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A Collected Brilliance

(published in The Scotsman 05/03/2003)

Rumours abound. The Edinburgh literati are excited. There is a common theme in bar chat among the antiquarian booksellers, librarians, curators, academics and literary enthusiasts alike. The word on the street is that the archives of the publisher John Murray may come to rest in Edinburgh. If so, the National Library of Scotland, already a treasure chest of literary gems, will be the final repository for this unrivalled collection of original manuscripts and letters.

It’s unlikely that a decision will be made soon. From his offices in London, the seventh John Murray felt unable to comment yesterday on the sensitive negotiations surrounding the acquisition. "I would love the archive to come to Scotland but due to its size it is an incredibly complex situation."

National Librarian for Scotland, Martyn Wade is also understandably diffident. "This is an incredible opportunity in terms of the scale, quality and importance of the material. The discussion has opened and we are exploring ways for bringing it about. But it may take months to realise." With evident delight at the prospect, Dr Murray Simpson, Director of Special Collections at the National Library, tells me, "Quite simply this is the sort of opportunity that only occurs once in several lifetimes."

How much it will cost depends on who you talk to. In these cases a combination of public, private and lottery funding would be used to acquire the archive.

Figures vary and doubtless none are exactly true; they waiver between a few and £40 million. These may sound like huge amounts of money. But Titian’s Venus Anadyomene, painted in the 1520s, has just been purchased for nearly

£12 million by the National Galleries of Scotland. It’s one of many great works of art bought by the nation from private collections. Preserving the heritage of our literary past is, at least, just as significant. Even at the highest sum touted, compared to the price of a Renaissance painting, it’s got be a bargain.

If the Murray Archive was broken up, individual items, such as the work of Byron, Jane Austen, Darwin and Gladstone, would fetch huge sums in open auction. Undivided its value will be hard to calculate. Martyn Wade states: "It is the largest private collection and possibly most exciting holding of material covering the development of British intellectual, political and social activity in the last 150 years. Edinburgh is the ideal home for it." There’s an audible whirr of the valuers’ counting machines on both sides of the deal.

"It’s an exhaustive process, looking through each item, to assess its worth," explains Dr Stephen Roe, head of books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s in London. "Some archives are costed by size or even weight, but when you have so many wonders and literary masters as the Murray Archive, the final figure will be hard to compute."

John Murray was the last, oldest and most distinguished of the independent publishers in the world. It has recently been bought by Hodder Headline, part of the WH Smith group. Like so many small publishing houses before them, Murray have found themselves increasingly unable to compete. Unlike the conglomerates controlling the publishing industry, they were unable to offer their authors head-spinning advances. And the days when a gentleman, such as Lord Byron, would be insulted by any offer of money for his work are long gone.

Whatever is paid for the archive, it will not be for personal gain. John Murray is keen to set up a charitable trust to conserve, catalogue and maintain public access to the material. And the National Library is committed to widening access to its collections so that everyone can appreciate their wealth. Martyn Wade is unequivocal about ensuring that more people can see what is held in the vaults. The new programme of digitising the content of the collections is already having great benefits. "Here we are looking at more than snapshots of history. This archive is central to what we know about the background of our culture today."

Although the company’s offices have been in London’s Piccadilly since the early 19th century, the Murray family connections with Scotland have always been strong. But bringing the archive to Edinburgh is more than a patriotic homecoming. It is worth a huge amount to the reputation of the National Library as one of the world’s finest collections of manuscripts and rare books. What that is worth in international terms of scholarship is hard to put a price on. As for adding to the fabric of the nation’s heritage, it is inestimable. In centuries to come, some will argue, the millions of e-mails sent every hour will be lost in cyberspace. The fact that we can access the letters written by Darwin to his publisher and look at the amendments, annotations and comments he made on his manuscript of The Origin of Species, is undiluted history.

On the open market there would doubtless be bids from other serious contenders to house the collection. Not the least of which would come from universities and research foundations in the US. But the legislation on export licences would be unlikely to permit such a sale going ahead.

