The final day of the recent CILIP ‘Hidden Treasures’ conference (see previous post) took place in the friendly and familiar surroundings of the British Library. A few words of welcome from Dr Kristian Jensen, éminence grise at the BL, on the importance of making collections accessible and meaningful. Well, yes – we are all in favour of that (although sometimes actions speak louder than words).
As a concrete example, Adrian Edwards (Lead Curator of Printed Historical Sources at the BL) was the first speaker of the day, referring back to last year’s ‘Comics Unmasked’ exhibition (see the post of that name from 1st May 2014). His theme was the uncovering of the treasure-trove of comics of all kinds that the British Library had acquired in one way or another over the years, but more or less hidden away – largely uncatalogued, ill-catalogued or otherwise inaccessible. He was able to use the potential for mounting a major international exhibition to leverage the resources (always in short supply) to get the comics sorted out, properly catalogued, and made available for essentially the first time, calling in outside experts to advise on the exhibition.
It was all a great success – a deservedly popular and interesting exhibition – but if this is really the only way to get proper resources for the retrospective cataloguing that the Library so badly needs, I do wonder whether some of the other ‘hidden’ collections at the BL will ever get catalogued at all. I frequently offer the Library books which it doesn’t appear to have, only to discover that it does have them (or may well have them) somewhere after all. I fail to understand why our national library, the library which should lead the way, set an example and inspire all the others (not just in this country), does not make the proper cataloguing of all its holdings an absolutely top priority. We all know that this is the only way to make the collections ‘accessible and meaningful’ – if that is truly the aim. I know I am not alone in fearing that our national library is nowadays sometimes guilty of wandering down the path of showmanship rather than scholarship.
Cataloguing has to be properly done and overseen by scholars who fully understand the material. It needs expertise. It needs specialist knowledge. That is what gives it meaning. This is what makes it accessible. I say this, because I had been shocked to discover only a couple of days earlier that the retiring head of the Map Library at the BL, my old friend and colleague Peter Barber, is not to be replaced. Not only is he not to be replaced by anyone of comparable stature in the history of cartography field, but he is not to be replaced by anyone at all. The Map Library, that great historic glory, that essential pillar of the British Library, one of the finest collections of maps in the world (in many ways probably the very finest), is apparently simply to be subsumed into some amorphous ‘Western Heritage’ department. If we wanted an object lesson in how to hide away a magnificent treasure, this would probably be it.
Now, I fully understand that maps are just a part of our heritage and should not be wholly divorced from the rest of it. I fully understand that maps are scattered throughout the library and are not just to be found in the Map Library: they turn up in manuscripts, in printed books, in newspapers and magazines (and no doubt in comics as well) – but all the more reason to employ a Head of the Map Library who fully understands the field. I know that many historians of cartography have become too distanced from the rest of book trade history (it’s a point I have made often enough myself), but to argue that maps are just part of a single strand of heritage is a nonsense. Maps are different. It’s like arguing that cats and dogs are actually the same because both are small furry animals kept as household pets – everyone knows they are different (and some might even turn out under an expert eye to be rabbits, chinchillas or hamsters).
To downgrade this great Map Library (a magnificent library of four-and-a-half-million maps) by leaving it headless, rudderless and lost is a disgrace. For our national library to do this in our name demeans us all. It demeans the heritage we seek to preserve. It insults all those who have built up this great cartographic library. It makes a nonsense of aspirations to accessibility. It simply says that the British Library no longer cares about its cartographic collections. Map libraries across the world have long looked to the BL Map Library to lead by example. Until now, it always has. It has been a haven of scholarship. It has always been headed by scholars of international reputation – the late Helen Wallis was the first I knew personally, the finest scholar I have ever had the privilege of working with. To leave the Map Library without a head – not even to attempt to find one – diminishes our stature. It damages the Library’s standing in the eyes of the world. It also leaves the Map Library powerless to attract the sponsorship and funding the BL so badly needs. One large donor at least is furious. This is a mistaken and foolish policy. It’s not yet too late to think again.
Digression over. To return to the conference, our next speaker was the irrepressible and enthusiastic Lara Haggerty from the Innerpeffray Library – a tiny library in the middle of nowhere with a bus once a week, but founded in about 1680 and Scotland’s oldest free public lending library. A heartening tale of this magical place successfully re-inventing itself as a tourist attraction. Lara made us all want to go there – and one day we shall.
An equally heartening tale was that given by the very impressive Katie Sambrook, Head of Special Collections at King’s College, London, on her library’s absorption in 2007 of the old Foreign & Commonwealth Office Library. A once hidden and largely uncatalogued collection of around 100,000 books, charmingly and idiosyncratically complete with jolly novels of colonial life as well as all the usual things we might expect in such a collection – still not fully catalogued but already providing an invaluable resource for students and researchers, full of things not readily found elsewhere. She said at one point something along the lines of “Cataloguers are often the people who know a collection best and can promote it best” – my point entirely. Why don’t more libraries understand this?
After a coffee-break we had Katharine Hogg from the Foundling Museum telling us about her work with the Gerald Coke Handel Collection – an internationally important collection of material relating to Handel and his contemporaries, including manuscripts, printed music, books, libretti, artworks and ephemera. Assembled by Gerald Coke over a period of sixty years (from about 1930 onwards) and left to the nation by his widow. All fascinating and all things I never knew. Another library we need to visit.
Next up was Hannah Manktelow, a Ph. D. student who has been doing wonderful and entertaining things researching provincial performances of Shakespeare, mainly in the nineteenth century, using the British Library’s extensive (but under-used and uncatalogued), collection of playbills. The BL are planning a Shakespeare exhibition sometime soon, which probably explains why they are now becoming accessible.
Very good as all the morning’s talks had been, it was the last which in a way I found most interesting. A private collector, Mark Byford – whom unaccountably I’d never met before – talked about his personal collection of perhaps 1,000 Tudor and Jacobean books. An interesting and unusual collection in focusing entirely on period rather than subject. Although his personal collection, he clearly regards it as being in some sense a teaching collection, making it available to students, even taking books to groups of students to talk about and instruct in provenance and other matters. He fears greatly that what he regards as the demise of the antiquarian book shop (even perhaps the demise of the rare book trade) is adversely impacting on the ways in which people, especially young people, encounter rare books. I ran into him again at York a week or two later – plainly someone we should talk to and listen to. I’ll see what I can do.
The formal proceedings ended with a round-up, questions from the floor and a general discussion. I hoped that we should see more booksellers at future conferences (Liverpool next year) – and that booksellers and librarians should talk to each other more. The rare book world is beleaguered – and we are after all (or at least should be) on the same side.