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The Grey Collection and the GRAP 103 project, 2013: a window into the past
Do all good librarians go to heaven? If they have been very good indeed they might find themselves in Library Heaven – the National Library of South Africa (NLSA)!

After many years in the library profession, I am seeing something quite new. Almost every interaction I´ve had with the NLSA, specifically the Grey Collection at the Cape Town campus, has been a revelation to me about the window into the past that a really knowledgeable, interested and passionate book collector can open, and that a library can preserve. Sometimes I cannot believe that what I’m seeing is actually in front of me.

I joined the Generally Recognised Accounting Practices (GRAP) 103 project team in June 2013, so missed the stocktaking of the Fairbridge Collection, but was involved in the stocktaking of the Grey Collection. When this was completed, we were asked to catalogue previously uncatalogued material.

I´m sure that my two colleagues, Dr Sandy Shell and Ms Margaret Reid, catalogued some very interesting items – in fact Dr Shell had a compilation of manuscripts relevant to South Africa which included the contract between the Dutch East India Company and a local Khoi-Khoi chief for the sale of the land on which Cape Town now stands – the chief certainly had no right to sell the land, but then he received very little in return for it. And Ms Reid worked with many incunabula, so she certainly saw some amazing items.

I started off my cataloguing with a rock painting (G.55.b.2).

´But how shall I describe it?´ I wailed. ´No author, no publisher, no date of publication, and certainly no ISBN!´

´Just do your best, and don’t use more than 15 subject headings,’ I was told.

After this attempt, which certainly made me see the project in a serious light, I was given, in short succession, several palm leaf manuscripts (yes, manuscripts incised on actual palm leaf strips) in various non-Roman and mostly unidentified scripts, but one or two with extensive notes of provenance (G.55.c.3-7); then a manuscript painted in black Pali script on gold on a metal base (probably tin) (G.47.c.11(a-b)), the most glamorous manuscript I had ever seen, which turned out to be an early Buddhist liturgical text from Burma, thanks to another copy some auction house was selling via the Internet (the detailed photographs and description were highly useful in cataloguing this one); then something every librarian learns about at library school, but never sees in reality – a Sumerian clay cuneiform tablet (G.55.b.3). This one was not what I was expecting at all – instead of being flat, it was a cylinder! Startling, but right, that the NLSA would have such an important beacon of the development of civilisation.

The next work was Japanese – two small A5-sized notebooks, in a script that didn´t look like anything I had ever seen before, with decorated paper and the most exquisite illustrations (which appeared to tell a story, as the same characters appeared in many of them) (G.48.a.4). I showed the work to my supervisor, Ms Melanie Geustyn, Principal Librarian, Special Collections, who identified the script as Japanese cursive, and scanned the first page and one or two of the illustrations to accompany an email enquiry to the National Diet Library of Japan. It turned out to be ´Bunsho no Soshi´, one of the earliest Japanese stories, which was, on account of its popular rags-to-riches nature, always read for good luck at New Year.

The next set of manuscripts was fairly daunting – two vellum folders in a box, inside which were dozens of documents, mostly manuscripts, some on vellum (G.47.c.12), from the estate of Bishop Patrick Barron. They turned out to be all, in some way, related to Florence and Tuscany, particularly with the affairs of two families, the Pandolfinis and the Canigianis. Most are in Latin, some in Italian, German, and French; some are proclamations by Holy Roman Emperors; some are papal bulls by several different popes; some are about the Knights of Malta; and some relate to ordinary people. Two are theatre tickets, issued to Anna Pandolfini in 1790 and 1795 for the carnival season; one is a promissory note, issued in 1894 for property in the Via Cavour, Florence; many are legal documents; some are letters – a letter of condolence, a letter from a son to his father, and a letter from the head of an Arcadian society promoting the production of Italian literature to ’Idalba Pensile [not her real name], e valoroso pastorella Fiorentina’ [the brave shepherdess of Florence]. Two are passports , one French, one from the Holy Roman Empire, issued to a hostage returning from France to Tuscany in 1800; and two are proclamations by these opposing nations to the local population during the occupation of Tuscany by the French in the previous year.

You may ask, how easy was it to discover all this? Well, finding what parts of the manuscripts were the important bits to decipher, and then reading those bits, was the difficult part; after that, Google, Wikipedia and Google Translate were very useful, since my knowledge of the languages involved was minimal. (All the names and subject headings found on the Internet were checked against the Library of Congress authority list.) But at least they were in Roman script! Hopefully, the cataloguing of these manuscripts will make them better known, after which someone will be able to study them and clarify their contents.

The most recent collection of manuscripts with which I have been working is in German – (G.6.b.13) - mostly to do with the Reformation and its political consequences for the Holy Roman Empire, and centred around Regensburg. The scripts in this collection are more difficult to read than the italic script of the Tuscan manuscripts, but the Internet is proving just as helpful as it was with the latter.

In the meantime, my colleagues have been adding detailed cataloguing records of and subject headings to the early printed books in the Grey Collection – a large number of which were published between 1455 and 1505. For one person, George Grey collected an impressively representative number of incunabula. But he also collected a large number of documents to do with mission work, with indigenous languages, with South African political developments, with geographical and scientific discovery, English drama and literature, and with many other areas, not least being his amazing collection of Bibles. A much longer time than the project gives us would be necessary to begin to appreciate the range and depth of the collection.

But a title I discovered during stocktaking still impresses me – Isibongo si ka-Kaka [Praises to King Shaka] by Umagolwane, written down by missionary H.P.S. Schreuder in the early 19th century (G.47.c.6(26))– because I am amazed that Sir George Grey had acquired such an important item from Zulu history. But seeing his collecting network produced letters and maps by David Livingstone, the English and Boer versions of the Sand River Convention, and letters from Moshesh, King of the Basuto, it is fairly clear that any scholar investigating sources of South African history, language or religion has no choice but to make a detailed study of the Grey Collection.

In the meantime, I come to work in the certain knowledge that, thanks to the opportunity the GRAP project has given me, I will see something new every day.

Catherine Dubbeld


 

 

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