Essays in librarianship and bibliography/The printing of the British Museum Catalogue

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Essays in librarianship and bibliography by Richard Garnett
The printing of the British Museum Catalogue


The subject of my paper is one which has for many years attracted a large share of attention from the world of letters. It formed a topic of discussion at the first meeting of this Association; when few anticipated within how short a period it would be possible to state that not merely was a printed catalogue of books already in the Museum in progress, but that the titles of all books received were also printed, and issued in the form of an Accession Catalogue. Having already had the honour of giving some account of the latter department of the undertaking to the Conference at Manchester, I shall on the present occasion confine myself principally to the printed catalogue of books actually in the Library. I propose to offer a brief retrospect of what has been done during the half-century over which the discussions respecting the Museum Catalogue have extended; to indicate with corresponding brevity what is doing now; to answer some natural inquiries by anticipation; and, finally, having shown, I trust, that the Museum is performing its part, to appeal for the national support requisite to expedite the progress of this truly national undertaking. Though compelled to withhold much illustrative matter of great interest, I cannot forbear to remark upon the signal fitness of such a theme being brought forward for discussion in the halls of the University of Cambridge, whose library has, I believe, the honour of being the first to demonstrate the practicability, not merely of printing a catalogue, but of keeping a catalogue up in print. Three particulars will, I think, clearly appear from this brief retrospect. That the initiation of the British Museum Catalogue was the act of the Trustees of the British Museum themselves. That, having prematurely commenced the publication of an imperfect catalogue, they acted wisely and rightly in suspending it until it could be resumed with effect. That, acting under the guidance of Mr. Bond, whose name will ever be the name especially connected with the Museum Catalogue in its aspect of a catalogue in print, they have resumed it at the right time, and in the right manner.

I am unable to ascertain that any public demand for a printed catalogue of the Museum Library existed in the year 1834. On April 12 of that year, the Trustees of their own motion called upon Mr. Baber, then keeper of printed books, to report upon the subject. This he did on April 26. On April 30 he attended personally before them, stated his views, and in particular offered the earnest advice to send no portion of the catalogue to press until the whole was ready. During the remainder of his keepership, and the early portion of that of his successor Mr. Panizzi, the catalogue was the theme of constant communication between these officers and the Trustees. On December 17, 1838, the Trustees announced their determination to commence not merely the compilation but the printing of a catalogue, comprising all books then in the Library, in the following year. Mr. Panizzi, though entirely concurring with Mr. Baber's views as to the inexpediency of going thus prematurely to press, accepted the responsibility imposed upon him by a letter dated the next day. In the spring of 1839 the famous ninety-one rules of cataloguing were framed by him, with the assistance of Messrs. Winter Jones, Watts, Parry, and Edwards. On July 13 these rules were sanctioned by the Trustees, and on August 8 the commencement of the undertaking was formally announced by Mr. Panizzi, in a circular addressed to the whole department. In July 1841, the first, and last, volume of the catalogue was issued to the public. It was an admirable catalogue, reflecting high credit upon all who had taken part in it, especially Mr. Winter Jones, who had exercised a general superintendence, Mr. Bullen, who had prepared the extensive and difficult article Aristotle, and Mr. Rye, who had read the whole in proof. But, although the catalogue continued to be actively prosecuted in manuscript, the Trustees ceased to urge the continuance of the printing, and not another sheet ever went to press.

Whence this abortive result? Mainly because the entire undertaking was premature. The unfortunate determination to print letter A before the whole catalogue was ready, excluded a considerable portion of letter A itself. As other letters were proceeded with, it was inevitably discovered that numerous books which in the old catalogue had been entered under headings commencing with other letters required to be brought under A, according to the new rules. Cross-references under A were continually springing up, of course too late to be printed. In fact, however, the publication of a printed catalogue at that time was inexpedient for a more weighty reason. The Library was too deficient in most branches of literature to deserve one; and it was not until these deficiencies had been remedied by the unexampled exertions of Mr. Panizzi, that an exact register of its contents could be contemplated with satisfaction.

