THE BRITISH MUSEUM LIBRARY.
THE Library of the British Museum has during the last thirty years gained so commanding a position as not merely a worthy national collection, but as a universal library, 'that the appointment of Mr. Watts, previously the -second officer (officially " Assistant-Keeper of the Printed Books "), to the Principal "Keepership," which we announced last week, may be regarded as an event interesting to the world of letters, foreign as well as English. The Trustees indeed have reason 'to be proud that on the retirement of Mr. Panizzi, the Principal Librarian (or, more properly, Governor of the entire institution, including besides the Library the various departments of natural history, antiquity, 8tc.), no one could be found better qualified to succeed him than Mr. J. Winter Jones, previously Keeper of the Printed Books; and again, that on Mr. Jones' promotion the officer next in -rank was a gentleman marked out by character, attainments, and previous experience as specially :fitted, perhaps above any literary man living, for the direction of a library. They may indeed consider themselves fortunateto have retained lir. Watts' services through more 'than a quarter of a century of subordinate -labour, till it could now receive its appropriate consummation. Nothing but the most untiring zeal for the formation of a truly great library, with a modest renunciation of literary distinction -such as Mr. Watts was well fitted to attain, could have kept him attached so long and so comparatively .obscurely to the British Museum Library. The librarian's career is indeed an obscure one. He who accepts the charge of the books of others rarely has the opportunity of producing any himself. He soon finds himself so engrossed by the cares of preserving, arranging, and cataloguing, that little time or spirit is left him to pursue independent studies of his own. If he has opportunities such as occur to few others :of obtaining a general survey .of all that has been said ,on subjects that interest him, this will in most oases show:kiln, to his -terror, the vast mass of reading that ought to precede any original effort, and rather paralyse than stimulate his powers. If he writes, be will generally either attach himself in -the modest capacity of editor to some ancient author whose rare works deserve to be dis- interred, or select some small .and well defined,topic for the sub- ject of an essay or monograph. Without travelling beyond the walls of the British Museum Library, we find conspicuous and scholarly, examples of the first from the pens of Sir H. Ellis, Sir F. Madden, Messrs. J. W. Jones, Bond, Major, and many others ; and of the latter from Rev. R. Garnett, Messrs. Watts, Rye, and others. Yet the obscurity of the librarian is not necessarily, nor generally, due to dullness of character or.attain- meats. It is too generally deemed a very easy thing to catalogue a book ; and to order _one out of a bookseller's list,. and to see that when ordered it monies, mould appear still easier. Those whose experience is limited to " books of the present season" at Mudie's cannot understand the difficulties that beset the very -same operation on more distant fields. Place before them the .catalogue of a Warsaw or Pesth Medic, or worse still, one from St. Petersburg, in the Russian type, and they will see one difficulty —that of language, and will .acknowledge that, -as a library, however large, cannot:keep in its employ native professors of all the two dozen.languages that .areoot merely.spaken, but printed in :Europe alone (tosay nothing of other quarters of the ,glebe), there must be men of high scholarship who .can acquire .any language, however obscure, that may be required. But the Ian- guage,clitficulty is not the only,.nor ,perhaps the chief one. Our "books of the _present season" obligingly tell us ,generally on their title-page the place and year of their pnbliaation., and whether they are " in two " or " in three volumes," and in most cases the author's name,; and even where the latter is .concealed, common repute or the reports of _reviewers supply the name of 'the " Author of the Weir of Reiklyffe" or "fff jam Zralfax-n
But recede three centuries into the past, and you find yourself among books a large proportion of which possess none of these ready marks of identification. If the author's name be given at all, it may be hidden somewhere in the body of the work, which must therefore be carefully ransacked in the uncertain hope of finding some information. And if the search be rewarded by the discovery of some such designation as " Joannes Presbyter" or " Petrns Diaconus," who is to tell us which among the numerous priests and deacons bearing the common names John and Peter is the one intended ? Thus, even if it be conceded (which it can hardly be) that the treatment of modern English books is as simple and mechanical as is commonly supposed, distance in either space or time superinduces such diffi- culties as render the librarian's labour one of a different order altogether.
