Social Victorians/Reading Room

The Reading Room at the British LibraryEdit


  • Opened: the Reading Room opened on 18 May 1857 for registered scholars (having opened on 2 May 1857 for tours).
  • Location: in the British Library, then in Russell Square, Bloomsbury
  • Room 2
  • Two tables were reserved for ladies at least as early as 1867 (Knight 327 Col. B) and at least as late as 1879 (Baedeker 1879 237).

Who Was ThereEdit

  • Thomas Babington Macaulay
  • William Thackeray
  • Robert Browinging
  • Guiseppe Mazzini
  • Charles Darwin
  • Charles Dickens
  • A. Mary F. Robinson
  • Richard Garnett
  • Annie Besant
  • Clementina Black
  • Mathilde Blind
  • Hypatia Bradlaugh
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Ella Hepworth Dixon
  • George Eliot
  • Constance Black Garnett
  • Richard Garnett
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Margaret Harkness
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • Vernon Lee (Violet Paget)
  • Vladimir Lenin (signed in as Jacob Richter [1]) (in London 1902–1903)
  • Amy Levy
  • Eleanor Marx
  • Karl Marx
  • Karl Pearson
  • Arthur Rimbaud (1870s)
  • A. Mary F. Robinson
  • Christina Rossetti
  • Maria Rossetti
  • Olive Schreiner
  • George Bernard Shaw
  • Bram Stoker (from 1879 on; wrote in 1905 to say he had not seen his ticket in 20 years and requested another:
  • Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
  • Beatrice Potter Webb
  • H. G. Wells
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Adeline Virginia Woolf
  • Members of the Men and Women's Club
  • Members of the Golden Dawn


  • 1857 May 2, "when the doors to [the British Museum's] circular, book-lined reading room first opened" (Bernstein paragraph 2).
  • 1857 May 18, the Reading Room opened on 18 May 1857 for registered scholars.
  • 1860, "Christina Rossetti first registered there in 1860 where she pursued scholarly research, especially from 1876 to the early 1890s when she lived nearby" (Bernstein paragraph 6)
  • 1861 November 14, George Eliot, researching for Romola; George Henry Lewes registered the same day (Bernstein paragraph 2 and n. 4)
  • 1874 July, Annie Besant, sponsored by Charles Bradlaugh? (Bernstein paragraph 5)
  • 1877, Clementina Black
  • 1877 October 15, Eleanor Marx's application letter (Bernstein paragraph 8 and n. 12)
  • 1879, electric lights installed, so the Reading Room stayed open later.
  • 1881, Hypatia Bradlaugh, sponsored by her father, Charles Bradlaugh
  • 1881 March, Amy Levy's sister registered.
  • 1881 June, Vernon Lee, using the name Violet Page, sponsored by Richard Garnett, "superintendent of the Reading Room" (Bernstein paragraph 5)
  • 1882 November 15, Amy Levy was admitted.
  • 1883 June, Olive Schreiner registered.
  • 1883, Beatrice Potter Webb meets Eleanor Marx "in the British Museum refreshment room" (Bernstein paragraph 10)
  • 1886, Eleanor Marx talks to Margaret Harkness (probably) in the Reading Room (Bernstein paragraph 9 and n. 14).
  • 1888 April 12, "The Dr. Wynn Westcott Doppelganger": <quote>On April 12 1888, in the British Museum of London, a doppelganger report created quite a stir with local patrons of the museum. Dr. Wynn Wescott and Reverend W.T. Lemon were scheduled to meet in the reading room of the museum. Reverend Lemon arrived a few minutes late and noticed Dr. Wescott involved in a deep conversation with a common friend, Mrs. Salmon. Mrs. Salmon politely excused herself and walked over to the good Reverend to greet him. She turned and pointed back at Dr. Wescott, indicating his presence to the Reverend when she was astounded to see that he had vanished. She and the Reverend inquired at the receptionist desk by the door of the library room, where they were told that yes, Dr. Wescott had entered the room but had not left. The room had only a single entrance – there was no other way out of the room. Puzzled, Mrs. Salmon and Reverend Lemon asked several other persons in the room and received the same inscrutable response – they had all seen him but nobody had seen him leave the room. Stunned and a bit worried, they trekked to the Doctors home to see if his family knew where he had gone. They were surprised to find that the Doctor had been in bed all day, sick and ill with a fever, and had not left the house.</quote> (
  • 1891 March 11, Trial of W. Armstrong S. Glanville Richards concludes in a conviction of Malicious Injury to Property in the Reading Room of the British Museum ("Library Notes and News." The Library: A Magazine of Bibliography and Literature. Ed., J. Y. W. MacAlister. May 1891 (Vol. 3., No. 29). Google Books.)
  • 1896 June 22, Olivia Frances Madox Rossetti (Bernstein paragraph 6 and n. 9)
  • 1897 June 3, Enoc Soames disappeared after a visit to the British Museum; a prediction was made that he would appear in the British Museum one hundred years later, on 3 June 1997
  • 1900 December, Helen Maria Madox Rossetti registered; application letter 21 November 1900, sponsored by Richard Garnett (Bernstein paragraph 6)
  • 1905 November 8, Adeline Virginia Woolf, sponsored by brother Thoby (Bernstein paragraph 1)


Much of George Gissing's New Grub Street takes place in the Reading Room.

Amy Levy's DescriptionEdit

Bernstein (paragraph 17), says the following of Amy Levy's essay on the Reading Room:

On the opening page of her 1889 essay, “Readers at the British Museum,” Levy claims, “The ‘Room’ has indeed become a centre, a general workshop, where in these days of much reading, much writing, and competitive examinations, the great business of book-making, article-making, cramming, may be said to have its headquarters” (Levy, “Readers,” 222). Levy also fashions the Reading Room as an egalitarian space with “wonderful accessibility” for a wide spectrum of visitors traversing boundaries of class, gender, and occupation: “For some it is a workshop, for others a lounge; there are those who put it to the highest uses, while in many cases it serves as a shelter, — a refuge, in more senses than one, for the destitute” (Levy, “Readers,” 227). Published in Atalanta, a magazine aimed at young women, the article envisions the Reading Room of the British Museum as a multipurpose space, a knowledge factory, a club, a workhouse, thus melding together public and private, working and middle classes, scholarship and commercial production with social exchange. The drawings that accompanied this essay [Figure 2] suggest women as sturdier and more studious than men readers at the museum in contrast to many accounts in the press complaining about the influx of “lady readers” as Reading Room irritants.

"The British Museum and Its Reading-Room," Harper's, 1873Edit

The great reading-room of the Museum is the almost daily resort of many of the men and women whose names are famous here as there, yet such is the democracy of its government, the humblest and obscurest of authors, would-be authors, amateur dabblers in books, and mere pleasure-seeking novel-readers may, by complying with certain forms, jostle the world-renowned poet at the threshold, or sit cheek by jowl with an essayist and reviewer in the luxurious, leather-bound arm-chairs provided for all the world. One, as he sits there, is sometimes startled, as he refreshes his eyes a moment by glancing off his book and round upon his neighbors, to see just beside him a familiar face — a face that has many a time looked out on him from frontispieces of half-calf volumes, or in the windows of photographers and bookstores. So, cozily ensconced in a spacious fauteuil, with a pile of books which have been summoned from the vasty ocean of surrounding shelves scattered about the desk, have I many times recognized these historic faces. More than once the rotund figure and fat, red, Falstaff features of Mark Lemon bustled by; I have seen the tall, boyish form, deathly white and thoughtful, yet youthful face, of Swinburne, sitting close over his books; Browning, true poet's face, calm, deep, large, dark eyed, gray-haired, and gray-bearded; Lewes, the philosopher, and his illustrious wife, George Eliot; Froude, seeming more like a scholarly New Englander than like an Old Englander, with fine, contemplative, pale, thinnish features, and a sharp, penetrating, brown eye; once, the venerable and never-to-be-forgotten head and form of Carlyle, with largo brow, deep-sunken eyes, and shaggy white hair aud beard; Charles Reade, with his full face, small eyes, aud bald crown; and Wilkie Collins, with full beard and mustache, large, round, blue eyes, and quick, prompt manner.

The small collection at Montague House was not accessible to the literary world without much red tape aud difficulty. In July, 1759, there were only five readers who enjoyed the privilege of the reading-room. Only the privileged few could reach it. As [204/205, with a large image of the "Interior of the New Reading-Room" at the top of 205] the accumulations of curiosities and books went on, the aristocratic old mansion became crowded to excess. But no steps were taken to improve the accommodations until 1845, when, after much agitation of the conservative British mind, Montague House was leveled to the ground, and the present palace errected on its site, the building being completed in 1847. Even this was found too small to properly acommodate the now greatly increased library. The room was all taken up by the antiquities, the arts, the sciences. It was not till 1854 that Parliament was induced to make a grant of over £100,000 for new buildings and fittings, which included £61,000 "for the erection of a building within the interior quadrangle" (the Museum being built as a hollow square), "for the purpose of affording increased accommodation."


The new reading-room was thereupon begun, and completed in three years, receiving additional grants, which brought the expense of its erection up to the sum of £150,000. It was constructed mainly of iron, with brick arches between the main [205/206 Col. A] ribs, supported by twenty iron piers, having a sectional area of ten superficial feet to each, including the brick casing — two hundred feet in all. The form of the reading-room is circular; it is crowned by a magnificently vast and noble dome, whose diameter is one hundred and forty feet, and its height one hundred and six, being inferior in diameter to the Pantheon at Rome by only two feet, and of larger dimension by one foot than the dome of the basilica of St. Peter. The circular room contains a million and a quarter cubic feet of space; and the outlying rooms, used for book depositories, contain 750,000 cubic feet more. Over two thousand tons of iron were used in the construction of the apartment, the weight of the materials comprised in the dome being four thousand two hundred tons, giving a weight of two hundred tons resting upon each pier. This immense apartment does not entirely fill the quadrangle formed by the four wings of the Museum building, spaces of twenty-five or thirty feet being left for ventilation and air on all sides. The roof contains two separate spherical and concentric air-chambers, extending over the whole surface, one to equalize the temperature during extremes of heat and cold out-of-doors, the other to carry off the vitiated air from the reading-room. The sky-lights, lanterns, and windows throughout the building are double glass, to avoid the effects of condensation.

