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16 November 2023

Devon book 81

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
81. Into the third millennium: austerity, covid, UNESCO

The foregoing sections were compiled around the year 2000 to round off the second millennium. With the designation of Exeter as UNESCO City of Literature at the end of 2019 it is fitting that the story of the book is briefly updated to continue it into the third millennium. In the autumn of 1999 the Royal Albert Memorial Museum hosted an exhibition with the title From script to print to hypertext which brought together ten libraries, museums and archives in the city to celebrate Devon's written heritage. The fortunes of the participating institutions have varied over the past twenty years, overshadowed by the nationwide financial crisis and the resulting decade of austerity, and terminated by the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. (Maxted. 1999).

The University of Plymouth, Exeter Campus Library disappeared from Exeter in 2007. Its collections on art and printing history now form part of the special collections of the University of Plymouth's Charles Seale-Hayne Library in Plymouth, although there is no on-line guide to these collections, unlike the University of Exeter.

The University of Exeter Library has also had its ups and downs. In 2001 it hit the headlines when some of its treasures were sold at auction including the extremely rare collections of Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952), an American photographer, who documented images of more than eighty Native American tribes from throughout North America. The images were in a limited edition multi-volume study under the title The North American Indian, which appeared between 1907 and 1930 in a project supported by Theodore Roosevelt and partially funded by J. Pierpont Morgan. The University's set ('number IV') had been presented by the Royal Library at Windsor and was sold "as the University's research interests in this area had waned", despite the fact that the Royal Albert Memorial Museum has rich ethnographic collections. Generally though, the University Library has survived better than the public library sector and its special collections are well documented and accessible in the Ronald Duncan Reading Room in the Old University Library. One of the main collections to be added is a significant section of the Sabine Baring-Gould library which was transferred from Killerton. Other parts of this library are held in the Devon Record Office and at Lewtrenchard Manor, the writer's home. (UEL. 2021)

Exeter Cathedral Library has benefitted from a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to the Cathedral of £808,800, which converted a former archive space in the Pearson building for the benefit of schools and formal learning. It also equipped the ground floor of the west wing of the Bishop’s Palace as a library with an environmentally controlled archive room, a new reading room and exhibition space which opened in 2012. In 2014 it was the first Cathedral Library to attain archival accreditation status, and retained the award in 2019. The library's on-line catalogue is no longer included in that of the University, but is separately maintained. (EXC. 2021).

The Devon and Exeter Institution Library hoped to become the University of Exeter Centre for South West Historical Studies, but "as the University's research interests in this area had waned" nothing came of this. Nevertheless the University continued to maintain the library's catalogue, and the institution is still extensively used by staff and students. The University no longer provides a librarian and there is a greater reliance on volunteers, but Emma Laws was appointed as librarian by the Institution in 2019. The roof of the building was found to require extensive structural work and a roof appeal between 2013 and 2015 was successful in generating the match funding needed to make applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic England. A grant of £271,600 from the Heritage Lottery Fund ensured that the work was completed in 2017 and it now runs an active programme of promoting learning and reading and community outreach. A grant in March 2020 from the National Heritage Lottery Fund supports “The Next Chapter”, a three year project to improve space, facilities and access, carry out essential conservation work, conduct a collection review, and further increase and diversify the educational and events programme. (Longridge. 2013 ; DEI. 2021).

Exeter Medical Library has now been rebranded the Exeter Health Library and has moved into what is now the RILD Building on Barrack Road. It has had to steer an often difficult course between the demands of the NHS and postgraduate medical and nursing education in the Universities of Plymouth and Exeter. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum reopened December 2011 after a £24-million rebuild, including a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of more than £10 million. It has won a host of awards since it reopened in 2011, including Museum of the Year 2012.

The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture was rebadged as the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in 2013. Founded in 1994, it opened to public in the Old Library building in 1997. Its 18,000 books and numerous artefacts give Exeter the country's largest University library on film and cinema. In the public library sector Exeter Reference Library and the Westcountry Studies Library also participated in the From script to print to hypertext exhibition in 1999, but their fate will be discussed later.

Professional staff from all these libraries as well as others from Exeter College, law firms and elsewhere have met informally for many years as the ELIP (Exeter Library and Information Professionals) group to discuss matters of common interest and concern.

