From an uncertain future to a macabre past

I spent an engaging, if slightly ghoulish afternoon at the John Rylands Library this week, where I attended a public event arranged by the university to mark Academic Book Week. The event itself was certainly not ghoulish, it was a really lively debate on the Future of the Academic Monograph featuring a panel of experts from Manchester University Press, the University of Manchester Library, and University of Manchester academic staff, as well as a full audience of undergraduates and postgraduates as well as visiting academics and members of the public.

Whilst acknowledging slightly alarming recent trends which mean the average academic book is only printed in a fraction of the number of copies as 30 years ago, there were some exciting discussions about what digital technologies could mean a future academic book looks like, with interactive content, more opportunities for collaboration, and the ability to constantly update material.

There were also impassioned speeches in favour of Open Access publishing and possible future funding models for academic publications, a key consideration as in five years time, all published content must be Open Access to count towards an academic’s research impact rating. As an early career academic these developments are well worth keeping an eye on, and it was heartening to see that Manchester is helping to lead the way in radical thinking to shape an uncertain future.

From an uncertain future to a macabre past. In the room next door to the event, the Rylands is currently displaying its Darkness and Light: Exploring the Gothic exhibition, which included a fascinating selection of material from the library’s collections. There couldn’t be a better setting in the city for the exhibition than the Victorian gothic splendour of the John Rylands Library, with its leaded windows, gorgeous wooden panelling, and intricately-carved sandstone building, all set off spookily by dimmed lights and darkened corners.

I was able to marvel at the intricacies of the illustrations in original imprints of Vesalius’s Anatomia. Especially unsettling about the phenomenally accurate pictures is that they seem to all be positioned as if in lifelike, action poses, giving the viewer an uneasy sense that the figures may have been fully-fleshed and breathing just moments earlier and some unseen, infernal presence had stripped them of life in an instant.

It was easy to understand how these kind of images helped blur the lines between natural and supernatural in the minds of the great gothic authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and next to the anatomy books were original and rare copies of some of the classics of the genre, all adorned with wonderfully-engraved and often nightmarish illustrations.

It was a great, atmospheric exhibit to have staged over Halloween and well worth a visit to anyone in town with half an hour to spare, especially if you are yet to visit the Rylands at all. Be prepared to be awed by the size and splendour of the main reading room, replete with its walls stuffed with ancient volumes, echoing galleries, and the statues of the great and the good of literature staring down on you. It is also a public library, so you could pop there any day for free and sit down with your laptop to write your latest essay. If you’re like me then you think stuff like that’s pretty cool!

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