Entering the front yard of the Museum by the high, gilt-tipped gate, you pass along a paved walk, and ascend the spacious flight of stone steps leading to the main entrance. You pull open the swinging door, and find yourself in the high, gray, somewhat gloomy vestibule, whence branch off to right and left the galleries, crowded with the collected curiosities and wonders of the world. But directly before you is a long, matted passageway, guarded at the nearer end by two red-faced men in uniform. These permit you to pass if you are provided with a reading-room ticket; or if you merely wish to take a peep at the huge domed room, a superior custodian may easily he found to conduct you to the inner door. In the passage-way is a table, whereon are pamphlets, guides, catalogues, manuscript lists, and so on, descriptive of the library, for sale at trifling prices. A little further is a little apartment opening on the corridor where a highly respectable old functionary, with the (in England) rather ornamental red nose and white neck-tie, and having a large metal label hanging on his breast, receives and tickets the hats, cloaks, umbrellas, and canes of the incomers, a significant notice on the wall forbidding any one to fee him for this service.

At the glass door you stand still, amazed at the scene before you. Whatever one may have imagined that reading-room to be, I [206 Col A / Col B] think it will, at first sight, strike him with wonder. The other side of the room seems literally a great distance off; the dome impresses with real awe, so high is it, so vast its proportions, so perfect its gigantic symmetry. Then the bewildering, unconceived multitude of books — shelves on shelves, tier after tier, section after section, story on story — rising from the floor to the curve of the dome; compact, complete through the whole immense circle!

The arrangements and fitting up of the interior of the reading-room appear to have taxed and rewarded the ingenuity of some master planner, so perfectly adapted to the purpose are they. In the very centre of the circle is a circular inclosure, within which, on a raised platform, are the desk of the superintendent, and the counters where are stationed the clerks and attendants. Along these counters you may see piles of books, to be delivered in due order to the readers, or to bo returned in due order to the shelves. Outside these circular raised counters, with an interval of space between, is another circle of counters on the floor, and outside this, with another interval, a third circle of counters. These have open shelves underneath, where, in long rows, are the ponderous tomes, ranged completely around the circles, which comprise the catalogue of the library. These are at first bewildering enough. Indeed, one has to learn the science of using this reading-room before he can use it at all. The mysteries of pitching upon the right tome, and of learning the at first incomprehensible numbers and hieroglyphics with which they are filled, require time and patience; indeed, it is a sort of preliminary drilling to teach one how to study the books themselves with method. Several of these large tomes are catalogues to the catalogues; and by them, in process of time, one gets to learn how to find a subject or author with little difficulty and delay. Some of the shelves under the counters contain gazetteers, dictionaries, and indexes of many sorts. On the counters are placed pens and ink, and printed tickets, having on one side the regulations to be observed by readers in applying for and returning the books or manuscripts, and on the other a form to be filled up with certain particulars describing the works sent for, and stating the number of the desk the reader has chosen. The readers' seats and tables diverge as radii from these central counters toward the circumference. There are thirty-five of these tables; eight, thirty-four feet long, accommodate each sixteen readers on either side; nine, thirty feet long, fourteen readers; two, thirty feet long, eight readers (these two being reserved for the exclusive use of the lady readers); sixteen, six feet, accommodating two readers each. There is in the reading-room ample and comfortable pro- [206 Col B / 207 Col. A, with "Plan of New Reading-Room, British Museum" at the top of the page, two columns wide],133,726,976

vision for about three hundred readers at one time; each desk gives a space of over four feet to its occupant. A division or screen runs longitudinally across the desks, dividing one row of readers from the opposite row; both rows facing toward the screen. This screen is provided with a hinged desk, graduated on racks, and a leather-covered shelf, which folds into the screen, for holding books. An inkstand is tixed in the screen next this shelf, with penholders containing quills freshly distributed every morning. The desk is broad and covered with black leather. It is made of iron, and its frame-work contains air-distributing channels, contrived so that the ventilation is at the top of the screen, above the heads of the readers; this apparatus is [207 Col. A/ 207 Col. B] freely controlled by valves. Beneath the feet is a tubular foot-rail passing from end to end of the rows of desks, wherein, in cold weather, is introduced a current of warm water, of great comfort to the damp feet just out of the snow. The catalogue counters are supplied with a similar ventilating and heating apparatus, their pedestals themselves being tubes, which communicate with the air-chamber below. The whole reading-room is fitted with hot-water pipes, set in radiating lines. A shaft, sixty feet high, supplies the fresh air, and the apparatus admits a supply of fresh air for five hundred persons at the rate of ten cubic feet per minute. Summer ventilation is provided for by steam-pipes, which on the roof and dome are heated, aud extract the foul air. On the side [207 Col. B / 208 Col. A] of the room furthest from and opposite the entrance is an inclosed corridor running from the superintendent's desk in the centre to a door at the circumference. This is used hy the officers and attendants, who through it proceed in from and out to the surrounding apartments, whence most of the hooks called for by the readers are taken. When the reader has filled his printed form, he hands it to one of the attendants at the central desk. By him it is passed to another attendant, whose task it is to search out and bring in the works called for. They are laid on the central desks, and are carried by still another corps of employes to the reader's desk, which has been designated on the printed ticket. I may as well describe this printed ticket. On one side are the regulations — that the reader must not ask for more than one work on the same ticket; that the heading of the work wanted must be transcribed from the catalogues, with as much of the title as is necessary to its identification; that the form must be filled in a plain, clear hand; and that before the reader leaves the room he must return each book or set of books to an attendant, when he will obtain the corresponding ticket (which he has sent in for the books, and which is retained at the desk), the reader being responsible for the books as long as the ticket remains uncanceled. They are canceled with a blue lead-pencil, and returned on receipt of the books. The reader is "further admonished that he must on no account take a book or manuscript out of the reading-room; and further, that permission to use the reading-room will be withdrawn from any person who writes or makes marks on any part of a printed book or manuscript. On the other side of the printed ticket is the blank form, which must be filled by stating the press mark, heading, and title of the work wanted, place and date of its publication, its size (whether 8vo, or 12mo, or what), the date, signature, and number of desk. I may add that the reader may choose any desk which he may find vacant; and that the rows of desks are designated by letters, A, B, C, etc., while each desk is numbered 1, 2, 3, etc.; and the desk is identified, say, as D 3, or G 6, which enables the attendant to find it without difficulty.

The process is, then, simply this: the reader first selects his desk, and notes its number, and the letter designating its row. He then goes to the catalogues, which are in manuscript, and constantly added to, and as he finds the books that he wishes to consult, fills up for each work (no matter how many its volumes) one of the printed forms. He may thus order as many books as he chooses. He hands the forms in, returns to his desk, and waits. It usually takes about half an hour before the books are laid before him. Meanwhile he may, if he chooses, wander [208 Col. A / 208 Col. B] along the shelves in the circular room, take down any he pleases, consult them, or carry them to his desk to read. This is a precious privilege, for here are ranged, in methodical divisions, most of the standard works on the various branches of learning, as well as the reviews, monthlies, aud weeklies, dictionaries of all languages, biographical works, encyclopedias, Parliamentary records, topographical works, aud fictions. A chart of the room is found on the catalogue counters. This shows in sections, and between the radiating rows of desks, the various divisions of the shelves. For instance, the shelves between row A and row B might be historical works, between B and C philosophical, between C and D fiction, and so on; so that a glance at the chart, and then at the letters marked at the head of each row of desks, shows at once where any particular class of works may be found. It is hard to imagine a more simple or more perfect system.

The total number of volumes in the reading-room and the adjacent apartments (including the room of typographical curiosities and antiqnities, where one sees the famous autographs — the Magna Charta, Shakspeare's signature, and so on) is nearly, if not quite, three-quarters of a million. This enormous figure does not include the almost countless tracts, pamphlets, manuscripts, and newspaper files. In one year 11,000 volumes and 27,000 parts of volumes were added to this great estate of learning; while counting every acquisition, pamphlet as well as volume, the total reached 163,000! The number of volumes in the great "dome room" alone is about 80,000. Many of these are, however, inaccessible to the direct procurement of the reader, being in upper tiers reached by light iron staircases and galleries only used by the attendants. Of the volumes within the reach, and accessible to the free use, of the reader there are some 20,000. The structure of the book-cases is, to one interested in interior architecture, one of the most curious of the many marvels of the Museum. They are very simply built, the uprights being formed of malleable iron, galvanized and framed together, having beechen wood fillets inserted between the iron to receive the brass pins on which the shelves rest. The frame-work sustains the iron perforated floors of the light galleries, a part of which is a clear space between the back of the shelves and the flooring, by which the light of the rear sky-lights is thrown down the backs of the books on each tier, so that the lettering may be distinct through the book ranges. The shelves themselves are of galvanized plate, edged with wainscot, covered with russet-colored leather, and having attached a "book-fall." Wadded pads are set at either end of the shelves to prevent injury to the binding when the books are taken out or restored to their places. [208 Col. B / 209 Col. A] Except in the case of the external walls, the book-cases are double, the books being placed on both sides, and an iron-work lattice fixed for their separation longitudinally. A curious statistician has discovered that the edifice contains three lineal miles of book-cases eight feet high, and twenty-five miles of shelves; and descending to a still minuter detail, calculated that the leaves of the volumes therein, placed edge to edge, would extend 25,000 miles, or more than thrice the globe's diameter.

The decoration of this great reading-room has been well cared for, and is throughout characteristic of that sort of substantial and solid elegance in which the English delight, and which is an "English trait." The superb interior dome — the architectural marvel of the place — is relieved by light colors, and adorned with pure and tasteful gilding; this gives a cheerful tinge to the whole vast apartment. The concave of the dome is divided into twenty broad stripes by moulded ribs, gilded with unalloyed gold-leaf, the edges fringed with a leaf-pattern scalloped edge. Each stripe, or section, has a circular-headed window, with three panels above (the central medallion-shaped), bordered with gilt mouldings, the field of the panels being sky-blue, and the margins a deep cream-color. The central medallion at the top has the royal monogram, alternated with the imperial crown. The lower cornice is massive and gilded; and the compartments of the dome, the ribs and bases, the bookcases and galleries, the panels and railings, are all richly adorned with cheerful colors, the purest gilding, and elaborate (but not gingerbread) ornamentation.

Thus is this splendid boon, given to the nation by the nation, surrounded by every accessory to render its use easy and practicable, its occupancy cheerful and comfortable, and its sphere harmonious with the purpose for which it exists. That it is appreciated, one only needs to look through the glass door and observe the human busy bees sucking in the sweets which they find in books. In the course of a year between seventy-five and one hundred thousand persons make use of the reading-room. An average day's attendance comprises some two hundred persons. The utmost order, decorum, and quiet method prevail. One of the superior officers of the library has the general supervision over the reading-room, who is always to be found at the superintendent's desk in the centre of the hall. To him is confided not only the general task of overseeing that the attendants perform their duty with order and celerity, and preserving the decorum of the room — he also is charged with the special duty of assisting the readers in their researches.

The rules of admission as a reader to the reading-room are broad and liberal, and in- [209 Col. A / 209 Col. B] terpose no obstacle to any student, however humble and obscure, who honestly desires to use its privileges. Those privileges are quite as accessible to foreigners as to Londoners.

