Essays in librarianship and bibliography/Photography in public libraries

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PHOTOGRAPHY IN PUBLIC LIBRARIES[1]


The subject of my paper has been already most advantageously introduced to you by the precious broadside of William de Machlinia, exhibited yesterday by Lord Charles Bruce; which, but for photography enlisted in the cause of scholarship, few of us would ever have beheld. It is equally commended by the pithy remark which fell from Mr. Bradshaw, "The best description of a book is the book itself." It is, nevertheless, my desire to bring under your notice the advantage of annexing a photographic department to national libraries or other similar institutions of first-class importance, as an integral portion of the institution. The significance of the proposal consists in the last clause. At the present moment any public library can have almost anything it wishes photographed by paying for it, and so can any private individual. But private individuals do not fill their houses with photographic reproductions of nature and art; and in comparison with the enormous results which might be obtained, public libraries, and, indeed, public institutions of any kind, have as yet hardly made more use of the potent agent which science has put into their hands than the Coreans, of whom Mr. Bullen has told us, made of the invention of movable type.

Sure as I am of an indulgent audience, I shall perhaps yet more powerfully bespeak your attention if I tell you that the special cause which has determined me to bring this question forward at Dublin is a recent occurrence particularly interesting to Ireland—the transfer, by direction of the Government, of the Irish portion of the Ashburnham MSS. from the British Museum to the Royal Irish Academy. I am not here to protest against this decision. I accept it as an accomplished fact: and may sincerely profess that, so far as the interests of Celtic scholars in Ireland are promoted, I am glad of it. But on the same principle I must condole with the Celtic scholars in England, many of them Irishmen, who must, at least until the distant period when Mr. Gilbert's truly national undertaking is complete, repair to Dublin to consult what they might have seen in London. The point to be insisted upon is, that if the Museum had possessed a photographic department, the question whose interests were to be sacrificed could not have arisen at all. Though, as recently pointed out by Dr. Hessels, the photograph may not be absolutely unerring in the reproduction of minute facsimile, if made with due care it is practically adequate in the vast majority of instances. We have just heard the Dean of Armagh's testimony to the accuracy as well as the beauty of the facsimiles of ancient Irish MSS. made under the direction of Mr. Gilbert. The photographic reproduction is sometimes even preferable to the original manuscript, bringing out and restoring faded letters. Given such a facsimile, and, save as a matter of sentiment, it would be almost indifferent whether the original reposed upon the shelves of London or of Dublin. With it, the scholar need rarely brace himself up for a long and expensive journey to one city or the other. With it, the national treasure is doubly, trebly, tenfold, or a hundredfold if you like, protected against theft, injury, or destruction. With it, Ireland might soon possess, at a nominal cost, facsimiles of all MSS. illustrating her ancient language or history, and not merely the Ashburnham. But if these propositions are true of the British Museum, they are true of every national institution. If they apply to Celtic scholars, they apply to all scholars. If they apply to the Ashburnham MSS., they apply to all MSS., including parish registers and public documents; if to these, then to printed books of rarity and value; and no less to every picture and statue, engraving and medal. Think of the boundless field thus opened up for the dissemination of instruction and enjoyment, for the insurance of irreplaceable wealth, and great must be the wonder that scarcely a corner of it should hitherto have been occupied.

The cause, nevertheless, is very simple. Photographic reproduction has not as yet been regarded as a duty incumbent upon a public library, and has not, accordingly, been provided for out of the public funds. The same principle has not been applied to it which obtains in the case of binding, lighting, cleaning, attendance, and other things apart from the buying of books which are recognised as essential to the efficiency of such an institution. It follows that photography is so dear as to be rarely resorted to by private individuals; and that its exercise by public institutions is impeded not only by considerations of expense, but also by indispensable but vexatious formalities and restrictions. Photography, while in private hands, must be costly; first and foremost, because the photographer must live. Again, if he is an artist of the accuracy of manipulation required for the work of a public library, he must be enabled and entitled to put a high value on his services. Again, he has invested capital both in his education and his working apparatus, on which he must have interest. Once more, he works by the piece, and piece labour is always the highest paid. Yet once again, his remuneration comes to him entirely in money, and not in social position or distinction. Besides, the demand for the description of photographic reproduction which a public library would require is as yet but limited, and partly from these very difficulties of supply. In portraiture, for which everybody is a customer, and to a less degree in landscape and the reproduction of works of art, we see that competition has brought the desired article within reach of the masses. But in photographing books and MSS. the cost is still very disproportionate to the amount of labour or the value of material. We move in a vicious circle, the difficulty of supply restricts demand, and the feebleness of demand obstructs supply. Nor, were the demand more extensive, would the public be effectually served by national institutions, so long as the system of private photography and piece-work endured: for the artist must have his profit, put it how you will: and it is this simple, and in the present state of things, legitimate condition, which cripples the library and museum on this side of their activity; and, while enriching the individual, impoverishes the State in its spiritual aspect, by impeding the free circulation of intellectual wealth.

