The Work Ethic

Some of you are by now perhaps justifiably wondering whether I actually do any work at all – work in the meaningful sense that most people would understand it, that is.  All too much of the blog seems to have been devoted simply to swanning around and having fun – the occasional mention of a visit to a bookshop interspersed with rather an excess of culinary experience, leavened (intermittently but regrettably frequently) by wine, women and song.

I’d like to tell you that I have spent today at least tirelessly and relentlessly cataloguing and selling books, but I am afraid that wouldn’t be true. But then I haven’t been swanning around either. Or, at least, not overmuch.  This morning spent with the ABA internet committee and this afternoon delivering some books to a customer – there you are!  I do sell books sometimes.

But cataloguing is what I enjoy.  And I do work hard at that.  Admittedly, most of the books bought on the safari are so far still sitting in an imposing heap awaiting attention, but the pile is slowly diminishing.  I mentioned an unrecorded map at one point – that’s now gone out on approval to a major institution.  And I mentioned inscriptions only yesterday.  A map again – but the principle’s the same.  A map with what some would no doubt consider a disfiguring ownership inscription quite prominent on the face of the map itself, as well as some crudely added detail in one area – and another inscription on the back – same owner, different address.

Regrettable and disfiguring – I don’t think so.  The map – late nineteenth-century – was of Victoria in Australia.  And a couple of hours of research on the erstwhile owner showed him to be a young man in Edinburgh when he bought the map in the 1880s. Not much later he went out to Australia to reclaim his uncle’s estate and he later became one of the great men of the colony – a member of parliament, the founder of a chair in economics at Melbourne, his architect-designed homestead now a national Australian treasure. And this was the map he bought to study the new world which awaited him – and yes, the crudely shadowed-in addition to the map was indeed the family estate. From being what might have been a commonplace old map (although actually the map is quite rare in itself), the inscription has propelled it into another sphere. We have the back-story.  We have the context.  This is history made live. This is a map with meaning and resonance. And now gone on approval to the same institution.

So – should we put off by an inscription in a book or on a map?  Absolutely not.  Because even if we don’t know and can’t find out who the original owner was – in googleworld someone else may well know.  One of the unlooked for side-effects of the plethora of information on the world wide web is that we are now increasingly often in a position to reconnect a book with its history.  The past is no longer anonymous.  “No inscriptions” – what a shame.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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