The reading-room is open on every weekday except certain church holidays, and the first weeks in January, May, and September (for putting in order and repairs), from nine till four in the winter, five in fall and spring, and six in summer.

With all the English conservatism and hesitation in establishing popular institutions, and love of restricting and hedging about with conditions and qualifications great public privileges, no city of our republic can show a more substantial or more liberally managed public benefit than this reading-room. The reality of its freedom, its order, and its entire adaptability to answer its purpose, impress one. Here is one place where, without fee or favor, the humble student and the foreign scholar may partake of, and luxuriate in, the wealth of England; may participate in the marvelous range of lore, in every tongue, of every art and science, which her wealth, nobly bestowed, has collected. I can think of no happier destiny for the ardent lover of books, for a historian, a man of science, a statistician, a novelist, or a mere student absorptive but not fruitful, than to have cozy lodgings in the vicinity of Russell Square, a satisfactory English landlady, and a ticket — daily used — to the reading-room. He may sit in one of the roomy fauteuils as luxuriously as the West End lord in his velvet-lined mahogany, and may look round with a sense of ownership (for their use and fruits are freely his) upon a far prouder possession of learning than the greatest West End lord can boast. He is in goodly company; for here burrow, almost invariably, the scholars, romancers, philosophers of England. He sits, coequal in his privileges, with the British aristocracy of brain. He is served as faithfully and as quickly as is the minister of state by his favorite private secretaries. There is the whole day long to revel, uninterrupted if he will, in his beloved studies, in a tranquil and studious sphere, out of hearing of the bustle of the streets, though here is busiest Loudon roaring all about him. If he grows weary for the while of his books and the quiet, he may walk out and wander through those seemingly endless corridors where are literally crowded the antiquities of Egypt and of Phoenicia, of Antioch and Afghanistan, of Athens and Rome; where are collected the marvels of geology and of mechanical science, of biology and the arts, ancient, medieval, and modern. He may read up his subject in the reading-room, and stepping into a neighboring corridor, find it practically illustrated in the glass cases which surround him.

"The British Museum and Its Reading-Room." Harper's New Monthly Magazine. January 1873 (Vol. 46, No. 272):198–209 (this excerpt 204–209).

From 1891Edit

The Reading Room was built in accordance with a suggestion submitted to the Trustees in 1852 by Mr. (afterwards Sir Anthony) Panizzi, for converting the vacant central quadrangle into a circular reading room, and utilising the surrounding space for library purposes. The building was commenced in May 1854, under the superintendence of Mr. Sydney Smirke, R. A., the Museum architect; and opened to readers May 18, 1857. The entire structure is 258 feet long and 154 feet wide. The Reading Room is circular and covered by a dome 140 feet in diameter and 106 feet high — being 2 feet less in diameter than the dome of the Pantheon, 1 foot greater than that of St . Peter's, and exceeding by 28 feet that of St. Paul's; but unlike the others it is constructed of iron ribs borne on iron piers, with brick between. The lighting is by twenty round-arched windows 27 feet high, 12 feet wide, and 35 feet from the ground, and by a central skylight or eye of the dome, 40 feet in diameter. The colouring is of a light blue, the ribs and panels being picked out with gold, and the effect large, cheerful and luminous. Under the windows the walls present unbroken lines of books in three tiers. The tables for the readers converge towards the centre, where is the place of the superintendent, with tables for ticket-takers, shelves for the catalogues, etc. The tables afford ample accommodation for 360 readers. The lower tier of shelves round the room contain a reference library of 20,000 volumes, to which every [271/272] reader has unrestricted access. For each book or MS. from the general library the reader has to write a ticket, on which he has to set down from the Catalogue the title and edition of the book he requires, with its press mark; and the letter and number of the seat he occupies. This ticket he gives in at the central table, and the book is then brought to him by an attendant. The presses in the galleries round the room contain 50,000 volumes. The outer shelves which encompass the Reading Room afford space for more than 1,000,000 volumes. The Catalogue of the Library placed in the table presses in the centre of the Reading Room almost forms a library in itself. It was originally compiled entirely in manuscript, but it is now growing into a printed Catalogue. In 1880, chiefly through the initiative of Mr. Bond, then Principal Librarian, arrangements were made for printing the titles ot all accessions. In the following year a commencement was made with the printing of portions of the Catalogue which were particularly crowded. The work of printing is now going on very rapidly.

The edifice, by common admission the finest Reading Room in existence, was completed for £150,000. During the winter months, since October 1880, the electric light has been successfully used there until 8 o'clock.

The number of visitors to the general collections was 504,893 in 1886, and 501,256 in 1887. The number of visits of students to the Reading Room in 1887 was 182,778. An excellent Guide to the exhibition galleries may be purchased in the Museum, price 6d., and special Guides to the principal rooms and collections.

The following is a complete list of the Principal Librarians from the foundation of the Museum: — Gowin Knight, M.D., 1756-1772. Matthew Maty, M.D., 1772-1776. Charles Morton, M.D., 1776-1799. Joseph Planta, 1799-1827. Sir Henry Ellis, 1827-1856. Sir Anthony Panizzi, 1856-1868. John Winter Jones, 1868-1878. Edward Augustus Bond, C.B., 1878-1888. Edward Maunde Thompson, 1888.

(Wheatley, Henry Benjamin, and Peter Cunningham. London, Past and Present: Its History, Associations, and Traditions. Vol. 1. 271–272. Google Books.)

The 1879 Baedeker's on the British Museum and Reading RoomEdit

British Museum (p. 218), daily from 10 a.m. (Sat. 12 noon) till 4, 5, or 6 p.m. according to the season (on Mondays and Saturdays in summer till 7 or 8 p.m.); the reading-room is open to readers daily from 9 a.m. Both the Museum and Reading Room are closed on the first seven days of February, May, and October, and on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Christmas Day. (Baedeker 72)

On the N. side of the spacious entrance hall, facing the entrance door, is a passage leading to the *New Reading Room, constructed in 1855-57 at a cost of 150,000l. This imposing circular hall, covered by a large dome of glass and iron (140 ft. in diameter and [236–237] 106 ft. high), has ample accommodation for 300 readers or writers. Around the superintendent, who occupies a raised seat in the centre of the room, are counters with shelves containing a catalogue for the use of the readers in upwards of 1000 vols. On these counters lie printed forms (white for books, coloured for MSS.) to he filled up with the name and press-mark of the work required, and the number of the seat chosen by the applicant at one of the tables, which radiate from the centre of the room like the spokes of a wheel. The form when filled up is put into a little basket, placed for this purpose on the counter. One of the attendants will then procure the book required, and send it to the reader's seat. Two of the tables are assigned to ladies exclusively. About 20,000 vols. of the books in most frequent request, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, histories, periodicals, etc., are kept in the reading-room itself, and may be used without any application to the library officials. Every reader is provided with a chair, a folding desk, a small hinged shelf for books, pens, and ink, a blotting-pad, and a peg for his hat. In spite, however, of the cost and care with which this magnificent room has been fitted up, its comfort is by no means complete. Imperfect ventilation is much complained of, while draughts are also an annoyance. The electric light has recently been introduced into the Reading Room. — In the year 1858, the first after the opening of the New Reading Room, the number of readers amounted to 190,400 or about 600 daily, who consulted in all 877,897 books or an average of 3000 a day. In 1877 the number of readers' tickets in use was 11,657 (including temporary admissions), and the number of visits paid by the holders to the Reading Room amounted in the aggregate to 113,594.

Persons desirous of using the Reading Room must send a written application to the Principal Librarian, specifying their names, rank or profession , and address, and enclosing a recommendation from some well-known householder in London. The applicant must not be under 21 years of age. The permission, which is granted without limit of term, is not transferable and is subject to withdrawal. Under exceptional circumstances it is possible to get permission to use the Reading Room for a single day by personal application at the office of the Principal Librarian, to the left of the First Graico-Roman Room. Tickets for visitors to the Reading Room are obtained on the right side of the entrance hall. Visitors are not allowed to walk through the Reading Room, but may view it from the doorway. — The Libraries contain a collection of books and manuscripts, rivalled in extent by the National Library of Paris alone. The number of printed books is about 1,000,000. (Baedeker 236–237)

St. James's Gazette, 1891Edit

"Perhaps the best literary workshop in London"

One of the quietest and most comfortable places in London is the reading room of the British Museum, where any Englishman may consult any book printed in England. It has its glamor of mystery, too, as well as its air of luxury. From day to day, from year to year the same faces may be seen, and there are seats which, though open to all who will, nobody would think of taking from the patient and laborious students who have sat in them every day for many years. There is a crutch which has become a part of the British Museum itself, and the reading room will be sad when the morning comes on which her chair is vacant. Perhaps the best literary workshop in London, the reading room is the haunt of a group of strange characters who pursue their daily callings there. It is at once the best and cheapest office in the metropolis, and its tenants pay no rent. They come from all the world over, and embrace famous men in every field, from the millionaire and the statesman to the unhappy man who is starving on a shilling a day.

It is a strange and cosmopolitan group which spends its day there searching for pearls in the great ocean of literature. You may learn, if you care to ask, the story of the old man from San Francisco who came back to the reading-room a year or two ago and looked with curious interest at a particular desk. There, forty years ago, he had met a woman who afterwards became his wife, and together they went back to San Francisco and made their home. "Being in London again, I was curious to see the place once more," the old man said. "Poor woman, she's been dead for years now, but many a time she assured me she wished she'd never seen me or the British Museum either. I've nothing to keep me here now, so I guess I'll go." He was one of the little group which comes from the end of the world and goes to the end of the world, passing through the reading room on its way. — St. James Gazette

(The Friend)

From Pascoe's London of Today, 1885Edit

British Museum Reading Room, Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury. The use of the Reading Room is restricted to the purposes of study, reference, or research. No person under twenty-one years of age is admissible, except under a special order from the Trustees. Persons desiring to be admitted must apply in writing to the Principal Librarian, stating their profession or business, place of abode, and, if required, the purpose for which admission is sought. A letter of recommendation from a householder, or [276/277] person of known position, such as a banker, clergyman, or magistrate, must accompany such application, which must be made two days at least before admission is required. The Reading Room is opened all the year round at 9 a.m., except on Sunday, Good Friday, Christmas Day, and the first four week-days of March and October. The hours are from 9 till 8, September to April; 9 till 7, May to August. Pascoe, Charles Eyre. London of Today: An Illustrated Handbook for the Season. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1885. 276–277. Google Books.

"The Principal Librarian of the British Museum," The Nation 21 October 1897Edit

The very end of this article mentions that "the gentleman who adorns the eminent office of Principal Librarian of the British Museum is a native of the New World. Sir Edward Maunde Thompson was born in Jamaica," suggesting that the British Library, like so much else, depended in one way or another on money made by the enslavement of people.