If the cause is as simple as I have stated, the remedy, fortunately, is no less so. In so far as photography for public objects is concerned, we must suppress the photographer as a tradesman. The State must enlist him, pay him a fixed salary, requiring his whole time in return, and minimise this source of expense by allowing him the rank of a civil servant, and a status on a par with that of any other head of a department. It must also provide the assistance which would be requisite, and the necessary apparatus and chemicals. The photographer's time being thus paid for, his profit abolished, and the material provided for him, what source of expense remains? Absolutely none, until there is a tax upon sunshine.

It may still be fairly inquired:

1. Whether such an undertaking is within the legitimate sphere of Government?

2. Whether it is of sufficient public utility to justify Government action?

3. How far such action would be remunerative financially?

On the first point I shall say hardly anything. I can conceive no greater objection in principle to an official photographer than to an astronomer-royal, and I do not expect to hear any objections to the latter functionary in the city of Sir William Rowan Hamilton and Dr. Ball.

Nor do I apprehend that many among us will require to be convinced of the advantage of photography as an auxiliary to library work. It has already been sufficiently impressed upon us by our friend Mr. Henry Stevens. We meet here, however, in the hope that our voice on this and other subjects will penetrate beyond our own circle, and arrest the attention of many to whom these topics are at present unfamiliar. It is, further, by proving the utility of photography as an auxiliary to libraries and museums, and the extent to which these institutions are trammelled by the present impediments to its exercise, that I shall best encounter the more difficult question of the financial advantage of the proposal. For we shall all agree that the more generally useful anything may be, the more likely it is to be profitable.

I shall therefore point out very briefly the great benefit which the British Museum, the institution with which I am best acquainted, might derive from incorporating photography as an organised part of its system, instead of taking the photographer up to lay him down again. I shall next adduce several instances within my own knowledge in which cheap photography would have been of material benefit to individual frequenters of the Museum; sufficient, it seems to me, to justify the conclusion that a public need exists, to supply which might be profitable even in a pecuniary sense. Lastly, I shall look beyond the needs of any individual library, or any particular class of customers, and endeavour to point out ways in which a national photographic institution, preferably, I think, placed in connection with the British Museum, might subserve public objects of paramount importance.

I have said that, to be adopted to any purpose by a public institution, photography must become a portion of the organism of the institution itself. That is, the institution must be the photographer's employer, not his customer. If otherwise, all sorts of needful but troublesome official formalities must exist, which combine with the obstacle of expense to reduce photographic enterprise to a minimum. If a complicated piece of official machinery has to be set in motion every time a photograph is wanted, whether by a public department or a private individual, the want is not likely to be often acknowledged, much less when a moderate outlay will soon bring both to the end of their tether. Abolish the relations of tradesman and customer, pay the photographer once for all by an adequate salary, provide apparatus and chemicals with sufficient liberality, and you at once cut off whatever has hitherto hindered and arrested the enlistment of the art in the service of culture. Instead of an artist working now and then as he may happen to get an order, which he seldom does except in absolutely urgent cases, you have one bound to devote the whole of his time to earning a moderate fixed salary, and, if he is the right sort of man, making it his pride and pleasure to do so. Instead of an institution doing comparatively little work, and supported by the reluctant contributions of comparatively few customers, you have one supported on a large scale at a cost individually imperceptible. Instead of heads of departments considering how little they can manage to spend, you will have them encouraged to tax their new auxiliary's resources to the utmost by the consideration that, the prime elements of expense being eliminated, it will, in fact, hardly be possible to spend anything. Here I may be met by an objection which deserves a reply. "Granting," it may be said, "the propriety of employing the photographer for strictly national purposes, why tax the entire community, however lightly, for the benefit of the small portion of it which may happen to want photographs? Is it right to take a farthing out of Brown's pocket to save Jones five guineas?" I scarcely expect that any among us will raise that objection, because, pursued to its logical consequences, it would abolish every museum and library supported out of rates or taxes. But, to anticipate it in the quarters where it may be urged, I shall prove that the benefits of cheap photography, applied to artistic and literary purposes, extend far beyond the actual purchasers of photographs, inasmuch as the present restrictions act injuriously and indeed prohibitively upon undertakings of admitted general utility, both public and private.

