Library and Archives Blog

Torquato Tasso and Early Modern Cultures of Translation

Dr Joanna Raisbeck, Stipendiary Lecturer in German, reflects on her time with the Germanic books in the College Library's Special Collections

As a Germanist with a penchant for working with early modern and modern books, I was delighted to find out that the College library has a small but fine collection of Germanic books, ranging from an early edition of Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft, a path-breaking work in Idealist philosophy, to various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editions of Goethe’s plays and verse bound together in a single volume. This includes a version of Goethe’s epic poem Hermann und Dorothea printed in London in the 1840s, which raises the intriguing question of the demand for literature in German in England at the time.

The Goethe volume also contains traces of historic language learning, as it features interlinear translations of particularly knotty vocabulary. This exercise evidently proved too much of an endurance test for the writer – who promptly gave up on making notes after the second act of Goethe’s play Egmont.

Looking at the library’s holdings can tell us something about how books are being used by readers, offering small yet intriguing insights into the history of the book trade as well. I would like to focus on another, earlier volume which tells us something instead about the cultures of translation and intercultural reception of literary works in the early modern period: the delicate duodecimo volume that is a Dutch translation of Torquato Tasso’s Il padre di famiglia (1583) or, in the Dutch: De adellike Huisvader van Torquato Tasso. Met de Verklaringen van den gelaurierden Poet Johan Rist, translated by Jan Zoet and published in Amsterdam in 1653. Jan Zoet was a colourful character – at least, his Dutch Wikipedia page introduces him as a poet, printer, wine and tobacco merchant, innkeeper, Orangist and sometime supporter of chiliasm.

Il padre de famiglia itself is one of a series of dialogues Tasso wrote between 1578 and shortly before his death in 1595. But why does Zoet translate only one of these dialogues? The answer lies in the text’s genealogy, suggested by the Dutch. Zoet’s translation draws on the German translation by Johann Rist, a well-known poet in the seventeenth century, and contains Rist’s commentary on the individual chapters, as well as reproducing the plates made for the German edition. Rist’s interest in Tasso was partly, as Barbara Becker-Cantarino argues, because of the literary authority he would convey, but the text itself is a cultural translation in another sense: translating Catholic notions of oeconomia (the interpersonal and economic structures of the household) for a Lutheran context – a point that equally applies to Zoet’s version.

I presume that Zoet could not procure the Italian original of Il padre di famiglia, but nor could Rist: he only had access to a French translation of three of Tasso’s dialogues.[1] So what we are dealing with here is a matter of linguistic pragmatism rather than linguistic purism: a translation (Zoet) of a translation (Rist), itself derived from a translation from French.


[1] Barbara Becker-Cantarino, ‘Johann Rists Der adeliche Hausvatter und die frühneuzeitliche Ökonomie-Literatur’, in Johann Rist (1607-1667). Profil und Netzwerke eines Pastors, Dichters und Gelehrten, ed. Johann Anselm Steiger and Bernhard Jahn (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015), pp. 613-27, p. 618.

Title page: De Adeliker Huisvader von Torquato Tasso, printed Amsterdam 1653, Book open with plate showing beef being prepared and apple harvest

"Libraries built not just from books, but from people" - reflections on a week with St Hilda's College Library

At the start of July, graduate student Heather Barr (MSt. English 650-1550) joined St. Hilda’s College Library and Archive for a week’s work experience.  In this blog post, Heather reflects on her experience.

Libraries are all about people. Some, I think, will find this a surprising assertion – surely, they might say, libraries are all about books. In my week’s work experience with St. Hilda’s Library and Archive, I have certainly seen a lot of books. But what has really struck me is the human life which emerges both from these books and from how they are handled, organised, and used. People are at the heart of the library – without readers, there would be no library. So, let us take a brief look at the St. Hilda’s College Library, and celebrate the moments of living and humanity to which libraries give us access. 


One of my first tasks this week was to work through a box of Law books donated to the library by an anonymous student (if you are reading this, hello and thank you, mysterious stranger…). St Hilda’s is offered hundreds of book donations a year – alongside the occasional bequest which can comprise over one thousand items! An important job is deciding which books are best kept by us, and which need re-homing to somewhere they will be better loved and appreciated. St Hilda’s Library’s mission statement is ‘to make the best possible provision for the needs of undergraduates and taught postgraduates reading for all the Honour Schools of the University for which the college accepts students’. In other words, the library has been curated with a people-first approach. The aim is for the books housed here to be a reflection of, and to evolve with, the needs and wants of the student body.  