London, October 7,1897.

At the international conference of librarians held in London, in July last, some one observed that "there were Libraries and Libraries." In like manner, it may be said, there are Librarians and Librarians. To go a step further, one might interject that a Librarian may not be a Librarian at all. Such, In fact, is the case of the distinguished official who is charged with the care of that great storehouse of knowledge and art called the British Museum. The name of Prin- [314 Col. C/ 315 Col. A] cipal Librarian is, in his case, altogether a misnomer. Director-in-Chief would be a fitter title for a functionary who is responsible for property worth millions sterling, who directs the labors of a staff of experts and highly educated officials, and accounts for the spending of large sums of money. The name of Principal Librarian was given to the office by the Act of Incorporation of 1753, when the institution was only a Library, and the conservative spirit of the British nation is content to let the title continue. But the Principal Librarian is also the secretary to the Trustees, who are the governing body of the British Museum, and in whom is vested the freehold of the premises. At one time the office of secretary was held by an independent officer; but the arrangement did not work, and the two officers were joined together in one official.

In discharging his several functions, the Principal Librarian acts directly under the orders of the Trustees, with whom he is brought into frequent contact at the various meetings of the standing committee, of the sub-committees, and at the annual meeting of the whole body. The Trustees do not appoint the Principal Librarian, but, when the office becomes vacant, they submit two names to the sovereign, who, advised by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, selects one of the persons named and appoints that person by a royal warrant. So identified is the Principal Librarian with the functions of the Trustees that something should be said of that distinguished body. In round numbers there are about fifty Trustees. Of these the larger number consist of the Official Trustees, of whom most are great officers of state, and the remainder are the Presidents of the Royal Society, the Royal College of Physicians, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Royal Academy. The topmost of all are the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord High Chancellor, and the Speaker of the House of Commons. By these three Trustees the patronage of filling up offices is exercised, guided to a certain extent by the advice of the Principal Librarian. After the Official Trustees comes the Trustee appointed by the Queen, now the Bishop of Winchester. Then there are the Family Trustees, who represent the families of Sloane, Cotton, Harley, Towneley, the Earls of Elgin (of Elgin Marbles fame) and Knight. Last of all are the Elected Trustees. It is a high distinction to be an Elected Trustee, and the names of these elected members include such well-known persons as the Duke of Argyll, Lord Acton, Sir John Lubbock, the Earl of Rosebery. Sir George Trevelyan, the Earl of Crawford, Sir John Evans (President of the British Association), Mr. John Morley, and Sir William Vernon-Harcourt.

As so large a body would be likely to be unwieldy in its movements, the Trustees, year by year, elect a standing committee of nineteen members of the Trust, for the dispatch of business. This committee meets ten times during the year, and the business for its consideration is so methodically brought before it by the Secretary that an hour is found to be sufficient time for its sitting. Mr. John Morley and Mr. Cavendish Bentinck are among the most frequent attendants, and the Prince of Wales is present at six out of the ten meetings. The senior Trustee present at the time of meeting takes the chair; but the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor,and the Speaker of the House of Commons, in their order, [315 Col. A / 315 Col. B] if present, preside before all others. The Prince of Wales escapes taking the chair by uniformly coming a few minutes late. The standing committee has, for prompt action, resolved itself into sub-committees for buildings, finance, printed books and manuscripts, antiquities, prints and drawings, and for coins and medals.

In the exercise of their authority, the Trustees have, for the guidance of their chief officer, defined his responsibilities. The duties of the principal librarian are laid down, generally, in the "Statutes and Rules for the British Museum," as approved by the Trustees on the 8th of May, 1886. Therein the Principal Librarian is made responsible for the safety of the Museum and of its contents; for the superintendence of the several departments into which the Institution is divided, and of their respective officers; and for advising the Trustees upon the reports of officers of the establishment. He is required to grant admission to the Museum to persons of eminence, either for learning or rank, "especially foreigners, desiring to inspect the collections, but not able conveniently to avail themselves of the usual mode of admission." He is to take care that the Institution be kept open during the appointed hours, and that proper order be observed by all persons. He is to grant admission to the reading-room, the print-room, and the sculpture galleries, and to afford readers and students all proper facilities. He is responsible for giving effect to the orders of the Trustees, and for the editing and publishing of the guides to the collections. Lastly, the Principal Librarian is required to be in attendance when the Museum shall be visited by the sovereign, or by any members of the royal family, or by royal personages of other countries. The dignified presence and courtly manners of the present Principal, in addition to his other qualifications, render him a very fit person to welcome royalties to the great temple of learning.

The Statutes and Rules above mentioned define the duties of the Secretary of the Trustees after the following manner: He is to issue summonses for, and to attend all meetings of, the Trustees held at the Museum, and to take minutes of their proceedings. He is to take charge of all records and other documents connected with the business of the Trust. He is to submit all accounts due from the Trustees and payable from the Parliamentary grant, for approval at each meeting of the standing committee, and to take care that orders for payment are duly made upon the Paymaster-General. He is to conduct the correspondence of the Trustees. Payments on account of the Museum from the Funds account at the Bank of England are to be made by him. To do so, he is authorized to sign checks for payments from the Funds account. Of these payments he is required to keep an exact statement, and to lay it before the standing committee at the close of each financial year. He is required to give security for the due discharge of his office to the amount of £10,000 — in his own bond for £5,000, and two sureties in a joint and several bond for £5,000. He is to examine all accounts against the Museum, and to certify to their correctness, and to keep a weekly account of all work done for the Trust, paid otherwise than by fixed salaries, and to certify that it has been authorized and that the charges are accurate. He is to account for the various [315 Col. B / 315 Col. C] transactions with books published by the Trustees; is to examine and check the printers' and booksellers' accounts, and receive moneys due from booksellers and others; and he is to keep an account of the stationery received and expended, and make all applications to the Stationery Office.

In the exercise of his functions and responsibilities, as thus defined, the Principal Librarian controls the several Departments into which the institution is divided. All the reports of the keepers pass through him to the Trustees. He accounts for the spending of the sum of £163,000, which is voted annually by Parliament, under the head British Museum. This amount includes the sum voted for the National History Museum at South Kensington, the accounting for which is his only connection with that otherwise distinct institution, but which, like the Museum, is also subject to the Trustees. The Principal Librarian advises the Trustees as to purchases for the Museum of works of art, books, manuscripts, and otherwise. He conducts a large correspondence; not merely signing his name to thousands of documents, but writing scores of letters with his own hand, among the latter being beautifully worded letters of thanks for donations to the institution. He supervises all admissions of readers and art-students; fights disagreeable persons; soothes ruffled people's feelings; and redresses all reasonable complaints of the public. The "fighting of disagreeable persons" takes various forms, the most severe of which is in the form of lawsuits. An instance in point is that of the lawyer to whom a reader's ticket was refused, and who took proceedings in court after court to try and compel the Museum authorities to issue a ticket to him. But the Judges held that it was within the discretion of the authorities to withhold a ticket when they thought fit; and the result of the long-drawn-out litigation was the passing of an Act of Parliament to prevent vexatious actions being brought against the Principal Librarian.

As regards his own staff, he has to maintain due discipline; to regulate the purchase of acquisitions; criticise the arrangement of the collections; keep an eye upon the catalogues of the various departments; push on the labelling, and enthuse the keepers, if such a need were to be possible. To drive a team of about 350 persons, and to manage about half a million of visitors, year by year, requires business aptitudes which the Principal Librarian must possess. In all circumstances, that official must have the command of his own temper. At times, in the interests of the public, he has to attempt to soften the heart of the Treasury and to wheedle the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Then there is the writing of guide-books; the working of the sales of the publications of the Museum, which brought in last year £1,800; and the settling of donations to libraries and other institutions. As the custodian of a vast pile of buildings, the Principal Librarian has, moreover, to attend to the cleaning, lighting, warming, and general up-keep of the fabric. He must, perforce, imagine himself more or less of an expert in drainage, electricity, fire apparatus, hydraulics, and hydrants. Added to the foregoing, and to other duties "too numerous to be specified," the Principal Librarian has to discharge the ordinary duties of a house-agent, in letting the surrounding property acquired by the nation for the prospective enlargement of the Museum. In this capa [315 Col. C/ 316 Col. A] city the Principal Librarian collects rents amounting, yearly, to the respectable sum of £4,200.

Of course, in the discharge of his multifarious duties, the Principal Librarian is assisted by a staff of very able men, some of them individually of high distinction in their several branches of knowledge. Only men who have taken honors at a university are now allowed to be even enrolled as candidates for employment on the staff of the Museum; and a knowledge of the Greek, Latin, French, and German languages is obligatory. Ask one of the juniors how many languages he is acquainted with. If he tells you half-a-dozen, and you compliment him on his acquirements, he modestly deprecates your thinking much of his attainments while some of his colleagues so far excel him, as he points out. The Principal Librarian's immediate staff consists of the Assistant Secretary, the accountant, three flrst-class assistants, one second-class assistant, three second-division clerks, two boy copyists, and an attendant. Then comes that great division of the institution, so dear to bookmen, the Department of Printed Books, Maps, Charts, and Plans. Of this branch Dr. Richard Garnett, C.B., himself a walking cyclopaedia, is the distinguished head. Under him are three assistant keepers, of whom the senior is Mr. George Fortescue, a most popular official. With them cooperate fourteen assistants of the first class and twenty of the second class. These gentlemen are all scholars of exceptional attainments. The linguistic acquirements of some of them are, to the ordinary student, simply amazing. Mr. Bain, for example, is said to be master of about thirty languages, mostly Slavic. But even he does not come up to a former member of the staff, Mr. Martineau, who is said to have been silent in almost all the languages of the civilized world. Mr. Coote, who has charge of the maps, is a master of cartography. About one hundred attendants of different grades serve with this department, with which are associated the Reading-Room and the Newspaper-Room.

Of the important Department of Manuscripts Mr. Scott is the keeper, having Mr. Warner as assistant keeper. With them are nine assistants, among whom are Mr. de Grey Birch, Mr. Bickley, and Mr. Kenyon. Mr. Bickley presides over the Literary Search Room, where his helpfulness to students is highly appreciated. Mr. Kenyon leaped into fame by his identification of the Aristotle manuscript. Fourteen attendants serve with this branch. The Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts has Mr. Robert Kennaway Douglas as its keeper, and he has four assistants under him. Five attendants are here. Mr. Sidney Colvin is the well-known keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings, and he has eleven assistants and two attendants. Of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Dr. Budge is the keeper. He has three assistants and six attendants. Mr. Stuart Murray is keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. He has an assistant keeper and three assistants with him, and eight attendants. Mr. Charles Hercules Read is keeper of the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography. His staff consists of three assistants and seven attendants. Lastly, the Department of Coins and Medals has Mr. Barclay Vincent Head as its keeper and Mr. [316 Col. A/ 316 Col. B] Grucber as assistant keeper. With them are three assistants and two attendants.

