One hundred years after his death, a rare book signed by Polar adventurer and hero Ernest Shackleton has been unearthed by an intrepid librarian in the unfathomable depths of the University of London’s Senate House Library.
With Shackleton’s celebrity already matching that of his rivals, Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundson, The Heart of the Antarctic was a bestseller on publication in 1909. To capitalize on this success Shackleton’s publishers asked Shackleton to sign 300 copies of a deluxe edition, which were sold on a “first come, first served” basis to wealthy collectors.
Now, one hundred years after Shackleton’s untimely death on the island of South Georgia, a copy of the signed edition has been discovered by a member of Library staff, Suzanne Canally, as she worked through old library cards used to catalog items before the introduction of computers.
“I was searching the archives as advanced planning for a potential exhibition in the Library, to find titles owned by the University relating to Shackleton,” says Suzanne. “The book had been carefully described on a card, and the book kept in very safe storage, but had never been described on the electronic catalogue, so that we essentially didn’t know that we owned it.”
Richard Espley, Head of Modern Collections, adds: “In 1980, when we bought our first computer, we had to re-describe over a million volumes, and some of them simply got missed given the scale of the task. However, the shelf-mark on the old card catalog for this item was still valid and it was fetched by Special Collections colleagues without any problem.”
Although he survived the expedition described in The Heart of the Antarctic, Shackleton’s later expeditions were ill-fated. In 1914 Shackleton’s ship The Endurance was crushed by ice, and he traveled 720 miles across the South Atlantic Seas to find help, an adventure which made him even more famous. He died on the island of South Georgia in 1922 as he traveled yet again to the frozen South.
“The book includes the signature of every member of the shore party who made the trek,” says Suzanne. “Ink blots on the reverse of the page seem to show the haste with which each copy was signed. It makes you feel a sense of connection across the years to a very different age – yet one in which, as now, signed copies of books seem to be worth more to collectors.”