By Kate Walsh
As of December 2010, George Clooney, Mika, and Bob Dylan share something in common with Dr. Charles Benson, Keeper of Early Printed Books in the College Library. It is not an Oscar or a Grammy, but it does carry the same level of prestige. All of the above are part of an impressive array, comprising scholars, writers, film directors, and even a mime artist, who have received the coveted honour of becoming Chevaliers de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
The award is presented in recognition of diligent and unwavering contribution to French culture, predominantly in the field of art and literature. Dr. Benson has been accredited in particular for his work to improve the resources for the study of French in Trinity; The Library’s extensive collection of French drama, including over 4,000 imprints from the 1580s to 1830, is one of the largest collections in Europe outside of France. In its totality, the pre-1830 anthology of French material collected by the Library over the past twenty years amounts to 26,000 items. I went to ask Dr. Benson if he had read them all:
‘The best thing about Trinity is its library…Unfortunately, there are so many books I haven’t even opened.’
Dr. Benson’s office is aptly located above the Book of Kells in the Old Library; its spectacular setting among shelves upon shelves and rows upon rows of exquisite and captivating books is fitting for a man of such intrigue.
Dr. Benson began his career in Trinity as a student of General Studies – doing ‘a bit of everything’. Not always intent on a career of books and manuscripts, after graduating he went on to work in industry. However, the allure of Trinity never left him, and he returned in 1969, together with a job offer. By 1988, Dr. Benson had worked his way up the ranks and was made Keeper of Early Printed Books, a position he will retain until his retirement at the end of September. Speaking of his work as Keeper, he asserts that, along with an ambitious and eager team, there are such opportunities to excite people; it is this potential to enliven, to enrich that he enjoys most about the job. Dr. Benson’s intelligence and eloquence were notable, along with his modesty in accepting the award. Although ‘chuffed’ by the award, he reiterated that it was not honouring him alone, but also the work of his predecessors and colleagues in the Library over the past 300 years.
‘It is the Library that matters, I’m only passing through.”