Essays in librarianship and bibliography/The past, present, and future of the British Museum Catalogue

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Essays in librarianship and bibliography by Richard Garnett
The past, present, and future of the British Museum Catalogue


The present and the future of the British Museum Catalogue are so much more important than its past, that this part of our subject must be touched with brevity. Resisting, therefore, every temptation to expatiate upon the desert of ancient cataloguers, further than by the observation that Moses and Homer were of the brotherhood, we begin with June 21, 1759, when the Trustees of the British Museum, which institution had been opened to the public in the preceding January, recorded the following remarkable minute:—

"The Committee think proper to add that the requiring the attendance of the officers during the whole six hours that the Museum is kept open is not a wanton or useless piece of severity, as the two vacant hours (if it is not thought a burden upon the officers) might very usefully be employed by them in better ranging the several collections; especially in the Department of Manuscripts, and preparing catalogues for publication, which last the Committee think so necessary a work that till it is performed the several collections can be but imperfectly useful to the public."

From this we learn that the officers of the Museum had at that primitive period of its history but two hours to spare from conducting visitors over the building; that the Committee rather expected to be censured for requiring any other duty from them; and that, though the Trustees themselves thought catalogues useful and even necessary, there were those who deemed otherwise. The Museum Library dispensed with a printed catalogue until 1787, when one was issued in two volumes folio, the work of three persons, two-thirds of whose time was otherwise occupied. It would therefore be unjust as well as unbecoming to criticise its many defects with asperity. The compilers seem to have adopted as their principle that the cataloguer who looks beyond the title-page is lost. They therefore enter "The London Prodigal" and "Mucedorus" under Shakespeare with no impertinent scepticism as to the authorship; bewilder themselves with no nice distinctions between the William Bedloe who wrote against Mahometanism in 1615, and the William Bedloe who swore away the lives of Roman Catholics in 1680; and achieve their crowning glory by cataloguing the thirty-three thousand Civil War tracts at a stroke under "Anglia" as "a large collection of pamphlets." If they had tried to do more they would probably have done nothing. Their list, meagre in every sense, and at the present day less interesting for what it contains than for what it does not contain, served for twenty years, when a beginning was made towards superseding it by the more elaborate performance of Sir Henry Ellis and Mr. Baber. This catalogue, commenced in 1807, was completed in 1819. The portion executed by Sir Henry Ellis has been severely criticised. It was certainly unfortunate that pastor paganus should have been treated as the equivalent of sacerdos ethnicus, and Emanuel Prince of Peace mistaken for Emanuel King of Portugal. Its virtue, however, of portable brevity, has rendered it so useful a substitute for its colossal successor on those not unfrequent occasions when the wood could not be seen for the trees, that those thus beholden to it will be little inclined to deal hardly with its notorious errors and deficiencies.