The foregoing make up the establishment proper. Besides these are a large number of employees, ranking under the general heading of "House Attendants, Servants, etc." Among these are twenty commissionaires, seven gate-keepers and watchmen, thirty-two laborers and window-cleaners. Twenty-six policemen are stationed on the premises, under an inspector and two sergeants. There is a staff for warming and ventilating the building, another staff for electric lighting, and a staff of masons. In all there are between 350 and 360 persons subject to the control of the Principal Librarian, and for whose correct discharge of their duties he is directly responsible.

The office of Principal Librarian is not only held, but filled, by Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, K.C.B. A Rugby boy and an Oxford man, and a barrister-at-law of the Middle Temple to boot, Sir Edward administers his great department of the state with high efficiency. Appointed at a comparatively early age, he is still in the prime of a vigorous manhood, intellectual and physical. A scholar, distinguished by his successes in palaeography, he is also a thorough man of business. Having worked his way up from the starting-point of an assistant, he has risen, grade by grade, to the headship of the Museum, and most fittingly does that honorable office become hm. As a chief who will not allow undue laxity of any sort, he is regarded by some as unduly strict, but, as a most constant visitor to the Reading Room of the Museum observed, though he and others had wished that another of the staff had been appointed to succeed Mr. Bond, the previous Principal, they could not but agree that Sir Edward was a very fit person for the appointment. "Write to him in a businesslike way when you feel aggrieved, and he will always give you satisfaction. He is a real man of business," said the person referred to.

That vigorous man, Sir Antonio Panizzi, left his name "writ large" upon the Museum. The Reading-Room of itself is a monument to the genius of that illustrious Italian exile. When Panizzi retired on his well-earned pension, he was succeeded by Mr. Winter Jones. The latter, it is thought by some, had hardly a fair chance of distinguishing himself. He was still overshadowed by the powerful personality of Panizzi, who, living hard by in Bloomsbury Square, still exercised his influence with the Trustees. Mr. Gladstone himself is said to have at times walked round to Bloomsbury Square, after a meeting of the Trustees, to have a chat with Panizzi. To Mr. Winter Jones succeeded Mr. Bond, a man spoken of to this day with affectionate regard, on account of his charming personality. He left his mark upon the institution by extending the hours for use of the Reading-Room and by starting the printing of the catalogue of books. Before his time the Reading-Room was closed at four <sc>P. M.</sc> in winter and at six <sc>P. M.</sc> in summer. Mr. Bond extended the hours to eight <sc>P. M.</sc> both summer and winter. He was enabled to make this change through the introduction of the electric light, to the inventors of which, as well as to Mr. Bond, students owe gratitude for lengthening the hours for research.

To Mr. Bond succeeded Sir Edward Thompson, for whom his predecessors had left little scope for adding to the advantages which [316 Col. B / 316 Col. C] the nation derives from Its splendid institution. Sir Edward maintains these advantages, and, where practicable, adds to them. During his administration the Museum has been opened to the public on Sundays. By the exercise of tact and address, with which he is abundantly provided, Sir Edward has managed to get the three principal Trustees to forego, in the interest of the institution, a bit of their patronage. The attendants form a considerable number of the staff. It was usual, heretofore, for these subordinate officers to be recruited from the ranks of the butlers and other dependents of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, and the Speaker of the House of Commons, and of their friends and relations. But by good management on the part of Sir Edward those great officers of state have allowed the Principal Librarian to employ a number of lads on probation. After these youths have served some years, and have proved their fitness, they are appointed to vacancies arising to the ranks of the attendants. It must be said for the attendants of the old régime, however, that, taken as a body, a more obliging and polite body of men could not be found.

Sir Edward has taken, also, an active part in advising the Trustees to acquire such valuable additions as the Malcom collection of prints and the Nelson papers. But his tenure of office is likely to be especially identified with his skilful management of the purchase of a considerable area adjoining the Museum premises. The buildings at present occupied by the Museum cover an area of seven and a half acres of land. Sir Edward learned that, in a few years, the leases would fall in of the land covering five and a half acres, which completes the block of houses in that part of London on which the Museum stands. He brought the matter before the Trustees, and urged the acquisition by the nation of the land and buildings in question. Negotiations followed with the Government and with the late Duke of Bedford, who, according to his cousin, Mr. George Russell, had a sort of idea that he should have been in the poor-house but for his "owning some lodging-houses in Bloomsbury." The Duke was willing to sell, but he died before completing the sale. The present Duke also fell into the arrangement, and, for £200,000, the five and a half acres, with the buildings thereon, became the property of the nation. The Museum has now a reserve of space for expansion. When fully extended, the institution will occupy thirteen acres of land In the centre of London. Meanwhile, the recently purchased premises are let out, on short leases, for seven, fourteen, and twenty-one years, and will be taken over gradually, as the needs of the Museum require. From the premises so acquired the nation is at present drawing an annual rental of £4,200.

It cannot but be interesting to Americans to know that the gentleman who adorns the eminent office of Principal Librarian of the British Museum is a native of the New World. Sir Edward Maunde Thompson was born in Jamaica.

("The Principal Librarian of the British Museum." The Nation. 21 October 1897 (Vol. 65, No. 1686): 314–316. Google Books.)

W. P. Courtney, "The British Museum Library", The Fortnightly Review 1 October 1879Edit


The visitors from the country or abroad who are admitted to the door of the British Museum Library, jaded almost to despair, as they must too often be, with the task of admiring the sights of London, cannot but express a feeling of delight, not unalloyed perchance with envy, at the glimpse of the blessings bestowed on the students of literature. Around the lower shelves of the reading-room are arranged 20,000 volumes of the best books of reference on every branch of knowledge, to which the reader may unmolested help himself without restriction. The books contained on the upper shelves of the reading-room, and on the miles of cases in the interior of the library, can be consulted as long and as often as the reader wishes, on his entering the particulars of the volumes which he desires on the tickets freely furnished to him for that purpose. The sight of these priceless volumes, all maintained at the nation's expense for the gratification of the student, must affect the visitor with feelings not unlike those which stirred the heart of Thackeray. When he remembered the "dome which held Macaulay's brain," and the stores of learning: which were housed under it, the thought of the library of the British Museum, and the still more wonderful treasures preserved under the dome of its reading-room, rose to his recollection. "I have seen," said Thackeray, "all sorts of domes, of Peters and Pauls, Sophia, Pantheon, and have been struck by none of them so much as by that catholic dome in Bloomsbury under which our million volumes are housed. What peace, what love, what truth, what beauty, what happiness for all, what generous kindness for you and me, are here spread out! It seems to me one cannot sit down in that place without a heart full of grateful reverence. I own to have said my grace at the table, and to have thanked heaven for this my English birthright, freely to partake of those bountiful books, and to speak the truth I find there." This should not be regarded as the unmeaning rhapsody of the novelist; the same feelings of thankfulness for the blessings they inherit have stirred the hearts of most of the readers at the British Museum.

The life of the British Museum is at least a century and a half less than that of its great rival at Oxford. We need not be surprised, therefore, if the student of Elizabethan literature or Puritan theology must supplement the deficiencies of the former collection by frequent visits to the Bodleian, or to the almost unknown collection of books bequeathed by the liberality of Dr. Williams to his dissenting brethren. During the present century the topographical [585/586] and poetical departments of the Bodleian have been augmented by the gifts of the volumes amassed by the industry of Douce and Malone. Douce's library was withheld from the British Museum through fear that it might not be preserved intact in some portion of that building. The resolution of Mr. Grenville to give his library to the Museum "was only formed on his receiving from Sir A. Panizzi an informal intimation that his volumes should not be scattered through its numerous rooms. The superiority of the Bodleian over the British Museum in the possession of our early national literature would have been undoubted, but for the lack of forethought shown by Sir Thomas Bodley in stipulating that his library should not acquire "such books as almanacks, plays, and an infinite number, that are daily printed, of very unworthy matters and handling." By the unwisdom of the founder of the Bodleian Library the plays of the Elizabethan dramatists, which might have been purchased in his day for a few shillings, have now to be secured for his collection at the expenditure of scores, if not hundreds, of pounds. The library of the British Museum originated in the 50,000 volumes which had been acquired by Sir Hans Sloane. His collection of books, manuscripts, and scientific curiosities passed to the public under the provisions of his will for £20,000, a sum estimated by him at one-third of their actual cost. During the six years spent by the Government in obtaining by means of a lottery the money necessary for securing these collections, and fcr purchasing Montague House, the books of Sir Hans Sloane were augmented by the King's gift of the old Royal Library; and in the very year (1759) of the opening of the Museum to the public, a Jewish gentleman, one Solomon da Costa, sent to the trustees a curious collection of Hebrew books, many of choice editions, and all bound with the cipher of Charles II. on the covers, which the Jewish community had proposed to present to that monarch in acknowledgment of his protection of their race.

The most valuable additions to the library since 1759 have been the Royal Library of George III., and the equally famous library of Mr. Thomas Grenville. The former collection, consisting of about 84,000 volumes, was acquired by George III. at infinite pains, and at an expenditure largely in excess of £100,000. It was purchased in 1823 from his successor on the throne by the ministry of Lord Liverpool, to prevent its passing into the hands of the Emperor of Russia, although George IV. had the effrontery, in writing to the Prime Minister after the completion of the transaction, to boast that he had resolved " to present the collection to the British nation."1 The King's books are described in a printed [586/587]

(1) The inscription over the door of the room containing the King's library still records that it "was given to the British nation by his Most Gracious Majesty George IV." These words should be erased; they cannot fail to recall Pope's bitter [586/587]

catalogue of five volumes, the first published in 1820, the last in 1829; while the "King's pamphlets," which became the property of the nation at the same time, are entered in nine manuscript volumes. All these works are distinguished in the general catalogue of the library by the affix of a crown. The volumes of Mr. Grenville, 20,000 in number, costing their original purchaser more than £54,000, have also a separate catalogue, but are not included in the general catalogue. These books were purchased by their owner chiefly through the emoluments of a sinecure post which he enjoyed for many years; this circumstance influenced him in bequeathing his library to the nation. In 1799 the trustees of the Museum received the early editions of the classics and the rare prints which the Rev. Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode spent forty years of his life in collecting at the shops of Elmsley and Payne. His collection contained only 4,500 volumes, but their value exceeded in proportion any of the other additions to the Museum. For more than forty years Sir Joseph Banks had been connected as President of the Royal Society with the management of the British Museum, and to it he made in 1820 a contingent bequest of his wonderful collection of voyages and travels and scientific books and journals. There have also been given to the Museum the books of Dr. Birch and Sir William Musgrave (collections especially rich in the subject of biography), Sir John Hawkins, Mr. Tyrwhitt, and Sir. R. C. Hoare. The trustees have purchased the Garrick collection of old plays (familiar to thousands of readers from the extracts printed by Charles Lamb in the Table Book of William Hone), Hargrave's law books, the classical library of Charles Burney, Baron Moll's books on natural history and medicine, and a collection of Italian and French literature formed by Ginguené.

