Essays in librarianship and bibliography/Public libraries and their catalogues
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Public Libraries and their catalogues
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PUBLIC LIBRARIES AND THEIR CATALOGUES
"At the laundress's at the Hole in the Wall, Cursitor's Alley, up three pairs of stairs, the author of my Church History—you may also speak to the gentleman who lies by him in the flock bed—my index-maker." Thus Mr. Edmund Curll, apud Dean Swift, and the direction certainly does not convey an exalted idea of the social status of the gentleman who shared the hole of the ecclesiastical historian.
It is gratifying to remark the augmented consideration, in our day, of this despised fraternity. There is no omission for which an author of serious pretensions is now more frequently taken to task than that of an index; and if on the one hand it is unsatisfactory that the offence should be so frequent, it is on the other encouraging that its obnoxiousness should be so generally recognised. "Every author," sententiously observes an American sage, "every author should write his own index. Anybody can write the book." Without going quite to this length, very many are disposed to affirm of a book without an index what the Rev. Dr. Folliott, in "Crotchet Castle," affirms of a book without matter for a quotation, namely, that it is no book at all. Now, what Mr. Curll's index-maker was to Mr. Curll, librarians are to the general republic of letters. Every visitor to the Reading Room of the British Museum who is guided by the mere light of nature persists in styling the catalogue "the index": their promotion in public consideration has accordingly kept pace with that of their humbler allies, or rather exceeded it, for if not starting originally from a point quite so depressed, they have attained one much more exalted. The cause, however, is the same in both cases—the enormous increase of knowledge, the need of a rigorous classification of its accumulated stores, and the development of a specialised class of workers to discharge this function. Next to the importance of information existing at all is that of its being garnered, classified, registered, made promptly available for use. A good public library has been aptly compared to a substantial bank, where drafts presented are duly honoured; and librarians, as such, occupy much the same relation to the republic of letters as the commissariat to the rest of the army—their business is not to fight themselves, but to put others into a condition to do it. As a consequence, their collective organisation is much more complete than of yore; and their calling assumes more and more the character of a distinct profession requiring special training, with a distinct tendency to gravitate towards the Civil Service. Time has been when a librarianship was most probably a sinecure, or at best a "Semitic department," created for the express benefit of desert too angular and abnormal to fit into recognised grooves. Lessing was a typical specimen of this class of librarian, installed at Wolfenbüttel nominally to catalogue books but in reality to write them. This type is now nearly extinct in England, except here and there in one of those colleges which Mr. Bagehot thought existed to prevent people from over-reading themselves, or some cathedral, where the functions of librarian are entrusted to a church dignitary or a church mouse. Elsewhere the professional character of the librarian's pursuits is pretty generally recognised; the need of special training and special qualifications is commonly admitted; and the result has been a general improvement in the status and consideration of librarians, the more satisfactory as it is in no degree due to quackery or self-assertion, but has come about by the mere force of circumstances. It may not be uninteresting briefly to trace the steps by which librarianship has become a recognised profession, and the public library an acknowledged branch of the State service.
"Prior to the year 1835," says Mr. Winter Jones, in his inaugural address before the first Conference of Librarians, "there had been little discussion, if any, about public libraries." In that year—the year of the publication of the epoch-making works of Strauss and De Tocqueville, and of the removal of Copernicus and Galileo from the Index Expurgatorius—the complaints of a discharged clerk led, more Britannico, to an inquiry into the state of the British Museum, which would at that time hardly have been granted upon public grounds. From that inquiry dates everything that has since been done. Some not very judicious changes in the administrative machinery of the Museum were the chief ostensible results, but the real service rendered was to create a consciousness in the public mind of the deficiencies of the national library—strengthened no doubt by the contemporaneous disclosures of the condition of the public records. The way was then prepared for the truly great man who assumed office as Keeper of the Printed Books in 1837, and whose evidence had mainly created the impression to which we have referred. To the administration of the British Museum, Sir Anthony Panizzi brought powers that might have governed an Empire. Sir Rowland Hill is not more thoroughly identified with the penny post than Sir A. Panizzi with the improvements which have made the Museum what it is, and not merely those affected immediately by himself, but those which owe, or are yet to owe, their existence to the impulse originally communicated by him. In 1839 the Museum received from Sir A. Panizzi and his assistants its code of rules for the catalogue—the Magna Charta of cataloguing. In 1846 the enormous deficiencies of the Library, as ascertained by prodigious labour on the part of the librarian and his staff, were fairly brought to the knowledge of the nation. In 1849 Sir A. Panizzi's multitudinous reforms were tested and sanctioned by one of the most competent royal commissions that ever sat, whose report offers at this day a mass of most amusing and instructive reading. We may note in its minutes of evidence, as subsequently in the yet more remarkable instance of President Lincoln, how little able Mr. Carlyle is to recognise his hero when he has got him, and may obtain a new insight into the extraordinary powers of the late Professor De Morgan. In 1857 Sir A. Panizzi's exertions received their visible consummation in the erection of the new Reading Room and its appendages, capable of accommodating a million volumes; and about the same time his political and social influence raised the Museum grant to an amount capable of filling this space within thirty years. Such an example could not fail to elevate the standard of librarianship all over the country, and it was now to be supplemented by the movement with which the name of Mr. Ewart is chiefly associated. The comparative failure of the Mechanics' Institutes, from which so much had been expected, had led the friends of popular education to take up the subject of free libraries. Mr. Ewart's Act (1850) forms another era in library history, and its operation, while slowly but surely covering the country with libraries supported out of the rates, has tended more than anything