Ellis and Baber's catalogue had scarcely been completed ere the need of a new one began to be felt, partly on account of the magnificent donation of the 60,000 volumes and 20,000 pamphlets of the King's Library. Notions of classification were then in the ascendant, and in 1826 the Rev. T. Hartwell Horne, a bibliographer famed for strict method and plodding industry, was engaged as a temporary assistant to carry them out; together with Mr. (afterwards Sir Frederic) Madden, Mr. Tidd Pratt, and other persons of literary ability. Seldom has an undertaking so extensive left so little trace behind it. Mr. Home's assistants ascended to higher spheres, or evaporated entirely, and when called upon in 1834 to report the progress of the previous year, he could only state that he had personally arranged the classes of "chemical and medical philosophy"; the latter, indeed, under twenty divisions, with such subdivisions as "Treatises on Plethora," "Treatises on the Vis Medicatrix Naturæ," "Use of Flagellation, Friction and Philtres." The list may be commended to the study of those who think classification a simple matter, or a classed catalogue serviceable otherwise than as an index to an alphabetical one. Seven thousand pounds had been expended upon the simple sorting of titles, a task merely preliminary to that of printing them, which might be considered as at least nearly half done, if only the influx of new titles could be stopped, which was impossible. The Trustees wisely determined to throw no more good money after bad; and the episode of classification came to an end in July 1834. Mr. Baber, Keeper of Printed Books, had already proposed a plan for a new printed catalogue, to be executed under the superintendence of a single competent person, a description denoting Panizzi, then "an extra assistant librarian." This scheme was set aside in favour of a far inferior plan, by which the execution of the catalogue was entrusted to four persons of very unequal degrees of capacity, virtually independent of each other. The consequence was that the little they did required to be done again. Panizzi became head of the Printed Book Department in 1837, and the long discussions which ensued between him and the Trustees resulted eventually in the ninety-one famous rules which have since formed the foundation of scientific cataloguing drawn up by him with the assistance of Messrs. Winter Jones, Watts, Parry, and Edwards. Their number has afforded a theme for much good-natured and ill-natured satire; on examination, however, it will be found that a third of them relate merely to arrangement, and that the remainder are far from providing for all conceivable cases. It may be granted that their complexity was incompatible with the Trustees' desire to produce a printed catalogue at an early date, a desire in which their officer was far from participating. The Trustees defeated their own object, partly by allowing the catalogue to be commenced on so extensive a scale; partly by requiring, or rather letting themselves be thought to have required, that it should be actually printed, instead of merely ready for press, by December 1844. This decision necessitated printing in alphabetical succession, hence diverting much of the force which should have been applied to compiling the catalogue, to the correction of the press. It further condemned the work to inevitable imperfection, since it was impossible to foresee what titles would be required to be written under A, and such titles, excluded from the printed volume embracing that letter, kept continually turning up during the entire progress of the work. As the imperfections of this volume (published in 1841) became more notorious, the demand for a printed catalogue gradually died away, and Panizzi was left in possession of his ideal—a manuscript catalogue, executed with a thoroughness and on a scale which seemed to render printing for ever impossible. This, as we shall see, was destined to break down in its turn; and the great librarian's objections to print have met with a practical refutation. At the same time it must be candidly acknowledged that, although Panizzi was wrong in abstract principle, he was right as regarded the requirements of his own day. The collection of books was at the time too limited to justify a printed catalogue, and not too extensive to render a manuscript catalogue inconveniently unwieldy. Panizzi's opposition to print was justifiable under the circumstances then existing; his error was in failing to foresee and provide for the far different state of things which he himself was calling into existence. If, while maintaining the old order, he had recognised and promoted the inevitable advent of the new, he would not have left the renown of the introduction of print to a young officer of the Manuscript Department, who, during the heat of the strife over the question of print in 1848, was, as Sir Frederic Madden informed the Royal Commission, "employed in seeing through the press the general index to the Manuscript catalogues in the Reading Room. And I must say that Mr. Bond has proved a most efficient and most praiseworthy assistant."

