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Selling books from old-established libraries

02 July 2008


From Mr Richard Sharp
Sir, — The Cathedral Librarian at Exeter (Letters, 30 May) is, no doubt, right to assure your readers that his institution has not been involved in any recent selling of historically important books.

Nevertheless, Professor Clark’s misapprehension on this detail is easily understood by this regular user of the Abebooks facility on the web. I have been horrified by the number of volumes recently listed by dealers in the aftermath of the disastrous dispersal of Bishop Phillpotts’s Library, founded for the benefit of the clergy of Cornwall in 1856, when that county was still part of the diocese of Exeter.

It has been sad to see how, in reports of this sale (e.g. The Times, 10 September 2007), expressions of indignation were confined merely to the fiscal management by the trustees, while no reference was made to the cost to the local Church in terms of the loss of an irreplaceable scholarly facility.

On my own shelves, I am proud to be able to offer space to a volume once owned, and signed, by the Nonjuring bishop Thomas Brett. Acquired through Abebooks, for a trivial sum, this book bears the stamp of Pusey House, Oxford, whose voice has been conspicuously absent from the chorus of aggrieved self-justification in your columns in recent weeks.

This silence is all too understandable, since the Pusey House sale in 2005, which managed to avoid attracting general publicity at the time, provided another windfall for dealers, who took advantage of the appearance of several thousand volumes consigned in bulk lots to the saleroom.

Although attempts to protest at the time elicited solemn assurances that none of the books in question was important, the appearance of a previously unrecorded Nonjuring devotional treatise of 1747 from the Pusey library in a dealer’s catalogue a couple of months later demonstrated that this cannot have been true. It invited questions about how many other items of comparable significance passed through the basement of Christie’s in a jumble of cardboard boxes on that day. Of course, now we shall never know.

Cases like these only reinforce Professor Clark’s central (and as yet unrefuted) argument: namely, that the Church of England is losing any serious grasp on its own history, and that it is evidently indifferent to this fact.
16 Front Street, Glanton
Northumberland NE66 4AJ


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