else to elevate the profession by making it a branch of the public service, and offering some real, though as yet hardly adequate, inducement to men of ability and culture to follow it. The recent library conferences have shown what an admirable body of public servants England possesses in these administrators of her free libraries. The next great era in library history dates from 1876, when the practical genius of the Americans led them to perceive the benefit of giving bibliothecal science a visible organisation. The Philadelphia Conference of that year resulted in the foundation of the American Library Association, the prototype of our own. About the same time the American Library Journal—now the organ of the library associations of both countries—was established, and the Bureau of Education issued its volume of reports, the most valuable collection, not merely of statistics, but of close and sagacious discussion of library questions, that has yet been produced anywhere. That the American example should have been so promptly imitated in this country is mainly due to Mr. E. W. B. Nicholson, the librarian of the London Institution. Mr. Nicholson conceived the idea of an English conference on the American model. Messrs. Tedder, Harrison, Overall, and other distinguished metropolitan librarians, contributed their time and their marked capacity for business towards carrying it out. Mr. Winter Jones, as Principal Librarian of the British Museum, gave the conference éclat by accepting the office of President, and the welcome presence of a strong deputation of American librarians, together with some distinguished representatives of the profession from the Continent, imparted the international character which it alone needed to ensure success. The second conference, held at Oxford, was equally successful, and the present year is to witness a similar gathering at Manchester. An English Library Association has been called into being, and the Library Journal, the organ of this Association, equally with the American, indicates and records the active development of library science in both countries. One thought clearly underlies all these various undertakings—that library administration actually is a science and a department of the public service, and that it is only by these matters being thus generally regarded that the librarian can render full service to the public, or the public full justice to the librarian.
We now propose to offer a few observations on some of the points of principal national concern connected with the administration of libraries in general, and, as from this point of view is inevitable, of the national library in particular. In so doing we must acknowledge our special obligations to the following works, and recommend them to the study of all interested in library subjects: 1. The Transactions and Proceedings of the Conference of Librarians held in London, October 1877, edited by E. B. Nicholson and H. R. Tedder: Chiswick Press. 2. The Library Journal, official organ of the Library Associations of America and of the United Kingdom: Triibner. 3. Public Libraries in the United States of America; Special Report. Washington: Bureau of Education. To these may be added Mr. Axon's able article on the Public Libraries of America in the last number of the "Companion to the Almanac."
It might seem that not much could be said respecting the mere purchase of books, but even this department is subject to the general law of specialisation, and the character of a collection must vary as it falls within the category of national, academical, or municipal libraries. The mission of the national library is the simplest: its character is determined for it by the enactment which in most civilised states constitutes it the general receptacle of the national literature, good, bad, and indifferent, and imposes the corresponding obligation of rendering itself the epitome of foreign literatures, as far as its means allow. Every such library is the mirror of its time, and perhaps even its services to contemporaries are of less real account than those which it performs for posterity in preserving the image of the past. This is the apology of the librarian's anxiety to collect what the uninitiated regard as trash. Yesterday's news-sheet, waste paper to-day, will be precious after a century, and invaluable after a millennium. The same principle justifies the heavy expenditure which it is frequently necessary to occur in procuring what is truly illustrative of the history of a life or a nation, even when it comes in the costly shape of a bibliographical rarity. A black-letter ballad on a Smithfield martyrdom, a collection of cuttings illustrating Byron or Dickens, must be secured for the national Museum if at all within the compass of its resources. Hardly as much can be said for another class of rarities—the vellum page or the sumptuous binding which makes a volume a work of art, but adds nothing to the value or significance of its contents. Such luxuries, the darlings of the genuine bibliographer, the tests of his professional taste and the chevaux de bataille of his collection, are nevertheless only to be indulged in by a conscientious man when he is certain that such an indulgence is compatible with the ends for which national libraries exist. Even the ideal of rendering the library a representative of the thought and knowledge of the age must either be moderated, or pursued at the risk of incurring comparatively expenditure. A new periodical gives pause: it must be taken, like a wife, for better or worse; for once commenced it can seldom be dropped. New editions of scientific works occasion much perplexity: it is equally vexatious to be behind hand with the latest results of discovery, and to spend money over something which is certain to be soon superseded by something better still. In such cases compromise alone is possible, and compromise can never be quite satisfactory. Such difficulties press less heavily on the curators of academical libraries, where the demand for universality is not preferred, and even an accidental circumstance may legitimately impart a bias to the entire collection. The acquisition of Professor De Morgan's books, for instance, has made it imperative upon the University of London to be always strong in logic and mathematics, at all events. The principle of specialisation, indeed, admits of being carried very far in a large community, where it is possible to conceive groups of libraries working in different directions to a common end, and mutually completing each other. Such a system was supposed to have been inaugurated at Oxford, although we have only heard of two colleges which are actually working it out—Worcester, with its deliberate and most laudable bent towards classical archaeology; and All Souls', whose noble collection of law books might, if law were more scientifically taught in this country, contribute to make Oxford a great school of jurisprudence. Some of the other college libraries, it is to be feared, justify the philippic which Mr. Ernest Thomas, at the Oxford Conference, clenched with this climax of scornful reference to a flagrant case, "The librarian receives only ten pounds a year, and I am sorry to say that even that is too much."