While discussion respecting the printing of the Museum Catalogue was proceeding, the character of the catalogue itself was undergoing modification. Great additions were daily being made to the number of books. The new entries thus rendered requisite were at first made in the old manuscript catalogue of additions interleaved with the original printed catalogue of Sir Henry Ellis and Mr. Baber. Two alphabetical series of titles, one printed and the other manuscript, were thus comprised within the same volumes. The amalgamation of these two sets of titles, and the consequent absorption of the catalogue commenced in 1839 into a more extensive general catalogue, was effected by the ingenious and admirable suggestion, made independently in 1849 by Mr. Wilson Croker and Mr. Roy, of the Library, that the entries, instead of being written upon the leaf itself, should be written upon movable slips pasted upon it, so that insertions might be made without any disturbance of alphabetical order. The suggestion was promptly adopted, transcribers were engaged to copy the great mass of accumulated titles, and, all thoughts of printing the catalogue commenced in 1839 being laid aside for the present, the titles prepared for it were also transcribed and incorporated with those written for the books newly acquired. In 1851 this new catalogue, transcribed fourfold by the "carbonic" process, and with copious space provided for insertions and interleavings, was placed in the Reading Room in 150 volumes, or about as many as are now occupied by letter B alone. The catalogue of 1839 and the supplementary catalogue were thus put into a fair way to become one, and it became obvious that printing must be deferred until the amalgamation was complete. It was still, however, a fair question whether the catalogue might not be kept up in print; whether it was better to transcribe titles fourfold as we did then, or to multiply them indefinitely by print as we do now. I cannot find that the practicability of keeping up a continually augmenting catalogue in print was seriously considered, until, in October 1861, it was proved by the introduction of print into the University Library of Cambridge. Some years afterwards the system was strongly pressed upon the attention of the Museum by the Treasury, which had remarked the gradual and inevitable increase of expenditure in binding, breaking up, interleaving and relaying the volumes of the manuscript catalogue, increased by this time from 150 to 1500. I well remember the pains which Mr. Rye, then keeper of the printed books, took in investigating the subject, and I believe I may say that had it depended upon him, the transition to print would have been effected immediately. Other views, however, prevailed for the time; and when, in October 1875, the subject was again brought forward by the Treasury, it fell to my lot to treat it from a new point of view, suggested by my observations in my capacity as superintendent of the Reading Room. I saw that, waiving the question as to the advantage or disadvantage of print in the abstract, it would soon be necessary to resort to it for the sake of economy of space. There were by this time 2000 volumes of manuscript catalogue in the Reading Room, exclusive of the catalogues of maps and music. There would be 3000 by the time that the incorporation of the general and supplementary catalogues was complete. Hundreds of these volumes in the earlier letters of the alphabet were already swollen with entries, and required to be broken up and divided into three. Sooner or later every volume would have undergone this process. By that time there would be 9000 volumes of manuscript catalogue, three times as many as the Reading Room could contain, or the public conveniently consult. The only remedy was to put a check upon the growth of the catalogue by printing all new entries for the future, and to mature meanwhile a plan for converting the entire catalogue into a printed one. I prepared, at the request of Mr. Bullen, a memorandum embodying these ideas, and entered into the subject more fully when, in January 1878, it was again brought forward by the Treasury. These views, however, did not find acceptance at the time. Mr. Winter Jones, and Mr. Newton, acting on the latter occasion as deputy Principal Librarian, were, indeed, both theoretically in favour of print; but it was thought that the desired financial economy, the only point on which the Treasury laid any stress, could be better obtained by the employment of Civil Service writers. The question was thus left for Mr. Bond, who became Principal Librarian in the following August. As keeper of the manuscripts, Mr. Bond's attention had never been officially drawn to the catalogue of printed books, but, as a man of letters, he had formed an opinion respecting it; and I am able to state that he came to the Principal Librarianship as determined to bestow the boon of print upon the catalogue and the public, as to effect the other great reforms that have signalised his administration. From the moment of his accession the question may be said to have been virtually decided. In April 1879, I published an article in the New Quarterly Magazine, foreshadowing almost everything that has since been accomplished. In the summer of the same year, Mr. Bond, having secured the concurrence of the Trustees, proposed to the Treasury to substitute print for transcription in the case of all additions henceforth made to the catalogue, a proposal which the Treasury could not refuse to entertain, as it had originally come from itself. It was accordingly accepted; the details of the scheme were settled by Mr. Bond in concert with Mr. Bullen and the assistant keepers; the general supervision of the printing was entrusted to my colleague Professor Douglas; and by the beginning of the new year the press was fully at work. We had thus successfully introduced print into the catalogue, and by diminishing the size of the entries checked the enormous pressure upon our space which threatened to swamp the catalogue altogether. We had also, by providing for the issue of the new printed