The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Saturday, 25 October 2008

35. ii) Sympathy with books and reading

Tedder and Thomas continue their article with nothing less than an overview of practically every library on the planet. Twenty-one pages of text are accompanied by ten pages of tables, and the mind, as the cliché goes, boggles. This article is pervaded by a proud sense of the dynamic modern phenomena of free access to knowledge and the wisdom of the ages. It is not difficult to see the parallels with this internet thing in many regards, perhaps excepting the porn and the free downloadable smileys.

The credentials given for the British Museum's library leave us in no doubt that it was the foremost collection of knowledge in the history of mankind. (A nod is made to the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris, but here Blighty's pride "far excels the latter institution in the systematic arrangement and accessibility of its contents." So there.) Leaving aside the detailed description of the actual collection, which I am sure you will take for granted, there is a brief account of the "comfortable accommodation for readers" in the hallowed reading-room.

"Perhaps not the least convenient arrangement here is the presence of the superintendent, whose duty is to help readers in their difficulties ; the varied qualifications of the present holder of the office are well known. The electric light has been successfully used until 8 o'clock P. M. through the darker months from the earlier part of October. In order to enjoy the privilege of reading at the British Museum, the applicant (who must be over twenty-one years of age) must obtain a renewable ticket of admission through a recommendation of a householder addressed to the principal librarian. Formerly no person was admitted until the ticket had been presented at the entrance, but latterly this rule has been considerably relaxed."

An overview of the chief libraries of the United Kingdom and the rest of the globe should be comprehensive
enough for the casual reader, especially an overview which gives high praise to the Picton Reading Room at the Liverpool Library - which retains, I am happy to report, much of its splendour today, including a wonderful echo that continuously leads one to the temptation to slam a book shut or drop a pen on a desk to enjoy the sonic aftermath. Sufficient for the casual reader, but Tedder and Thomas have a higher standard of comprehension, although even they allow for limits.

"In compiling the following tables officials of the libraries have been personally applied to, and in most instances the information has been supplied by them. An attempt has been made to give particulars of all libraries of general or special interest in the United Kingdom. As regards those of other countries the list has been usually limited to those of 30,000 vols. and upwards, with a few exceptions."

These particulars include date of foundation, number of volumes, number of manuscripts, to whom accessible and "Special Character and Remarks." Perhaps I should find better ways to spend my time, but I find an endless fascination wandering through these bibliographic odds and ends.

Wigan's Free Public Library, for example (founded 1877 ; 27,000 vols.) understandably specializes in mining, and very intriguingly is listed as having 1 manuscript. An ancient pie recipe, perhaps. Chetham's Library in Manchester (founded 1653 ; 40,000 vols.) is noted for its "Popery tracts." That dumbing-down is not a 21st century phenomena we have the evidence of the Stadt-B. library in Danzig (founded 1580 ; 83,000 vols.) which was "Formerly learned ; now gen." The Konigl.- und Universitats-B. of Konigsberg (1534 ; 184,000 vols.) lends, to "students and others by guarantee", an impressive 25 books at one time. The University of Michigan's library at Ann Arbor by contrast (1841 ; 40,000 vols., general and reference) only lends books to professors, while the Apprentices' Library of New York (1820 ; 63,000 vols.) lends to apprentices and working women free of charge, to others for $2. As a final, sombre note, we find that the only notable collection in Peru, that of the B. Nacional at Lima (1821 ; 35,000 vols.) is "said to have been taken by Chilians to Santiago."

It would hardly be surprising if this inundation of data left you with an inclination to start a library of your own - fear not! Help is at hand : the article ends with five pages of information on Library Management, including detailed, practical advice on a wide range of relevant issues, including classification systems, the creation of a catalogue, precautions against fire, the acquisition of books, and much else besides. Some of this reads a little like Polonius :

"Practical Hints.- Collate every volume when it comes in, so as to prevent binder's imperfections ; remove plate-paper when the book is quite dry ; strings and silk registers are to be avoided, as they tear the leaves ; preserve old bindings as far as possible, and do not permit book-plates, the names of former owners, and MS. notes of any kind to be destroyed ; be careful with metal clasps and corners ; let gilding be used sparingly ; do not hurry the binder overmuch, as he may retaliate by returning his work insufficiently dried and pressed ; be careful with letterings ; index dictionaries and works of reference on the fore edges ; bind up paper wrappers ; never let a binder exercise his fatal proclivity to cut away full margins."

Please note, in appreciating the wealth of detail that the authors expend on this fascinating subject : the above advice takes up about an eighth of one page of this 40 page article.

It seems fitting to close with some of Tedder and Thomas's thoughts on the subject of librarians themselves, including some startlingly progressive remarks concerning the employment of females in that capacity.

"Without insisting on quite so wide a range of subjects as did F. A. Ebert in his Bildung des Bibliothekars (Leipsic, 1820), one may expect the librarian of a great library to be a man of liberal education, and specially endowed with sympathy with books and reading ; a practical acquaintance with bibliography, including palaeography, and bibliology, is also necessary, as well as with the theory and practice of library management. To be thoroughly qualified, a librarian should have had the practical experience of library-work which it is impossible to obtain from any amount of book reading. Besides this he ought to be a man of business and a good administrator.

"[...]Women are gradually making their way in libraries. At Manchester and elsewhere they are successfully employed as assistants ; and in several other places in England the chief charge of a library is maintained in a very efficient manner by a lady. In the United States the majority of the librarians are ladies (at the Boston Public Library no less than two-thirds of the staff), and many of the most accomplished cataloguers are of the same sex."


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