The municipal librarian has his peculiar difficulties. His means are seldom large, and out of them he has frequently to provide for branch libraries, involving numerous duplicates. He has to study not only what his public wants, but what it thinks it wants; not only to make ready for guests, but to "compel them to come in." This raises the difficult question how far the taste for fiction should be condescended to in free libraries. We cannot agree with those who think that public money may be properly expended upon trashy novels, in the chimerical hope that the appetite for reading they will probably create may be devoted to worthier objects. It is far more likely to destroy any latent capacity for serious reading which a more judicious treatment might possibly have called forth. At the same time, the adverse experience of mechanics' institutes has shown that it will not answer to be too austere in such matters, and indeed the man who is capable of relishing Thackeray or George Eliot is not far from the kingdom of culture. Other novelists of a less purely intellectual cast may awaken the love or stimulate the pursuit of knowledge. Scott indirectly teaches not a little history, Marryat not a little geography; either might provoke a craving for further information, and both are adapted to keep the mind in a state of healthy curiosity, susceptible of new impressions and ideas. The municipal librarian will also consider the especial circumstances of his locality. Leeds, we understand, collects everything relating to the history or processes of the woollen manufacture, and the example will no doubt be generally followed. One of the most useful suggestions made at the Librarians' Conference was that provincial librarians should make a point of collecting publications printed in their own districts, as well as the municipal documents which are rarely deposited in the British Museum. It met with a cordial response, and we believe is being extensively carried out.
Due provision having been made for replenishing the library with the books most appropriate to its circumstances, the question of the catalogue next presents itself. The controversies which used to prevail on this point may be regarded as in a great measure laid to rest. The rules of cataloguing, framed in 1839 by Sir A. Panizzi, Mr. Winter Jones, and their staff, will, we believe, be now generally accepted by bibliographers as embodying the principles of sound cataloguing. They may not be equally satisfactory to the general public, with its preference for rough and ready methods; a very short experience, however, will convince any man that such methods in cataloguing mean simply hopeless confusion, and that it is far better that a book should be now and then hidden away than that entire categories of books should be entered at random, with no endeavour at principle or uniformity. On the part of almost all qualified bibliographers, the Museum Catalogue receives the sincerest form of flattery—imitation: the few points still debated, such as whether anonymous books with no proper name on the title-page should be entered under the first substantive or the first word, are not material; and the impediments sometimes experienced in consulting it arise from no defect in its cataloguing rules, but from the great difficulty in digesting such long and complicated articles as Academies into a perspicuous and logical arrangement. The problem is no longer one of cataloguing, but of classification, and in this department ample room remains for discussion and scientific progress. The question of the strictly classified catalogue versus the strictly alphabetical, may, indeed, be considered as decided. The former method may have answered in the library of Alexandria; but the multiplicity of the departments of knowledge in our own day, their intricacy and the nicety with which they blend and shade into each other, render cataloguing solely by subjects a delusion. A catalogue of books on any special subject must either be imperfect, or must contain a large number of entries repeated from other catalogues; while, in any case, the reader can never satisfy himself without a tedious search that the book he has at first failed to find is not after all actually in the library. If, nevertheless, a subject catalogue without a general alphabetical arrangement is often useless, it must be admitted that an alphabetical catalogue without a subject index is not always useful. It is somewhat humiliating for the librarian unprovided with this valuable auxiliary, to find himself dependent upon the classified indexes to the London publishers' list and Brunet's Manuel du Libraire for information which he ought to be able to supply from his own catalogue. Even the Bodleian, we perceive, is about taking measures to prepare an index of subjects, and the Bodleian is a library for scholars who might not unfairly be expected to bring their bibliographical information along with them. The need must evidently be more imperative in libraries which assume a distinctly educational function, and in those which, like the national and most municipal collections, are supported at the expense of the learned and the ignorant alike. The recognition of the want, however, imposes an additional strain upon the resources of the institution, which the British Museum, at all events, over-burdened as it is already, cannot encounter without a considerable addition to its resources. The question of classification is, moreover, most difficult of solution. Only two points seem universally agreed upon: that the best subject index must be far from perfect, and that the worst is far better than none. Two principal methods are proposed for adoption. The first is the simple and obvious one of recataloguing every book entered in the Alphabetical Catalogue in the briefest possible form, and breaking up these titles into sections, according to subject, the alphabetical order being still