Coping with Catalogues: Thomas Carlyle in the British Museum

By Rapple, Brendan A. | Contemporary Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Coping with Catalogues: Thomas Carlyle in the British Museum


Rapple, Brendan A., Contemporary Review


As the British Library prepares for its forthcoming divorce from the British Museum and its move to its controversial modern building it is amusing to see how one of the great Victorians coped in the splendid old building.

Thomas Carlyle over and over criticised the British Museum. Can, he asked, any individual read 'to any purpose' there? He claimed that he never entered its reading room without getting 'the Museum headache.' Though he admitted that he was rather a thin-skinned sort of student and more sensible to such inconveniences than most, he still found the room crowded, noisy, and jostling. There were often present individuals who were 'in a state of imbecility', some of whom were sent there 'to pass away their time.' He remarked on one 'mad' person 'who used to blow his nose very loudly every half hour'. However, the intellectually elitist Carlyle also disapproved of those BM readers, 'a vast majority,' 'persons whom it is not worth while to take much trouble to accommodate,' who compiled and excerpted for such lesser projects as encyclopaedias, biographical dictionaries and 'the stuff called "useful knowledge".' He also complained, perhaps more understandably, of the fleas that pervaded the BM.

To escape these inconveniences to study, Carlyle had frequently sought access to the quiet inner rooms storing the library of George III. However, he was never successful, his requests being repeatedly refused by Antonio Panizzi, Keeper of the Printed Books. It is not totally clear how the enmity between the two men began. The most commonly adduced reason is the slighting mention of Panizzi in an article by Carlyle published in the Westminster Review. Referring to a collection of works on the French Revolution buried in the BM, Carlyle suggested applying to 'the respectable Sub-librarian' so that one might 'gain access to his room, and have the satisfaction of mounting on ladders and reading the outside titles of his books.' It is thought that Panizzi did not take kindly to being called a 'respectable Sub-librarian.' At any rate, to Carlyle Panizzi remained 'Vulture Panizzi,' and, though Italian, was dismissed by Carlyle as 'the true representative of English dilettantism, Pedantry, Babblement, and hollow dining and drinking Nonsense of so-called "Literature" in this epoch.' Moreover, he was 'a formidable barrier against any earnest work of the historical kind.'

The life of Antonio Panizzi was multi-faceted: Italian patriot and fervent worker for the unification of Italy; lawyer; exile in England after escaping execution in his native Modena; poverty-stricken teacher of Italian in Liverpool; first Professor of Italian Language and Literature at the new University of London; writer and scholar; junior and finally Principal Librarian of the British Museum from 1856 to 1866. Today he is probably best remembered for his revolutionary work as a cataloguer and for his ninety-one Rules. Carlyle, mirroring his concern for public libraries, also displayed a strong interest in the nature of catalogues, though his views and those of his enemy Panizzi on this topic were quite opposed.

Due to the gross inadequacy of the BM's 1787 two-volume catalogue, the earliest printed one, the Trustees in 1807 had called for a new edition which duly appeared in 1819 in seven volumes. This edition was totally out of date at the time of printing and by Panizzi's day had grown, because of the plethora of interleaved manuscript additions and corrections, to twenty-three cumbersome volumes. Panizzi readily perceived not only that it lacked currency but also that it was riddled with errors. The obvious problem was that it had been compiled without adherence to any accepted body of formal rules. Before the introduction of Panizzi's own system of ninety-one Rules a cataloguer decided for himself his own particular methods and to what extent he would follow the practice of others. Furthermore, it was common practice for a number of cataloguers to work independently on one catalogue. …

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