The Rare Books Collection: How did it all start?

Prior to 1959, the university library’s Rare Books Collection was relatively small. The first significant contribution to the collection was the George McArthur bequest, which was made in 1903. George McArthur (1842-1903) donated “the whole of his books” to the University of Melbourne, which involved some 2,500 volumes. [1.] These books covered topics such as Australian exploration, mining history, typography, and early printing. The bequest made up around ten percent of the library’s rare cultural materials at the time, and led the way forward to allow for the collection to develop.

Rare Book Room
Shelves of the Rare Book Room

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The Gerson incunabulum

The University of Melbourne’s Rare Book Collection holds around 30 incunabula, or early printed books and these are all digitised. ‘Incunabula’ is a term given to books produced in the cradle days of book printing, generally pre-1500, and they are distinct from manuscripts, which are hand-written. One of the University’s incunabula was published in 1489 and was authored by Jean (Johannes) Charlier de Gerson (1363-1429), a French scholar devoted to the study of the Catholic Church, who published extensively throughout his life. The title Opera means ‘Work’, and the book appears to be one of three volumes comprising a treatise on the Catholic Church. This first volume is subtitled Prima pars operii Johannes Gerson, meaning ‘The first part of the works of Johannes Gerson’.

Gerson sample page
Sample page from Jean Gerson, ‘Opera’, Nuremburg: Georg Stuchs, 1489, Rare Books Collection

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Percy Grainger performing the museum

I visited the Grainger Museum on Tuesday 21 August. As the 2018 recipient of the IMAC award, I have been keen to explore the many collections based on campus at the University of Melbourne. The only knowledge I had of Percy Grainger was that he composed that song about the English country garden, which my friends and I used to sing when we were younger in the playground. Besides this, I had no idea about the sheer extent of Grainger’s extraordinary character. I had anticipated that the museum would provide me with a showcase of important, historical objects relating to this figure in Melbourne. To describe the collection as a showcase is an understatement. I was overwhelmed by the diversity of the objects, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was in an alternative, historic version of Instagram within a museum context. It seems that Grainger was well ahead of the times; he had taken a concept and amplified it, by constructing his life in a way that only he would want it to be seen by the public eye, like his very own beautifully refined and curated Instagram account. Even now, in the days after Grainger’s death, the museum feels very true to his original intention and ethics.

So I began to collect manuscripts, musical sketches, letters, articles, mementos, portraits, photographs, etc., by and of those English-speaking Scandinavian composers that seemed to me the most gifted and progressive – always with the intention of someday putting this collection on permanent display in Melbourne. [1.]

Percy Grainger by Dover Street Studios
Percy Grainger, Dover Street Studios, c.1904-1906, Sepia-toned silver gelatin print mounted on card

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