Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections

Edited by Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor. London: The British Library, 2009. 352 pp., 4 p. of plates. $85.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-7123-5035-8.

Among the many insights that emerge from Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections—an absorbing account of the acquisition, selection, maintenance, and occasional auctioning of the British Library’s printed collections—is the notion that books become imbued with significance. With this significance, the books transcend themselves as objects, as well as their authorship and production, by virtue of their provenance and the stewardship exhibited toward them through time. Indeed, as several contributors suggest in this volume of nineteen essays, the abuse some books undergo in the interests of the cultural and aesthetic preferences of a given era contribute to the stories of some collections.

Most of the essays address individuals whose libraries have provided core titles to the British Library’s printed collections; Henry VIII, Sir Hans Sloane, Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode, Sir Joseph Banks, George III, and Sergei Aleksandrovich Sobolevskii are among the notable figures discussed. The collections of the Cotton Family, George Thomason, Sir William Musgrave, and Consul Joseph Smith also receive critical attention. The editors chronologically grouped the essays, while contributors approach their subjects from a variety of angles and yield diverse conclusions, sometimes uncovering paradoxes that underscore the unique vitality and necessity of institutions like the British Library. For example, in his superb examination of George Thomason’s motives as a collector of pamphlets and broadsides, Michael Mendle points out that although the Thomason Tracts now are available to a global readership through microfilm and online versions of the Early English Book collection, “this very accessibility has progressively alienated readers from Thomason’s actual collection” (172). Scholars now can browse and access rare titles almost as readily as they peruse trade paperbacks on bookstore shelves, potentially overlooking or ignoring the historical and philosophical contexts that have assured the availability of these same items. Several other contributors echo Mendle’s argument that the randomizing influence of emerging technologies, as well as evolving scholarly communication and reading practices, prove the viability of studies such as Libraries within the Library.

Yet, this volume is far more than a defense of print culture and the essential intellectual and preservation functions of the British Library. It also is a casebook for the study of how and why book collectors, as well as the institution itself, have collected over the centuries. Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820)—the innovative botanist, naturalist, president of the Royal Society, and British Museum trustee—collected books for their utility as opposed to their rarity (239). Banks’ collecting philosophy contrasted significantly from that of Edward Harwood (1729–94), whose bibliomania for Greek and Roman classics was so severe that it moved him to “a ridiculous and criminal extravagance” (192). The tension between collecting for private as opposed to public interests is evident throughout and becomes a compelling theme in the British Library’s own history. T. A. Birrell offers a detailed exploration of this idea in respect to the British Museum’s notorious duplicate sales between 1769 and 1832 (“The BM Duplicate Sales 1769-1832 and their Significance for the Early Collections,” 244-257), while Sir Colin Lucas sums up the matter in his preface: “collection strategies are a means of prioritizing choice” (vii).

Libraries within the Library stands on its own as a comprehensive resource. It is clear, however, that there is much more to the story of the British Library’s printed collections than the accounts presented in this volume. Thankfully, the editors append to their “Chronology” (x–xi) a list of titles for further reading. In addition to serving as a useful scholarly supplement, this list also reinforces the collection’s organizing concept. Namely, a library’s collections represent far more than manifestations of selected works, and the relationships between these works and the institutions that maintain them are rarely arbitrary.

An advertisement currently appearing in popular trade magazines assures readers that, in the time it takes to read a brief book review, they can wirelessly download a book to a portable digital reading device. This notice assumes a lot in respect to what a book is, what a reader requires to read a book, and what reading is. It also implies that readers can create personal libraries according to available content and device memory. The whole process seems quick and convenient, a simple transactional matter. The contributors to Libraries within the Library do not address these ideas in obvious or deliberate ways, but they, too, make assumptions about books and how readers read and, ultimately, how these notions contribute to the fascinating and sometimes bewildering forces and practices that create libraries. Also evident is the recognition that new technologies, as well as the changing expectations of various library stakeholders—scholars, librarians, archivists, and politicians to name a few—challenge foundational philosophies about a library’s purposes and functions. Yet these concerns ultimately seem slight in light of the absorbing history of the British Library’s printed collections. While market forces and emerging publication models to which the digital reading device advertisement alludes (e.g., separating content from its containers) may compete for and gain valuable resources necessary to maintain libraries, they cannot replace or adequately reproduce the cultural and institutional riches maintained in singular institutions such as the British Library.

J. Greg Matthews, Washington State University