REVIEW: Inside the Archives with Jennie Aspinall

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Inside the Archives – Books in Exile and the Women who Cared for Them with Jennie Aspinall

11th October 2020

Review by Abbie Longmate

When we think about the books around us, we often fail to question where, how, and why they came about. How did the historical texts we read and enjoy today become available to us? Who cared for them? In her Inside the Archives event, Jennie Aspinall gives us a fascinating insight into the sacrifices made by the Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre in order to care for, and preserve books through exile in the 17th century.

Remarkably, as Jennie points out, the Canonesses accumulated a collection of nearly 650 books, based mostly on topics such as religion and education, a few of which she displays to us, noting which parts of each manuscript she finds most interesting and extraordinary. You cannot help but be in awe of the Canonesses, who meticulously designed and organised 800 boxes to transport their books out of Liège in exile and into England, losing only one box along the way. It’s not often that we hear of these sorts of stories in our classrooms and history textbooks.

In the current climate we find ourselves in, technology has become more important than ever in the cultural arts. Inside the Archives provides a refreshing break from the sometimes eye-burning process of reading articles and e-books online, and reunites us with the visual world of literature. After almost seven months of pandemic-induced digital arts and learning, it’s becoming more and more difficult to associate books with their physical entities and distinctive histories outside of their digital copies. However, we are incredibly lucky to be able to see these books on our screens through this event. My favourite example from Inside the Archives has to be the preservation of one of the books Jennie talks us through, where the spine has been repaired by the Canonesses with a pair of kid leather gloves. As Jennie comments, this gives a “whole new meaning to treating a book with kid gloves”. In a similar act of preservation, I suppose we must also work to care for literature and books in our current climate, ensuring their physical entities are not abandoned or forgotten in the face of the digital.

It astounds me that these books, with their individual intricacies, histories, and momentous literary journeys, are readily available for us to explore and enjoy. This is thanks to the hard work of Palace Green Library and the generosity of the Canonesses in handing their collection over to Durham University.

At the end of the event, Jennie concludes that “we find a female history that is bound both figuratively and literally in books, and caring for them is now our professional responsibility”. If you ever find yourself in, or around Durham City Centre, I would wholeheartedly recommend booking an appointment to visit Palace Green Library and exploring the extraordinary archives and captivating history of the books the Canonesses sacrificed so much to save.

Watch the event until November 1st.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.