Fostering ‘bright intelligences’: Merton’s library over seven centuries

Date: Tuesday 24 November 2020
Time: 18:00

The 40 Years Series, with Dr Julia Walworth, Fellow Librarian.

In 1659 the description of the duties of the newly-established position of Librarian at Merton College instructed that contents lists should be added to all the manuscript books, ‘in order that, not moth and worm, but bright intelligences may be fostered by them’. Who were these ‘bright intelligences’? What and who was the college library for, and how has this changed over the more than 740 years of its history?

This talk provided an opportunity to look at selected illuminated manuscripts, rare books and objects, putting the treasures back into context in order to explore the functions of the college library at different key moments in its past. From its origins in the thirteenth century as a shared collection for what was then a new type of community of elite scholars, to its close brush with destruction in the nineteenth century, Merton’s library is distinctive in the extent to which it connects intellectual and institutional history.

Recently, sudden and severe restrictions to access to many libraries and research collections in the pandemic prompt reflection about the value of libraries as spaces at the same time as demonstrating how libraries can function dynamically beyond physical spaces. Merton’s library has a future as well as a past, continuing to ‘foster bright intelligences’.