When it comes to those responsible for the production of literature, an article in the online newsletter Westcountry studies, issue 12, February 2020 showed that during the decade 2010-2019 the Devon bibliography listed almost 4,200 published documents relating to Devon, to which must be added several hundred periodicals, newspapers and maps. These publications were issued by more than 1,200 publishers, an average of a little more than three items per publisher, although of course there is considerable variation in recorded output from one publisher to another.

Of these publishers 709 (58%) were located in Devon. Within Devon Exeter accounted for 246 publishers (28%) followed by Plymouth (46), Torbay 33 (including Paignton and Brixham) and Sidmouth (22). The following towns had between 10 and 20 publishers recorded: Totnes, Exmouth, Newton Abbot, Tiverton, Crediton, Barnstaple, Okehampton and Tavistock. Other parts of the Westcountry accounted for 80 publishers (6.5%) , London for 157 (13%) and other English counties for 188 (15%). The rest of the British Isles (Wales, Scotland and Ireland) accounted for only 24 (2%), less than Europe with 27, the United States with 31 and the rest of the world with six. A complete listing has been published on the Devon bibliography website, and the figures are revealing in many ways: Firstly, the wide geographical spread. While 58% of publishers were located in Devon, Exeter with 28% exceeds both London with 13% and the rest of the British Isles with 24%. Within England the geographical spread of publishers is relatively even, although the two largest towns were in the Westcountry: Bath and Bristol, each with 14 publishers, coming ahead of Oxford with 13. Other significant centres were Barnsley with seven (swollen by the various Pen and Sword imprints) and Manchester with six. Taunton and Wellington each had five publishers.

Secondly, the variety of formats. These range from multi-volume works down to three-fold leaflets (often vital for providing the sole published evidence of the activities of organisations, charities or pressure groups), from newsletters to technical reports (often more easily to be found on-line than in hard copy) and from newspapers to maps. With the spread of the internet, theses can also be considered as publications but, like websites, these were not included in the survey.

Thirdly, the varying ease of locating items. The publications of most London and larger provincial publishers can be located through the British national bibliography, often through pre-publication information or, in the case of smaller publishers or authors, who know that the British Library is supposed to "have a copy of everything", frequently several years after they first appeared in print. But BNB's coverage of local publications is patchy, to say the least. It lists very few local authority publications and the publications of many local societies also fall through its net. Online sources such as JISC hub (formerly COPAC), WorldCat, Amazon,  or Abebooks (linked to Amazon) may help but keyword searching to locate recently published items is tedious and haphazard. A large number of more local publications are picked up by haunting bookshops, tourist information centres, community hubs and libraries. Fourthly, the complex structure of publishing. In the digital age anyone can be a publisher and many publications have, in addition to the traditional paper-based hardback and paperback versions, an eBook edition with its own ISBN. Within most communities in Devon there is a parish magazine, sometimes combined with a community newsletter. The parish, town or district council publishes minutes, annual reports or planning and policy documents, often with useful statistics, and a wealth of data that sheds light on the present state of the community. Larger communities publish a guidebook, accommodation directory, town trails or books of walks. Local museums, galleries, country houses and charities, publish annual reports, publicity or newsletters. Some newsletters, such as the Devon Air Ambulance's monthly Helipad are handsomely produced and informative. Mention should also be made of the work of local publishers such as Mint Press in Exeter and the many local and family history societies across the county, such as the Sid Vale Association which produce beautiful and informative publications reflecting the county's heritage. Individual authors too are much more confident in publicizing their work. The typescript deposited in the local library or the traditional "vanity publication" has been replaced by personal web space, recourse to digital publishers or, increasingly, authors setting up as publishers to market their own writings. At the other extreme larger publishers have long formed massive conglomerates, often with offices in more than one country, and have a stable of imprints which, on the surface, often seem to be separate publishers. Penguin Random House is perhaps the best-known example of this phenomenon. It is particularly apparent in newspaper publishing where, on the eve of lockdown, Archant, Local World Holdings and Tindle between them were responsible for some 40 editions of local newspaper or periodical titles in Devon. For the dissemination of the literature produced by this host of publishers there are in 2021 more than 130 bookshops in Devon, a growing number of them independent or community bookshops. Bookshops have had to face a series of challenges. The big supermarket chains in Devon have dipped their toes into retailing books, especially the best sellers and children's literature and their migration to retail parks remote from the town centres has also had an impact. The chain booksellers survive, often adding a coffee bar to entice customers. In 2021 W. H. Smith has a dozen outlets in Devon and Waterstones six, their Tiverton branch having closed following a restructuring in 2011. The Old books listing which has appeared annually for more than 40 years lists 22 antiquarian booksellers in Devon, and to this other sources can add second hand bookshops, not to mention the constellation of charity shops some, such as Bookcycle, Oxfam and Hospiscare in Exeter with considerable stocks. Twenty independent bookshops in Devon are linked through, an online bookshop with a mission to financially support local, independent booksellers. Online shoppers can find a specific local bookshop to support, and they, rather than Amazon will receive the full profit from each order. Otherwise, an order will contribute to an earnings pool which is evenly distributed among independent bookshops. Another way to keep things local is to set up a community bookshop. In Devon the award-winning Crediton Community Bookshop, established in 2013 and rebranded The Bookery in 2021 has shown the way, becoming a dynamic hub for the readers of the town. Book fairs are rare in Devon but the Provincial Bookseller Fair Association organises several fairs a year in Topsham at Matthew Hall, organised for Devon by Graham York Rare Books of Honiton.

