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From the recesses of the British Library to Merkinch, let's cherish the written word

By Barbara Henderson

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The brushstrokes are exquisite. Intricate illustrations encircle the written word; celebrate its magic.

I hold my breath and lean forward in the semi-darkness, scared that, somehow, I could damage this beautiful treasure. Of course I can’t. There is extra-strength protective plexi-glass between me and the Gutenberg Bible.

Created in 1455, it is the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using movable type. As someone who still reads a version of the Bible most days, I am utterly absorbed and not a little moved.

I am in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, the British Library’s dimly lit underbelly. If there was a Venn diagram of book-lovers and history-lovers, these darkened rooms, and this very collection, surely, would be where the circles overlap.

It’s free to access and holds many of the most cherished documents in existence, free to view for passers-through-London like me.

An original Handel music manuscript, Jane Austen’s notebook (her handwriting is surprisingly legible), Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and ramblings, the mighty Magna Carta (yes, the document from 1215, in tiny writing – the first suggestion that even the king was subject to the law) and also the defiant Declaration of Arbroath. Just across the room, there are the light-hearted scrawlings of The Beatles. What a place, to find all this under one roof!

The British Library is home to documents of all shapes and sizes.
The British Library is home to documents of all shapes and sizes.

There is something truly precious here. Throughout the ages, the written word was sacred, special and often only accessible to the few. Thank goodness we are looking at a different society now, where literacy and access to books is widespread, where barriers are removed with audio and technological solutions.

But as I stand there in the protective darkness and regulated temperature of the British Library, I wonder if we have lost something too. The awe and the wonder, the respect for ink and pen. The meticulous care, the cherishing of words and sentences and pages. Something worth illuminating with the best artistic efforts we are capable of. Something to preserve across generations, to protect and celebrate. Food for thought, as I emerge out into the stuffy smog of Euston Road and think of the Highlands.

Reading is treasured up here, too. We have a book festival which has just begun announcing its acts for early October, beginning with Bookbug Picture Book Prize winner Alan Windram. We have great bookshops around our region – in fact, Waterstones Inverness was voted retailer of the year (national) in Inverness Business Improvement District's Business Awards, and two Highland independent bookshops made the shortlist for the bookseller’s independent bookshop of the year. A shout-out to the fantastic Highland Bookshop in Fort William and the Bookmark in Grantown.

As impressive a collection as the British Library holds, getting books together in one place to offer choice and inspiration is happening all around us. Take the family centre in Merkinch’s Coronation Park, where early years graduate Janice Wilson has recently issued an appeal for book donations in order to establish a library.

I forwarded the request to the group of children’s book writers and illustrators I am a member of, and hey presto: signed books began to arrive in Merkinch, including from high-profile Scottish authors including Linda Strachan and Coo Clayton. Authors and illustrators are a lovely lot, make no mistake.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be the Declaration of Arbroath or the Magna Carta. We can all make a statement like the ones I saw at the British Library. How about this: we intend to cherish and respect the written word; to value and champion it and to preserve it for future generations to enjoy.

I might just start by dropping off a donation book bag at the Merkinch family centre.

Will you?

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