But there are other difficulties besetting the keeper of a large and increasing library little known even to the custodians of small collections. A library which is open to increase should lose no opportunity of filling up its deficiencies. If old books are to be admitted, they must be sought whenever they appear in the book market, and especially when valuable collections are brought to the hammer. As these occasions happen rarely and suddenly, it is of the utmost importance to be able to discover at very short notice what books are already in the library and what are not. The rarer and more valuable a book is, the more important is this, because the money in that case wasted by the purchase of what turns out to be a duplicate is so much greater. Moreover, the larger the library is, the more eager is the desire to fill up its few defects, and at the same time the greater the danger of buying a duplicate. The rules for cataloguing must be directed to this end, even more imperatively than they must consult the convenience of the public who use the library ; for any failing in the former function may suck the life-blood of the library by wasting its funds, whereas their falling short towards the public is only a temporary inconvenience, which may be obviated in various ways.
We have said that the British Museum Library is not national, but universal. This is to be understood as true on the largest scale. Every library of any magnitude must transcend the limits of one language and one nation, unless it puts a most unnatural constraint upon itself. The very presence of editions of the Greek and Latin classics might be held to violate the strictly English character of an English library ; and questions as to the admissi- bility of English books published abroad, of foreign books pub- lished here, of translations, and the like, could scarcely be answered without giving, in some sense or other, a stamp of universality. But there is a long step between a partial and hesitating admission of some foreign books and a deliberate search for them. For at least half a century from the establishment of the library the regular admission of general foreign literature can scarcely be regarded as adopted as a principle. Yet if the library were to be universal as to subject, it could not properly be confined as to nation and language. Science speaks in all tongues ; and if a special botanical or medical library must be drawn from all coun- tries, the botanical and medical departments of a national British library can do no less. And as to history, the fates of all nations are linked together by such constant threads that no one country can be really adequately represented on this field without the pre- sence of every other. Moreover, our aim being to secure the best possible library for Englishmen, we cannot neglect any literature which an Englishman may desire to study. We must not, by our neglect here, force him to emigrate to Paris to study French litera- ture, or to St. Petersburg to study Russian.
It is not of course pretended that every book published on the Continent should be purchased for our library. The admission of works of science, history, philology, theology—of all which aim to extend knowledge—ought perhaps to be limited only by the funds available. Periodical publications, from the daily paper to the scientific review, ought also to be secured in large numbers, on account of the valuable data for the history of nations, families, or individuals, which may lurk in their obscurest corners. The importance of the voluminous Hansards, Blue-books, and other proceedings of State of every civilized government in the world, will be perhaps still more readily acknowledged. The less essen- tial books are the lighter species of fiction, translations, and com- pilations that present nothing original. Some indeed treat a large library with a sort of distant veneration, and affect to feel shocked at the idea of its being ever used for any purpose so common as novel-reading. But it is surely well that Mr. Watts, in his selection of the foreign literature, does not, like these, ' Strive to wind' himself ' too high For sinful man beneath the sky,'
and evinces a genial appreciation of the novel. How much may- be learned, not of the outward lot of a people or a class only, but of their habits of thought and feeling, their greatnesses and meannesses, from their fictions ! The novel may thus give to the intending historian as much of the soul of a people as the news- paper does of the facts and dates which form the skeleton of its history. Macaulay's celebrated judgment as to the importance of one small branch of fiction—national ballads—may surely be justly extended to a much larger field. At the same time it is perhaps undesirable, and certainly not essential, to pretend to completeness on this field. A wise discretion should be used in the selection.
Mr. Watts has himself tersely and happily expressed the principle by which he has been guided, in the following words :— " The object which has been kept in view during the last three- and-twenty years has been to bring together from all quarters the useful, the elegant, and the curious literature of every language,. to unite with the best English library in England or the world, the best Russian library out of Russia, the best German out of Germany, the best Spanish out of Spain, and so for every language, from Italian to Icelandic, from Polish to Portuguese."
In one direction, however, it may be possible to us to make our collection not only " the best Russian library out of Russia," but more complete than any in Russia. Owing to the severe censor- ship of the Russian press, the thoughts of Russian and Polish Liberals are forced to seek publication elsewhere. A considerable and increasing number of books in those languages are published at Brussels, Paris, London, Berlin, Geneva, and other towns. These books are of course not to be found in the libraries of St- Petersburg and Moscow. Similarly, the pamphlets of French. political emigres at Brussels are not to be met with in Paris. Thus, perhaps, in no country in Europe but our own is it possible without let or hindrance to bring together a collection complete in this direction.