In illustration of the impediments which the present system opposes to such undertakings, I may instance the difficulty of meeting the legitimate demands of provincial museums. Residents in the provinces, equally with residents in the metropolis, contribute to the support of institutions like the British Museum, and are entitled to expect that they should, as far as possible, participate in its advantages. There are, I believe, many well-meaning people so impressed with the justice of this demand that to give it satisfaction they are prepared to permanently dislocate the national collection, or to despatch portion after portion on an itinerating tour throughout the provinces. I need not seek to convince you that this specious suggestion is unsound; that the moral and historical and artistic significance of the collection depend upon its universality and the preservation of the delicate links and gradations of its several parts, and that the loss of the metropolis would by no means be the gain of the provinces. It is nevertheless the duty of the central institution to compensate the provinces in every possible way for their inevitable disadvantages, and though photography will not do everything in this respect, it will do much. In sculpture, coins, engravings, and drawings in outline or of neutral tint, the smallest town in the kingdom might be almost on a par with the metropolis for every purpose of instruction or refinement. By enabling them to be so we should not be creating a luxury, but redressing a grievance. On this ground alone Government might fairly be asked to move in the matter. How much, too, might be effected by such artistic and archæological handbooks, photographically illustrated, as could be produced for a trifle if the process were no element in the expense! How much can be and is done even under existing difficulties is shown by the exquisite autotype illustrations of some of the catalogues of selected coins and medals recently published by the Numismatic Department of the British Museum. They prove how easily the entire collection might be made available for study and inspection all over the kingdom—ay, and in foreign countries and colonies—and confirm the proposition I have advanced, that the expenditure of public money in cheapening photographic reproduction is not merely a boon to the purchaser, but to the general public.

The circulation of photographs of works of art, though important to individual collectors, is rather the affair of public institutions. The similar circulation of books and MSS., the aspect of the question with which we as librarians are particularly concerned, is more directly interesting to private individuals, and on this account has attracted comparatively little notice. I am not sure, however, that it is not the more important of the two, nor that it may not, after all, be the branch most susceptible of profitable development. In the matter of rare books, demand has now almost killed supply. The wish to possess them is more general than ever, but the means of gratifying it become from day to day more restricted by the tendency of such books to drift into public libraries, or into large private collections where they may be locked up indefinitely, and especially by the competition of America. At this juncture, photography, particularly in its form of photo-zincography, steps in, and offers the means of doing for the amateur of ancient and curious literature, for maps and MSS., precisely what the printing-press does for the great body of readers. All we need is that the obstacles which still render this process expensive, except when applied to objects in great demand, should be removed, that the scholar should be enabled to procure a cheap photographic reproduction as easily as the general reader can obtain a cheap book. Such scholars are numerous enough, I feel convinced, to defray the cost of material and of minor assistance, leaving in the worst case nothing for the State to pay but the insignificant salary of the chief photographic officer. Now let us take the case of another class of students, who deserve even more consideration, the collators of MSS. and rare books. Why should the scholar of the nineteenth century be in no better position than the scholar of the sixteenth? Why should he continue to be exposed to hardships which science has met? Think of the waste of human effort, the fret and friction of human temper entailed by the inability to procure accurate facsimiles. Why should the scholar of an age of light get no good from the sun? Think of the long journeys, the long residences, the interminable correspondences of scholars, the mechanical labour if they are their own copyists, the expense and probable inaccuracy if they are not. Do we often see a critical edition of a classic without a lament that the editor has been unable to inspect some MS. at Madrid or Moscow? Did not the Biblical world wait thirty years for a facsimile of the Vatican MS., which a photographer would have produced in a small fraction of the time? And did it not prove an imperfect facsimile after all? Did not the learned Meibomius, albeit a ponderous Dutchman, ill adapted for equitation, ride all the way from Leyden to Bologna, allured by the unhappily misleading announcement, Habemus Petronium integrum? To come nearer to our own times, I may report (since I rather suspect it has been the germ of the whole subject in my mind) a conversation I have myself had with the Rev. Dr. Hayman, then editing the Odyssey, and most anxious to take our Museum MSS. of the poem home to his rectory in the north of Lancashire. I told him that the idea was contrary to the Museum statutes, to Act of Parliament, and to the eternal fitness of things. He said that he would give security to any amount. I said that money would not compensate the Museum or the world of letters for the loss of an unique MS., and that it would be shocking to place a scholar, possibly poor, under obligations which might involve the loss of all he was worth. "Oh, as to that," he said, " as soon as I got the MS. home I should insure it for its full value." "Yes," I replied, "and deprive us of the only security we had for your vigilance." But I think we could have trusted Dr. Hayman with a photograph, or he could probably have bought one for the cost of his railway fare to and from London.

