Portsmouth University Library: A Trove of Historical and Cultural Treasures

Emily Priest reviews the first Special Collections event at the University of Portsmouth Library and finds a treasure trove of local history and culture that many local residents have yet to discover. 

On the 25th July, the University library invited the public on a tour of their special collections for the first time. Their impressive array of maps, rare books, artwork and archive materials were unveiled alongside a talk that no member of the public has experienced before. All for free.

There were about 15 of us and to start us off, we were given a timetable for the day and a map of the library. Faculty Librarian for CCI (Creative and Cultural Industries), Greta Friggens, gave us a short talk about what we would see as well as some health and safety information. We were then put into two groups and taken around the library by another member of staff.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at first. The idea of seeing old maps and archives is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of exciting.

The first place we visited was the map library. We were greeted by David Sherren who has taken care of the collection for over 20 years. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t bought any water as it was going to be a dry talk, or so I thought. I was wrong. David surpassed my stereotypical expectations.

There was a hand drawn manuscript map of Portsmouth which, although it had no date, is estimated to be from 1810. There was a highly detailed map of the city which showed where every lamp post was and even a house on Castle Road which had a maze in the garden. My favourite was a map of the city created by the Soviet Union, blending terrain features, house layout and even water currents into the ultimate spy tool.

David gave us an incredible amount of information for each one and even introduced the university’s mapping software, which is available to staff and students and allows users to make a map from anywhere in the world. David used it to place a modern map of Portsmouth over one of the older maps of the city to show the vast differences and the similarities over time.

‘It’s like time travel’, he said and fascinated, I agreed.

I thoroughly enjoyed David’s talk, but I found it very difficult to look at the maps as the space was very limited. In many cases, the other members of the group butted through and took up all the room. Even when I said excuse me, I could only stare from afar.

Next was the rare books collection which had far more space in which to mooch about. This collection was started in 1989 and has over 1,200 items, some dating back to the 1800s with many signed, 1st editions, or fragile texts. Many books in the collection were donated by Arthur Bolton, architecture historian, including volumes on art history, garden history, architecture and archaeology.

The rare books collection is vast and unique, including pop-up books, Soviet posters and private presses. We were shown a facsimile of an illustrated collection of Geoffrey Chaucer’s work and a rare book of Andy Warhol’s punk art. It is little known that Andy Warhol experimented with urine in his artwork in the 70s. Many of the older people turned their noses up in disgust and exclaimed how disgusting it was. I, on the other hand, ogled it, fascinated by his resourceful oxidation paintings.

The best part of all this for me was that we were allowed to touch the books and as a bibliophile, I took great pleasure in touching pages many years older than myself.

We then moved on to the art segment of the day. We were given leaflets explaining what pieces were on show, with paintings ranging from students to more established names such as John Bratby and William Turner.

There was also a temporary exhibit of ‘Spring’ which held artwork from artists such as Madeleine Lancaster-Vale, daughter of famous visual painter Sydney Vale. The art was not presented to us in one space, as you might expect, but scattered across three floors. Although this adds décor to the library, as a viewing experience it was a bit awkward. We stood next to working students, focused on their studies, as we ogled the walls. It must have been a bit distracting for them.

There was some gorgeous artwork, from oil paintings to print, but two student pieces caught my attention the most. A piece by former student Jodie Silsby, on the first floor, showed the shape of Portsea Island, but as I got closer I could see it was made up of examples of Portsmouth vernacular, such as ‘cushty’ and ‘farks sake’.

The other piece was on the second floor and was a collection of stunning, portrait photographs. The photographer Cesar Moreno, states in a note underneath that the models gave him the opportunity ‘to photograph them and open me their souls’.

The last stop on our impressive tour was the archives, occupying a small room into which we all unceremoniously crammed ourselves. Archivist Anna Delaney told us about the University’s collection of institutional documents, dating back as far as 1869, and originating from a range of institutions, including the Portsmouth and Gosport School of Science. There were class photographs, prospectuses and even handwritten minute books and student records. Not all items were available as they held ‘sensitive information’ but it was interesting to see how the university and other institutions had grown over the years. I was most interested in the 1968/1969 chemistry class photo which only had 2 female students. It was fascinating to see how things had changed such as the growth of female students and ethnic groups.

This last segment of the day was not the most exciting as personally, I have little interest in knowing what an old prospectus looks like. I understand that this can really inspire some people but I found greater pleasure from touching the rare books and staring at Warhol’s pee paintings. Although, I think that may possibly be an age thing…

At the end, we all gathered downstairs to talk and have complimentary tea and biscuits. The day had been a great success and everyone was talking about how much they enjoyed themselves. I was thoroughly inspired and loved seeing the library in a new light. It was no longer a place for me to frantically work but a passport to Portsmouth’s history and culture.

I approached Greta and asked her if she would do another open day event like this one.

She said, ‘I don’t know. We can’t do it during term time as we wouldn’t be able to fit in with the students. But we do need to keep encouraging the public to use these collections. I don’t think they know and it can be quite daunting.’

I think she is right. I’m a student at the University and didn’t know that the public can use the library and resources. The other people I spoke to on the day didn’t know either. Events like the open day are highly important, not only to encourage people to use the incredible treasure trove on their doorstep, but also to show off what amazing things the university library has to offer. On display near our refreshments were leaflets explaining how to access the library and many people picked them up.

Members of the public can access the rare books collections free of charge and just need to bring in ID and proof of address to the reception desk. A day pass will be issued.  If you want to borrow materials from the library, you will need to pay £50 for an annual External Reader’s Pass which is a highly reasonable cost, especially when you consider what is really at your fingertips. Some parts of the library, however, such as the archives, can only be seen through appointment.

I hope the University choose to do another Special Collections Event to encourage more people to visit but until then, if you are interested, arrange a visit and lose yourself in this incredible array of fascinating and unique items.

Photography by Emily Priest.