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Coping with catalogues: Thomas Carlyle in the British Museum.

As the British Library prepares for its forthcoming divorce from the British Museum and its move to its controversial modern building it is amusing to see how one of the great Victorians coped in the splendid old building.

Thomas Carlyle over and over criticised the British Museum. Can, he asked, any individual read 'to any purpose' there? He claimed that he never entered its reading room without getting 'the Museum headache.' Though he admitted that he was rather a thin-skinned sort of student and more sensible to such inconveniences than most, he still found the room crowded, noisy, and jostling. There were often present individuals who were 'in a state of imbecility', some of whom were sent there 'to pass away their time.' He remarked on one 'mad' person 'who used to blow his nose very loudly every half hour'. However, the intellectually elitist Carlyle also disapproved of those BM readers, 'a vast majority,' 'persons whom it is not worth while to take much trouble to accommodate,' who compiled and excerpted for such lesser projects as encyclopaedias, biographical dictionaries and 'the stuff called "useful knowledge".' He also complained, perhaps more understandably, of the fleas that pervaded the BM.

To escape these inconveniences to study, Carlyle had frequently sought access to the quiet inner rooms storing the library of George III. However, he was never successful, his requests being repeatedly refused by Antonio Panizzi, Keeper of the Printed Books. It is not totally clear how the enmity between the two men began. The most commonly adduced reason is the slighting mention of Panizzi in an article by Carlyle published in the Westminster Review. Referring to a collection of works on the French Revolution buried in the BM, Carlyle suggested applying to 'the respectable Sub-librarian' so that one might 'gain access to his room, and have the satisfaction of mounting on ladders and reading the outside titles of his books.' It is thought that Panizzi did not take kindly to being called a 'respectable Sub-librarian.' At any rate, to Carlyle Panizzi remained 'Vulture Panizzi,' and, though Italian, was dismissed by Carlyle as 'the true representative of English dilettantism, Pedantry, Babblement, and hollow dining and drinking Nonsense of so-called "Literature" in this epoch.' Moreover, he was 'a formidable barrier against any earnest work of the historical kind.'

The life of Antonio Panizzi was multi-faceted: Italian patriot and fervent worker for the unification of Italy; lawyer; exile in England after escaping execution in his native Modena; poverty-stricken teacher of Italian in Liverpool; first Professor of Italian Language and Literature at the new University of London; writer and scholar; junior and finally Principal Librarian of the British Museum from 1856 to 1866. Today he is probably best remembered for his revolutionary work as a cataloguer and for his ninety-one Rules. Carlyle, mirroring his concern for public libraries, also displayed a strong interest in the nature of catalogues, though his views and those of his enemy Panizzi on this topic were quite opposed.

Due to the gross inadequacy of the BM's 1787 two-volume catalogue, the earliest printed one, the Trustees in 1807 had called for a new edition which duly appeared in 1819 in seven volumes. This edition was totally out of date at the time of printing and by Panizzi's day had grown, because of the plethora of interleaved manuscript additions and corrections, to twenty-three cumbersome volumes. Panizzi readily perceived not only that it lacked currency but also that it was riddled with errors. The obvious problem was that it had been compiled without adherence to any accepted body of formal rules. Before the introduction of Panizzi's own system of ninety-one Rules a cataloguer decided for himself his own particular methods and to what extent he would follow the practice of others. Furthermore, it was common practice for a number of cataloguers to work independently on one catalogue. For example, the 1819 BM catalogue had been compiled chiefly by two individuals, Henry Ellis and his assistant Baker, both of whom had employed different regulations in compilation, thereby leading to a clear absence of uniformity. Moreover, its entries were only compared with the actual volumes during the printing. Generally the 1787 entries were accepted, or if they were clearly in error, they were corrected but without the actual volumes being themselves examined.