Let me now adduce some minor instances of the inconvenience created, at the Museum alone, by the absence of photographic facilities. The Congress of Orientalists has felt the want of Oriental MSS. deposited in England so keenly as to have unanimously concurred in a perfectly futile memorial to allow them to be sent to the Continent. The Austrian Government lately addressed an official request for the loan of an exceedingly rare book, which, if the Museum had possessed it, they could not have had, but of which, if an official photographic department had existed, they might have obtained the facsimile for a trifle. With due photographic facilities at Basle we might each of us have taken home a perfect facsimile of the memorable letter of Fichet which Mr. Bullen has brought to our notice, the accurate typographic reproduction of which will assuredly tax the resources of the printers of the "Library Chronicle." The Dean of Armagh could tell us how much he had recently to pay for the transcription of an entire book on Irish history at the Museum, though the charge was as low as possible. I have seen an accomplished lady, the wife of a Professor of Fine Art, toiling day after day for weeks together, laboriously tracing plans of architectural structures for the illustration of her husband's lectures, which plans, under the conditions contemplated, she could have carried away in facsimile for a few shillings. I have known weeks employed and twenty pounds expended in copying a manuscript grammar of an African language; and a rare old English book transcribed, every word of it, to obtain a reprint. I have now a colleague in the Museum coming early and staying late out of his official time to transcribe an almost illegible Coptic manuscript, a photograph of which would have answered every purpose. Another colleague wished to give a facsimile page of a very curious MS. he had edited for a learned society; but was prevented by the cost; conversely, the same gentleman, thanks to photography, is at present deciphering a most obstinate MS. for the Corporation of Stratford-on-Avon, without having to go there or make himself responsible for the safe custody of the document. I know that the charges of the skilful men who restore missing passages of books in facsimile are, inevitably I suppose, so high that nobody who can help it will employ them. I have a mutilated book on my table at this moment which I earnestly wish could be entrusted to one of them, but I fear it will not do. Now, when we consider that it has been found practicable to facsimile the rare original edition of "Goody Two Shoes," with numerous woodcuts, by photo-zincography, and publish it at half-a-crown, it is clear that there must be something wrong about this exorbitant cost which so effectually hinders the very work which photography, in our age, seems so especially called upon to perform, of counteracting the inevitable tendency of old books to scarcity and consequent dearness. Of the numerous official services which photography could render in a library, such as saving time in copying documents, or restoring damaged leaves of catalogues, I say nothing, for fear of occupying your time unduly; and of the innumerable uses to which it can be turned by an ingenious bibliographer I am also silent for the same reason, and because I regard this branch of the case as the especial property of Mr. Henry Stevens, who has proved it experimentally, and who has, I hope, more to tell us respecting it. I will merely remark that under all disadvantages, the last four volumes of the British Museum Catalogue of Greek Coins contain 116 autotype plates, with representations of nearly 2000 coins. What might not be done if the Museum were its own autotypist!

