The British Library, and why I love librarians

We all know that Karl Marx wrote his revolutionary works sitting in the Reading Room of the British Library.  But did you know that the man who ran the British Library, and who came up with the original design for the reading room, was also a revolutionary, who helped to shape the 19th century, just as Marx helped to shape the 20th.

The British Library has moved now.  It occupies a modern building on Euston Rd, which is comfortable and efficient for staff and scholars alike.  It has free wifi, hundreds of lockers, and food outlets with decent coffee, and the computerized ordering system works fine.

But it will never give me the same buzz to enter the new building that I used to get when I walked into the central reading room of the old library, with its high domed ceiling, rows of desks radiating out from the centre, and leather upholstered chairs.  It was full of the ghosts of readers past.

The old British Library was an eccentric place.  The cataloguing system was – and remains – mysterious, and before computers, ordering a book involved consulting the printed catalogue and filling in a paper slip with various duplicates. Eventually the book appeared as if by magic at your numbered desk – or else the slip would reappear with an explanation as to why it couldn’t be found.  The lists of excuses included ‘Destroyed in Bombing’.  According to persistent rumour the non-appearance of books published as late as the 1960s was sometimes explained this way.

I’m sure when the whole show moved up the road, a lot of missing books were found – and perhaps a lot of others went missing.

Like every historian, I am so grateful to librarians.  They are the most important people in so much of what we do.  Bad librarians see it as their role to protect books from people, but good librarians – the vast majority – bring books and people together.  I have met many librarians who have helped me in my research, telling me about collections I might find useful, identifying mysterious initials or signatures, sharing their knowledge generously.

The conventional image of the librarian as a fuddy-duddy is also way off the mark.  Librarians have always been at the forefront of technological changes.  Today digitization and databases are making information more widely available; in the 19th century, the British Library gave men and women free access to books at a time when most libraries were private, or accessible only by subscription.

Caricature of Anthony Panizzi (1797-1879). Cap...

Caricature of Anthony Panizzi (1797-1879). Caption read “Books”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The British Library took shape under the supervision of a most unlikely guardian.  Antonio Genesio Maria Panizzi (1797-1879) was born in the duchy of Modena.  He studied law at the University of Parma and graduated in 1818.

This was a dramatic period in Italian history.  Napoleon’s invasion had shaken up the conservative 18th century political world.  After his fall the old regimes came back, but new ideas of liberalism and nationalism had been unleashed.  Secret societies such as the Carbonari emerged.  In 1822, Modena’s chief of police was killed.  In the crackdown that followed, a number of his friends were arrested and put on trial.  Panizzi escaped to Geneva where he wrote a book about the trials.  This led to him being tried, condemned to death, and executed in effigy.

Like Marx several decades later, in May 1823 Panizzi arrived in England as a penniless political exile, teaching Italian to bankers and merchants in Liverpool, but within a few years he had carved out a reputation as a scholar.  In 1828 he became Professor of Italian in the newly founded University of London, and in 1831, he joined the staff of the British Museum as an assistant librarian.  He did both jobs simultaneously until 1837, when he was promoted to Keeper of Printed Books.  He became Principal Librarian in 1856.

Panizzi may have come to librarianship by a circuitous route, but he seems to have had all the standard characteristics of the profession.  Firstly, he was an empire builder, constantly asking for extra money from the British Government to fund a bigger collection.  Between 1837 and 1845 the average parliamentary grant was £3600 p.a., but Panizzi argued it up to £10,000 p.a.

In 1842, Parliament passed a Copyright Act that still requires British publishers to deposit a copy of every book in the British Library.  It was part of his job to enforce this rule.

As the number of books grew, Panizzi experienced the standard librarian’s headache – where to put all the books?  So he made plans to enclose the central courtyard of the British Museum.  The Round Reading Room was opened in 1857.

UK - London - Bloomsbury: British Museum - Rea...

UK – London – Bloomsbury: British Museum – Reading Room (Photo credit: wallyg)

Finally, like a lot of librarians I have known, Panizzi was a networker.  He was close to various figures within the Liberal establishment – Henry Brougham in the early days, later William Gladstone.  He used his political contacts to promote the Library – and to promote the cause of revolution in Italy.  He didn’t think much of Mazzini – another Italian in exile in England – but corresponded with Cavour, and when Garibaldi visited England in 1864, Panizzi played an important role, introducing him to the political establishment.

Panizzi was knighted in 1869, and died in 1879.  By all accounts he could be cantankerous.  He had long quarrel with Thomas Carlyle who objected to the fact that he couldn’t roam the shelves of the British Library, but had to order his books through the librarians.  Carlyle and his supporters founded the London Library on an alternative model: a high subscription, and free access to the shelves.  I believe the London Library is wonderful – but I’ve never been inside.  I can’t afford the subscription for the sake of a few weeks of access, every few years, and I prefer the free model Panizzi espoused when he said:

I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that the Government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect.

Antonio Panizzi, Evidence before Select Committee on British Museum, 7 June 1836, quoted in Edward Edwards, Lives of the Founders of the British Museum (1870) and requoted in Wikipedia

P.R.Harris, Sir Anthony Panizzi, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (available through subscribing libraries only – oh, the irony, the irony!)

10 responses to “The British Library, and why I love librarians

  1. Hello again Marion, Fascinating as usual.
    You may like to read this letter
    written by a man who was assistant librarian at the British Museum in the early days.


    • Thank you Eunice. Your letter is very interesting. And you are right – its wonderful that the Museum’s own archivist could pull up information about your man – but we all wonder whether the system will work as well when everything is on line!

  2. Pingback: The British Library, and why I love librarians | Historians are Past ... | Library Web 2.0 skills for 2012 |

  3. Pingback: The British Library, and why I love librarians | Historians are Past ... | How to be an effective librarian |

  4. Reading this brought back great memories of the old reading room – the excitement I felt at sitting there, as you say, among all the ghosts, and the sense that now I must be a real historian! The next great landmark was getting my pass to the manuscripts room and, oh joy, holding in my hand a manuscript written by Bartolome de las Casas himself in the 16th century. Books are great, but nothing beats the thrill of an original manuscript.

  5. Yes, Sally – NOTHING compares with holding an original manuscript. It makes me understand the notion of holy relics – the residual sanctity of something physically associated with the person concerned. Plus, of course, those clues that don’t come through in the printed word, like a person’s handwriting deteriorating in old age.

  6. Thank you Marion! I loved the librarians at UQ during my sojourn their, even though much of the contact was electronic. One of my favourite places is Melbourne is the La Trobe library in the city.

  7. Marcus Harmes

    I don’t mind the new British Library, but it is really fairly characterless, until you step into the main Manuscripts reading room, which even has an old clock ticking away on the wall!

  8. Pingback: Book thieves | Historians are Past Caring

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