Panizzi wanted a catalogue: he had framed the rules for it with completeness and precision never imagined before his time, but he was entirely averse to the catalogue being printed. In his report of November 17, 1837, he declared it unreasonable to expect that the public should spend the enormous sum that the printing of a catalogue of the whole of such a library requires, to suit the convenience of a small portion of the community. There was much weight in the argument, and the propounder of it could not foresee that he would himself in the long run overthrow it by the extraordinary development he was destined to impart to the library, and by consequence to the catalogue. When, eight years after the date of the report just quoted, Panizzi's persevering efforts obtained an annual grant of £10,000 to remedy the deficiencies of the library, he started the catalogue on a road whose inevitable goal was print. Library and catalogue increasing pari passu, it became abundantly clear that recourse must some day be had to print for the mere sake of reducing the bulk of the latter. This consummation was accelerated by another of Panizzi's great measures the introduction, at the independent and almost simultaneous suggestion of Mr. Wilson Croker and the late Mr. Roy, of the Library, of the system of keeping up the catalogue by slips pasted on the leaf, and therefore easily removable, thus preventing the disturbance of alphabetical order. As this gave three thicknesses to the leaf, and the slips were at first pasted widely apart, and were not, moreover, transcribed with any special regard to economy of space, the hundred and fifty volumes placed in the Reading Room in 1850 had swollen to fifteen times that number by 1875. This development was attended by another unforeseen consequence; it became actually more expensive to transcribe the catalogue than to print it. The number of transcribers employed to copy titles, of incorporators required to assign these to their proper places, of binders' men to perform the manual work, the incessant shifting and relaying, inserting new leaves and dividing and rebinding old volumes, were attended by financial results which frequently elicited communications from the Treasury. One of these happened to arrive in 1875, shortly after the writer of these pages had become Superintendent of the Reading Room. Being now in a position to report upon the subject, he pointed out what had long been exceedingly plain to him, that the space available for the accommodation of the catalogue was all but exhausted, and that on this ground alone it would be imperative to reduce its bulk by printing at least a portion of it. In 1878 his representations were renewed, this time with great encouragement from Sir Charles Newton, then acting as Principal Librarian, but nothing decisive was done until the accession of the late Principal Librarian, Mr. E. A. Bond, in the autumn of the same year. Mr. Bond had long made up his mind, on literary grounds, that the catalogue ought to be printed; and finding himself now enabled to give effect to his views, initiated negotiations with the Treasury which led in due course to the desired result. In 1880 print was adopted for the entries of all future additions to the library, thus putting an effectual curb upon the growth of the catalogue. In 1881 the printing of the catalogue as a whole was commenced, and has since been carried on uninterruptedly. The order of publication was not at first alphabetical, the Treasury's support having been partly gained by the promise to deal, in the first instance, with the overgrown volumes in various parts of the catalogue which would otherwise have required rebinding and relaying. This accomplished, however, publication, as had always been Mr. Bond's intention, glided into as close an alphabetical sequence as is consistent with the fact that different portions of the same letter are necessarily taken up simultaneously, and that some are much more difficult to prepare . for press than others. With the adoption of print the history of the Museum Catalogue may be said to terminate for the present, while its actual condition will appear from the statement now to be given of the progress hitherto made.

By the time that these pages see the light about 190 parts or volumes of the catalogue will have been issued. Averaging the number of entries as 5000 to a volume (notwithstanding that the volumes have of late been made thicker), it will appear that 950,000 titles have been printed, or nearly one-third of the entire work, allowing for the constant accession of new material during, its progress, as will be explained further on. This gives an average of about twenty-four parts annually since the commencement of printing in 1881; but as the amount of the Treasury grant did not admit of the publication of more than fifteen parts annually for the first two years, the average publication at present may be taken as thirty. Speaking generally, it may be said that the catalogue is in type from A to the end of G, and from V to the end of the alphabet. This is nearly a third of the whole, and at the present rate of progress it seems reasonable to conclude that the printing may be completed in about twelve years. It should be hardly necessary to explain to the reader who may be familiar with the appearance of the catalogue in the Reading Room, that the ponderous folio he is accustomed to there presents little resemblance to the parts as issued to subscribers. Special copies of the latter, printed on one side of the paper only, are laid down for Reading Room use on considerably larger sheets of the strongest and toughest vellum paper procurable, and thus the quartos are converted into folios. The printed strip when pasted down occupies only the left side of the leaf, the blank portion opposite, as well as that above and below, being reserved for the additions continually accruing from the titles of new books received after the printing of the volume,[2] which is further supplied with guards to allow of interleaving. It has been computed that each volume would contain 9000 titles, after which it must be divided, and that the Reading Room will accommodate 2000 volumes, providing room for eighteen millions of titles, or, at the present rate of cataloguing, for the accumulation of three centuries to come. In 1880, just before the introduction of printing, there was not room to place another volume. A column of the type used in printing the catalogue weighs ten pounds, so that supposing the work, when through the press, to consist of 600 volumes averaging 250 columns each, a million and a half pounds' weight of type will have been employed.