Writers of literature are also well organised. The Devon Writers Group, a local section of the Society of Authors in 2021 has over 130 members from all corners of the county. The group usually "meets quarterly in rural pubs for an informal weekday lunch". Another regional group is The Exeter Authors Association, made up of professional authors, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters from across the south-west of England.  There are a number of more local groups, most of them informal in nature, for example the Paignton Writers’ Circle, a group of writers who live in Torbay and the surrounding area which has been established for more than twenty years. Word Works Exeter is a group of writers who meet informally to read and discuss their work. Chudleigh Writers Circle's members range from "experienced and published writers to those who want to get in touch with their creativity, hone their writing skills for their own satisfaction or who are setting out to record family history for the benefit of their grandchildren". Dawlish is the home of Manor House Writers, a "small friendly writers' group" which meets weekly. In Exmouth Way with Words, meets at The Bayleaf Café on the Strand, every Thursday. Such groups come and go. Two that are in the process of being set up during lockdown are East Devon Writers, a new group for writers of fiction at all levels. The focus is novels, short stories and flash fiction. Monthly meetings are planned to take place in the early evenings in Exeter. The Honiton Writers Group aims to provide "a social outlet for writers from in and around Honiton. We aim to be sociable rather than critiquing each others' work or having the requirement to do homework!"

Aspiring, or indeed more established writers are catered for by a number of creative writing courses. At degree level there is a B.A. English and Creative Writing (Hons) course in Plymouth University over a period of 36 months when you can "find your voice. Hone your craft as a writer by studying others. Immerse yourself in the words that have shaped our world. Learn how to write poetry, fiction, non-fiction, screenplays and more. Get published and experience the professional writing process. Learn about: Dramatic Writing, Professional Writing, Critical Theory [...]". Exeter College offers a two year creative writing course and also more specialised courses in fiction (beginners, intermediate and advanced) and poetry as well as workshops on writing for children and writing crime. Exeter Phoenix also offers creative writing workshops, and the City College in Plymouth also offers courses in the subject. A leading independent organisation is Creative Writing Matters, founded in 2009 by Cathie Hartigan. Beside courses in creative writing, it is active in a variety of other areas, including managing the county's major literary award, the Exeter Novel Prize. Literary festivals are a new arrival on the scene in Devon. There had been an important festival in 1990 to commemorate the centenary of Agatha Christie's birth, but the International Agatha Christie Festival did not start its annual appearance until 2004. Ways with Words, based in Dartington, inaugurated an annual festival in 1992. It was followed by the Appledore Book Festival in 2007, started in a bid to secure the future of Appledore Library which was threatened with closure. The Budleigh Literary Festival started in 2008, enhanced by the presence of local author Hilary Mantel. Sidmouth emulated neighbouring Budleigh in 2015 with an event supported by Wayne Winstone, proprietor of a local bookshop. Exeter finally achieved its first literary festival in November 2019. (Exeter Literary Festival. 2021)

The body that pulls most of these activities in the field of literature together is based in Plymouth. Literature Works states: "Our mission is to nurture the creative use of stories, words and writing by and for individuals and communities of all kinds in our region". Among the initiatives it supports is Quay Words, whose strap line says it all - "exploring stories and writing at Exeter's Custom House". It was Literature Works who drew on this wealth of activity and richness of heritage collections to draw up the successful bid that gained Exeter the prestigious designation as UNESCO City of Literature at the end of 2019.