Spending money to buy this sort of collection is nothing new to the National Library. It was originally established by the Faculty of Advocates in the 1680s. Purchasing rare books and manuscripts was soon central to its role. In 1699 the advocates advertised in the Edinburgh Gazette for "all persons who have any manuscripts, whether historys, chartularys of monasterys, old charters, or other ancient writes ... all persons also, who design to sell any such manuscripts, are invited to bring them in to the said Library, and the Curators thereof will pay them therefore, to their satisfaction". The result is that the library now owns artefacts dating back to the middle-ages.

The 1710 Copyright Act established the Advocates Library as one of the few copyright libraries in the country. This ensured that a copy of every book published in Britain should be deposited there. And in a curious twist of the past, it was the first John Murray who acted as the library’s agent in the 1770s. His job was to make sure that everything they were entitled to was received from Stationer’s Hall in London.

In 1925 the Faculty of Advocates gave over the library to the nation, putting it on a par with the other great UK repositories: the Bodleian in Oxford and the British Library. Thus the National Library of Scotland was established in its current home on George IV Bridge. At the time grandees like the Earl of Roseberry set up funds exclusively for the purchase of manuscripts and rare books. The predominance of items of historical and legal importance gradually gave way to literary acquisitions. And manuscripts belonging to the great Scottish authors, such as Burns, Scott, Carlyle and Stevenson began to be collected.

Today the National Library is home to some of the finest collections anywhere in the world. Here you can see documents with profound national significance, such as the last letter of Mary, Queen of Scots, the order for the massacre of Glencoe, the original written Covenant and foreign policy papers before the Union.

It was an extraordinary gift of the autographed manuscript of Scott’s Waverley that began what is the greatest collection in the world of material concerning, or by, any one author. This was a novel, that Lord Cockburn wrote, "struck Edinburgh with an electric shock of delight".

Blackwood was one of the most important publishing houses of 19th and 20th century literature. Based in Edinburgh, its archive was acquired by the library in the 1940s. It is an enormous collection of business papers and literary correspondence and has taken years to catalogue. Professor David Finkelstein, of Queen Margaret University College, who has worked extensively on the Blackwood’s Archive believes that what John Murray holds will be an extraordinary addition to Edinburgh’s collection. "The Murray Archive is remarkable and astounding in what it has to show us of business history and literary culture. Added to the papers of Scott’s publisher, Constable, and those of Oliver & Boyd and Smith, Elder, it would make the National Library the richest repository of records of literary culture and publishing in the world." To bring the two writing giants of the early 19th century, Scott and Byron, together under the same roof will be an extraordinary coup for Edinburgh.

The original John Murray - there have been seven - was born McMurray in Edinburgh in 1737. Like so many young Scots in the 18th century, he travelled to London to find success. He soon set up in business as a bookseller and publisher. Over a period of 25 years he copied 5,000 letters and archived the replies. According to his biographer, Dr Bill Zachs, "Murray left a record of his career which is, I believe, a unique survival." With the Blackwood Archive, this kind of collection can offer us an unparalleled insight into the world of publishing over 230 years.

No-one is yet quite sure what the Murray Archive holds. The estimated 150,000 items have never been entirely catalogued. And the owners are keeping information as to its exact contents a close secret. But like Blackwood’s, the Murray Archive contains more than just the annals of a publishing house. It holds manuscripts and letters from a host of social, political and literary figures over the last two centuries. It contains the priceless papers of people like David Hume, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Smiles, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, David Livingstone and Queen Victoria. And of course the greatest literary hero of all, Lord Byron.

The National Library of Scotland is an institution that protects and preserves documents like these from ruin. One manuscript that would have set the town alight, and would do still, has long since been destroyed. In 1820, Byron’s two bound volumes of diaries were burned by the second John Murray and five of Byron’s close friends. This act was intended to protect the poet’s reputation - which has kept academics and biographers at bay for nearly two hundred years. Only recently with Fiona McCarthy’s recent biography, for which she had complete access to the archive, has the world come anywhere closer to the complete truth. Short of an act of God, and safe in the hands of the curators of the National Library of Scotland, these palimpsests of our history will remain intact.

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