At the time of the 1848-49 Royal Commission appointed to 'Inquire into the Constitution and Government of the British Museum,' Panizzi had much opportunity to vindicate his methodology of cataloguing and to air his grievances about the existing catalogue as well as the new one being compiled. Carlyle also gave extensive evidence before this Commission. It has aptly been remarked by Ruth Stout that 'such great interest in the minutiae of cataloguing has never been displayed at any other time by scholar, reader, and government.'

Many witnesses gave evidence against the need for rules and more specifically Panizzi's ninety-one Rules. In fact, JG Cochrane when asked whether he objected to all rules in the compilation of catalogues, replied: 'Yes, very much.' Particularly annoying to some were the full and often long entries utilized by Panizzi. These critics held that short, concise titles would suffice. Not only would this make it easier to scan through the catalogue, but cataloguers would be able to catalogue more per diem. There would be the added benefit of hastening the printing process. However, Panizzi, adamantly in favour of detailed cataloguing principles, declared that it would perhaps be satisfactory, to enter a small library of 500 volumes and find 'Abelard's Works' in its catalogue. No other information would be required. But in 'a great and national library' where there might be as many as ten editions or works of Abelard, then, he declared, one has 'a right to find those editions and works so well distinguished from each other that (one) may get exactly the particular one' desired. The catalogue, in short, had 'to be full and accurate.'

On July 23, 1848 Panizzi observed to the Commissioners: 'One of the great misfortunes of my department is that every one who has a library, or knows anything about printed books, thinks that he knows about the cataloguing of them.' He would undoubtedly have included Carlyle in this group. Certainly, the latter spoke at great length on catalogues and the principles of cataloguing during his evidence.

It was 'an immense evil,' declared Carlyle, that no printed catalogue existed at the BM and that it was extremely difficult to find any book in the one manuscript copy. Because of the want of 'efficient catalogues,' use of the library by serious students was 'fatally hampered.' Indeed, a library without a catalogue was useless: 'it is a Polyphemus without any eye in his head.' In fact, he thought it a necessity that there be a printed catalogue that one could take home to consult at leisure. It was even more important that this catalogue should be readily accessible in other libraries about the country. It should certainly be available in all the great provincial libraries if, he declared, 'there is to be any real studying in England.'

Carlyle also insisted to the Commissioners that the BM compile and print catalogues on specific subjects, or class catalogues, that a patron might purchase. Some fifteen years earlier he had reason to consult a large collection of works on the French Revolution that he had heard of by accident. However, he sought a list, even 'a mere auctioneer's list,' of the book titles in vain. The BM's General Manuscript Catalogue was ineffectual as he could find no indication in it that any such collection of works existed. But without such a list, the books, he stated, 'were entirely useless.' As a result, 'for all practical purposes this Collection of ours might as well have been locked up in water-tight chests and sunk on the Dogger-bank, as put into the British Museum.' But class catalogues, he believed, were relatively easy to create. However, deciding which catalogues to make would be 'delicate' and 'would try a man's capacity of insight.' He considered that there might be one catalogue of works on English history that would be circulated everywhere, others concerned with works on the French Revolution, and yet others on the Reformation. Moreover, such class catalogues, printed and sold throughout the nation, could, he thought, even be enhanced by the scholars who used them. These scholars might publish their own improved catalogues. He was particularly desirous that the existing twelve-volume manuscript catalogue of works relating to the Civil War be printed.

Carlyle acknowledged to the Commission that his brother, only the day before, had great difficulty locating a manuscript by Brunetto Latini. He finally found it in the catalogue under Brunet, as if the author had been French and Brunet his surname rather than his first name. Though Lord Seymour observed that this episode showed the inconvenience of an imperfect catalogue, Carlyle replied that it manifested 'the great convenience of having some catalogue; and how much superior even a bad one is to none.' Indeed, he eschewed the notion that a perfect catalogue was possible. Though exactitude was to be aimed at, he was resolute that the very worst catalogue was preferable to no catalogue at all. He was particularly proud of the printed catalogue at the London Library, a private institution that he played a major role in establishing.