titles in parts at regular intervals, enabled any subscriber to obtain a complete list of future additions to the Museum. But this related to the future only; nothing had yet been done to meet the public demand for a printed catalogue of all books already in the Library. The satisfaction of this demand was the second item in Mr. Bond's programme. In recommending his proposal to the Treasury, he relied upon the same grounds that had been shown to exist in the case of the Accession Catalogue. He pointed out the enormous number of manuscript volumes, the ponderous unwieldiness of many among them, the expense of perpetual breaking up, rebinding, and relaying; the manifest advantage of compressing many volumes into one, and providing space for additions for a practically indefinite period. On these grounds, and not on literary grounds, the Treasury assented to the proposal, and agreed to devote, for as long as they should see fit, a certain annual sum for the gradual conversion of the manuscript into a printed catalogue. It is desirable that this should be thoroughly understood, as it affords the answer to some questions which may very naturally be asked respecting the method of publication adopted for the catalogue. Why is it not brought out at once, complete from A to Z? Because the Treasury have not granted £100,000 for the purpose. They simply make an annual allowance of limited amount, liable to be withdrawn at any time. Might not, however, the allotted sum be employed as far as it will go in printing the catalogue consecutively from the beginning, instead of in selected portions? To this there are several things to be said. The grant is made upon condition that it shall before all things be employed in remedying the defects signalised by ourselves, bringing cumbrous, overgrown volumes into a handy form, and putting a stop to the perpetual rebinding and relaying. The most bulky volumes, therefore, must in general be those selected for printing. An equally powerful consideration is that we thus escape all danger of the reproach that has hitherto attached to almost every similar undertaking, "This man began, and was not able to finish." The funds on which we relied might at any time fail us, and we might never progress beyond our A, B, C. By making the printing a portion of the daily life of the institution, a piece of administrative routine like cataloguing or binding, we escape alike ambitious professions and ambitious failures. Once more, a strictly alphabetical procedure would destroy one of the most valuable features of the scheme, the separate issue of important special articles, not merely to our limited body of subscribers, but offered on a large scale to the public generally. We have already the article Virgil in the press on this principle, and it is hoped that Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, Dante, Academies, Periodicals, and others, may ere long be added to the list. Even our ordinary volumes frequently contain articles better printed now than twenty years hence: one of the last completed, for instance, contains the article Gladstone. It would indeed be well if our resources admitted of these three operations being carried on simultaneously, the consecutive publication of the catalogue, the compression of overgrown volumes wherever occurring, the independent issue of important special articles. With sufficient means to defray the additional cost of printing and provide the needful literary revision, all three might very well go on pari passu. I hope that the liberality of the Treasury, of which I desire to speak with every acknowledgment, will rise still nearer to the height of the occasion, and I believe it will. It will be seen that, granting the principle of the conversion of the manuscript catalogue into a printed one, there is no economy, but the reverse, in spreading the operation over a long period. The longer it lasts, the greater will be the accumulation of titles for accessions, to be included in the general catalogue when the volumes to which they belong come to be printed in their turn. Supposing that the whole catalogue could be put into type to-morrow by the stroke of an enchanter's wand, we should have printed three millions of titles. If the metamorphosis were deferred for forty years, we should then print five millions. But if the work of printing goes on during the forty years, as at its present rate of progress it will, we shall have printed and paid for six millions, because half of the two million accession titles will have been printed and paid for twice over, first as accession titles, and again after their incorporation into the general. It is not, however, so much upon such economical considerations that I rely, as upon the conviction that the Government will ultimately recognise our work as a truly national one; to which end the people itself must contribute by a wider and warmer recognition and a more liberal pecuniary support than has as yet been accorded. Before entering further into this department of the subject, I will briefly state what has been effected already, and describe the method of procedure. Of the Accession Catalogue I have already spoken at Manchester, and I have little to add to my observations upon that occasion. The titles written for new acquisitions, instead of being transcribed fourfold, are now sent to the printer as soon as a sufficient number have accumulated. They are divided into three principal sections; new English and foreign books; old English books; old foreign books. They come back printed in regular alphabetical order, and after the press has been corrected are distributed to subscribers and such institutions as receive them gratuitously. Four copies are cut up, and the titles inserted into the General Catalogue in their proper places, occupying a mere fraction of the room required for the old manuscript entries. The arrangements are under the superintendence of Professor Douglas, and up to the present time about 130,000 entries have passed under his inspection. The publication of the General printed Catalogue proceeds as follows. Three or four