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Treasure in the stacks

January 23, 2006|Susan Stead | SUSAN STEAD is the rare books librarian at University College London.

AS THE RARE BOOKS librarian at University College London, most of my work is fairly routine, if painstaking and methodical.

But it can be extremely satisfying. I never really know what I will find when I open one of the many old and very precious books I work with. It might have beautiful, hand-colored illustrations; it might be inscribed by the author; or it might contain the bookplate of a famous collector. Such satisfactions might not mean much to outsiders or to people who haven't worked in our rarified world, but to scholars and historians and librarians and archivists, these are the little pleasures that keep us going.

Very rare is the discovery that is earth shattering or historically significant or that brings television crews into our offices. Of course, we think about such discoveries, we hope for them, but we don't really expect them from one day to the next.

Recently, while working my way through one of our collections of rare books, I came across a little leather-bound book in a red slip case called "The Pleasures of Memory" by Samuel Rogers. It was published in London in 1810.

I knew a little bit about Rogers. He was very wealthy, a patron of the arts who held literary soirees and intellectual breakfast parties at his home at St. James Place in London, and he was a minor poet in his own right.

But when I opened it, I found an inscription on the front flyleaf that was completely unexpected: "The Right Hon.ble The Lord Byron, from his obliged & faithful friend The Author." Beneath this was another inscription in a different (as yet unidentified) hand: "Afterwards returned by Lord Byron to Mr. Rogers with the lines written on the other side."

I turned the page nervously and there were 12 lines of poetry signed with a name in Greek characters and the date: April 19th, 1812.

Two questions had to be answered. Was this actually the handwriting of the great Romantic poet? Faked inscriptions are not uncommon. And was it a known, published poem, or something completely new?

First, I checked the biographical details of both men in the Dictionary of National Biography. They definitely knew one another; in fact, they were very good friends at one time, and Byron had heaped praise upon "The Pleasures of Memory."

"There is not a vulgar line in the poem," he wrote in a letter to Charles Lamb.

Then I contacted experts on Byron. An expert from the British Library and the president of a Byron society both declared that the inscription was genuine. (The poem, it turned out, has never before been seen in manuscript form, but it is not unknown. It was, in fact, published four years after the inscription was written, in 1816, and titled "To Samuel Rogers, Esq.")

A critical part of my work is the study of the history of a book's ownership -- its provenance -- from evidence contained within the book itself or from other sources. Evidence can include bookplates, labels, binding stamps and inscriptions, but authorial inscriptions are particularly prized. Such research involves a good deal of detective work, hunting through reference books and searching the Web.

This particular book came to us through the Rogers and Sharpe families. Samuel Rogers' sister, Maria, married Sutton Sharpe, whose granddaughter married Karl Pearson, who became a mathematician and professor at University College London. Their children presented many family books and papers to the university in the 1950s.

A find like this contributes to scholarship (and livens up the work routine). To many, such details may seem mundane, but to those who have studied Byron, it is pieces of information like this that bring the man alive.

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