Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland

John MacColl reviews the first two volumes of this very substantial three-part work, covering the periods to 1640 and 1640-1850.

Cambridge University Press has, with the first two volumes of its three-volume history of libraries in Britain and Ireland, provided a wealth of fascinating information on the development of libraries and librarianship from a sterling collection of historians and scholar librarians. The publication of an edited history results in a denser packing of detail than would be achieved by a work of single authorship, since so many specialists each have an abundance of knowledge to cram into their relatively small allocations of space. Volume 1, which traces the history of libraries from the earliest appearance of manuscripts in these islands to the Civil War, contains 24 chapters, usually by one, but sometimes two, authors. Volume 2 continues the history down to the passing of the Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1850, in another 31 chapters. Fifty-nine separate authors are involved in these first two volumes, representing a magnificent feat of commissioning and editorship.

'Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past' wrote Machiavelli. Reading these 55 chapters creates interesting correspondences for librarians today who are grappling with recorded information, the memory of mankind, in a variety of new forms undreamt of by the subjects of these volumes. Readers of Ariadne, interested in these new forms, will be struck by the parallels as the material we manage undergoes a technology shift on the scale of that described in Volume 1.

Once printing had taken hold properly, for instance, in the 16th century, books became plentiful and dropped in price to the point at which booksellers usurped the functions of libraries, which until that point had existed to allow precious and expensive manuscripts and early printed books to be shared by a privileged few. In a similar way today we find publishers, booksellers and even authors selling their works directly and cheaply on the Internet, on the basis that speedy acquisition by means of e-commerce is more valuable to many users than patient borrowing by means of a library. Or again, after the invention of printing, scholars quickly realised the potential of this new technology to present reference works in a way which was superior to manuscript equivalents, with indexing and cross-referencing benefiting from the print composition process. This led to the destruction of older manuscript compilations in the way our modern libraries have seen print reference sections almost disappear as online databases provide much faster and richer ways to find very specific information. And in the early days of printed catalogues in the 16th century, we see an example of the way technology gradually achieved disintermediation, as the inclusion in the catalogue record of two or three words from the recto page of the second folio would identify a manuscript book uniquely, thus preventing a malicious borrower from stealing it and substituting a cheaper copy. Librarians could thereby be released from a tedious checking task for each returned volume, and lending took a step in the direction of self-service.

Theft was clearly a big problem in medieval libraries, even when most of the borrowers were monks. It was common for access to the book cupboards to be provided only by the use of three different locks, requiring all three key holders to be present together to unlock them, in a physical equivalent to the use of PINs, passwords and usernames to access particularly sensitive digital resources today.

Collecting entered a new dimension at the end of the Renaissance Period, when for the first time collectors began to collect more books than they needed for their own intellectual enquiry, or could ever conceivably have time to read. These collections found their way into the early university libraries in Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin and the five Scottish universities, into Sion College theological library, into the Royal Library in London, and - later - into the national libraries. The art of collecting for the needs of future scholars seeks rediscovery today as we struggle to define digital curation. In his contribution to Volume 1, 'The libraries of the antiquaries (c. 1580-1640) and the idea of a national collection', Richard Ovenden points to the importance of antiquaries in forming 'a new vision of what collecting meant'. That vision included the importance of the institutional role in building research collections - an argument which those of us seeking to build up institutional research repositories today have made many times. It may be some consolation that it took a considerable period of time for that role to be accepted.

We can also take some warnings from past mistakes. Many manuscripts were discarded not just following the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the Reformation, but also because libraries needed to make space to accommodate the increasing flood of printed equivalents. Initiatives now like the Internet Archive are predicated on a sense, or a fear, that we are taking decisions too cheaply in respect of today's jettisoned material, i.e. early Web sites whose value as a historical record is sacrificed to the desire for relevance, in the absence of collectors.

The worldcat.org of the 16th century was Konrad Gesner's Bibliotheca Universalis, a relatively successful attempt to record everything ever written. In perhaps the first gesture towards library consortium building, he suggested that other libraries use it as a catalogue of their own collections. Where the British approach to librarianship was ahead of continental Europe was in mooting the idea of a national collection as early as the mid-16th century, despite the fact that it did not exist for another century and a half (though the Bodleian Library provided a de facto national collection in the interim). But in other respects, the continental European libraries were ahead, as Catholic Europe assembled its great counter-Reformation libraries in Rome, Madrid and Milan, rich in books and manuscripts, and displaying a wealthy disregard for the use of chains to secure their books. Chaining, however, went on well into the 18th century in the suspicious, penny-pinching gloomy British libraries - dark archives in the most literal sense, in the days before artificial lighting, when the prevalence of destruction by fire meant that many of them also remained unheated.

Literacy spread, assisted by developments in printing, and in the period of the Industrial Revolution a large self-education movement was fostered by the Mechanics' Institutes, which provided libraries as well as lectures for those who could not afford a school education. At the same time as these sober and upright improving institutions, libraries for sociability and entertainment also appeared, with the appearance of circulating libraries, prepared to lend novels which had made their appearance in the 18th century, and became massively popular, despite the fears of many of the middle-class improvers that they tended to deprave their readers. Until the passing of the Public Libraries and Museums Act in 1850, the reading tastes of the British public were satisfied only at a cost. Circulating libraries did not provide books free at the point of use, but in an early example of micro-payments, loaned novels out in parts - typically tuppence a night for a chapter or couple of chapters of the latest novel. With public libraries, however, the reading tastes both of those whose reading was of the self-improving variety, and those who chose entertainment, were met for free. We might speculate on whether the same outcome is likely in our developing days of digital content.

And we should feel we can speculate, because we librarians represent strong values to those immersed in the 'republic of the learned', which was the user community claimed by the Bodleian Library. In earliest times we would probably have been chaplains as well as librarians, celibates dedicated to the service both of learning and of God. C.Y. Ferdinand tells us that by the time of Thomas Bodley, in the 16th century, we would be 'learned, of good presence, temper, and manners'. P.S. Morrish, in his chapter on 'Library management in the pre-professional age', tells us that Thomas Carlyle, contemplating selection of the first Librarian of the London Library, described the ideal librarian as '...a wise servant, watchful, diligent, discerning what is what, incessantly endeavouring, rough-hewing all things for us; and, under the guise of a wise servant, ruling actually while he serves'.

These volumes themselves constitute a rich collection of British and Irish library history, and Cambridge University Press is to be commended on their publication. Richard Ovenden describes how the antiquaries of the early modern period developed an understanding of the activity of historical research as a function inseparable from collecting. This suggests that history is a founding discipline of librarianship, as relevant to digital as to print or vellum collection and curation. These two volumes of the Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland therefore make a substantial contribution to our understanding of why we do what we do, and how we should continue to do it.

Author Details

John MacColl
Head, Digital Library
Edinburgh University Library

Email: john.maccoll@ed.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.lib.ed.ac.uk/

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