From the preparation of the catalogue for strictly Museum purposes, we pass to the arrangements for its issue to the public. Here we are confronted by two very remarkable facts one as gratifying as the other is the reverse. For the original subscribers the Museum Catalogue is one of the cheapest books in the world. At its commencement it was not expected that more than fifteen parts could be issued annually, and the annual subscription was fixed at three pounds. In fact, however, the rate of publication has for some years past averaged thirty parts, while the terms of subscription remain unaltered. The subscription is, therefore, virtually reduced by one-half, and the cost of each part, with its 250 columns and 5000 titles, is just two shillings. It may be doubted whether equal liberality has ever been shown by any public institution. The case, however, of the subscribers of the future is far otherwise, or rather say would be, if such subscribers could exist. Nobody will take an imperfect catalogue, and the sum required for the parts already printed is an almost insuperable obstacle in the way of new subscribers, and an effectual bar to the further dissemination of the catalogue, except by donation. It would be well worth while to offer the parts already printed as a bonus, at a nominal or greatly reduced price. Unfortunately, however, the number of copies printed during the first year was comparatively limited, and the impression, as regards these, would be exhausted almost immediately. The difficulty would disappear if the Museum possessed that indispensable auxiliary to its progress, a photographic department, in which the photographer's salary and the cost of chemicals should be paid by the State; thus allowing photographic work to be done gratuitously for the institution, and at a merely nominal rate for the public. In this case the deficient volumes would be supplied without any expense whatever, and the offer of the perfected sets to the public at a nominal cost would probably ensure sufficient subscribers for the remainder of the work. Until this great step towards the popular dissemination of the Museum's treasures in all departments has been taken, it will be necessary to reprint the earlier volumes of the catalogue; and the £1500 required for this purpose might probably be obtained from subscribers on condition of the other back volumes being thrown in as a bonus at a greatly reduced price. The longer the operation is delayed the more costly will it be for the Museum, which runs the risk of eventually finding itself with a hundred sets, mostly imperfect, on its hands, of which it will be impossible to get rid otherwise than by donation. A subscription once commenced is not likely to drop, as the value of a set of the catalogue depends upon its completeness.

It will now be naturally inquired, at what period may the completion of the catalogue be looked for? The answer will be, about the end of the century, if the Treasury grant is maintained at its present figure. The amount expended in printing, inclusive of that incurred for printing the titles of books added to the library, is about £3000 annually. Two years ago the grant for purchases throughout every department of the institution was reduced by two-fifths, and only half the amount has as yet been restored. If a similar mistaken spirit of economy had affected the grant for printing, the completion of the catalogue must have been proportionately delayed. Any expectation, therefore, which may be held out of the accomplishment of the work by the end of the century, or any other date, must be understood to be entirely subject to the action of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has it in his power to retard progress indefinitely, or interrupt it altogether. It must be acknowledged that the behaviour of the Treasury towards this department of the Museum service has hitherto been very liberal; and that the grant for printing is as large as, with the numerous other demands upon the library staff, can be employed to advantage. The preparation of copy for the press, and its subsequent correction and revision, occupy the entire time of several of the best assistants; and, were absolute bibliographical accuracy aimed at, would require that of several more. This cannot be had, and all pretension to minute accuracy has invariably been disclaimed. It has been felt all along that a number of trifling errors are preferable to the huge and unpardonable error of not accomplishing the work at all. From what has been said, it will be apparent that the publication of this catalogue is carried on under very different conditions from those habitual in similar undertakings. Three thousand pounds a year must be spent upon it; or, as regards Museum purposes, must be thrown away. Any balance unexpended at the end of the financial year must revert to the Treasury, and would be an uncompensated loss as regards the Museum. This misfortune has hitherto been avoided—partly by an energy and diligence on the part of the gentlemen employed, of which it is impossible to speak too warmly or too gratefully—partly by a resolute determination not to aim at an ideal perfection, which, under the circumstances, would be absolutely mischievous.