If the reader adds to this long list the marvellous series of civil war tracts rescued from a speedy death by the vigilance of Thomason, and preserved by his care through the vicissitudes of that troubled period, he will be acquainted with the principal sources from which the national library has been formed. The thousands of books marked on the last leaf with the date of acquisition stamped in red ink, will, however, teach the reader initiated into the mysteries of the Museum that its officers have during the last thirty years been actively employed in remedying, by purchases in the open market, the defects which they inherited through the carelessness of their predecessors. It is by this means that the British Museum Library has been placed in a high, if not perfect, state of efficiency. Its guardians may safely boast that "early editions of the Bible, early service-[587/588]

lines on the inscription which once disgraced the Monument. The sentences of Mr. Spencer Walpole (History of England from 1815, vol. i. pp. 92, 93) on Qeorge IV.'s conduct are well worthy of perusal. [587/588] [this fn is continued from the prior page]

books, early editions of Shakespere's plays, everything that is rare and curious has been secured whenever an opportunity occurred;" they may, without chance of contradiction, claim that success has attended their attempt "to bring under one roof all the current literature of the world that had any intrinsic value, regardless of the language in which it might be couched."

When the Museum Library was opened in 1759, the love of reading was confined to a select few. Gray has handed down to us an amusing account of the reading-room and its visitors in the first year of its history. Writing to Mason on the 23rd of July, 1759, from his London lodgings, he describes with caustic criticism the defects of the first readers in the old library. "The Museum will be my chief amusement. I this day passed through the jaws of a great leviathan that lay in my way into the belly of Dr. Templeman, superintendent of the reading-room, who congratulated himself on the sight of so much good company. We were — a man that writes for Lord Royston; a man that writes for Dr. Burton of Yor; a third that writes for the Emperor of Germany, or Dr. Pocock, for he speaks the worst English I ever heard; Dr. Stukeley, who writes for himself, the very worst person he could write for; and I, who only read to know if there were anything worth writing, and that not without some difficulty." (Correspondence of Gray and Mason (1853), pp. 183–4). If we allow that a great increase has taken place since that date in the number of readers in the Museum, we must add that the money which has been spent by the nation in enriching the treasures of the national library will only yield a fair return when that number is multiplied tenfold.

From a paper issued this spring it appears that in the year 1878 only 114,516 persons were admitted to the reading-room out of the four millions of people resident in London. The insufficiency of this total will be best shown by comparison with the number of readers in the libraries of other cities. Manchester has a population of less than 380,000 souls, but according to the interesting return on the Free Libraries Acts which was distributed in 1877, over 177,000 readers entered in the year 1875 (?) its noble reference library and branch reading-rooms. The statistics of the readers at the Museum are equally painful when compared with American libraries. In 1877 the whole number of volumes returned to the library of the Museum, after use in the reading-room, amounted to the comparatively insignificant total of 650,219; the figures are only swelled to 1,439,963 by adding the estimated number of volumes returned by the readers themselves to the shelves of the reading-room. In the Boston public library, with the population of that city less than a tenth part of that of London, 1,140,572 volumes were issued to the visitors in the year 1876-77. It is an easy matter to point out the reason for the small amount of patronage [588/589] shown by the reading public of London to the great central storehouse of literature in Bloomsbury. The Boston public library is thrown open with success to readers more than fourteen years old from nine in the morning till nine at night all the year round; the Museum is only open on the average of the year to five in the evening, and its doors are always closed to persons under the age of twenty-one. By the closing of the Museum at these early hours many of the ablest antiquaries in London are debarred from availing themselves of its privileges save for a few minutes eagerly snatched in the early morning or the afternoon. Let the inquirer enter the reading-room at half-past nine in the morning, or later in the day at half-past four, and ask an attendant for the private history of the readers most eagerly engaged in study at those hours. He will perhaps learn that one studious gentleman is a busy London solicitor ardently engaged in lifting the veil of secrecy which envelops the anonymous and pseudonymous writers of past ages; another will be pointed out as the most accurate reproducer of the pre-restoration literature ; and a third will be mentioned as a well-known barrister whose delight it is to pore into the theological controversies which have often threatened to rend asunder the English Church. Southey once accounted for the publication of his numerous works by the remark that he knew how to make the best use of the intervals of ten minutes that occurred to every man. It is by means of these spare half-hours, and by the aid of the Saturday half-holiday, that much of the most honest literary work in London is composed; and the trustees of the Museum should occupy themselves with the consideration in what way it is possible to improve the few opportunities for research at present enjoyed by the literary men of this class.

We have just seen that the number of books kept in the inner portion of the Museum which were consulted in 1877 amounted to only 650,000, and that the large number of 790,000 was estimated by the Museum officials to have been perused from the volumes kept on the shelves in the reading-room itself. If this supposition be true (and though we are unable to test, we have no reason for doubting its accuracy), the opening of half-a-dozen reference libraries in various parts of London would seem to be highly desirable. A large number of the readers now occupying the desks in the reading-room would probably then be drawn off to free libraries situate in their own neighbourhood, thus obviating the necessity, which else must soon arise, for increasing the accommodation for the public at the Museum itself. A few students of acknowledged reputation and respectability might also be allowed, on giving a day's notice of their wishes, to obtain the use for a night or two nights, at these branch libraries, of some of the rarer volumes which would ordinarily [589/590] be kept at Bloomsbury. I am told that this plan has been adopted with success at Oxford. The books at the Bodleian which are wanted by students whose time during the day is preoccupied, are taken to the Radcliffe library for use there during the evening. The proposals for increasing the utility of the Museum which I am about to examine, would require an outlay of a large sum of money without the possibility of any return for the expenditure. If the Government should at any time determine to spend any money for the improvement of libraries in London, it may well consider whether it would not be most profitably expended in aiding the establishment of a few branch reference libraries in the most populous parts of London. It seems hopeless to expect from the ratepayers of London the establishment of those free libraries which are now to be found in the chief towns of England.

Even, however, if some such plan for increasing the scanty opportunities of reading at present enjoyed by residents in London should be adopted by the Government, the collections in the British Museum would still be of little benefit to the rest of the nation. The volumes in its library have been collected and are maintained out of the taxes of the whole country, but at present they can be consulted by only one-tenth of the English people. The cry that Parliament, by its grants for the British Museum and the South Kensington Museum, has done for London what the other cities in England have been forced to do for themselves, is echoed and re-echoed in the press, and has been heard in the House of Commons itself. At the Conference of Librarians held in London in October, 1877, this complaint found forcible exposition in Mr. W. E. A. Axon's paper, "The British Museum in its Relation to Provincial Culture." His suggestion that the publication every year of the names of the books received at the Museum under the Copyright Act would enable the trustees to acquire without cost many volumes which in a few years can only be purchased at a large expenditure, should not be rejected without careful consideration. This, however, was a minor point in Mr. Axon's paper. Its primary idea was to urge the desirability of printing the catalogue of the Museum, as, to use his own words, "the greatest aid to investigation that the literary world could receive from the Government of a great nation." The possibility of carrying out this great enterprise was warmly supported by several eminent librarians among his audience, and opposed with equal warmth by a section not inferior in numbers or in learning. I hope that I shall not be accused of indifference to the claims of the provinces if I venture to throw in my lot among those who considered the difficulties of the undertaking as almost insurmountable.

At the very outset of our consideration of this question, we are confronted with a matter still in debate among librarians. Shall [590/591] the titles of the works be printed in full or with considerable abridgment? I have heard some advocates of the latter system push their opinions so far as to insist that in no case should more than one line of the printed catalogue be occupied with the description of a single book. Is this, however, practicable? Obviously in the case of thousands of novels happily published with no other title than the name of the heroine, this amount of room would be sufficient, but in those instances no one would desire to occupy a larger space with the description of the book. The political and religious writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have not, however, in composing their title-pages shown the same amount of consideration for bibliographers, and to reduce such titles to the same narrow limits would be impossible without mutilating them in such a manner that their own authors could not recognise them. Where is the man who could abridge the titles of the tracts of Prynne or Hugh Peters without destroying their resemblance to the original? If to inform students in the country of the works by any given author, which are preserved in the shelves of the British Museum Library, be deemed the sole reason for printing a catalogue of its contents, the abridged system might be found sufficient for the purpose. The object would, however, be attained much more cheaply, and I may add much more effectually, by adding to the existing staff one or two clerks who should be employed in answering the letters of country inquirers. The abridged system may, however, be summarily dismissed from our consideration as finding but little favour in the eyes of more prominent librarians. Mr. Winter Jones, in opening the conferenceof librarians, delivered an animated exposition of the various systems of cataloguing. "A good title," in his opinion, "ought to give all that appears on the title-page of the book, with such further information as to authorship, or editorship, or the nature of the contents as may in addition be derived from the work itself." Another eminent authority on libraries advocated a system of photo-bibliographic titles, and addressed to the conference the indignant inquiry, "Why abridge a title, except it be an index or cross-reference title? Better record it as left by the author." From across the Atlantic is borne the emphatic declaration of Professor Jewitt, of the Smithsonian Institution, "that the scholars of all nations demand of Great Britain that the Catalogue of the Library of the British Museum should be well done, and should be a work of bibliographical authority." The conclusion is irresistible that if we are to satisfy the demands of the chief rulers of libraries, the catalogue of the British Museum, if printed at all, must be printed without any great curtailment of titles. Those who are acquainted with the early volumes of Punch, will be aware that the proposition of compiling a general catalogue of the contents of the Museum Library was assailed with all the [591/592] satire which the contributors to that periodical could employ. Against it the gibes and the sneers of the writers in Punch were directed for several years. The trustees of the Museum, undaunted by the ridicule of those caustic satirists, persisted in their undertaking, and although after more than thirty years the catalogue is not yet complete, it has advanced beyond the end of the letter E. The old catalogue of books, now for the most part superseded, consisted of 82 volumes only. The present general catalogue now numbers more than 2,100 volumes, letter P alone requiring over 240, and eight others exceeding 100 volumes. I must not forget to add that there are separate catalogues of maps and music. The particulars of the collection of maps were contained a few months ago in more than 260 volumes; the music catalogue exceeds 300 volumes, in addition to 58 for the names of authors of the words which have been set to music. When the general catalogue of books is complete, and the reader is supplied with full details of the marvellous collection of English and foreign newspapers which is preserved in the basement of the existing buildings, the number of volumes required for the description of these collections will amount to at least 4,000.1 To have conceived the idea of, and to have all but accomplished, so great a literary undertaking may well fill the hearts of its promoters with pride. If, however, we can have absolute confidence in the dictum of the chief librarian at the Museum, the whole of this labour has been altogether thrown away. In scarcely a single instance does this vast catalogue furnish the student with all that appears on the title-page of the book, or with such further information as to the authorship, editorship, and the nature of the contents as may in addition be derived from the work itself. The Museum authorities would probably urge in reply to the strictures of their chief official, that the amount of information to be found in the existing manuscript catalogue, even if it fell short of the requirements of experienced bibliographers, would be accepted by most readers as sufficient for ordinary requirements. They would reject without hesitation any proposal involving the necessity of undoing the labour of so many years; and their conduct, I venture to prophesy, would be supported by the opinions of those who hold the purse-strings of the country.

