[I’m giving the Wolff lecture at the 2016 RSVP Conference at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. I cut this section, on catalogues and the British Museum, out of the lecture, but, as it makes sense on its own, have posted it below].

Abundance, excess, is the precondition of all bibliographical activity: tools such as catalogues and indexes structure that abundance, create difference, and so enable content to emerge. In other words, by instituting what gets left out, both outside the collection and in the spaces between entries, bibliographical tools both write a collection while leaving matter unwritten, room for others to return and write the collection anew.

A good example of this can be found in that most abundant collection of printed objects, the British Museum. The walls of the museum and its many miles of shelves might have gathered together the physical objects, but without bibliographic tools the collection itself to represent them to readers they were simply rows and rows of volumes, loosely arranged by subject and inaccessible to their readers. There were a number of catalogues, usually trade publications, that provided an overview of the growth of the press. There were the press directories, most obviously, as well as publications like Longman’s London Catalogue of Periodicals, and the first edition of Sampson Low’s English Catalogue (1864) had an appendix listing periodicals from 1835 to 1863. However, the largest collection of periodicals and newspapers was to be found in the British Museum and it was in the burgeoning sets of manuscript volumes that constituted its catalogue that the growth in print could be most readily be appreciated. Between 1813 and 1819 a catalogue to the Sloane collection and Royal Library was printed in seven volumes; these had then been interleaved to receive manuscript editions with the intention of printing an updated edition in the future. However, work was printed and collected quicker than it was catalogued: by 1851 the 23 volumes had become 150; by 1869 1500; by 1875 they it had reached two thousand, fifty of which were dedicated to solely to periodicals.1

Printing was itself a form of bibliographical control, reducing the size of the catalogue and bringing its edges into view. It would also make the catalogue reproducible and distributable, allowing this version of the Museum’s collections to move beyond its walls. Barbara McCrimmon’s excellent book, Power, Politics, and Print, sets out the history of the catalogue’s printing. Briefly, in 1839 the Trustees ordered the catalogue printed. Panizzi, who preferred to complete the manuscript catalogue first, reluctantly complied but, when the first volume ‘A’ appeared in 1841 it was so full of errors that, horrified, he halted production and instead reorganized the compilation of the manuscript catalogue.2 It was not until 1880, the year after Panizzi’s death, that another attempt was made. The Principal Librarian Edward Bond persuaded the Trustees that the Museum should print manuscript volumes when they became so large they needed rebinding. The first to be printed was volume 43 of ‘A’ and, from there, it was fairly straightforward to make the case to print the rest. It was estimated that there were 2500 volumes of the manuscript catalogue to print; when it finally appeared in December 1900 the General Catalogue filled 374 printed volumes.3 A catalogue of newspapers – the first – was published in 1905 as a supplement.4

The British Museum’s collections were mediated by two sets of books: the manuscript volumes, bulging from the manuscript additions pasted inside; and the printed volumes, neatly uniform, with every entry rendered in the same type. The manuscript volumes allowed readers to view the collections as an ordered whole; the printed volumes then condensed this representation further, reifying it as a set. In each case the codex form encompassed the collection within its covers, the capaciousness of the book recreating that of the walls of the Museum. Like all bibliographical projects, loss was incorporated into this assertion of control. The collection itself, in all its diversity, had been reduced to handwritten slips; these slips, themselves subject to bibliographic control, were then further standardized through print. The triumph of the General Catalogue was its provisional assertion of order, the glimpse it offered of print culture tamed. Yet it was only a glimpse. Twenty years in production, its neatly uniform volumes offered a snapshot of a collection that no longer existed, that had escaped the limits through which it was necessarily described.

1 Barbara McCrimmon, Power, Politics and Print: The Publication of the British Museum Catalogue, 1881-1900 (Hamden, Conn: Linnet Books, 1981), p. 19, 96. [back]
2 McCrimmon, Power, Politics and Print, p. 20-1. See also David McKitterick, ‘Organizing Knowledge in Print’, Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, edited by David McKitterick, 6 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 542. [back]
3 See McCrimmon, Power, Politics and Print, chapters seven and eight. For the management of the printed catalogue, see Alec Hyatt King, ‘The Traditional Maintenance of the General Catalogue of Printed Books,’ in The Library of the British Museum: Retrospective Essays on the Department of Printed Books, edited by P.R. Harris (London: British Library, 1991), pp. 165-199. [back]
4 For its manuscript predecessors see P. R. Harris, A History of the British Museum Library, 1753-1973 (London: British Library, 1998), p. 327. [back]