Amid all this activity the public library and archives services have had a bumpy entry into the third millennium.

The Devon Record Office had long been bursting at the seams. For many years it had a remote store in Marsh Barton Trading Estate next door to the incinerator - those delivering documents had to be given careful directions. In 2005 the Devon Record Office moved from the Castle Street premises it shared with the Westcountry Studies Library into a specially-constructed building at Great Moor House on Sowton Industrial Estate. This building had air conditioned storage facilities sufficient to accommodate the records held both in Castle Street and Marsh Barton. The county library service headquarters also moved there from Barley House. A restructuring of services led to the creation of the Devon Heritage Service in November 2011 with the aim of integrating the collections of the Record Office and the Westcountry Studies Library, and from autumn 2012 the Westcountry Studies Library that had been housed in Exeter city centre for more than a century, moved into Great Moor House which was renamed the Devon Heritage Centre. On 1 November 2014 Devon Heritage Services was transferred from the County Council to the management of the South West Heritage Trust (an independent charity, which also runs Somerset Archives and Local Studies), and was rebranded as the Devon Archives and Local Studies Service. In Plymouth the major change for the archive services has been the opening of The Box in 2021 which finally, after almost 40 years of inadequate temporary accommodation for the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office in Clare Place, Coxside, provides a state of the art premises combined with the Museum, the Cottonian Collection and elements from the local studies library service.

Exeter Reference Library, which, like the Devon Record Office, participated in the From script to print to hypertext exhibition in 1999 is no more, having fallen victim to the austerity measures inflicted on local government. Comparable figures are hard to find, but in 2011 the library service, which had already faced cuts since the economic crash was obliged to cut its budget by 30% from £10 million in 2011 to £7.2 million in 2014. This it did in part by abolishing all specialist posts in a dramatic series of events during 2011. Staff were forbidden to talk on pain of disciplinary action, but a brave whistle-blower, Louisa, eloquently chronicled the proceedings in a blog Devona: speaking up for Devon's libraries ( The end result was that there was no funding for specialist staff in the reference, music and drama, children's and local studies departments. In July 2012 it was announced that Exeter's Central Library would close for a month later that year because Devon County Council had found just over £4 million to finance a major refurbishment from the sale of Exeter Airport. The library would have a temporary home in the Westcountry Studies Library, whose stock would have to be removed. Work started early in 2013 and the refurbished library opened in May 2014, complete with a new foyer, café, larger children's section and "thousands of new books".

But the fanfare accompanying this reopening did not drown out the protests at the next round of cuts. Less than two months after the new Exeter Central Library opened the library users in Braunton united in July 2014 to strip the library shelves of all books to fight against their library being one of 28 scheduled to close out of the 50 service points run by Devon Library Services. Another £1.5 million or 20% of the £5.5 million budget was to be cut by 2016. Another way had to be found.

Libraries Unlimited South West was launched in April 2016, an independent staff and community owned charity, working as a company limited by guarantee. It was set up with a mission "to bring ideas, imagination, information and knowledge to people’s lives and communities". It would be able to work more freely and imaginatively with other bodies to achieve these aims. In 2016 Devon County Council gave them a grant of £5,940,000 and the following year £6,203,000. In 2018 Libraries Unlimited took over Torbay Libraries and in that year the combined grant was £7,384,000 with £7,232,000 in 2019. (Libraries Unlimited. 2021).

In 2021 the public library service in Devon runs 50 libraries and four mobile routes, so no branches have closed since 2014. The unitary authorities in Plymouth and Torbay have eleven and four service points respectively. And the arm's length solution has brought its benefits. Libraries Unlimited have been able to work with bodies such as Exeter City Council, the University of Exeter, the British Library and the Arts Council to deliver imaginative initiatives. In Exeter there is a business and intellectual property centre, and in Exeter and Barnstaple FabLabs offer digital fabrication facilities. There are author events, talks, exhibitions, book groups, friends groups and a much greater involvement of volunteers. For children there are bounce and rhyme sessions, story hours, and the summer reading challenge. Libraries across the county remain community hubs, often with a café close to hand. Among initiatives in the book heritage field are the Adopt a Book scheme, run in association with the British Library to conserve rare and precious items, and the Sickness in the Archives initiative using the expertise of the University of Exeter to highlight medical books in Exeter Library's heritage collections. In the north of Devon too the Pearse Chope Collection from Bideford and the local studies collections in Barnstaple have been promoted. In the unitary authority of Plymouth the Central Library moved from Tavistock Road to Armada Way in 2016 in preparation for the construction of The Box. There it houses the lending collections and the family and local history library. The important naval history collection is now housed mainly at Devonport Library.

