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When a book becomes an archive

‘The Hunter', by Sir James Stephen in his book to his daughter, Rosamond. RCB Library MS 253.
‘The Hunter', by Sir James Stephen in his book to his daughter, Rosamond. RCB Library MS 253.

For February’s Archive of the Month, the RCB Library continues to celebrate the life and achievements of the founder of the Guild of Witness Library – the precursor to the RCB Library – Rosamond Stephen. The RCB Library holds some 70,000 print items, and there is a substantial portion of these that are classed as rare books.  However, there are few as rare and unique as the volume which forms the basis of this month’s story.

Originally actually accessioned as a book for the open shelves, when the Library was run by Miss Stephen, it was latterly accessioned as a unique archive along as part of the Stephen family collection (RCB Library MS 253).  The volume has been carefully digitised and can be viewed at this link.

Rosamond and her nine siblings (the children of Sir James Fitzjames Stephens and Mary Richenda Cunningham) were exposed to a broad and privileged education in England, where they originated.  Although not herself formally associated with any educational movement, Rosamond firmly believed in the necessity of education for all and was proactive in many strands of voluntary work in Ireland – not least the foundation of a lending library – open to all faiths and classes.

The early origins of her love of books are made clear by this deeply personal item. On her second birthday on 19th June 1870, Rosamond received the gift of this handmade book from her father, Sir James, at the time in the legal service of the Governor General of India – based ‘at Simla’.  He jokingly annotates the opening page with the order, ‘All gentlemen buy this book and send it to London’, which he then follows with 57 folios containing his vivid hand–painted drawings of various Indian scenes, intended as an education tool for the young child.

‘The Hunter’ – depicting a tiger – is his drawing which copies a 19th–century ornament (also on display in the Library) which with the book formed part of Miss Stephen’s original bequest to the RCB. This is the first time that the book can be viewed by a wider audience and is a wonderful insight into the early family life of the Stephen family.

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