Even small collections of books offer a snapshot of the life of the donor. In the donation of Law textbooks, for example, a few texts were far more worn than others, whilst one or two had not had their spines broken. Such variety is suggestive – was one area of law just not as interesting to our donor? Or what if they wore out their first book with overuse and the copy we have received is simply a newer purchase? Either way, these suggestions and ideas are drawn from the imprints of humanity left on the books. When we pick up a book, we add to that material conversation. Through consulting, borrowing, returns, and donating books, these human interactions are going on continually in libraries. 


In 1931, librarian and mathematician S.R. Ranganathan proposed Five Laws of Library Science (1) The first three of these maintain that:   

  1. Books are for use 
  1. Every reader [their] book 
  1. Every book its reader 

At stake in this idea of library work is the relationship between readers and books. Libraries are, it seems, the intermediaries between those who want to read and the books which exist to be read. A crucial part of this intermediary role is classification. Again, it may feel odd to think of classification as all about people – we are talking, after all, about a system of shelf-marks and catalogue records, of subject areas collapsed into letters and numbers, of library spaces organised at times in apparently haphazard configurations! But classification is the work that libraries do to bring their readers and their books together. It involves answering not only ‘what is this book about?’, but also ‘who will want to read this?’, and ‘where will they look for it?’. Moreover, classification both pre-empts and prompts our behaviours as library users. I, for example, know that as a medievalist browsing for books in the College Library, I will start my search on the right-hand side of the Main Reading Room. A library is built not just from books, but from people; in the words of the rather poetic introduction to the 17th edition of the Dewey Decimal Classification (1965): ‘A major objective of libraries is to […] bring the right reader to each book and the right book to each reader’. (2)


Towards the end of this week, I spent some time in the St Hilda’s Archive. This contains an extraordinary wealth of resources, from Dr Margaret E. Rayner’s C.B.E medal to dinner menus from the 1920s! It also features an extraordinary Sound Archive, including interviews from alumnae who were at St Hilda’s in the first decades of the twentieth century. Alongside tutorial reports and college records, we also find some extremely personal and even childhood artefacts, such as an Autograph book from c. 1941-44 saved by Dr Rayner. Full of inscriptions from family and friends – lines of verse, sketches, pieces of advice – this book ends with a tussle. ‘By hook or by crook I will be last in this book’, writes one hand, only to be superseded by another: ‘oh no you won’t!’. The attempts at finality made it extremely tempting to add my own contribution – to add my own final flourish to the page and then pack the book away forever (let the record show I did no such thing)!  

But libraries, I think, invite precisely this kind of thing. When we pick up a library book, we know it is very likely to be picked up again, perhaps quite soon, by another reader. The notes and marginalia we leave are not just for ourselves, but for others. I’m reminded of one annotation I found in a St Hilda’s library book which noted ‘!!! BAD FEMINISM AND BAD TEXTUAL ANALSIS!’. Whether I agreed with the comment or not, it has stayed forever tied to my remembering of that particular article and point.  

Libraries give us the chance to be influenced not only by books and the people who wrote them, but by the people who have also read them, the people who donated and received them, the people who classified them. Libraries are about bringing books to people and people to books, but they are also, I think, about bringing people to people through books.  



1), accessed 9th July 2021.

2) Dewey Decimal Classification and Relative Index, Edition 17, Volume 1 (Forest Press, 1965), p.5.




Shelf of books labelled "donations to appraise", Book of the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme, Page of an open book with inscriptions in various hands.

LGBTQ+ Pride in the Library

This Pride Month St Hilda’s College Library is celebrating the fantastic student-led library project to increase representation of LGBTQ+ authors and themes in the collection.

Back in Hilary 2020, then MCR LGBTQ+ representative Alexi came to the library team with the idea of an LGBTQ+ collection, then, with the team's support, began surveying JCR and MCR students about what they would like to see in such a collection. Most of this initial list of books compiled by students have now been purchased for the library. 

Once the student suggestions were purchased, the big question was how to treat this collection: shelve them separately in their own sequence, or within the main sequence? We had all hoped to be able to host an in-person discussion event about the new LGBTQ+ collection to gauge opinion and to get excited about the collection in general but, as with many events in 2020, this was unable to take place.  