preserved in each. Thus Simson's "History of the Gipsies" would be found in the General Catalogue entered at length, and again in an abridged form in a special index of books relating to the Gipsies, which would refer the reader to the General Catalogue. The other system is the so-called Dictionary Catalogue, which combines the main entry and the subject entry in the same alphabetical series. In such a catalogue Simson's book would be entered twice over, under Simson and under Gipsies; while Paspati's "Dictionary of the Dialect of the Turkish Gipsies," if the librarian were as accommodating as some of his fraternity, would stand a chance of being catalogued four times over, under Paspati, Gipsies, Turkey, and Dictionaries. This system, first brought forward by Mr. Crestadoro, the very able librarian of the Manchester Free Library, and retouched by Messrs. Jewett, Abbott, and Noyes, in the United States, has been thoroughly discussed in Mr. Cutter's masterly contribution to the American report on public libraries. Mr. Cutter, on the whole, supports the plan, whose defects he has nevertheless stated with his usual force and candour. The principal objections are the great bulk of a catalogue constructed upon such a plan, and the sacrifices of one of the principal advantages of an alphabetical classed index, the congregation of a great number of minor subjects into a grand whole. In such an index, for example, works on the liberty of the subject, Bankruptcy, Divorce, though formed into special lists, would still be found together within the covers of the same comprehensive volume on law, and, taken all together, would afford a general view of whatever existed in print upon that grand division of human knowledge. In the Dictionary Catalogue, where authors and subjects are thrown together in the same alphabetical series, this advantage would be lost; Bankruptcy would be in one part of the catalogue, Divorce in another, and a general view of the entire body of legal literature would not be available at all. The inconvenient bulk of a Dictionary Catalogue (except in the case of small libraries, and any small library may one day become a large one), would be owing to the necessity for multiplying cross-references. To take Mr. Cutter's own illustration, a treatise "On the Abolition of the Death Penalty" must be entered along with other books referring to the subject under the head of "Capital Punishment." The average reader, however, will not think of looking for it there. He will turn to "Death" or under "Penalty," and, not finding the book under either heading, will conclude that it does not exist in the library. Two cross-references to "Capital Punishment" must accordingly be made for his accommodation; and, after a few generations of literary industry, the catalogue, like the proverbial wood, would be invisible on account of the entries, generally speaking; the cardinal error of plans for dictionary catalogues appears to us to be an excessive deference to the claims of the average reader. Nothing can be more natural, considering that these plans originated in Manchester and were perfected in the United States, where the educational character is much more distinctly impressed upon libraries than in England, and where the appetite for knowledge is as yet in advance of the standard of culture. It is fortunate when the librarian is able to consider not merely what may be most acceptable to a miscellaneous body of constituents, but also what is intrinsically fit and reasonable.
We must hold, then, that the alphabetical index of subjects should be the auxiliary and complement of the Alphabetical Catalogue, not a part of it; that each book should be entered in it, as in the catalogue, once and once only; that the minor indexes should be grouped together so as to form collectively a whole (e.g. ornithology and ichthyology, as sub-sections of zoology); and that the operations of cataloguing and indexing should, go on pari passu. If this is attended to for the future, the future will take care of itself; but "not Heaven itself upon the past has power," and it is discouraging to think upon the immense leeway which remains to be made up in most of our great public libraries. The experience of the Bodleian will be very valuable, and we must confess to much curiosity to see how long the operation of classifying its multifarious contents will take. In the British Museum the foundation of a classed catalogue has already been laid by a simple process. As fast as the titles have been transcribed for insertion in the three copies of the catalogue by a manifold writer, a fourth copy has been taken, and this copy is arranged in the order of the books on the shelves. As the various subjects are kept together in the library, such an arrangement is practically equivalent to a rough classed catalogue, which could be digested into order with comparative facility. The publication of such a classified index, reduced to the utmost possible brevity, offers, as it seems to us, the best solution of the vexed question of the publication of the Museum Catalogue. On this point much remains to be said. Meanwhile, before quitting the subject of cataloguing methods, a tribute is due to Mr. Cutter's important contribution to the subject, in his rules for his Dictionary Catalogue. Next after the settlement of the Museum rules in 1839, these form the most important epoch in the history of cataloguing. Agreeing with the latter rules in the main, and when differing, generally, as we must think, not differing for the better, they nevertheless contain a most valuable body of acute reasoning and apt illustration, which it did not fall within the province of the Museum authorities to provide; they bring unusual experience and ability to bear upon the intricate subject of classification, and are further reinforced by most ingenious remarks on the economy and manipulation of print, making the mere variations of type instructive.
