Scholar and historian who charted the miraculous survival of the Royal Library of England
The history of the old Royal Library of England, from before the time of Edward IV to the present day, is one of miraculous survival amid political upheaval, government neglect and successive librarians' insensitivity. No one was more aware of the miracle than Tom Birrell, and no one did more to retrieve its integrity.
After a long academic career, Birrell turned his energies to the Royal Library, which had reached the British Museum by gift of George II in 1757. He gave the Panizzi lectures in 1986 and summarised his work thus in English Monarchs and Their Books: "How does one describe a library? There is an abundant literature on how to describe a book; there is nothing on how to describe a collection of books. The customary method is to describe a library in terms of its plums... one might call this the Little Jack Horner method. But in the present context the owners are as important as the books which they possessed; and indeed the books owe their very survival to the fact of royal ownership."
He contrasted this with the official nature of the French Royal (later National)Library. "The English Royal Library... was a much more domestic, personal and haphazard collection - therein lies its charm and its value."
Thomas Anthony Clement Birrell was born into a family of Fife Presbyterians in south London in 1924, but Tom got his Catholic faith from his Irish mother. The family moved to Weston-super-Mare and Tom went first to prep school and then, in 1937, to Downside.
In 1941 he took the Downing College scholarship examination and succeeded, but war intervened and part way through his English degree he joined the Royal Armoured Corps, serving in the Netherlands. There he saw the depredations of war, and those who had once made a living from tulips reduced to eating the bulbs. In June 1945 he was posted to India for a year, part of it spent as an education officer.
He returned to Cambridge in 1946, completing the Tripos with honours in 1947. He then taught English at the Cambridge Technical College, then at Catholic St Benedict's School in Ealing. Hearing of a vacancy in the English department at Nijmegen Catholic University, he applied for it. He was not immediately successful; the post went to an Irishman whose brogue, however, proved unintelligible to his pupils, and Birrell was appointed instead in 1949. He spent 35 happy and productive years there as professor, then head of department of English and American literature, with a term as rector of the university.
He embraced his second language, translating the several editions of Frederik van der Meer's Atlas of Western Civilisation and himself writing on the cultural background to two scientific revolutions, Robert Hooke's in London and James Logan's in Philadelphia. He also wrote introductions to Dickens's novels in Dutch.
His inaugural lecture in 1950 was on Catholic Allegiance and the Popish Plot, reflecting his interest in Recusant history (he was one of a trio, with David Rogers and Antony Allison, who revived the Catholic Record Society after the war). From 1958 he helped to organise an annual conference on post-Reformation Catholic history, and he produced an annual newsletter for students of Recusant history. …