volumes of the manuscript catalogue having been selected to be combined in a volume of print, they undergo in the first place a literary revision. Queries respecting headings, authorship, and date are raised and settled, mistranscriptions and wrong punctuation corrected, and the catalogue is weeded of its practically duplicate entries by cutting these down to the mere phrase "another edition; another copy," as the case may require. A second and more troublesome revision then becomes necessary, for the order of the entries frequently admits of great improvement. The titles having been incorporated by a variety of persons, and the process of insertion having now gone on for more than thirty years, many errors and inconsistencies have inevitably crept in, and these require to be rectified by an assistant of especial ability and experience in this department of work, whose researches frequently originate a new set of catalogue queries. At last, however, the copy goes to press, the proof is promptly returned and corrected (we are content with a single revise), and the three or four bulky volumes of manuscript are condensed into a single handy and portable volume of type, printed in double columns and on ordinary paper for subscribers, but for reading-room use in single column on a strong vellum paper, adapted to bear rough handling, the opposite column being left blank for insertions, and the book supplied with guards to allow of interleaving. There have hitherto been on the average 220 columns or 110 folios to a volume. On the average of twenty entries to a column, which is rather under the mark, this gives 4400 titles to each volume. The blank space left for insertions and the provision for interleaving would allow of this number of titles being quadrupled, but the weight of the paper prescribes a limit which it would be inconvenient to transgress. Supposing that each volume will take 9000 titles only, then, as the Reading Room will accommodate 2000 volumes of catalogue without encroachment on the reference library, sufficient space will have been provided for eighteen millions of titles, or for three centuries' accumulations at the present annual rate of increase. A year or two ago we were at an utter loss how to accommodate less than three million titles. Several volumes are now (September 1882) in hand in various stages of progress. The number fully completed and placed in the Reading Room is twenty-two, which comprise the contents of about 70 manuscript volumes, including, with many others, all in letter A after the article Aristotle to the end. They have cost, in round figures, £2450, or about £110 each. Arrangements lately completed will diminish this cost by nearly a sixth, and the sum economised will be available for additional printing. It ought to be stated that all the extra work entailed by printing has been performed by the ordinary Museum staff, with no addition to its resources, except an arrangement by which two gentlemen work two or three hours' overtime.

It is of course apparent that if a large portion of the catalogue is to be put within reach of the present generation the scale of operations must be greatly enlarged. We may one day see the whole of the printing of the Museum a special department, like the Clarendon or Cambridge University press, with a head and a staff of its own, and carrying on operations by the side of which those I have been describing will appear diminutive. At present the Museum force and the Museum grant are nicely adapted to each other. With a stronger staff we could easily spend much more money, with a weaker staff we could not spend what we do. Every effort is of course made to expend the full amount within the year, not only that it may not return unused into the Exchequer, but, from consideration to the just claims of our printers, who have engaged a number of extra hands whom they cannot afford to keep idle. Hence, as I have stated, we are content with a single revise, and deliberately prefer systematic energy to minute accuracy. Misprints and other oversights will, no doubt, be detected, which a more deliberate procedure would have obviated. I do not desire to have the air of apologising for a catalogue which, even if tried by a severe standard, will, I am persuaded, be pronounced a creditable work; but I wish it to be understood that these blemishes, as well as some defects of arrangement manifested in long sets of cross-references, are not unknown or overlooked. They will diminish as the work proceeds; confident, meanwhile, of a generous construction, we are deliberately of opinion that it is infinitely better to run the risk of letting them pass than to open a door to the capital enemy of all good administration–arrear. Other shortcomings are necessitated by the fact that the Museum Library is not an inert mass, but a living organism. You have not to deal with a closed collection of books like the King's Library, whose authors are dead, and to which no addition can ever be made. The very titles before you have been prepared during the last forty years by twice forty persons of various idiosyncrasies, whose work, with every care, it is often no easy matter to harmonise. While the product of their heterogeneous authorship is at press, the Accession Catalogue is in progress under hide-pendent management; thousands of titles are annually written and entered which will one day have to be amalgamated with the general series, and discrepancies must sometimes occur. Moreover, the catalogue of the world's literature partakes of the mobility of the world itself. Designations are altered, as when successful generals become barons, or popular churchmen bishops; anonymous authors are brought to light; periodicals and works in progress are completed or relinquished; errors are detected and corrected; improvements and modifications are introduced. The catalogue of an institution like the British Museum, dealing with a mass of matter already accumulated, and intended to register an ever-accumulating mass of matter for ever and ever, must not aspire to absolute perfection, and can never attain finality.

