"THE TIME is not remote when I / Must by the course of nature die." With the words of Jonathan Swift, the bibliographer Philip Gaskell recently began to reflect on his condition as he faced death, and looked back at 70-odd years spent mostly in academia - for 20 years as Librarian at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Pip Gaskell was born into a Quaker family in London in 1926. His father died when he was in his teens, and most of his schooling was away from home. At the age of 17, he joined the army, and in due course found himself with the Signals, laying miles of wires across Holland and northern Germany, ending up near Kiel. After the war, he moved on to army broadcasting, and was posted to Ceylon, a far cry from the human misery and moral muddles of Europe only a few months previously. But in these postings lay the seeds of how he was to develop. For Gaskell, ever curious, was always immensely practical.
He went up to King's College, Cambridge, in 1948, to read English, and came under the spell of Dadie Rylands. With Tim Munby, recently returned from a German prisoner-of-war camp and now in charge of the college library, Gaskell's interests rapidly developed as he began to learn about the history of books. Encouraged by his mentors, he pieced together a bibliography of the works of the 18th- century poet William Mason. This prentice work already showed some of the concerns for the material and manufacture of books that were to be the hallmarks of his mature writing. Between 1952 and 1954, supported now also by John Carter, he served as editor of The Book Collector, the quarterly journal founded on the generosity of Ian Fleming.
But there were other things to do besides literature and bibliophily. In his spare time Gaskell found his way to the London jazz scene, and in 1947 became one of the founder members of the band assembled by Humphrey Lyttelton, playing clarinet. The love of jazz remained, even though the time with Lyttelton proved short. It was only a little later, when he learned the alto saxophone, that he began to understand modern rather than traditional jazz.
A new break came when in 1953 he persuaded the Cambridge University Press to lend him one of the original iron hand-presses built to the design of Earl Stanhope at the beginning of the 19th century. Installed in a cellar of the Gibbs Building at King's, with type begged from printers, Gaskell founded the Water Lane Press (so called after the old local street name). With a group of like- minded enthusiasts, he set out to learn as much as he could about the conditions of the pre-mechanised printing house. It was a subject near to his post-graduate research, but he took it further, experimenting to see how fast it was possible to print and so testing centuries-old agreements between masters and men.
Meanwhile, he had also tackled the complicated work of describing the output of the 18th-century printer (and briefly University Printer at Cambridge) John Baskerville. From King's, Gaskell moved to teach English briefly at Oundle School, and then into what was to become his metier, when he moved to take charge of the early collections in Glasgow University Library - where, he discovered, it was still possible for undergraduates to borrow 15th-century printed books from the open shelves. Glasgow brought the discovery of the books printed by the Foulis brothers in the 18th century, and led to the standard book on the subject, A Bibliography of the Foulis Press (1964).
Then, with a considerable body of bibliographical work behind him, in 1967 Gaskell became Librarian and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and so found himself in charge of an incomparable combination of books and buildings. But Wren's building was in need of repair, and with the help of others who recognised the urgency of the situation he oversaw the complete restoration of the library from 1969 to 1971 under the skilled architectural guidance of Peter Locke of Donald Insall and Associates. …