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  • The Commonwealth of Books: Essays and Studies in Honour of Ian Willison
  • Julian Roberts (bio)
The Commonwealth of Books: Essays and Studies in Honour of Ian Willison. Ed. by Wallace Kirsop, with the assistance of Meredith Sherlock. [Victoria, Australia]: Centre for the Book, Monash University. 2007. x + 273 pp. US $70. ISBN 978 0 7326 4002 6.

This festschrift for Ian Willison contains a high proportion of semi-autobiographical contributions from his many friends and ex-colleagues, and their eminence in the library and bibliographical world gives this volume a special value. I note that my name appears on the Comité d'honneur, so perhaps an addition to the normal process of reviewing may be privileged. His name was already known to me when I joined him at the British Museum in 1958 (he had preceded me in spending a 'student year' at the National Central Library). My own early work at the Museum after the preliminary 'training' lay in ensuring the completeness of the library's modern English holdings; pursuing books, often of literary importance, which had escaped legal deposit, because they had been privately published, or had simply not been deposited (as happened with many Irish, Welsh, and provincial English imprints). This led me into a major section of volume four of the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, under Ian's general editorship. We had inherited a sheaf of handwritten entries from (I think) two British Council staff, and the fact that we managed to mould these and much more material into a volume that ranged with the previous NCBEL volumes, which were built upon the earlier edition, is entirely due to Ian Willison's perseverance and breadth of vision in discerning what was required for a bibliographical account of the early twentieth century.

It is no coincidence that so many of the contributors to this volume first visited the Museum library in those years: David McKitterick, Peter Davison, Keith Maslen, Robin Alston, Terry Belanger, and Bernhard Fabian. Dennis Rhodes was the Superintendent of the North Library, and Sarah Tyacke worked in the Map Room. Ian introduced me to Henri-Jean Martin over lunch at the nearby Philadelphia restaurant.

Our paths diverged when I left for the Bodleian, and Ian remained to keep the faith at the British Library. But as our professional careers matured, we found a new relationship in visiting libraries abroad, either in connection with IFLA or privately. We didn't do quite the same thing; I became used to lagging far behind Ian and our conducting librarian: he would persuade our host of the importance of the (local) [End Page 225] History of the Book, while I surreptitiously took books off the shelves because I wanted to see what older Polish, Austrian, or Hungarian books actually looked like.

These international ventures - one might call them an apostolate in the History of the Book - are set out in David McKitterick's biographical introduction and in Dennis Rhodes's meticulous bibliography, which is not long, but very precisely focused. There are no microcosmic studies of events or of the books acquired by the British Library during Willison's curatorship. So it is perhaps not surprising that there is only one such study in his Festschrift, Michael Suarez's fascinating 'The most Blasphemous Book that ever was Publish'd', an account of the publication and circulation of Thomas Woolston's Discourses on the Miracles of our Saviour, of 1727-29. That Woolston suffered a fine, a brief spell in prison, and died in his bed in 1731, after alleging, among other things, that Jesus was drunk at the wedding at Cana, shows that something fairly momentous in English political life had happened since 1700; it remains for the most modern of bibliographical aids, ESTC, to reveal how very many of these blasphemous books survive.

Two of the contributors are, however, on 'home ground'; on two home grounds, in fact, in Richard Landon's contrasting study of the collectors Thomas Grenville and Lord Amherst. The location and much of the history of Grenville's collection are well known. Those of Amherst's are less familiar, as it was dispersed by sales in 1908 and 1909...


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