Hidden Treasures (and their unveiling) – such was the theme at the recent conference of the Rare Books and Special Collections Group of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) – that’s what used to be the good old Library Association back in simpler and more innocent times, when the names of things still had a certain brevity (not to mention lucidity and utility). I was sent along by the ABA to monitor proceedings and report back on behalf of the rare book trade.
I had to miss the first day as other ABA duties were inescapable, but I turned up bright and early at Lambeth Palace for Day Two. It had been a good few years since I had been along to one of these events. I seem to recall a very good one on the Nineteenth-Century Book, held in Manchester, about twenty years ago (perhaps more), and another on the Eighteenth-Century Book, probably in Cambridge. Other events in Oxford and Edinburgh. It was all about looking at books and learning about books back then, and there always seemed to be a reasonable number of other booksellers among the attendees. Not so now. Far more about librarians, library work and their libraries. Apart from Alice Ford-Smith from Quaritch, I couldn’t identify a single other bookseller in the room.
A brief chat with Adrian Edwards (Lead Curator, Printed Historical Sources, British Library), with whom I liaise on book-trade/library matters, before proceedings began. Some of the catering the previous day had apparently struggled to cope with a 50% vegetarian and 10% vegan balance of requests. What this tells us, if anything, about the current state of rare book librarianship I’m not at all sure – but do they have issues with all that vellum, calf and morocco? (Just saying).
We began with a brief welcome to Lambeth Palace Library from another familiar face, Giles Mandelbrote, the Palace librarian and ABA honorary member, and were soon into the papers and presentations. First up was Martin Cherry from the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. Now there is a collection full of treasures which used to be not so much hidden as secret: access almost impossible at one time, certainly if you were not a very well-connected and highly-placed freemason. Something of regret to me in times past, because a number of the engravers in whom I was particularly interested were all quite heavily involved in the birth of modern English freemasonry in the early eighteenth century (I even gave a paper on this once to a group of stony-faced masons in Sheffield). But how times have changed. Visitors now welcome. Free admission. A searchable online catalogue (not integrated with COPAC yet – but full of things you will not find elsewhere). Even a ‘kid friendly’ icon search, whatever that may be. A very heartening and encouraging example of a change of policy and direction, because if a catalogue is not publicly available, then the collection is not in any real sense available. It may as well not exist. And – from a bookseller’s point of view – how much easier to offer relevant and useful material to a library when you know from the catalogue that the library does not already have it. How much easier to check on whether a book is stolen or not when there is a public record of where it should be.
Next was a paper from John Pearce, Deputy Librarian at Sandhurst, on those “hidden but not always intentionally secret” libraries and archives existing within the defence and military establishments of the country. Not always as difficult of access as we might expect – and the same is perhaps true of the next group, the libraries of private clubs and professional bodies. Librarians from the Athenaeum, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Middle Temple Library discussed the policies of their own and comparable institutions. Permission to use the libraries still too often rather summed up in their title, “It’s not what you know …”.
Helen Potter, interim head of the Freedom of Information Centre at the National Archives (I’m sure the information is freely available, but I didn’t know there was one), stepped forward after coffee to explain. It’s our national archive, it’s there for us to use and explore, so how much of it are we not allowed to see? The answer turns out to be about 200,000 ‘closed’ records of one kind or another (about 2% of the total – I assume this does not include the census returns from 1921-2011, there must be millions of those). Closed for one reason or another – data protection issues, national security, medical records, criminal prosecutions, naturalisation papers, tax files, and so on – but all of which we can now ask to see under the Freedom of Information Act (2000). Whether we are allowed to or not depends on the exact circumstances, a delicate balance between genuine right of privacy and public interest. Health and safety are issues, but not here as in the ubiquitous ‘health’n’safety’ culture, but in the genuine mental well-being and physical freedom from harm of individuals who might be affected by the release of information – the relatives of rapists or mass-murderers for example. About half of all such requests do lead to the release (in whole or in part) of ‘closed’ files. The care, deliberation, responsibility and concern with which these decisions are evidently made – “release what we can, protect what we must” – was all really rather impressive.