A few words, in conclusion, upon the duty and interest of the public to support the Museum undertakings, and the practical end at which, as it seems to me, we ought to aim. The catalogue cannot, at the present rate of progress, be completely printed in much less than forty years. We shall all agree that this progress ought to be accelerated, but this can only be by increased liberality from the Treasury. This will be accorded in proportion to the Treasury's conviction of the value of our work, and this conviction will greatly depend upon the appreciation of this usefulness manifested by the public. If we are to do a national work, we must have national recognition. I am not at all using the language of complaint or disappointment. It would be well worth the Museum's while to print the catalogue for its own sake, even if it did not dispose of a single copy ; and in fact the number of subscriptions is very much what was expected. I wish, however, that we could succeed in this, as in some other things, beyond expectation. Something is probably to be ascribed to the peculiarly quiet manner in which this great change was effected. Mr. Bond's reforms "come not with observation." A question which had been so long and clamorously agitated while unripe was, being ripe, settled in a few conversations, and with a little official correspondence, so noiselessly and unostentatiously, that many of those most interested in the matter have never heard of it. Many who have heard of it are probably under the impression that the original high terms of subscription have been maintained. This is not so. All the sections of the Accession Catalogue are now issued for an annual subscription of £3; and all volumes of the General Catalogue for an annual subscription of £3,10S. This does not bring it within the reach of every purse: still there must be many students and men of letters in easy circumstances who would find it well worth their while to secure on such terms a register of the literature of the world. Our late lamented friend and colleague, Professor Jevons, was a type of the class I have in my mind; and I know that on the eve of his death he had determined to become a subscriber. From another point of view it may be urged that to support the Museum Catalogue is to take a long step towards the attainment of the still grander object of a Universal Catalogue. At present a Universal Catalogue is a Utopian Catalogue. I have the greatest respect for those who have advocated it as an undertaking immediately practicable. I have no doubt that the twentieth century will speak of them as men before their age. But they are before it. Their project is at present intricate, indefinite, intangible. They want a base of operations. As Sir Henry Cole himself discerned when he made his not altogether fortunate experiment of printing a specimen article from the Museum Catalogue, this catalogue supplies such a base. Let us know clearly what is in it and what is not; let whatever it contains be put clearly before the world in type; and we shall be able to proceed systematically and intelligently to fill up its lacunas from the catalogues of other libraries, and from the special bibliographies which are increasing and multiplying year by year. In saying "then" I would not foreshadow a date which many of this generation may not hope to see. My aspiration is that the completion of the Museum Catalogue in print may coincide with the completion of the present century. This is an age of anniversary demonstrations. When a great man dies he bequeaths to his country–his centenary. It may be predicted that if the twentieth century finds the world at peace it will be inaugurated with more displays and solemnities than all preceding centuries together. Well, I do not know how we could offer it a more acceptable gift than a register of almost all the really valuable literature of all former centuries. Such a register the British Museum Catalogue, if then completed, would afford; and a precedent would be set for a similar issue every succeeding century, or half or quarter century, as might be found most expedient, which would show at one view what that particular interval of time had effected for mankind in literature. Evidently, however, the catalogue cannot at the close of this century be absolutely complete as respects the Museum, as a host of accession titles will have been growing up, a great part of which, coming after the volume which would otherwise have included them has been printed, will be too late to be comprised in the general alphabetical series. It may not, perhaps, be too much to hope that the claims of culture upon the State will by that time be sufficiently recognised to induce the Government to bear the cost of reprinting the whole catalogue with these titles, that the literary register may be as complete as possible, and to provide for the regular repetition of the process at definite intervals. If, however, this is not done, there is still another agent that may be invoked. When the Museum shall have adopted Photography as it has adopted Electricity; when it shall possess–and I trust that long ere that period it will possess–a photographic department, an established branch of its organisation in which, the salaries of the staff being defrayed as in other departments by the State, there will be no expense to be considered beyond the mere cost of chemicals, there need be no limit to the reproduction of its treasures. Sculptures, coins, and prints can be disseminated over every hamlet; manuscripts can be multiplied indefinitely and exchanged with foreign libraries for corresponding donations, illustrative of English history and antiquities; foreign and country scholars will be able to consult rare books and unique manuscripts without leaving their arm-chairs; and, above all, the scattered portions of the nearest approach the world will have made to a Universal Catalogue may be brought together, digested into alphabetical order, and, reproduced in facsimile by this beautiful art–fit mate of Printing in that she too preserves what would else perish, and brings light into many a dark place—be given to the world.[2]

  1. Read before the Library Association, Cambridge, Sept. 1882.
  2. This forecast of the service which photography might render to library catalogues would seem to have been inspired by the very spirit of prophecy. See, in the American Library Journal for March 1899, an account by A. J. Rudolph of the success of the Newberry Library, Chicago, "in printing a catalogue of the accessions accumulated in the British Museum since 1880 to date, in one general alphabet by the so-called blue-print process, a method of photo-printing." If the Newberry Library can do this, the British Museum ought to be able to incorporate its accession-titles with the general catalogue, and reissue the latter from time to time, as frequently recommended in this volume, and in a remarkable article in the Quarterly Review for October 1898.