Assuming the catalogue to be completed, the question remains for decision whether it shall be printed. In most cases this question is easily determined with reference to the circumstances of the individual library; but in one instance the nation claims a voice in the matter. It is hardly necessary to say that we refer to the Catalogue of the British Museum, the theme of forty years' controversy. Every one will admit the intrinsic superiority of a catalogue in print over a catalogue in MS. The question is, whether the advantage may not be bought too dear. To form a sound opinion on this point it is necessary to have an approximate estimate of the extent of the Museum Catalogue, and of the expenditure and the time involved in the undertaking to print it. Some statistics may accordingly be useful. The printed volume of the catalogue containing letter A, published in 1841, has about 20,000 entries. It forms about a twentieth part of the catalogue as it now exists, which would accordingly comprise about 2,000,000 entries, in about 100 folio volumes. In addition, however, to these titles now existing in the catalogue, there are about 200,000 titles and cross-references awaiting final revision, and which, unless the present state of this revision is very considerably accelerated, will not be ready for several years. During all this period, titles for new acquisitions will keep pouring in at the rate of 40,000 per annum. All the time that the catalogue is at press, somewhere between a decade and a generation, they will continue to pour in, and will have to be included as far as possible. We must consequently expect to have to deal with from 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 titles, occupying from 150 to 200 volumes folio. It is clear that no private individual could afford either to purchase or to store such a catalogue. It would, therefore, only be useful to such institutions as might buy it or receive it as a gift. Unlike the newspapers we have mentioned, its usefulness would diminish in the ratio of its antiquity, and it could only be kept up to the mark by a succession of supplements. The total cost of providing it, minus these supplements, may be roughly estimated at £100,000. We scarcely think that Government will incur such an expenditure for such a purpose.
We should ourselves have little hesitation in pronouncing it undesirable to print the Museum Catalogue as it stands, merely for the convenience of the public. It is quite another question whether a recourse to print may not be desirable in the interests of the Museum itself, and from this point of view the answer must be widely different. It is desirable, and will shortly become imperative. The reason is prosaic, but unanswerable: the MS. catalogue cannot be much longer accommodated in the Reading Room. Partly from necessity, partly from oversights, the Museum Catalogue is most extravagant in the matter of space. To preserve the alphabetical order of the entries, the titles are necessarily movable, pasted, therefore, on each side of the catalogue leaf, thus trebling the thickness of the latter. It is equally indispensable that wide spaces should be left between the entries when a volume is first laid down, and that when these become insufficient from the number of additions, as is continually happening, the over-charged volume should be divided into three or four. These inconveniences are unavoidable. It can only be regretted that part of the available space of every slip is lost in transcription; that scarcely a single transcriber appears to have studied the art of packing; and that the catalogue is over-run with practically duplicate entries of slightly differing editions, transcribed at full length while they might have been expressed in a single line. From all these causes the Museum Catalogue is rapidly becoming unmanageable, and the time is approaching when the Reading Room will contain it no longer. Something might no doubt be done to postpone the evil day by excluding the map and music catalogues from the room; but apart from its inconvenience, such a measure is obviously a mere temporary palliative and ultimate aggravation of a difficulty which acquires strength not eundo, but by standing still. The bulk of the catalogue must be reduced, and we are not aware that any method has been suggested, or exists, except a recourse to print. It is unfortunate that this purely administrative measure, founded on no preference for print over manuscript as such, but the simple dictate of an economic necessity, should be so constantly confounded with the totally different proposition to print and publish the catalogue like any other book, on the expense and inutility of which we have already commented. Publication is not in question: it is simply for the authorities to consider whether the bulk of the MS. catalogue will not some day shut out the public from access to it; and if this is found to be the case to lose no time in averting the evil. We do not believe that the present Principal Librarian, or his predecessor, entertains any doubt upon the subject; the ultimate decision, however, rests neither with the Principal Librarian nor the Trustees, but with the Treasury. From the Treasury's point of view, it is to be observed that the present system is financially justifiable only on condition of its being persisted in to the end of time. If a resort to print will one day be compulsory, existing arrangements are the climax of inconsiderate wastefulness. That transcribing is cheaper than printing may be admitted, though it has hardly been demonstrated. But to print is manifestly cheaper than to print and transcribe also. Yet this is just what the Museum is doing if the catalogue is ever to be printed at all. There are about 250,000 titles for the new catalogue still remaining to be transcribed. To transcribe these at the present rate of progression would occupy about fifteen years, but let us say ten. During this period titles for new acquisitions would be coming in at the rate of 40,000 a year. These would also be transcribed. The total number of transcripts would thus be 650,000. Now it seems to be seriously contemplated by the advocates of a complete printed catalogue that all this enormous mass of careful copy shall in a few years be completely superseded by print, and rendered absolutely useless. After paying, let us say, threepence a slip to do its work, the nation is to pay fourpence a slip more to undo it, and is to be charged altogether twice as much as it need have been if it had known what it wanted from the first. It is, indeed, high time for the representatives of the nation in these matters to determine once and for ever whether the catalogue is to be in print or manuscript. If MS., let the idea of print be authoritatively discountenanced; but if print, let the ruinous system be abandoned of paying highly for work performed only to be undone.
