Books glorious books

Books on the library shelves at Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville-West. © John Hammond

Books on the library shelves at Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville-West.

Project:
Logging the library at Sissinghurst
Location:
Sissinghurst

The three libraries at Sissinghurst form one of the largest collections of books in any of our places, with some 8,700 titles in total. Find out more about the project we're undertaking to catalogue all the titles.

Sissinghurst is famous for its garden, the creation of Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) and her husband Harold Nicolson (1886-1968). The garden was an important part of the unusual relationship, so memorably portrayed by their son Nigel Nicolson in Portrait of a Marriage, a book which caused uproar in 1973 for its frank account of Vita's affair with Violet Trefusis.

But of course there was always more to Sissinghurst than gardening. Both Harold and Vita had many other interests, she as a novelist and poet, he as a diplomat, writer and politician, and both as aesthetes and influential literary figures. 
 
Our biggest collection of books
The three libraries at Sissinghurst form one of the largest collections of books in any of our places, with some 8,700 titles in total. They are unusual because the collection was not only assembled in the 20th century, but consists very largely of 20th-century books.

Harold Nicolson's books in the South Cottage were presented to us by his son Nigel, who had already given us Sissinghurst itself in 1967, and was a strong supporter of the Trust. But the books in Vita's Study and in the ground-floor Long Library remained his property. 
 
On Nigel Nicolson's death in 2004, the books were offered in lieu of inheritance tax. In a statement to the In Lieu Panel Nigel’s son Adam Nicolson said that the significance of the books came in large part from being together in the place where they had been owned and used – that they were part of the beating hart of Sissinghurst. The Panel recommended their acceptance and allocation to the National Trust, and this occurred in 2007.  
 
Managing the collection
Nigel Nicolson was always generous in making his parents' literary legacy available to researchers, but when a public institution takes on a library of such importance, it necessarily takes on responsibilities which go beyond anything that might be expected of an enlightened private owner - and the most important of these is a proper catalogue of the books. In the past the Trust was sometimes criticised for treating its books as wallpaper, but this approach has definitely changed.

Skilled team
At Sissinghurst we have been fortunate in being able to draw on the skills of Harvey James, a professional librarian who had already catalogued thousands of books in other properties, including nearby Scotney Castle. Each book is checked carefully, and catalogue records are downloaded directly into our new Collection Management System. Particular attention is paid to recording the features - press clippings, marginal notes, inscriptions and original dust jackets - which give the Sissinghurst books their special interest.

The first phase of the project will take three years, and this also provides a good opportunity for Harvey to talk to visitors about his work. It will directly inform future plans for the display and interpretation of the libraries at Sissinghurst. 
 
Like the rest of our library catalogue, information on the Sissinghurst books is  available online on COPAC (copac.ac.uk), the joint catalogue of the principal research libraries in Britain and Ireland.