Peckard Library Reconstruction

Work towards the creation of a digital handlist, based on a catalogue of books donated to the Old Library by the former Master of Magdalene College, Peter Peckard (1718-1797), was completed recently by library staff – with fascinating new insights into the College’s historic collections. 

In January 1798, shortly after the death of her husband, Martha Peckard donated a large collection of books to Magdalene College – books that would come to form a major part of what is known today as the Old Library.

The volumes, bequeathed by Peter Peckard, varied considerably in their scope and subject matter, but were, for the most part, academic in nature and would, it was hoped, serve as a valuable resource for College members.

The details of Peter Peckard’s collection and the contents of his original bequest are carefully recorded in a manuscript catalogue that still exists today. It is from this eighteenth-century catalogue that staff working in the Old Library over the past year have sought to compile an enhanced digital copy of the text – a process which has involved identifying titles from catalogue entries and mapping them to the Old Library’s holdings. Since 1798, the Old Library has expanded and changed, and Peckard’s books have been consequently amalgamated into the broader library collections over time. The purpose of the project, therefore, was to create a comprehensive handlist that would help to deepen our understanding of the Peckard collection as a discrete collection within the Old Library, and to build up a better picture of what Peckard’s library would have looked like from information about what it contained at the point at which it was transferred to the College.

Findings from the project have been very significant, not only in so far as staff have been able to identify references within the catalogue to extant holdings, but also entries for items formerly within the collection that have since been lost. In transcribing the catalogue, it has been possible to learn more about the content of Peckard’s library, his tastes and breadth of interests. The collection includes books on history, politics, travel, literature, religion, law, language and science.

The digital handlist also allows us to gather important information concerning the organisation and arrangement of books in Peckard’s possession. In a section of the original catalogue entitled “A Catalogue of Books belonging to Mr Peckard in the Parsonage House at Fletton – Jan. 14th 1799”, items are listed according to their physical location within the library. For example, under the heading, “The Left Hand Slip next [to] the Door: 1st Shelf”, or “The second slip in the Right-Hand Division of the Bookcase”.

From this information, it is possible to reconstruct a clear impression of the way in which Peckard chose to group books together, according to their subject or size, and to imagine what Peckard’s library at the rectory in Fletton, near Peterborough, would have been like (Peckard was appointed to the living at Fletton in 1760).

Old Library R.1.2, a manuscript catalogue of Peckard’s library at Fletton. This page records a copy of Seneca’s ‘de Providentia’ borrowed by the Bishop of Peterborough in 1799, now in the Old Library under shelfmark I.10.43.

Touchingly, the list contains marginal notes that refer to books borrowed, given or recorded as missing from the house at Fletton – a volume lent to the Bishop of Peterborough, for instance, and returned two months later. A lost copy of Gulliver’s Travels thought to “have been taken by some friends of the servants.” These notes provide rare glimpses into the way in which Peckard’s books were used, read and circulated, and underline the idea of a library as dynamic, rather than static. It is hoped that the output of the project will support further research into the Peckard collection and the history of library collections more generally.

The digital handlist can be found on the Old Library’s ‘Catalogue and Research Tools’ page on the College website, under ‘Peter Peckard Collection’.

By Ellie Swire

Libraries Assistant and Invigilator

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