A fundamental question in the proceedings of the Commission was whether the BM's catalogue should be a 'finding list' or a 'reference tool'. Many, including Carlyle, felt that Panizzi's catalogue came into the latter category. The main criticism was that it was excessively elaborate, which accordingly made it more difficult for readers to locate their items. Carlyle had little time for Panizzi's project, believing it a great bother to wait year after year until the 'elaborate' catalogue was ready. 'If a man insists,' he observed to the Commissioners, 'upon getting every brick into a mathematically exact rectangular shape, he will never finish his work; he must be satisfied with a certain degree of accuracy.' In fact, Carlyle was categoric that 'elaborate catalogues are not what we require; but legible catalogues, accessible to everybody.' For the raison d'etre of a library catalogue to Carlyle was to inform patrons what books are in that library. Any other merits possessed by the catalogue, he declared, were 'as nothing compared with that. I should expect it to be a simple thing enough to draw up a list of the names of the books, which would be a great help to the student'.

Furthermore, he held that the BM's automatic receipt of each book published in the UK made 'a superfine catalogue' totally 'impossible and useless.' How, he asked, can a library have a perfect printed catalogue when several thousand new works are added annually? Rather, he suggested, the annual additions might be contained on pasteboard sheets glued together at the end of the simpler 'alphabetical' catalogue or 'dictionary list' that he advocated. On the other hand, they might be printed as an appendix. Moreover, these catalogues of new acquisitions should be despatched to every library in the country and kept there.

Part of the reason why Carlyle had little interest in elaborate catalogues was his general disinclination to having to utilize any catalogues. The BM catalogue existed, he declared, 'for what purpose I do not know, for it never answered any purpose with me, but to waste time and patience at the beginning of the business.' The serious reader usually knew what book he wanted to study. There was no need to examine a catalogue. Moreover, besides the difficulty of finding the appropriate volume in the busy BM, it was a sad waste of time, he considered, filling in the docket. That process was 'entirely unreasonable. Like a haberdasher requiring me, if I went into his shop and asked for a yard of green ribbon, to tell him in what drawer the ribbon was lying. Drawer? I should naturally answer; I want such a ribbon! I tell you what I want, and you must know in what drawer the ribbon is.' As William Baker has observed, Carlyle considered a librarian to be 'essentially a hired servant.'

Carlyle stressed that he himself was not a catalogue-maker and that he had not turned his mind particularly to this activity. Nevertheless, he was willing to inform the Commissioners what qualities an individual must possess in order to be a cataloguer. He must be a 'man of order', not one 'of disorder.' Moreover, one might even be able to judge a person's character by his cataloguing skills or lack thereof: 'you will see what real work there is in your man by the progress he makes in the catalogue, - by the figure he cuts in arranging the huge mass of jungle that he has to arrange.' But above all, a cataloguer, according to Carlyle, should work swiftly, very swiftly. 'The minimum of speed,' he observed to the Commission, 'at which a man, diligent all the time, may make a catalogue, is beyond computation; but I recollect what may perhaps be taken as the maximum.' He referred with admiration to a professor at the University of London, a committee member of the London Library, who had catalogued, together with a servant, 3,000 books in one day. This provides some indication of the quality of cataloguing with which Carlyle was satisfied. It is patent that Carlyle and Panizzi were concerned with quite different principles of cataloguing.

In conclusion, Panizzi's views on the BM's Catalogue were all vindicated in the Commissioners' Report. His Rules were upheld, Rules, it has subsequently been stated on many occasions, from which all modem cataloguing codes derive. The Commissioners also agreed to delay printing until everything was ready. The Catalogue would be full, accurate, and elaborate. As Francis Espinasse, admirer of Carlyle and despiser of Panizzi, tartly remarked, 'the fat pedant and Italian language-master proved more than a match for the Scottish man of genius'.

Brendan Rapple is a librarian at Boston College in Massachusetts.
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Author:Rapple, Brendan A.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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