The morning closed with another powerful presentation. Karen Pierce from Cardiff University told us the tale of the rescue of the magnificent collection built up in more enlightened times by the Cardiff Free Library, founded in 1882, under the direction of Sir John Ballinger and Harry Farr, chief librarians in the period up to 1940. Built up by purchase, bequest and donation – mouth-watering donations from William Morris, the Marquess of Bute, John Cory and others. A collection of some 14,000 volumes, including 175 incunables, a unique collection of Restoration drama, Shakespeare quartos, exquisite private press books, 250 atlases of ‘international significance’ – the entire collection subsequently forgotten about and ignored by later generations of librarians, wholly neglected and hidden from view until Cardiff Council decided to sell it off. It’s a familiar enough tale. In this case with a reasonably happy outcome – custodianship of the collection has been transferred to Cardiff University Library, which is committed to preserving, promoting and cataloguing it.
Looking at the various statements made at the time, I am a little surprised to learn that the National Library of Wales was not itself interested in acquiring the collection, as it did not “align with its current collecting policy” – the collection was originally built up in Cardiff precisely with the intention of its one day becoming a Welsh national library. Also a little surprised to learn that there is apparently only one full-time rare book cataloguer employed. Five years on and the atlas collection ‘of international significance’ is still simply labelled ‘uncatalogued’. I’ve already said that if a catalogue is not publicly available, then the collection is not in any real sense available – I’ll say it again.
At least in this case the books were still in the public library and something could be done. In so many other similar cases fine collections have been surreptitiously sold off (usually to fund more ‘relevant’ or less ‘elitist’ activities). It’s now over twenty years since the late Bill West (1942-1999) published his “The Strange Rise of Semi-Literate England : The Dissolution of the Libraries” (1991) – fifty-two pages of polemic on the “mindless dispersal of stock by public and institutional libraries”. Treasures not so much ‘hidden’ as ‘lost’. Things probably got worse thereafter (Bill used to come into my shop to rant about it). And I well remember, not that many years since, a librarian from a London public library, terrified of publicity, selling off through the back-door roomfuls of fine books – books donated by generous individuals to grace and enrich their local library in perpetuity: “We don’t really do old books any more”. I didn’t buy them, but I know that when I spoke to him he had no intention of either stamping the books as deaccessioned or of keeping a list of what had been sold off. Unless there was a change of heart, there might well be a headache for someone somewhere down the line in proving legal ownership of a book clearly still marked as being the donated property of a London public library. If you should hear, by the way, of this kind of covert selling off of public collections –do report it to CILIP or the ABA.
Cataloguing was again a theme on a group afternoon visit to the Wellcome Library (other libraries were available). The hidden treasures in this case took the form either of books in the library which had unique features only now discovered in a rolling programme of digitisation (or perhaps rediscovered, information not having been transferred when the catalogue itself was digitised), or ones which had disappeared from view for a while through faulty cataloguing. An erroneous shelfmark can render a book lost and invisible. It’s all about the cataloguing – but some wonderful things, some extraordinary tales of provenance, and at last a chance to handle some books.
Back to Lambeth Palace in the evening. A drinks reception (generously sponsored by Quaritch). A chance to meet Lucy Kelsall, a cataloguer from the Angus Library and Archive at Regent’s Park College in Oxford: Lucy had been awarded the ABA Bursary provided to enable a young librarian to attend the conference. She was full of gratitude and will be writing her own account of proceedings for the ABA Newsletter.
And then to dinner. A system of displaying name cards with coloured spots of different colours expressing dietary preferences. I lost track of the number of different colours used to express the various combinations of vegetarian, vegan, celiac, gluten, dairy and whatever else. So did some of the waiters and waitresses. First world problems. I thought back to my childhood at one point, when we still had food-rationing, ate whatever was put on the table, licked our plates clean, and said thank you very much. I really didn’t mean actually to say that out loud to the table – but, there we are, too late now.
Sorting everything out seemed to impact rather adversely on the flow of wine, but then I suppose librarians are after all a different species and may not require as much life-blood. After dinner we were treated to a talk from the delightful Charles Sebag-Montefiore on his extraordinary collection of art catalogues. Very much hidden treasures, these libraries of private collectors, although Charles does allow access to serious scholars and the collection is now destined for a national institution. All in all, a memorable and thought-provoking day. That’s probably enough for now – “scribble, scribble, scribble, Mr Worms” – as someone has just e-mailed me. More on the final day of the conference (at the British Library) to come.
(Thank you to various Tweeters for the images).