Instances so numerous, representative without doubt of a very large number which have not come to my knowledge, encourage the hope that the establishment of a photographic department at the Museum would be even financially successful. One very strong fact may be adduced, that proposals have been actually made to obtain a photographic copy of the great Chinese Cyclopædia, occupying eighteen hundred volumes. The proposition, needless if the Museum had possessed a photographic establishment of its own, was that the parties should take the Cyclopædia away and photograph it themselves. It could not be granted, although the sum offered was no less than five hundred pounds, which would have about paid the proposed photographic officer's salary for a whole year. The fact is conclusive both of the need of photography as an auxiliary to library work, and of the encouragement which a well-managed endeavour would be sure to meet. Like the penny post and the telegraph, once fairly launched, it would raise the wind for itself. "Work," says George Eliot, "breeds:" and the great initial difficulty removed, unsuspected developments and applications are sure to be thought of. Much prudence and judgment would be requisite in working the scheme. Competition with professional photographers must be avoided; and the work of the institution confined to reproducing objects in its own collections, or those of other public institutions, or such in private hands as possessed a distinct literary, artistic, or scientific impress and value. The locality should be the British Museum, because, while we are able to receive articles from any other place on deposit, we are disabled from even temporarily parting with our own. If so, the management must, of course, rest with the Museum authorities, as we could not allow an imperium in imperio. It will be admitted that under the present Principal Librarian the Museum has fully earned the confidence of the public, and that this has been largely gained by the readiness shown to enlist mechanical processes in aid of library work, particularly printing and electricity. The introduction of photography would be but a further development of the same principle; and although much consideration and discussion will evidently be necessary, I am not without hope that Mr. Bond, who has brought print into the catalogue and electricity into the Reading Room, may make the sun-crowned nymph, now an inmate who charges for her lodging instead of paying for it, a daughter of the house. Many questions will arise which only experience can solve. The work which the institution does for itself and that which it does for others must not be allowed to get into each other's way, and the adjustment of the scale of charges will require serious consideration. On the one hand, the very essence of the scheme is to reduce the cost of photography for literary or educational purposes to a minimum; and high prices would evidently be extortionate when the main elements of cost had been suppressed. On the other hand, the bona fides of customers must be guaranteed; and the Treasury will scarcely help unless the obligation to recoup it as far as possible is acknowledged and acted upon. The best principle, I apprehend, would be to proportion charges as nearly as possible to the expenditure of material—a variable quantity, depending upon the amount of work done—and to look upon the salaries of the photographic officer and his assistants as expenses to be covered as far as possible—but with which the State is not bound to concern itself more than with the salaries of other literary and artistic servants from whom it does not expect pecuniary returns.

Ere I quit the subject, suffer me to advert to one aspect of it of national and even international concern. I allude to the service which photography can render in the preservation and dissemination of the national records. The Record Office, in London at least, is no doubt as nearly fireproof as a building can be made; its guardians must say whether it is so absolutely impregnable as to supersede all need for the precaution of making a duplicate copy of any of its treasures. But I know that it has unique documents relating to the most interesting events in Scotch history, facsimiles of which would be acceptable throughout Scotland. I imagine that these are but types of a large class of documents; and I am sure that the sight of papers relating to memorable transactions, or bearing the signatures of memorable men, would foster historical study and patriotic feeling throughout the length and breadth of the land. But there is another class of records, for whose safety and accessibility measures should undoubtedly be taken. I refer to the parish registers. This is no new idea; it has been frequently proposed that such documents should be removed to London and collected in a great central repository. To this, as regards the originals, I cannot assent, both from respect for the rights of property and from the fear lest some unlucky day the registers of the entire kingdom might disappear in one common catastrophe. Photography would solve the problem. With regard to the international aspect, of the question, it may be fairly expected that if we lead, other nations will follow, and that we shall have to follow if we let them lead. Suppose that France and we have taken the step in concert, we shall be in a position to mutually exchange copies of all the important documents illustrative of the history of either nation contained in the archives of both. Suppose Italy and Spain to join, and we may have the chief materials of English history at home, and shall no longer be obliged to despatch agents to calendar Venetian state papers, or unriddle the ciphered scrolls of Simancas. The conception is so fruitful, its application is so manifold and momentous, that I half recoil, like Fear, afraid of the picture myself have painted. Yet I believe there is nothing in it that upon sober examination will not be found to follow naturally from the simple propositions with which I began, that the photographic reproduction of national property should be the concern of the nation; and that to a great museum or library photography should be, not a tool, but a limb.

  1. Read before the Library Association, Dublin, September 30, 1884.