The British Museum Library is not yet all before the public. We are still, told to wait a few years before we can fully know all its riches. The Rabbinical Hebrew books are not entered in the general catalogue, and no special catalogue of them has yet been placed before the public. The same is true of the Chinese books,. and of books in the other Oriental languages, in so far as they are printed in Oriental characters. The immense collection of news- papers is as yet only very imperfectly registered. Until catalogues. of these various collections are made accessible to readers, they remain practically sealed treasures, notwithstanding the willing- ness of the officers to produce any of them that may be asked for- It will probably be one of the distinctions of Mr. Watts's keeper- ship to make these treasures available. A very few years, not more than two or three, ought to see the great work of the incor- poration of all the entries in the old catalogues with the new general catalogue completed. He will then, it is hoped, be able to turn his attention to the compilation of catalogues of the above- named collections. It must, however, be remembered that though, these events, memorable in the history of the Museum, may fall. into the period of Mr. Watts's keepership, a vast proportion of the obscure labour leading to that consummation has been accomplished under the direction of his predecessors. •
The question of the cataloguing system is so generally discussed in connection with the British Museum Library that we cannot• pass it entirely by. We have no desire to laud or to blame indis- criminately. For a library of immense extent and daily increase, embracing all subjects and all languages, a system of strict alpha- betical entry under the author's name is unquestionably the best,. because the simplest both for cataloguer and reader, and it fails to. suit only about one book in every ten, which is published without. any author's name. For these anonymous books special rules. must be adopted—a matter of somewhat minute detail, which we shall not here discuss. The complaint which is most frequently made by the public is of the absence of any catalogue classified according to subject. A reader wants to know the latest books on chemistry, knows that many have been published during the last year or two, perhaps remembers that one important manual appeared at Paris, perhaps knows the title and all but the author's name—in these cases is it right that he should be unable to pra- cure the book ? It is no answer to the complaint to say that though the arrangement in the catalogue is alphabetical, that on the shelves is according to subject, unless the dangerous prin- ciple were to be adopted of allowing readers access in such cases to the shelves. A catalogue raisonne is, after all, the only remedy ; and such a one there must be—not instead of the'
alphabetical one (which is far more reliable and expeditious in nine cases out of ten), but in addition to it. The expediency of such a catalogue for libraries of immense size is indeed often questioned ; the list of writers on any one subject being then so immense as to give no aid in the identification of the one book sought. But the student wishes not always to find one book already known to him, but to discover what books unknown to him have been written. It might even be plausibly argued, especially of a library rich in rare and even unique books, that its most important or most characteristic function is to supply books not obtainable or even known of elsewhere ; and how can it be said to supply them at all, if they are bidden away under the name of an author known to no one but him who has catalogued them ? while the student anxiously trying to discover the very informa- tion such books contain, or to read up all the literature of one special subject, has no means of access to them? The objection raised against a classed catalogue as useless on account of the magnitude of each class, is best remedied by excluding from it all broadsides and pamphlets below a certain number of pages. This would at once bring the classifiable stock of even the largest library within manageable compass. Nor need such small pub- lications be entirely shut out from classification, since they may be grouped into series according to subject and shortly designated by some made-up title sufficiently indicating their nature, under which they might appear in the classified list. It might also be found desirable to exclude works of pure fiction, and various kinds of trivial publications. And, as the object intended in a classified catalogue is to secure ready access to original works which enlarge the sphere of knowledge, mere compilations which add no real information, but only glean from earlier works, might also be profitably excluded, since they only swamp the catalogue with their numbers, and render the works of real science less easily discoverable.
Much therefore will remain to be done when the great general catalogue is completed up to date. It would be an injustice to Mr. Watts 's predecessors, as well as to himself, to imagine that these objects have not been constantly contemplated as the future work of the department. To supply deficiencies of even a com- paratively recent date (as, for example, in the Continental litera- ture from about 1750 to 1830, which is far from complete) is neces- sarily a work of years ; and it is very satisfactory to know that men holding the enlightened views and possessing the industry of Mr. J. Winter Jones and Mr. Watts have for many years had their attention directed towards this object, and neglected no opportunity of gradually making up, with the large funds now placed at their disposal, for the omissions caused by the compara- tive penury of former days ; whilst the present system of pro- curing the contemporary literature immediately after publication secures their successors against a similar legacy of omissions.