The strenuous advocate of a printed catalogue of the British Museum Library, as urgently required in the interests of country students, did not hesitate at the same Library Conference to express his conviction that the manuscript catalogue had so far advanced "that, probably, no great effort would be required to make it a complete [592/593]

<fn>(1) The work of cataloguing the contents of the Bodleian Library is now all but finished. The catalogue will consist of 721 folio volumes, similar in shape and size to those in use at the Museum.</fn> [592/593]

record of the printed books, up to whatever date might be decided to be the proper limit." Many of his hearers would shrink from endorsing this bold assertion. The manuscript catalogue if printed in its present state would not, in spite of the labour which has been bestowed upon it, be received with that chorus of approbation which its authors would desire. Very many works, now entered in the catalogue without the names of their authors, might with little trouble be assigned to their legitimate parents; the number of crossreferences, though greatly increased of later years, might be considerably augmented. It must be allowed that these are great drawbacks to the perfection of the catalogue. Most of those who are best acquainted with the inside of the reading-room have many times spent hours in the search (alas! I must add, too often in the vain search) after anonymous books. At the same conference another distinguished man of letters declared that he could speak on the difficulty of finding anonymous books at the Museum "from bitter experience," and warmly urged the adoption of some plan for making this large class of books more available to the inquirer. I was myself surprised, when endeavouring a short time ago to compile a list of the writings of the Rev. R. Polwhele, by the imperfections of the present catalogue in this important particular. That well-known writer, in the course of his long literary life of sixty years, posed as a poet, divine, topographer, translator, and biographer. In his garrulous contributions to biographical literature he has himself given, with scarcely a single exception, the names of his works, anonymous or not. They amount to more than fifty in number, but only twenty-one are entered under his name in the Museum catalogue. Let not the inquirer, however, imagine that number to exhaust the whole of Polwhele's works contained in the library. Of the balance, which the student might not unnaturally deem to be lacking, at least seven could be found were he willing to spend several hours of his time for the labour.

The imperfections of the manuscript catalogue were brought even moro prominently under my notice a few months ago. I was then endeavouring to find a well-known work by James Ralph, one of the gazetteers of the first half of the eighteenth century. I will now explain to the reader the various steps which I took, only premising that, for brevity's sake, I shall omit in this notice of Ralph's works described in the Museum catalogue any mention of his poems and dramas. That the name of one of his poems still lives is the result of a scornful couplet in the Dunciad; with that exception they have long since passed into the land where all things are forgotten. If Ralph's poetical productions are contemptible, his political works must still be consulted for their acuteness, as well as for the assistance rendered him by Dodington [593/594] and his crew. On finding Ralph's name in the catalogue, the student is referred elsewhere for the first edition of his Case of Authors by Profession (1758), A Critical Review of Publick Buildings in London and Westminster (1734), and for the pamphlet (entitled The Other Side of the Question) in which he answered the Account of the Conduct of the Duchess of Marlborough, which that imperious lady commanded Hooke, the Roman Catholic historian, to write. The waste of time involved in this mistaken system of cataloguing, I shall allude to presently; I would only observe now that as the reprints of the first two works bear their author's name on the title-page, they are described at full length under his name. If the student, disappointed at not finding under Ralph's name in the new catalogue his two principal works, The History of England during the Reigns of William, Anne, and George I., and his volumes on The Use and Abuse of Parliaments, should turn to the old catalogue, he will close it with a keener feeling of disappointment. They are not to be found there, and it is little consolation to him to find in their stead the names of four other works by Ralph not entered in the new catalogue. It occurs to him that these works may be entered in the King's catalogue. He opens the volume containing the writings of Ralph. The History of England is found there, but the treatise on Parliament must be sought elsewhere. The inquirer returns to the new catalogue under the word Parliament, but again his labour is spent in vain. As a last resource he turns to the old catalogue under the same word. There it is duly entered, but the entry has been ruled through in ink. If the seeker after knowledge enjoys but a superficial acquaintance with the mysteries of the catalogue, he can come to no other conclusion than the work has been lost or mislaid. <superscript>1</superscript> The regular visitor will, however, know that this erasure was the ingenious contrivance of some long-forgotten custodian of the Museum for indicating that a copy of the work will be found in the King's catalogue under the same word. Success has at last crowned his effort; the works for which he has sought so patiently are all found. I am ready to allow that this is probably an exceptional example of error on the part of the framers of the new catalogue; but I must add that my [595/596]

<fn>(1) I may here be allowed to mention that a noble author was recently led astray by this practice. In 1875 there appeared a reprint of Robert Ward's Treatise of the Relative Rights and Duties of Belligerent and Neutral Rowers in Maritime Affairs, with an introductory preface from the pen of the present Lord Stanley of Alderley. From this we learn that the original treatise, though written at the solicitation of Lord Grenville, was reprinted because it was entirely forgotten — "having disappeared within late years from those libraries where it is known to have existed. . . . . It was to be found in the British Museum, where the title may still be seen in the catalogue, with the stroke o pen drawn through it." After the above remarks, the writer will not be surprised to learn that a copy of Ward's treatise is still preserved in the King's Library, and may be consulted at any time. Since the appearance of this reprint, particulars this copy have been entered in the new catalogue. [594/595]

experience of its contents has forced upon me the painful consideration that in most cases the number of works included under an author's name might be increased, were the task of entering all the cross-references satisfactorily completed, and the anonymous and pseudonymous works at present sown broadcast through the catalogue assigned to, and entered under, their proper owners.

Mr. H. B. Wheatley opened his paper at the conference of librarians, "On the Alphabetical Arrangement of the Titles of Anonymous Books," with the statement that books of that class are "the pariahs of literature." We have just seen, in considering the works of Ralph, that the original editions of three of his chief publications being published without any mention of his name on the title-pages, are described in full under other parts of the catalogue, while the later editions, which bore his name on them, are entered under his name. This is the rule laid down for the construction of the catalogue by the five illustrious bibliographers who originated it. Many works, published in the first instance in an anonymous or pseudonymous form, have in course of time been claimed by the lawful owners, and republished with their names on the title-pages. The governing principle of the Museum may be summed up in the phrase, once anonymous, always anonymous; consequently all the editions of these works which appeared without any mention of the names of their authors must be sought far and wide in the catalogue. Judged by this rule, the Museum list of the works of Sir Walter Scott will rank as a bibliographical curiosity. The first editions of nearly all his novels, and many other of his works, will be catalogued under such entries as a Layman, Paul, Somnambulus, L. Templeton (?), the Author of Waverley — anywhere, in short, rather than in their proper place. If the reader desires a more modern instance of this art of cataloguing, he should be referred to the writings of Miss Braddon.

The system of cataloguing anonymous books which is adopted by the Museum may be condemned in other respects; but we cannot now enter into that wide field of discussion. We may dismiss this subject with the remark, that if the main object of a catalogue is truly described as "to help the consulter," the effect of the Museum system is too often to hinder him.

The trustees of the Museum have always contended that the library should possess at least one copy of every separate work printed in the United Kingdom. Into the consideration of the value of the volume they have persistently declined to enter. The shade of Sir Thomas Bodley is often invoked for refuting the advocates of the principle of selection and proving that, in literature, the dross of to-day is the gold of the next century. It has been stated — and I believe that the report is true — that this principle has been [595/596] pushed to such an extent as to include copies of all the numbers of Bradshaw published in the year. I could myself mention the name of a London library where, in the last days of a former librarian now fortunately superannuated, the money of its owners was spent, not simply in preserving, but even in half-binding the numbers of that amusing serial. Mr. Poole, a prominent American bibliographer, in arguing for the preservation of one copy of every work, however despicable its literary value, happily referred to the collections of Thomason as containing innumerable specimens of work called "trash." In it there are many single books and pamphlets which, if sold to-day in America, would produce more than the insignificant sum of £300 which George III. paid for the whole library. During the year 1877 the number of distinct works added to the Museum amounted to more than 47,000, besides more than 16,000 other articles, comprising broadsides, single pieces of music, and parliamentary papers. If the process of acquisition continues as rapidly in the next twenty years, the rooms of the Museum will exceed the poetic description, "without o'erflowing, full." The adoption in national libraries of the principle of selection can only be justified by the plea of necessity; but the energies of our descendants will be severely taxed to prevent its application to the shelves of this wonderful collection.

Let us now anticipate the labours of the Museum officials for the next ten years, and picture the weary task of compiling the general catalogue, and incorporating the Grenville collection with it as finished; let us assume that this noble monument of patient industry has been reconstructed so perfectly as to defy the attacks of adverse criticism. If the trustees of the Museum should then yield to the arguments of the promoters of the scheme for printing the catalogue, and appeal to Parliament for pecuniary assistance, the guardians of the nation's purse would at once demand the cost of the publication. Fortunately we are not without a guide in the consideration of this question. Six volumes of the printed catalogue of the Advocates Library at Edinburgh have now appeared. The entries in that catalogue will be about 200,000; a supplementary volume, making a total of 5,000 pages, will probably be requisite; and the total cost will be £5,000. It is reasonable to suppose that the work of printing the Museum catalogue could not be commenced before 1885, and that by that time the number of entries of books in all languages will amount to at least 3,200,000. Judged by the test of the Advocates' catalogue, the cost of printing the catalogue of our great national library would amount to £80,000. Even if we make a considerable deduction from those figures on the ground that the preparation of the English catalogue for the press will not necessitate so much preliminary labour as the Scotch catalogue, the [596/597] total cost cannot be estimated at less than £70,000; and 80,000 pages of print, filling ninety-six quarto volumes, will be required for the completion of the undertaking.1 The number of English scholars able and willing to purchase such a catalogue might be counted on the fingers of the hands; libraries at home and abroad might, perhaps, absorb thirty copies. By what process of conviction can the advocates of the printed catalogue have brought themselves to believe that Parliament would sanction the expenditure of that vast sum of money, in order that a few scholars in the country may know the contents of the Museum Library, or that the frequenters of the reading-room itself may find the books which they desire with greater ease than at present?

