring over 7,000 pieces dating from before the First World War) to the oldest piece in the collection: a receipt for rent on a piece of papyrus, dating back to 48 AD. There are also numerous pieces of material linked in to Liverpool’s history, such as the Rathbone papers which document the business and personal lives of one of the most respected non-conformist Liverpool families.


“A display in the Reading Room (see picture left) is regularly updated with material that reflects events outside and within the University, encouraging students to engage with the collections. This month, to help promote International Women’s Day, the staff have been delving into the Cunard Steamship Company Archive to showcase the careers of some of its inspirational female employees. The display also rotates some of the most prominent pieces from within the collection, such as the work of John Wyndham.

“The facilities also play host to classes focusing on material from the collection, as well as hosting the archive records of every student and department. Currently the staff deal with over 1,000 visits a year, in addition to remote enquiries, but Higham is eager to bring more in to the facilities and encourage students to take advantage of the collections: “What’s impressive about the collections here is that they’ve been built up in all different kinds of ways, meaning they’re so varied. Anyone is welcome to come and check out the collection.”

You can find out more information about the Special Collections and Archives by visiting the SCA website.

Jenny Higham’s top three items from the SCA collection:

  1. Chap Books: “These are from the early 1800’s. They used to be sold by pedlars and they were very cheap; children would buy them for half a penny. However, the visual detail is incredible! We often use them in classes that revolve around juvenile literature.”
  2. ‘The Birds of Australia,’ John Gould: “This is one of the most valuable things we have in the collection. It dates from the early 19th Century, and is a landmark in both natural history and printing.  Gould was a contemporary of John James Audubon, some of whose paintings are on display at the Victoria Gallery.”
  3. First edition of Copernicus: “Before I came to work here, I used to work at the Royal Astronomical Society, so I was very excited to find this! This was printed in Nuremberg in 1543, and it marks the idea of the sun being at the centre of the universe. There is a very famous image in it, of the sun in the middle, and then going through the orbit is the idea of the fixed sphere and the stars. I think it is incredible – a landmark text in the history of science.”
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