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ON A PRINTED CATALOGUE OF THE
BRITISH MUSEUM LIBRARY.
BY WILLIAM E. A. AXON, F.R.S.L.
[Read October 22, 1877.]
THE HE greatest help which the British Museum could give to national culture, alike in its metropolitan and in its provincial form, would be by the issue of a printed catalogue. The want of such a guide is felt every year with increasing force. The widening sphere of the intellectual activities of the age make not only great but the greatest libraries a necessity for investigation. Whoever tries to explore even the smallest nook of human knowledge will soon find that it has an extensive literature. His own bookshelves and those of his friends will not yield all the information he needs. The collections of the literary institutions and of the town library will probably refer him to books which may be accessible in the national library. But are they? The resolution of that question involves a needless expenditure of time and money. It involves a journey of perhaps a couple of hundred miles to learn that, perhaps, after all, the coveted books are not in the great library.
The keen insight of Thomas Carlyle has penetrated to the core of this difficulty. There are but three sentences necessary to be quoted from the evidence he gave before the Committee of 1848, in order to give us the Catalogue question in a nutshell:
"A library is not worth anything without a catalogue-it is a Polyphemus without any eye in its head; and you must front the difficulties, whatever they may be, of making proper catalogues."*
Report of British Museum Inquiry, 4472.
"Of all catalogues, surely by far the worst is 'no catalogue at all.'
"There ought to be a catalogue of the Museum, drawn up with the best skill possible—a general catalogue; and there ought to be all manner of specific catalogues; and those catalogues ought to be circulated over Great Britain, so that a studious man might be able to ascertain what books he could get here when he came to London."t
Is a printed catalogue of the British Museum practicable? The proposed catalogue would certainly be one of the largest orders that has ever gone into a printing office. The present MS. catalogue extends to about two thousand folio volumes. The number of separate titles in these volumes is estimated by Mr. Winter Jones at three million entries, and the yearly additions are estimated to amount to nearly thirty thousand volumes.
The supposed difficulties were summed up by Mr. Winter Jones in closing the discussion at the Conference of Librarians, when he is reported to have said "that he would be very glad to see the catalogue of the British Museum printed; but there were three million titles, and the catalogue would be of no use unless these titles were properly arranged. It would take twenty-five or thirty years to print in proper order, and by that time three hundred thousand or four hundred thousand more titles would have accumulated.”
What are the functions of a good catalogue? Much confusion of thought has existed upon this topic. Dr. Crestadoro has most clearly indicated the real purposes of a catalogue. The principles he lays down have been previously applied in practice, but only in a partial manner, and no previous writer has so clearly and definitely stated them. A catalogue has two distinct objects. The first is to declare exactly and accurately what books are in the library. The second is to give a clue by which the searcher can find every author, title, and subject named in the titles of these books. The first part is an inventory, the second a directory. This diversity of function suggests a difference of treatment. The arrangement of the inventorial portion is a matter of comparatively little moment. It may be alphabetical, or classified, or simply a register of the titles of the books as they are added to † Ibid., 4370.
* Report of British Museum Inquiry, 4378.
the library. The inventorial title simply declares that a work having that title is in the collection. For the finding or directory part of the catalogue the alphabetical arrangement is indispensable. This is really a concordance index of every word named in the inventorial-entry at all likely to become the subject of inquiry. Each title has attached to it a consecutive number to which the index entries refer. This plan in a crude form has generally been applied to the calendaring of MSS. A partial example of its application to printed books is afforded by the catalogue of the Chetham Library, of which the first volume was issued in 1791. The advantage of this method is that the body of the catalogue need never be reprinted. As each fresh volume is issued the indexes are incorporated. Thus the last volume of the Chetham catalogue, published in 1863, is an index to all the authors named in volumes published at intervals during three quarters of a century.
How far does the present MS. catalogue of the British Museum afford a basis for such a catalogue? There are four copies made by the carbon process of each book-title. Three of these are arranged alphabetically and used for various purposes. The fourth set is arranged in boxes in the order in which the books stand upon the shelves. As the books themselves are arranged in nearly a thousand distinct classes, these title-slips really form a classified catalogue. There are certain exceptions to this rule. For instance, the Grenville collection and the King's library have an independent existence, and do not fall within the general classification. The first step towards the utilisation of these classified titles would be to incorporate with them the titles of all the books in collections now kept distinct. Every book in these special collections should have a thin dummy representative placed in their proper place on the general shelf arrangement. The classi fication of titles of the separate collections would not be either a difficult or a lengthy process. At the most it would be the work of a few months. The three million titles would thus be "properly arranged." They are already for the most part arranged. They would form an inventorial classified catalogue of all the books in the museum. The printer would quickly reduce them to more manageable proportions than they at present display. The advantage of adopting the classified arrangement for the invento
rial entries, in the case of the British Museum, is that each section might then be sold separately. Thus the student, who only wanted to,know what books there were on mathematics, would not have to buy also the portion relating to the history of France. The architect could have the books on his science without being burdened by lists relating to medicine or astrology. Thus many would purchase the parts relating to their own special studies. Those whose wants were wider and public institutions would obtain the entire work. Additions could be treated in precisely the same manner. As fast as books were added to the library the titles would be arranged in this classified form, and as soon as there were enough they could be issued in supplementary volumes and parts, so that the mathematician could from time to time add to his first volume the supplements concerning his favourite science, and the architect keep up his acquaintance with the bibliography of his own profession. These titles should be stereotyped and sold to all libraries and persons who cared to buy them. In this way many bibliographical lists of great use to students would be undertaken by private persons and societies. This suggestion of stereotyping titles for co-operative cataloguing was made by the late Professor C. C. Jewett.
So much for the inventorial part of the catalogue. This, even, if issued alone would be an immense boon. All classified catalogues, however, need the aid of good indexes to supplement their deficiencies. The importance of indexes is beginning to be better understood. There is a witty saying that "the index of a book should be made by the author; anybody can do the rest of it." Every name and topic that can possibly become an object of research should be made into an index-entry. Each section should have its own index, and each index-entry should be separately stereotyped, so as to allow of every needful manipulation. The preparation of the indexes could go on concurrently with the printing. The inventorial catalogue would always remain valid, and the incorporation at intervals of the successive indexes would give minute references to authors and topics which the most elaborate classification could not supply.
It is difficult to state exactly the extent of the work. rough approximation it may be estimated that it would be equal to about one hundred volumes of the size of Chambers's Encyclo
pædia, seventy containing the inventorial titles and thirty the finding index.
The question of cost is, if not paramount, at least important. Mr. G. Bullen has hazarded a guess that the printing might cost £100,000. This sum may appear startling, yet after all it is much less than the cost of a single iron-clad, which goes to the bottom of the sea at the first available opportunity without having ever been of the slightest service.
How long would it take to print such a catalogue? A compositor could set up in type about forty of these titles each day. By having one hundred men employed upon the task it could be accomplished within three years. A greater number of men would, of course, accomplish the task more quickly. '
The plan thus sketched, if energetically carried out, would give us in the shortest time, in the most useful form, and at the cheapest rate, a catalogue of the books in the British Museum. It is devised to meet the objections sometimes made to the printing of the catalogues of libraries of the first magnitude. In this we may surely ask our nation to take the lead. Such a record would be an inestimable boon to learning all over the world. The wonder is that it has been so long delayed.