The solution of these perplexities will be found, we think, in a strict adherence to the principle that administrative arrangements must primarily have respect to the advantage of the institution, which will in the long run prove to be the advantage of the public. The Museum is not bound to undertake the publication of an enormous printed catalogue merely for the convenience of persons at a distance; but it will introduce print in so far as print tends to economise its own funds, and to obviate confusion and encumbrance in its own rooms. The two vital points are to stop the waste incurred by transcribing what must ultimately be printed, and to put an effectual check upon the portentous growth of the catalogue. The first object may be attained by simply resorting to print for the future, and pasting the printed slips into the catalogue as the MS. slips are pasted now. The second can best be accomplished by tolerating the mixture of printed and MS. slips in each volume of the catalogue, until the volume has arrived from constant accessions at such a bulk as to require breaking up, then printing the MS. entries in that volume, and profiting by the economy in space of print over MS. to rearrange the contents in double columns, which would afford room for additions for an indefinite period. In this manner the cost of printing would be spread over a long series of years, and the catalogue would insensibly be transformed into a printed one by much the same process as that by which Sir John Cutler's worsted stockings became silk. Any requisite number of printed slips might be produced, and offered by subscription to public institutions and private individuals. The former might thus in process of time acquire the whole catalogue without any violent strain upon their resources; the latter might procure what they wanted without being compelled to take what they did not want. It would at the same time be beneficial to the Museum and to literature, if some of the most important articles were printed entire and brought out as soon as possible for the sake of relieving the pressure upon the catalogue. Such articles as Bible, Shakespeare, Luther, Homer, embracing nearly complete bibliographies of the respective subjects, would probably command a fair sale, and effect something towards diminishing the inevitable cost of print.
The formation of a subject index to the Alphabetical Catalogue is a matter of much less urgency to the Museum itself, but one of even greater importance to the public. It could not be undertaken without special assistance from the State, but would probably repay its cost in a great degree, and has in any event the very strongest claims upon the support of an enlightened government. It is moreover much less formidable than appears at first sight. We have already explained how the way for a more exact classification has been prepared by arranging one copy of the catalogue in the order of the shelves. The apparent magnitude of the task is further diminished by the following considerations: 1. It requires no cross-references. 2. Titles may be abbreviated to the utmost. 3. It can be temporarily suspended upon the completion of any section. 4. The section of biography is classified already, merely requiring the cross-references from the subjects of biographies to be brought together; and several other extensive sections need not be classified at all. Nobody, at least nobody worth taking into account, wants catalogues of the titles of novels, plays, and sermons. Classified lists of some other subjects, on the other hand, would be of inestimable value, and there is one which, in the interests of the Museum itself, should be undertaken without delay. Among the inconveniences attending the ill-considered removal of the Natural History collections to South Kensington—a measure forced on by the Government against the wish of the working Trustees of the Museum—is the injury likely to be inflicted upon them from want of access to a library. Naturalists cannot study without books any more than without specimens; but the Government which gratuitously created the want seems in no hurry to supply it. The principle of a grant appears indeed to be admitted; but at the rate at which this grant seems likely to be doled out, English Natural Science will be placed at a serious disadvantage for many years. Something may possibly be done by transferring duplicates from Bloomsbury (a question, however, not to be decided in haste), and some anonymous writers in scientific journals have modestly suggested that all books on Natural History might go to Kensington; so that a student of the physiology of colour, for example, would have to read his Wallace at one end of the town and his Tyndall at the other. We should, however, just as soon expect Parliament to decree on similar grounds the cutting of the zoological articles out of the encyclopaedias as to enact that the national library of England should be the only professedly imperfect library in the world. Indeed the argument cuts two ways, for if it is fair that the mineral department should have Cresconius Corippus to illustrate its gems, it must be equally fair that the library should have the mineralogist's gems to illustrate its Cresconius Corippus. Until then, the Natural History departments can acquire a library of their own, it must be desirable for them to possess a catalogue of everything relating to their subjects extant in the British Museum. An abridged list, classified according to subject, might be speedily furnished if Government would provide the compilers, and would be an invaluable boon to the scientific world at large, abroad quite as much as in England. Scientific authorities, of course, would be consulted respecting the principles of classification, and we may take this opportunity of repeating that while probably no subject-index has been or can be free from inconsistency and ambiguity, none has ever been too bad to be useful. That a high degree of excellence is attainable is shown by Messrs. Low & Marston's alphabet of subjects to the London Catalogue. The meritorious compiler, we should suppose, can hardly have seen all the books he indexes; yet, so far as we are aware, he has only committed one positive error, the very pardonable one of enumerating Mr. Gosse's "On Viol and Flute" among works on musical instruments.