Even during Covid-19 bookish activities continued in libraries, as in bookshops and publishers, although much of this moved online. Libraries, record offices and museums were closed to the public for months, but e-Books could still be loaned, Zoom was used for a series of conversations with authors, story hours, and bounce and rhyme sessions. Crediton Library even ran a series of talks on behalf of local history groups in the surrounding parishes. Five "little free libraries" sprang up in telephone boxes and similar locations across Exeter where books could be exchanged. The story of literature in lockdown has still to be written, but the Devon Heritage Centre is compiling a Coronavirus Community Archive, as are a number of other organisations across the county.

But this galaxy of activities has come at a cost. The heritage activities mentioned above are very much down to personal enthusiasm and there is no specialist librarian to maintain and promote the heritage collections in Exeter or indeed in public libraries anywhere outside Plymouth. And there is a large black hole at the centre of the galaxy.

The Westcountry Studies Library, the last of the participants in the From script to print to hypertext exhibition, has fared worst of all. Restructuring in 2011 removed all designated local studies posts, although those in post continued until the collections were moved from Castle Street to Great Moor House in 2012 when the Devon Record Office was rebranded the Devon Heritage Centre. No specialist library staff was moved across and the bookfund was reduced to £1,000 – in 2,000 it received a figure of around £10,000 to include a programme of newspaper microfilming and periodical subscriptions. Staff were cut from four posts in Exeter to a few hours a week allocated to a member of staff transferred from the Westcountry Studies Library to take up a post as an archive assistant. (Louisa. 2011 ; SWHT. 2021).

The region's largest collection of local literature of all kinds, maps, illustrations, periodicals and newspapers had been moved by Devon, without any consultation with Exeter, from the heart of its community to an industrial estate next to the motorway. But it was to become even more remote when in 2014 Devon Heritage Services was transferred from Devon County Council to the care of the South West Heritage Trust, based in Taunton, with the services of a Somerset librarian one day each week. Indeed so far has the Westcountry Studies Library sunk below the horizon over the past decade that it did not figure at all in the successful UNESCO bid in 2019. The only publicly accessible collection of local studies resources for residents, researchers and visitors in the centre of Exeter is half a dozen shelves of books for loan in Exeter Library. Can any other regional capital of culture do worse than that? In Exeter even charity shops can do better. Is Devon County Council fulfilling its statutory function "to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons, whether they live, work or study in the area?

But hopefully this long story of the book in Exeter and Devon will have a happy ending after all. After a shaky start because of Covid-19 the UNESCO Exeter City of Literature programme is under way with a wide range of initiatives, which are better described on their ever changing website than in a printed volume. The project emerged from lockdown in June 2021 with the immensely successful Exeter Book Market held in a huge barn of a place in the grounds of Powderham Castle where crowds of visitors of all ages visited the stands of local independent booksellers, publishers and others active in the world of the book, including archive staff for the important collections of the Courtenay family. The enthusiasm shown demonstrates that for Exonians and Devonians the book is certainly not dead. (Exeter City of Literature. 2021).

Let us hope that this enthusiasm will drive an initiative to bring back a substantial part of Exeter's historic literary collections to the heart of the city in an Exeter Heritage Centre, not only with a library presence but also with a bookshop, exhibition hall, meeting room for talks and conferences, tourist information centre and space for local and family history societies, perhaps even a café. What a role for the gutted remains of the Royal Clarence Hotel – or any number of empty shop premises in the city centre. As Bodley's Librarian Richard Ovenden writes in Burning the books: a history of knowledge under attack: "libraries and archives help root societies in their cultural and historical identities through preserving the written record of those societies […] helping communities to appreciate their sense of place and common memory". In fact local studies libraries are doing for their patch what the British Library is doing for the whole nation – and without the benefit of legal deposit. In the post-Covid world Exeter should continue to celebrate the never-ending story of the book and gently lead the elephant in the room back to its rightful home in the heart of the community.

The elephant in the room, engraved by William Charles Wilson for an edition of Barnstaple born poet John Gay's Fables (London: John Stockdale, 1793).
Coopy in Devon Heritage Centre (WSL:s821/GAY)

Copyright © Ian Maxted 2021. This page last updated 16 November 2023