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  • Light on the Book Trade: Papers Presented to Peter Isaac
  • Marja Smolenaars
Light on the Book Trade: Papers Presented to Peter Isaac. Edited by Barry MacKay, John Hinks, and Maureen Bell . New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press; London: British Library, 2004. 210 pp. $39.95. ISBN 1-58456-085-1.

This collection of papers, the sixth in the Print Networks Series of published proceedings of the annual British Book Trade Seminar, was intended as a tribute to Peter Isaac, but unfortunately he died before the book was published. The volume has become, therefore, not only the published result of papers presented to honor Peter Isaac but also a memorial to the man who put the study of Britain's provincial book trade on the map. A list of Isaac's publications at the end of this work (why at the end? one wonders) shows his enormous energy and knowledge—there are entries on his pet subject, William Bulmer, but also on subjects as disparate as topographical prints, a public library, and Spilsbury's antiscorbutic drops.

The papers dedicated to this versatile man range from traditional biographical and bibliographical studies to some that use interesting and perhaps unexpected sources, the results of which have been incorporated into the British Book Trade Index (BBTI), the cornerstone of book trade research. For example, a diary of a Manchester wigmaker shows him to have a second, unofficial career in bookselling and auctioneering (Michael Powell). Detailed research into the specimen books of a Tonbridge printing family shows that several "printers" in the surrounding [End Page 409] countryside had no printing presses at all, despite the fact that they describe themselves as printers in the imprints of their publications (R. J. Goulden).

What cannot be learned, however, from an inventory such as the BBTI are the networks that operated in the book trade. London has always been regarded as the main center of the book trade from which all things pertaining to the trade originated, but recent research has qualified, although not totally overturned, this notion. David Stoker, for instance, shows that the Collins family of London did indeed provide the initial workforce to populate outlying towns, with second- and third-generation pioneers spreading ever farther into the provinces. Remote Whitehaven in Cumbria, however, did not get its first printer from London but from Ireland (Barry McKay), and the business papers of an Edinburgh bookseller show that he played a significant role in setting up a Philadelphia bookshop (Warren McDougall).

There is still much to be discovered about the book trade, such as the link between pioneering book salesmen and (circulating) libraries, which in small towns and villages were hardly ever separate businesses. More often a library was a sideline business set up by the local stationer, bookseller, bookbinder, or printer. An interesting subject of research would be the number of library-keepers who were not members of the book trade but pharmacists, curates, undertakers, publicans, or tea dealers. John Gavin explores catalogs of early libraries in the Lake Counties that give us an indication of what books people could borrow.

That new discoveries do not always have to come from inaccessible family archives or remote foreign libraries is shown by Brenda Scragg. She "discovered" a hitherto unrecorded manuscript of a Methodist preacher and bookseller in the well-known John Rylands library. This bookseller extensively annotated a copy of a private library's auction catalog, giving us a glimpse behind the scenes of the book business. And much can still be learned from the surviving books themselves. David Hounslow uses inscriptions found in books to piece together a description of a Victorian life and library.

Although almost all the contributions in this volume are pertinent to the provincial book trade, what is lacking is a broader comparative study. John Feather in his research agenda touches on gaps in our knowledge, and some of the contributions fill small gaps, but not one of them compares, for instance, the book trade in Norwich, Durham, and Cheltenham or the difference between book auctions in London and Manchester. In other words, many excellent building blocks have been brought together in this volume, but no larger structure has been...


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