In connection with the subject of classification, reference should be made to the excellent classified catalogue of manuscripts prepared by the present Principal Librarian when keeper of the MS. department. It is not yet printed or entirely complete, but is sufficiently advanced to be exceedingly serviceable. Like most of Mr. Bond's reforms, it has been achieved so quietly and unostentatiously, with no help from paragraphic puffery, that few know of it except those whom it actually concerns. The scholar goes to the Museum with no expectation of finding any such aid to his pursuits, and hardly realises the boon until he finds himself profiting by it. A perfect contrast in every point of view is afforded by the remarkable proposal emanating from the Society of Arts that the Museum should make and publish a catalogue of English books before 1641, or just the period when books were beginning to be useful. The project bespeaks a very imperfect appreciation of the needs of the institution and the public. When the great problem of the Museum is to diminish the pressure on its space, it is proposed to afflict it with yet another catalogue. When the public is crying out for classified lists as aids to knowledge, it is offered an alphabetical list with no attempt at classification, and containing nothing worth classifying. When libraries are becoming more and more valuable in proportion as they subserve educational purposes, it is proposed to employ money and labour in telling a few specialists what they already know. When the overworked library is unable to discharge some of its most obvious duties, it is proposed to detach not a little of its best strength for an utter superfluity. Not only are new books to remain uncatalogued, but even the final revision of the old books is to be delayed indefinitely, that what has been already catalogued may be catalogued again. The project would hardly demand discussion, but for the possibility that it may after all be forced upon the Museum, notwithstanding its repugnance to the common-sense of the late and the present Principal Librarian. If ridicule could kill, it could hardly have survived the discussion which arose among its advocates at the late Oxford Conference. Those external to the Museum suggested that the Museum should catalogue not only the old English books it possessed, but also those it did not possess. The Museum representatives, enamoured with the project as they were, pleaded that it would be unreasonable to expect them to describe what they had never seen. The other side concurred, but represented in turn that a catalogue of such English books only as happened to be in a particular library would be very imperfect, and of very little use. Having thus mutually demonstrated the unreasonableness of the proposal from one point of view, and its inutility from another, they agreed that it should by all means be persevered with, and went home.
The subject of the classification of books within the library—itself a matter of even more importance to the librarian than the preparation of classified lists—has received a great impulse from the ingenious system contrived by the principal editor of the Library Journal, Mr. Melvil Dewey. Mr. Dewey—a remarkable instance of the combination of disinterested enthusiasm with thorough business capacity—is devoted to several other causes beside the causes of libraries, and among these is the cause of the decimal system. His experience in the latter field has given him the idea of dividing the departments of human knowledge decimally. His scheme provides for a thousand divisions. Every tenth number embraces some important section of knowledge, and the following nine as many subjections or allied subjects admitting of classification under the principal head. Thus number 500 might represent mathematics in general, and 501 conic sections, analytical geometry, or any other branch of the general subject. Further subdivisions, if needed, would be made by appending letters to these numerals, as 501a, 501b. Each book would be numbered in the order of its accession to the library, and receive its place upon the shelves accordingly, so that there never would be any doubt as to the press-mark or position of a book that had once been properly classed. Our space does not permit us to dwell upon many other points connected with the working of this ingenious scheme, which, if inapplicable to the great old libraries whose catalogues, like the Abbe Vertot's siege, are already done, deserves the most careful consideration on the part of the founders of new institutions. It must, as the inventor admits, receive some modification in practice from the impossibility of accommodating books of all sizes upon the same shelf; it is only to be feared that these and similar necessary condescensions to the prosaic exigencies of space might in process of time throw it out of gear altogether. Space is the librarian's capital enemy, and the more cruel as it turns his own weapons against himself. The more ample the catalogue, the more liberal the expenditure, the more comprehensive the classification, the greater, sooner or later, are the difficulties from lack of space. It is not too early to direct the earnest attention of the public to the question of the accommodation of the national library. The pressure upon its capacity, now merely beginning to be felt, will soon become serious. It cannot from the nature of the case be divided or dispersed; books required by readers must be within reach of the Reading Room, or they might as well be nowhere. If the library does not receive its fair share of the space about to be vacated by the Natural History departments, the consequence will most assuredly be, first some years of confusion and deadlock as regards all new acquisitions, and then a large expenditure, superfluous with better management, upon new buildings, whose space will be mortgaged before they are completed. It does not seem to us very difficult to devise means for economising the existing space to the utmost, and reconciling the interests of all the departments concerned—but we must not be seduced into a disquisition upon architecture.
