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  • Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library's Printed Collections
  • Karen Attar (bio)
Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library's Printed Collections. Ed. by Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor. London: The British Library. 2009. xii + 448 pp. £45. ISBN 978 0 7123 5035 8.

It is a sign of how far provenance research has advanced in the past fifteen or twenty years that the instant reaction to this approach to the British Library's printed collections via their collectors is astonishment that the work has not been undertaken before. Certainly scholars have acknowledged our debts to some of the Library's, and hence the nation's, salient benefactors. Arundell Esdaile in his pioneering The British Museum Library: A Short History and Survey (1946) and P. R. Harris in his magisterial History of the British Museum Library, 1753-1973 (1998) both include brief descriptions of the collections of major donors. But both Esdaile and Harris have a much broader remit than the building blocks of collections on which the current work focuses; and there is a great difference between, for example, Esdaile's page and Harris's paragraph on Sir Joseph Banks and the nineteen pages on him (not counting illustrations) in the present volume.

The book is arranged chronologically by date of acquisition into four main sections: 'The Foundation Collections', 'The Early Decades', 'The King's Library', and 'Later Collections'. The emphasis varies, approximately reflecting relative size and significance, such that the King's Library and Sir Hans Sloane receive three chapters each, aspects of the Cottonian Library two, and Isaac Casaubon, George Thomason, Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode, Sir William Musgrave, Sir Joseph Banks, Thomas Grenville, and Sergei Aleksandrovich Sobolevskii one each. Additional, lesser-known collections are introduced in more general chapters: Geoffrey West's 'Buying at Auction: Building the British Museum Library's Collections in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century' discusses three Continental collections from which the British Museum Library purchased books, the libraries of the German Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck, Jean-Henri Burgaud des Marets, and Baron Achille Saltière, while in his essay on the value of invoices for provenance research Arnold Hunt looks at the books of a seventeenth-century female book owner, Frances Wolfreston. The content is necessarily selective. A glance at Bloomfield and Pott's Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland throws up the names of various collections not considered, such as the Edwards Bequest, the Lumley Library, the Morris Library, and the Colt Hoare Italian Collection.

Some of the collections included were acquired by donation, others by purchase. They range numerically from small clutches of books (a mere twenty-eight formerly owned by Seillière) to about 30,000 in the Sloane library. Some are remnants of dispersed collections, such as the printed books of the Cotton family, more of which are at the Bodleian Library than in London, and Isaac Casaubon's Hebrew books. James P. Carley discusses a single volume, once in the British Library, from Henry VIII's scattered library. Other collections examined, such as those of Thomas Grenville, Sir Joseph Banks, and Joseph Smith, are large and more or less complete libraries. While some chapters provide general overviews, others focus on parts of collections, such as Sloane's ephemera (Giles Mandelbrote) and Smith's incunabula (Lotte Hellinga). The treatment of collections, rather than their content, comes under scrutiny in chapters on the now infamous British Museum duplicate sales (a fascinating piece by T. H. Birrell with some embarrassing examples of former library [End Page 358] practice) and the moving of the King's Library (John Goldfinch). As David Pearson notes in the introduction, the research value of P. R. Harris's appendix on the identification of printed books acquired by the British Museum between 1753 and 1836 is incalculable.

Various features contribute to the excellence of this book. One is the combination of high-calibre scholarship with readability. Another is the balance within almost all the essays between the person of the individual collector, his acquisition and treatment of books, the content of his library, and the British Museum...