Ordinary visitors to the library may from one point of view be divided into two classes, those who are astonished that it has not got every book in the world, and those who marvel that it possesses so many books as it does. Nothing is commoner than the remark, "I suppose you have everything that ever was printed," unless it is the exclamation, "You surely do not keep all the rubbish!" These two sets of ideas may be taken to represent the two tendencies which affect every public library; and by consequence every complete catalogue of its contents, that of mechanical accretion, and that of intelligent selection. The operation of the Copyright Act is, of course, responsible for most of the element of "rubbish" in the catalogue; while a moment's thought will show the impossibility of making the librarian a censor, and allowing him to exclude whatever might not square with his prejudices or fancies. A considerable part of the catalogue, therefore, must be devoted to recording publications of little intrinsic value, but even here there is an important reservation to be made. Time, which in so many instances abates the value of what is really precious, makes in a fashion amends by bestowing worth on what was once of little account. What would we not give for a Court Gazette of the days of Augustus, or a list of odds at the Olympic games? There is absolutely no telling what value the most insignificant details of the nineteenth century may possess for the nineteenth millennium: even now men of letters might find the same intellectual stimulus in many a trivial page of the Museum Catalogue, as a distinguished living orator is said to find in Johnson's Dictionary. Next to this automatic factor in the increase of the catalogue may be named the element of seeming accident—the addition to the library of various classes of books, now at one time, now at another, as apparent chance, but actual law has prescribed. If we can imagine the various constituents of the Museum Library piled upon one another in chronological sequence, and a shaft driven down from the top, we may conceive ourselves coming upon a succession of strata, as the geologist finds when he bores for coal, or the archaeologist when he explores the site of a city where men have dwelt from the age of Hercules to the age of Heraclius. The Museum was founded by a great physician; the library, therefore, rests upon a sound substratum of old medical books. The King was the next important benefactor; next above early medicine and natural history, accordingly, comes a stratum of royal libraries from the first Tudor to the last Stuart, each a miniature representative of the best literature of its time. The Hanoverian sovereigns, though no great patrons of letters, were diligent collectors of pamphlets: hence the priceless collection of Civil War and other important tracts which immediately succeeded the donations already mentioned. As the growth of the Museum attracted further liberality ("To him that hath shall be given"), the collection naturally took an impress from the tastes of the private collectors by whom it was enriched. Hence abundant wealth in classics and the early literature of the Latin family of languages, accompanied by poverty in languages which the collectors did not understand, and subjects for which they did not care. When, thanks to Panizzi, the library at last obtained an adequate grant for purchases, the librarian’s own intelligence became a much more important factor than formerly. To continue our metaphor, the contents of the recent strata would be found far more composite than of old, and more puzzling to the intellectual geologist. He would come upon various fragmentary formations, as it were, in which, trifling and remote effects of prodigious causes, he would discern vestiges of the great events of the time. Thus the growth of Greater Britain is legible in piles of colonial newspapers, and the Paris Commune is represented by a mass of caricatures and the scorched books of an Imperial Prince, literally saved out of the fire. It is the librarian's business at once to profit by this tendency to the accumulation of specialities, and to counteract it: to take advantage of every opportunity that may arise of enriching the library in definite directions, and at the same time of providing for the steady influx of miscellaneous literature, alike of the past and of the present as regards foreign nations: of English contemporary literature the Copyright Act, as above explained, takes sufficient care. It seems paradoxical, but it is true, that the Museum should be the home both of the books which every one expects to find in it, and of those which no one expects to find—of the literary freight which can ride the ocean, and of that which would perish without the haven of a public library. The catalogue must be the mirror of the library, and it is not the least of the many advantages of print that the public have now much better means than formerly of judging how the most difficult functions of librarianship have been understood and discharged at the Museum. In this connection mention may be made of a minor feature of the publication of the catalogue of considerable importance: the issue of extra copies of special articles as excerpts, sold separately at the lowest possible price. In this manner bibliographies, complete as far as the Museum collections are concerned, of Aristotle, Bacon, Bunyan, Byron, Dante, Goethe, and other writers of special importance have been issued. These should be of great value to students, and would probably have a large sale if their existence were more generally known. At present, like other Museum publications, they suffer from imperfect publicity. Another very valuable appendix to the catalogue of printed books is the catalogue of maps and plans, reduced, under Professor Douglas's direction, from upwards of three hundred of MS. to two volumes of print as issued to the public, or fourteen as laid down for use in the Reading Room. The four hundred and fifty MS. volumes of the catalogue of music, it is hoped, are on the eve of undergoing similar treatment.

