For the next two months I am highly privileged to work as a research fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub in Dublin. During this time I will research specific parts of the Fagel collection and add books to the Short-Title Catalogue, Netherlands. My goal is not only to identify unique printed books in the collection, but to shed some light on the different – sometimes even conflicting – claims about ‘uniqueness’ by specialists who have studied the Fagel collection over the past century.
The Fagel collection is one of the famous Dutch collections abroad. It was built up by the Dutch Fagel family, of whom several members held high offices in the Dutch Republic for large parts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After Gaspar Fagel (1634-1688) took up the influential post of greffier of the States General in 1670, five successive generations of the family would hold on to the position of greffier and deputy greffier for the next 125 years.
The last one to hold the post of greffier was Hendrik Fagel the younger (1765-1838). He was stranded in England in the winter of 1794-1795 as a result of the Batavian Revolution. He managed to transport his library to London, but after losing his commission Fagel was soon forced to sell the library. An auction catalogue with close to 10.000 lots was compiled by Christie’s in 1802. The auction, however, never took place since the governors of the Erasmus Smith Schools in Dublin put in a successful bid for the entire collection on behalf of Trinity College.
The acquisition of the Fagel collection in 1802 meant that the library of Trinity College nearly doubled in size. The collection includes incunabula, manuscripts, maps, rare privately published books, large paper copies, beautiful bindings and books with engraved plates, often hand-coloured. More importantly, the secular orientation of the Fagel collection meant that a different type of books cam into the library compared to the theological interest that had dominated the collections of Trinity College hitherto.
The library has been described as a working library of the Fagels, arguably because of the 278 volumes of bound pamphlets in the collection. These volumes alone account for some 6.000 titles, even though they make up just a couple of lots in the auction catalogue of 1802. The pamphlets cover the political and religious conflicts in the Dutch Republic and were no doubt of interest for a family who operated in the centre of Dutch political life. It is however debatable how and why these pamphlets were collected, and if they were used by the Fagels. Several copies are uncut, which indicates that they were never read.
In the past century, the reputation of the Fagel collection attracted scholars from far and wide. They made some very different claims about the uniqueness of the collection, most likely because they have a different understanding of the concept ‘unique’. In a bibliographical sense, uniqueness indicates that the book is a sole survivor, that is, no other copies of the book are found worldwide. But how are we ever going to verify such a claim? Obviously, with so many books from libraries, archives and private collections that are not available online, claims about bibliographical uniqueness can only be made with reservations.
Books can of course be unique in other ways. Material aspects such as binding, paper, type, colouring, marginal annotations, provenances can make copies stand out, even though they are not unique in any literal way. Ultimately, personal interests play a role in what is considered as special. As a book historian with some unresolved Swedish issues, I am curious to find out more about the provenance of the works of Olaus Rudbeck in the Fagel collection. And according to the auction catalogue two[!] copies of Dahlberg’s masterpiece Suecia antiqua et hodierna… More on this at a later stage of this fellowship.