Free libraries and public reading-rooms are among the most important departments of library administration in our day, and constitute the most distinct expression of the growing conviction that the librarian is called upon to be a great popular educator. This sentiment has attained its fullest development in the United States, where the great free libraries have taken a most important place among national institutions. Not merely are such cities as Chicago and Cincinnati provided with libraries of which any city might be proud, but the custodians have in many instances gone beyond the strict limits of professional duty by not merely furnishing reading for the people, but instructing the people what to read. "They have tried," says Mr. Axon in the paper cited already, "and with no small measure of success, to lead readers to higher levels of intellectual interest, and to help all students to the fullest acquaintance with the capabilities of the library." There are no more remarkable examples of popular bibliography than the various catalogues and helps published by the Boston Public Library. These sheets, prepared by Mr. Justin Winsor, have been continued at Harvard since the indefatigable editor's removal thither as professor of bibliography. They include lists of the most important books in all departments of literature, with a selection of the notices of the press best adapted to explain their purport. Special bibliographies of great value are frequently interspersed, and when it is considered that the whole is rather a labour of love than of duty on Professor Winsor's part, his diligence and acumen will appear not more worthy of praise than his disinterested zeal. It might be well for the directors of English free libraries to consider whether something similar could not be produced by co-operation. The list of scientific books recommended to students at the Radcliffe Library, Oxford, is most useful and creditable as far as it goes. Generally speaking, the condition of free public libraries in England may be considered satisfactory; among the directors are many men not merely of administrative quality, but of high bibliographical attainments. The principal obstacles to their usefulness may be briefly characterised as the popular and municipal parsimony. Of the former we have spoken; the latter requires to be dealt with tenderly, and is not equally applicable to every locality; it is nevertheless the fact that in many towns the allotted grant is insufficient to maintain the library and librarian together. Nowhere is the cause of free libraries so backward as in London, although the Guildhall library is an honour to the city. The other metropolitan districts, notwithstanding, continue deaf to Mr. Nicholson's earnest expostulations; and although the number of readers at the British Museum is as large as that institution can well deal with, it seems small in comparison with the vastness of the metropolis and the occasions for reference to books which continually arise in the daily life of even the least lettered members of the community. The suggested opening at night by the aid of the electric light would almost certainly attract a new and valuable class of students, at present virtually excluded. It would be premature to say much about the recent experiments with the electric lamp; but we believe it may be stated that they have been highly encouraging as far as they have gone, and that the question is safe in the hands of Mr. Bond, to whom the public are already indebted for so many signal improvements. Should the experiments result in perfect success, it is to be hoped that their object will not be frustrated by the propensity of all governments to save where they ought to spend, that they may spend where they ought to save. To allow the infinitesimal risk of accident to the institution to obstruct the full development of its usefulness would indeed be propter vitam vivendi perdere causas.
We have left ourselves no space for any observations upon the circumstances of libraries on the Continent, although there is ample evidence both of the activity of librarians and the public recognition of their functions in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Nor can we remark at length, as we gladly should have done, upon the tendency of the peculiar circumstances of the United States to develop a most valuable type of librarian, destined to exert more and more influence in Europe as libraries become more and more the possession of the people at large. Every advance in general knowledge tends to make them so, and the whole movement towards improvement in library administration—some only of whose features we have imperfectly striven to indicate—rests on the more or less conscious perception of librarians that the growth of human knowledge necessitates a strict classification with a view to facility of reference; that this important function devolves to a considerable extent upon them; and that, to qualify themselves for its discharge, they must begin by perfecting their own systems.
Note.—The advocacy of printing in this essay may appear somewhat undecided, and the tone towards the catalogue of the early English books altogether unjustifiable. The former peculiarity is explained by the writer's uncertainty what turn the negotiations with the Treasury for the introduction of printing might take, and his dread of compromising the plans of Sir Edward Bond, who knew nothing of the article until it was in type, when he read it, and returned it without remark. (See also pp. 75, 76, of this volume.) The observations respecting the early English catalogue were dictated by no hostility towards that undertaking in the abstract, but by indignation at the largeness of the staff employed upon a non-essential, while the final revision of the catalogue, the indispensable preliminary to a complete printed catalogue, was so languidly prosecuted that it seemed in danger of coming to a standstill. So matters continued until 1882, when the decided interference of the Principal Librarian, and the adoption of a suggestion tendered by the present writer, brought the final revision to a speedy completion, and removed the principal objection to the English catalogue.
- New Quarterly Review, April 1879.
- A revised edition of these rules, substantially the same in principle, but different in wording and arrangement, was prepared in the Department of Printed Books in 1895, and printed privately in the following year.
- The line was drawn here to eliminate the Thomason tracts, a special catalogue of which would be really valuable: just as in "Erewhon," the date of operation of the retrospective enactment prohibiting machinery was fixed in the middle of the fifteenth century, in order to include a certain mangle.
- Within a few years the difficulty was solved by the introduction of the sliding-press, the subject of another paper in this volume.
- It is almost needless to remark that soon after these lines were printed the electric light was in successful operation at the Reading Room.