Apart from the errors which must inevitably creep into so vast a work, dealing with such a variety of languages and literatures, and now in progress for more than fifty years, a considerable amount of imperfection is evidently inseparable from the very nature of the undertaking. It does not and cannot represent the condition of the library at any given moment. The volumes containing A, for example, will comprise the books under that letter possessed by the Museum in 1882 or 1883; but T, which for reasons which we have no space to explain, will probably be the last letter to be printed, will represent the condition of the library, as regards that letter, about the year 1900. During the whole progress of the catalogue an incessant shower of new titles representing the new books continually being acquired, will have been descending at the rate of some 40,000 a year. Those belonging to letters not yet at press will have been taken up and absorbed by the catalogue in its progress; those belonging to the letters already in type must fall into a supplement. The article Thackeray, therefore, will be more complete than Dickens, and Thucydides than Herodotus. As concerns the student at the Museum, this is of no importance; the additions being regularly incorporated in the Reading Room catalogue in the manner above described. The catalogue as issued to subscribers, however, is necessarily imperfect and irregular. Supposing, for example, that Lord Tennyson and Mr. Browning were to simultaneously publish translations of Homer when the printing of the catalogue had reached the article Jones, Lord Tennyson's version would appear under Tennyson, but not under Homer, and Mr. Browning's version would not appear at all. There is but one way of obtaining a perfect index to the condition of the national library at a given time: the catalogue must be reprinted along with the numerous accessions which have been accumulating while the first edition has been going through the press—a national undertaking which will commend itself to men of letters more readily than to ministers of finance. Should, however, the completion of the catalogue nearly coincide with the commencement of the twentieth century, it may be hoped that this will be one of the many ways in which, if the new century does not, like its predecessors, find the nation traversing a crisis, the epoch will assuredly be commemorated. It would remain to provide for the regular reprinting of the catalogue with its accessions at intervals, say of a quarter of a century. England would then possess a complete index to the growth of the national library, and the world would have the nearest approach to a register of all literature that, in the absence of any feasible scheme for a universal catalogue by co-operation among public libraries, it seems likely to obtain. Even this more ambitious project might be promoted if public libraries would consent to take the Museum Catalogue as a basis, and publish lists of such of their own books as are not to be found in it. By this means the expense and labour of cataloguing would be very greatly reduced, and the combination of these lists with the Museum Catalogue, when this came to be printed for the third time, say about 1925, would at last provide the desideratum of a universal register of literature.

Ambitious undertakings like these, however, depend upon the co-operation of many governments and many institutions. We can speak with more confidence of the efforts of the Museum to provide what is only second in importance to the catalogue itself—a classified index of its contents. With this object in view several copies of the catalogue are printed on one side only, that when completed they may be cut up, and the titles sorted according to subject, and re-arranged in classified lists. Thus by simply putting together all titles bearing the press mark E, we shall obtain a separate catalogue of the Civil War Tracts; and a similar proceeding as respects the titles marked F, will afford a similar catalogue of the Croker collection of pamphlets on the French Revolution. Classed indexes to the literature of any subject can be made with equal facility, and as several copies of the catalogue will be available for treatment in the manner suggested, they may be varied for different objects, or to suit different systems of classification. For all strictly Museum purposes it would suffice to paste the titles excerpted on sheets of paper, but any of the indexes thus prepared might be printed and published. The only difficulty or delay would arise from the incorporation of the supplementary titles, which, as already explained, will have been continually added during the printing of the catalogue, and even this could be obviated by reprinting the entire catalogue as suggested above.

These hints, imperfect as they are, should convince the reader that the future of the Museum Catalogue, supposing the institution to be maintained in its present condition of efficiency, will not be less remarkable than its past. It will continue to make demands on the liberality of successive generations, which will be the more readily met the more the voluminous development of literature enforces the conviction that, next to positive addition to the world's stock of information, the most important service to culture is the preserving, arranging, and rendering accessible the stores which the world already possesses. The recovery of the catalogue of the Alexandrian Library, if a less delightful, would probably be a more substantial gain to knowledge than the recovery of any individual author. But what the literature of the world is to the literature of ancient Greece, the Catalogue of the British Museum is to that of the Alexandrian Library.

  1. Universal Review, October 1888.
  2. Soon after this was printed, three columns instead of one were left blank, as the writer had recommended from the first.