T.H. Howard-Hill. The British Book Trade 1475-1890: A Bibliography.
When I first held The British Book Trade 1475-1890 in my hands I was overwhelmed. Two volumes totalling nearly two thousand pages are enough to make anyone stop dumbfounded in his or her bibliographical tracks. Underscoring the importance of The British Book Trade Howard-Hill informs us that his work "provides for the first time a bibliographical conspectus of the history of the British book trade and books from the beginning of printing in Britain to 1890, the date at which the coverage of the Index to British Literary Bibliography begins"(xxiii). The work is a remarkable undertaking: research for it began in the 1960s, intensifying in the last ten years, and the author accessed over three hundred libraries (v). An achievement such as this is impressive, but it is not without its potential limitations, as we shall discover.
Both volumes of this work contain a complete table of contents (very helpful should one be switching back and forth between volumes). Volume I begins with a useful and well-structured introduction (xxiv-lxv) in which the author leads the reader through the rationale and layout of the volumes, highlighting the overall scope of the work. The author also elucidates his methods and descriptive conventions (and, more importantly, his systematic omissions). The introduction ends with its own useful index (liv-lxv); the main index for both volumes is stored on an accompanying CD-ROM. There are two PDF files on the disc (for a total of 1099 pages): the author-and-title index and the subject index. Armed with the informative introduction and the thorough indices, I began my exploration of The British Book Trade as though I was a researcher consulting this reference work for my own project.
Initially it was somewhat aggravating to have to shift from computer to book and back to computer while trying to retain focus on the overarching subject of my research. Granted, in a work of this girth one could hardly expect the main index to be handled any other way. Once I became accustomed to the indices--utilisation of the PDF-reader's search function is essential--I began to notice something interesting. I would assume that anyone reviewing a bibliographical work on the British book trade would begin by researching his or her preferred author, subject, or publisher. I turned to the table of contents to look up the subject of religion, one of my own areas of research. Listed in the table of contents are twelve headings under "Religion and Theology" and all of them are Christian denominations: Baptist and anti-Baptist books, Catholic and anti-Catholic books, Church in Ireland books, Church in Scotland books, Congregationalist books, Friends books, Methodist books, Nonconformist books, Presbyterian books, Tractarian books (I confess I had to look this one up), and Unitarian books (xxi). I cannot comment on whether or not there have only been Christian bibliographies written in Britain but I found this peculiar so I turned to the indices on the CD-ROM for another subject for bibliographical research: occultism.
After being directed to "Science, Occult" I found the following heading: "Occult-1801-1900." The entries under this heading included the following: "Shelley, Percy Bysshe," "Swinburn, Algernon Charles," "Tennyson, Alfred 1st Baron Tennyson," "Thackeray, William Makepeace," "Wordsworth, William," "British Books Published Abroad," and "Foreign Books Published in Britain." While I skimmed through these entries I found myself at a loss. I could not fathom why these works would be considered "occult." Spiritualist? Metaphysical? Perhaps. I then realized the primary difficulty with a work as complex and as broad as The British Book Trade. As diligent as Howard-Hill appears to have been, and I certainly cannot claim to be an authority in British bibliography, no one author can be an expert in every field of knowledge. Inevitably there will be subject areas where researchers or specialists in specific areas of bibliographic study may need to step into a more generalist perspective when first approaching the subject index of The British Book Trade. Those readers who are interested in specific authors or publishers will not necessarily encounter the same problem.
The British Book Trade covers an important and fascinating period of book-trade history and anyone who has an interest in British bibliography (whether British works published abroad or foreign works published in Britain) will find this resource essential. The indices are complex both in physical format and layout but this work holds a vast wealth of knowledge that is clearly the result of one man's passion. I had to smile when I read Howard-Hill's comment, "Writing this bibliography has occupied much of my time since the early 1960's, most of it since my retirement in 1999. That is long enough. I have done as well as I can; aged seventy-four; I am glad that it is finished" (vi). I am certain many bibliographers will be glad it is finished too.
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|Publication:||Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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