If the idea of this scheme can only be regarded as chimerical, in what terms can we express our opinion of those still more enthusiastic gentlemen who clamour for a "new general catalogue of English literature"? The author of a very interesting paper on the best modes of selecting and acquiring books for libraries gratified his audience at the library conference of 1877 with a vision of the probable contents of the national library, had the law of copyright been in operation from the day when Caxton first established his printing-press at Westminster. The vision of the priceless products of "Elizabethan and Jacobean literature" which flashed before the eyes of his hearers, was soon darkened by the mention of the "multitudinous crowd of worthless books that must have followed in their wake." It is impossible to calculate with accuracy the number of books, good, bad, and indifferent, which would be housed in the Museum, did it contain copies of all the works which have been published in Great Britain during the last four centuries, but probably we should not be far wrong in estimating that a perfect catalogue of all the volumes, pamphlets, and broadsides printed in Great Britain and Ireland would require at least four million entries. If this supposition be accepted as correct, only a moiety of English printed books can now be preserved there, and it would be necessary to supplement its contents by an equal number of volumes from external collections. Only those who have been engaged on a particular branch of bibliography can form any idea of the large number of volumes still wanting in the British Museum.2 Sermons and pamphlets printed in the country [597/598]

<fn>(1) Mr. Bullcn announced at the Oxford conference that the trustees had authorised the printing of a catalogue of all English books down to 1640. This statement was far from satisfying many of the bibliographers present at the meeting, and Mr. Garnett tersely said that he should prefer a catalogue of books since 1840 rather than a catalogue of those prior to 1640. The publication suggested by Mr. Garnctt, if well indexed, would be of much greater utility than that authorised by the trustees.</fn>

<fn>(2) Mr. Arber says that the library is lamentably deficient in early works. Mr. Henry Stevens believes it to be very incomplete in our early colonial periol. Mr. Cornelius Walford adds that it has always appeared to him very poor in works on insurance and vital statistics.</fn>

rarely find their way thither, and many volumes printed in London (of considerable value in their time, even if they have been superseded by more useful publications) must yet be sought for in the shelves of local libraries. The obituary writers of the Press, in commenting in May of last year on the career of the late Mr. Carruthers, borrowed from the pages of Men of the Time the particulars of the volume which he compiled from the municipal records of Huntingdon on the history of that town. If any reader were induced by this announcement to seek for the work in the new catalogue under its author's name, he got nothing but his labour for his pains. This one instance might be multiplied indefinitely. A library at Manchester, Bath, or it may be at Penzance, will often be found to contain a copy of a book which, owing to the neglect of preceding librarians, has never been received into the devouring jaws of the Museum. The pecuniary outlay involved in printing the titles of the four million books before referred to would certainly equal that required for printing the catalogue of the books, both English and foreign, contained in the British Museum Library, and the labour of collecting from so many libraries the information concerning the English printed books not possessed by the Museum would cause the total expenditure considerably to exceed the sum of £70,000 required for printing the Museum catalogue.

The question may fairly be asked, if the propositions we have been considering are impracticable, in what way can the collections of the British Museum be rendered more useful? It is easy to answer the question. The inquiry of some simple student eager to know where he can find the best books, it may be on photography, or it may be on mathematics, must often have disturbed the thoughts of the more regular visitors to the Museum reading-room, as they are poring over the pages of the catalogue in the exciting chase after some recondite work. When he learns that the readers in the national library are without any subject catalogue, however simple, and is told the cumbrous methods by which he can best obtain the information that he seeks, he will open his eyes in amazement. The primary want of a library will seem to his simple mind to have been neglected. The richest library in the world is around him, but the keys to its contents are wanting. If the trustees are sincerely desirous of rendering the collections under their control more useful, the compilation of a handbook for the chief sources of knowledge in all arts and sciences should be their first care. No greater boon than this could be offered either to the frequenters of the British Museum reading-room or to readers in country libraries. Its accomplishment is not difficult, and its sale would in time be remunerative. Of all the papers on the British Museum Library which have been delivered at the Library conferences, that read by the able and courteous superintendent of [598/599] the reading-room, on "The System of Classifying Books on the Shelves followed at the British Museum," would by common consent be pronounced the most instructive and curious to the outside world. By the forethought of the late Mr. Thomas Watts, the whole of the volumes in the British Museum Library are arranged on the shelves in ten separate divisions or classes, each of which is again divided and subdivided. The names of these chief classes are theology, jurisprudence, natural history and medicine, archaeology and arts, philosophy, history, geography, biography, belles lettres, and philology. Theology is divided into 117 lower subjects, the nature of which will be rendered sufficiently clear by the enumeration of the first four, Polyglot, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Bibles; belles lettres has 101 lower divisions, such as English poems of sixteenth century, and English poets of seventeenth century. The literary student has long been aware from the numbering of the press marks that some system of this kind had been adopted for the classification of the books at the Museum, but the names of the divisions in which they were kept had, until the printing of the schedule to Mr. Garnett's paper, been concealed from curious eyes. Often has the reader, whose few hours have been spent in the empty chase, through the interminable manuscript catalogues, after some volume which has escaped from his pursuit, bemoaned the circumstance that, although he has secured many of the works on his particular branch of study, the book which he desires to obtain above all others is quietly slumbering on one of the adjoining shelves, but is yet as far away from his grasp as if it were not in the library. If the prayers of antiquaries should ever dispose the minds of the trustees into ordering the publication by their officers of hand-lists of the works contained in their library on the principal branches of literary and scientific study, the adoption of this system of classification could not fail to lighten the labours of the undertaking.

Another important circumstance was mentioned in the same paper, by which the foresight of the founders of the Museum catalogue has anticipated the necessity of the compilation of these bibliographical hand-lists. Four copies are kept of all the entries in the great catalogue; but the fourth copy, instead of being arranged in alphabetical order, corresponds with the divisions of the books on the shelves. By these means the trustees have been placed with but little cost in the possession of a class catalogue of all the literature under their care, and, although some preliminary time would necessarily be occupied in still further arranging these volumes, the cost of preparing such a catalogue has been greatly diminished. It would, indeed, be difficult to over-estimate the value of such hand-lists. The youthful aspirant for legal honours vainly desires to know the names of the best works on law; the [599/600] medical student yearns for information on the sources of knowledge which he ought to consult. Often, too, has the genealogist or the county historian desired a handbook of English topography arranged in the alphabetical order of places, and a dictionary of biography classified in periods or subjects. None of these wants have yet been remedied. Some of them may, indeed, be in time supplied should the promoters of the Index Society be rewarded with the success which their scheme deserves. But even if this happy consummation were accomplished, the field of labour is so vast that their energies can only break the surface of the ground. Wants like these are in part supplied in France by the labours of the Société Franklin. It has issued a general catalogue of books suitable for popular libraries, which is supplemented in its monthly bulletins, and a variety of special catalogues for the use of particular kinds of libraries. From the Society's bulletin for April, 1878, it appears that 60,000 copies of these catalogues have been circulated.

I am not bold enough to suppose that my propositions for the improvement of the British Museum Library will meet with universal approval. It is too true that an institution which has been established and is now maintained at a vast expenditure of public money, is only supported for the good of the select few, instead of for the benefit of mankind at large. The feeling that under present conditions the cost of this great establishment has been disproportionate to its practical utility is growing with startling rapidity. It is for its guardians to consider how the wishes of students in London or the country can be gratified without trenching unduly on the claims of the national purse. I should, indeed, be happy could I believe that this paper would point out any way by which the invaluable collections at the British Museum might be made to promote the interests of English literature throughout the whole country.

W. P. Courtney.

Courtney, W. P. "The British Museum Library." The Fortnightly Review. Ed., John Morley. London: Chapman and Hall, 1879. 1 October 1879 (No. 154, Vol. 26 New Series; Vol. 32 Old Series): 585–600. Google Books.

Questions and NotesEdit


Archival MaterialsEdit

  • "Alphabetical List of Ticket Holders" by date and then by name, in the British Museum Archives. (E.g., Amy Levy is in "Alphabetical List of Ticket Holders, 1880–1888, L–R.")
  • Administrative records for the Museum are in the British Museum Archive, available through the Paul Hamlyn Library..
  • The British Library holds the archives for the British Museum Department of Manuscripts.
  • Works pertaining to the history of the British Museum and its collections are in the Paul Hamlyn Library, now in Room 2 because some temporary exhibits have been mounted in the original domed room.
  • Information about the Museum's collections are in the curatorial departments or in the Central Archive.
  • Archives of governmental documents related to the Museum are in the National Archives.

Works CitedEdit

  • Baedeker, Karl. London and Its Environs: Including Excursions to Brighton, the Isle of Wight, etc. Handbook for Travellers. 2nd ed. London: Dulau, 1879.
  • Bernstein, Susan David. "Radical Readers at the British Museum: Eleanor Marx, Clementina Black, Amy Levy." Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 3.2 (Summer 2007):
  • "The British Museum." The Friend: A Religious and Literary Journal. "Seventh-Day, Sixth Month 28th, 1902." Vol. 75. Philadelphia, 1902. Reprinted from the St. James Gazette. Google Books.
  • "The British Museum and Its Reading-Room." Harper's New Monthly Magazine. January 1873 (Vol. 46, No. 272): 198–209.
  • "British Museum Reading Room." Wikipedia (accessed August 2020).
  • Courtney, W. P. "The British Museum Library." The Fortnightly Review. Ed., John Morley. London: Chapman and Hall, 1879. 1 October 1879 (No. 154, Vol. 26 New Series; Vol. 32 Old Series). Google Books.
  • Levy, Amy. "Readers at the British Museum." Atalanta. 1889.
  • Pascoe, Charles Eyre. London of Today: An Illustrated Handbook for the Season. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1885. Google Books.
  • "The Principal Librarian of the British Museum." The Nation. 21 October 1897 (Vol. 65, No. 1686). Google Books.
  • Wheatley, Henry Benjamin, and Peter Cunningham. London, Past and Present: Its History, Associations, and Traditions. Vol. 1. Google Books.

Additional BibliographyEdit

  • Hoberman, Ruth. "'A Thought in the Huge Bald Forehead'’: Depictions of Women in the British Museum Reading Room, 1857-1929," in Reading Women. Eds. Janet Badia and Jennifer Phlegley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. 168-91.
  • Hoberman, Ruth. “Women in the British Museum Reading Room during the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries: From Quasi- to Counterpublic.” Feminist Studies 28, no. 3 (fall 2002): 489–?. (
  • "Ladies in Libraries," The Saturday Review 62. (14 August1886): 212-13.
  • Levy, Amy. "The Recent Telepathic Occurrence at the British Museum." The Woman's World. Short story set in the Reading Room.