Wednesday, 19 February 2014
Libraries and Dictionaries of National Biography, old and new
The Oxford History Faculty Library has been through a period of dislocation in the past few years. First, it left its long-established home on the upper floors of the Old Indian Institute Building, and was relocated to part of the Lower Radcliffe Camera and to the Gladstone Link beneath Radcliffe Square, itself a recent creation from the old underground bookstacks. The form the collections have taken in their new homes, how they have been classified and located, seems to have gone through several reevaluations. Construction work to create a new entrance on the ground floor, facing St Mary's Church, has had an effect. After a few visits I'm getting used to the new entrance and the need to swipe in twice to get through the doors and entrance gate, and the oddness, for someone who has been in and around academic Oxford for most of the last quarter-century, of actually borrowing books from and taking them out of somewhere which was once a strictly non-lending reading room. Old associations, learned in younger days, fade slowly: I still expect English and Theology collections to be on the Lower Camera shelves somewhere, hiding from view; just as part of me suspects that if one enters what is now the Oxford Martin School at the right time, perhaps after walking widdershins round the Catte/Broad/Holywell Streets/Parks Road crossroads, one can climb the spiral stairs and found oneself in the old History Faculty Library again, and borrow books using pink-tinted carbon paper slips just as one did when I was an undergraduate.
In its tangible form without the realms of faerie, the Bodleian History Faculty Library (as it is now styled, but hereafter HFL) has been rationalising its collection, and there is a small book sale behind the new Radcliffe Camera entrance, much as there often was behind the main doors on the first floor of the Old Indian Institute. Yesterday I picked up the second edition of The Memoirs of Sir John Reresby with the idea that it would be useful in my current job, but it's also full of entertaining gossip informative about late-seventeeth century social norms. There were also a few volumes from the former HFL set of The Dictionary of National Biography. Today, there were more, but still not a full set; I decided to resist the temptation to ask if the missing volumes were in a cupboard somewhere (carrying them all back on the bus was one deterrent, and where to put them in my flat another) and acquired for £2 a bound volume labelled '7 - 8 / FINCH - HARRIOTT'.
This volume had some particular significance for me. I worked as a research editor for seven years at what was first referred to as the New Dictionary of National Biography, and which was eventually published as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I'd also been a contributor, first on the 'ten-pound factchecks' and then on full honorarium articles, since 1997, and since leaving the staff in 2006 have been an associate research editor with irregular involvement as a consultant, editor and writer. (This post, I should add, is written in a personal capacity.) I have three articles in hand for the tenth anniversary release this September. Of those articles written or revised by me published in the 2004 sixty-volume set of the new dictionary, six fall within this volume's range, including the longest article contributed by me, Frederick Lewis, prince of Wales. Since 2004 I've added a few more articles to the online edition, and two of those - Anne Fitzpatrick and William Gibbs - would have been included in this volume's alphabetical sequence.
The set of the DNB now being sold by the HFL is unusual in that at some stage its twenty-two volumes were rebound into eleven, with two India paper-printed books in one set of rust-brown covers, rather than Oxford University Press's usual blue. The spines display the HFL shelfmark. The two volumes thus united which I acquired, at least, are from the 1921-2 reprint, the first to be published by Oxford University Press after it acquired the DNB from Smith, Elder and Co. (the more commercial parts of the Smith, Elder list were bought by John Murray). This in turn was derived from the revised 1908-9 edition of the DNB, which reduced the original sixty-three volumes and three-volume supplement of the 1885-1900 serial run to the twenty-two which is still often found on library shelves. A short history of old and new dictionaries, to the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in 2004, was published in the first volume of the new dictionary and can be found at the Oxford DNB website. The subjects in this HFL volume are spread through seven volumes of the 2004 dictionary, though they can be found more quickly as part of the online collection.
Revisiting the late-nineteenth century articles which I replaced for the ODNB, I'm inclined to look more favourably on them than I might have done when I was ensconced in the new dictionary's former office of 37A St Giles. Most of the old dictionary's writers were on staff, expected to research at the British Museum Library in the morning and write up at the DNB's office in Waterloo Place in the afternoon. They were largely reliant on published sources which were much more scarce than they were a century later. Thomas Finlayson Henderson's entry on Frederick, prince of Wales, is much shorter than mine and dependent on the dismissive though entertaining memoirs of catty political opponents of the prince like Horace Walpole and Lord Hervey, or would-be mentors such as Sarah, duchess of Marlborough. My piece on Frederick might lack Henderson's elegance, but unlike Henderson didn't set out to disparage the prince as the worthless product of a degenerate age, a minor literary character rather than a person. We did have in common the wish to represent recent scholarship, in my case requiring many hours original research in the British Library and the Bodleian to help fill gaps, and my Frederick is someone whose actions had lasting consequences - the strengthening of the conventions of parliamentary opposition, the character of the monarchy under his son George III - even if they took on a theoretical and ideological shape which were beyond his intentions.
The old dictionary text survives as part of the online ODNB (behind a link on the left-hand panel called 'DNB archive') and (proceeding on the assumption that the original DNB is out of copyright) as a Wikisource project. The impact of volunteer-led projects such as those curated by Wikimedia on conventional publisher-led research and reference works such as the ODNB has yet to be fully assessed, but demand still exists for peer-reviewed professionally-published reference such as the ODNB. For now, and at this moment, I am happy with my much-thumbed, sometimes crumpled, ninety-two-year-old impressions from stereotyped plates furnished to Oxford University Press by Messrs. Spottiswoode and Co., while celebrating too the merits of the work of myself and colleagues on the new dictionary in the past two decades.