Previously, these books may have been categorised in the “welfare” section – but the excellent range of texts collated by students meant that this default would not do the collection justice. In fact, some of the student suggestions were already held in the main collections. The JCR and MCR LGBTQ+ representatives and the library team therefore decided to shelve the books within the main sequence, and to find a way to identify them as a collection by another means. This fulfilled the aim of increasing LGBTQ+ authors and themes throughout the entire library collection, while also conveying that these books are for everyone and are not intended for any one particular group.  

It remained important to all involved that this new collection was distinguished amongst the main sequence to mark and evidence this important change made in the collection, and to show the progress made in diversifying the library collection through student initiative. Highlighting that a book is part of the LGBTQ+ collection through a label on the spine was felt to be the best approach, allowing visibility of the collection out on the shelves. This “collection within a collection” is not a common system, but is similar to a method taken in an LGBT2QIA+ library in Vancouver when they improved and updated their collection’s classification system (1). This library also made use of spine labels to increase visibility of otherwise dispersed subjects.  

The Progress Pride flag was chosen for the spine labels by current JCR and MCR LGBTQ+ representatives Damian and Isobel. This flag is a redesign by Daniel Quasar of the LGBTQ+ Pride flag, which emphasises the inclusion of trans people, BAME members of the community, and the progression that is still to be made (2). 

The student suggestions now form the initial core LGBTQ+ collection and can be found on the shelves throughout the library’s collections. The current and incoming LGBTQ+ representatives continue to work with the library team to maintain the progress begun in increasing LGBTQ+ visibility and diversity in the library collections. Student suggestions continue to be encouraged to improve any area in which the College’s current students want to see better representation. 

To see more of the LGBTQ+ collection, follow library’s social media channels, which feature a series of Pride Month posts celebrating this student-led project.  

1. Dierking, A. (2018). Contextual Classification at Out On The Shelves Library. Advances in Classification Research Online, 29(1), 3-5.  


Books on shelves with progress flag stickers on spines

Loo news just in! Capturing examples of student life for the archives

In this post, Archivist Oliver Mahony reflects on how communication across the student body has changed in the last few decades. He highlights a St Hilda's institution: the weekly student newsletter, 'Loo News', paper copies returning soon (we hope!) to the back of a cubicle door opposite you.

The collections of the student newsletter ‘Loo News’ and the notice board posters we hold in the archives are fascinating for a number of reasons. They not only inform us of the week to week activities of the student body but also show us how students communicated on the eve of social media and email.

The first thing to notice is the size of the sheets. Today ‘ Loo News’ is an A4 sheet mainly containing brief updates, sports news, pointers to websites and puzzles. In the early 1990s it is two full A3 sheets. The presentation of the paper also changes over the years. In 1993 it is a long flow of handwritten updates: news of JCR and career meetings, reaction to government policy, the question of going mixed, sleep outs, news of a recycling drives, football trials, events. In some editions there are cartoons, in others lists of telephone numbers for student services. Even towards the turn of the millennium it is one large sheet, typed and spaced out in contained sections stuck onto the page in preparation for photocopying. It is still unquestionably the main source of student communication with notices about lost property, the update on the JCR meeting, how to book the squash court, notice of a sport meeting in the pub, notice of paid work experience opportunities, request to post in pigeon holes for newsletter submissions. No website address in sight.

These items mark the end of the dominance of paper as the JCR/MCR communication tool. College then would have been full of posters advertising meetings, bops, talks and sports trials. As a student in Cardiff in 1997 I recall post it notes with messages on my door, essays still being handwritten, surveying the notice boards for posters advertising events. Holding these JCR papers brings those memories back to me; when communication was still tactile and physical.

It is interesting to think that people will undoubtedly look back in fondness and amusement at JCR tweet strings and social media posts as the tools of communication continually evolve. It is also a reminder to this Archivist of why digital preservation going forward is so vital.

Handwritten students newsletter, Loo News, dated 1993, Hand-made poster advertising band night, 70s bop and video night from Hilary term 1994.

Margot Collinson Social Media Takeover!

October 2020 marks the centenary of women being fully recognized by the University. To mark this milestone, we'll be exploring the letters home of Margot Collinson [St Hilda's 1917-1921], the transcripts of which we hold in the Archives. Her letters chronicle student life and the opening up of academic opportunities for women in the university. Using this rich source material, Margot will be taking over our social media channels from Monday 19th - Friday 23rd October to post updates on life as an Oxford student during a time of great change.

Follow Margot's takeover on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about the life of a 1920s hildabeast: #SHCMargotTakeover


Portrait of Margot Collinson, Garden fete c1922