The 1605 Bodleian Library Catalogue: Great News for History and the Market

English: Thomas Bodley, the founder of Bodleia...

English: Thomas Bodley, the founder of Bodleian Library of Oxford. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week a first edition (1605) of the Bodleian Library Catalogue sold for a whopping £19,000 (£23,750 including premium) at an auction of Early Printing and English Books to 1640 held at Bonhams, London. Auctions exclusively offering books printed before the English Civil War not only show the vitality of interest in early books, but their relative immunity to the E-Book Blues threatening younger books today. The dusty little Bodleian catalogue, bound in contemporary limp vellum, unwashed and looking just as it ought to for its age, was among the high earners in a sale that made over £1 million.

What is this book about, this volume which made more money than Boccaccio, Lucian, Cicero? Unlike other highlights from the auction, several of them illuminated manuscripts, it's reference work, an early book on books, the earliest in print to describe the holdings of an institutional library in Europe. 

It includes nearly 7,000 books purchased for and donated to the Library, which Bodley had first undertaken to furnish in 1598 but which had not officially opened until 1602. The books first are divided into four typical fields: "Divinity", "Medicine", "Jurisprudence", and the catch-all "Arts". Some sense of their spatial arrangement is preserved by listing the size, shelf, and row number of each. Shelves are organized alphabetically. The combination of subject and numbers comprise the call number, and 17th century acquisitions have by and large the same call numbers then as now.

Technically the Bodeian Catalogus librorum bibliothecae publicae should not be as rare as it is. It was printed in large runs because visitors to the Duke Humfrey library had to buy a copy of their own to consult. For instance, Library records from 1620-22 show that 558 copies were sold at a price of 2 shillings eight pence to private persons, 2 shillings sixpence to booksellers. Today, requests are made online (and sometimes they can go horribly wrong). 

In addition to being one of the most expensive book lists going, the first edition catalogue is also inaccurate. Its publication was a fiasco from the very beginning for the Bodleian's first librarian, Thomas James. Bodley had the idea to print and circulate a catalogue as early as 1603 to aid visiting patrons, but also to advertise the library's great success to critics and potential donors alike. The basis for the printed catalogue would be the manuscript records James kept, but Bodley was unhappy these even before the library was open to the public, according to his correspondence with James: 

"Sir, as touching your Catalogue, which you writ for me in London, I should have little reason to think to find it in perfection, considering then your troubles. But my desire is only now, than in making anew, you would take the pains to do it by the books themselves, and that very exactly and deliberately. For I do find every day many errors in the former, of sundry sorts." (Feb 5 1602)

Not only that, but he had trouble with James' handwriting: "For it chanceth many times, that your writing is both ill to be read, and understood" (Sept 1 1602). The project was stalled until 1604 by the trouble of fixing so many earlier mistakes, and by the constant and overwhelming influx of new books Bodley acquired through donation and the assistance of the printer and bookseller John Bill, who went on a book buying trip through Europe.

By the time the catalogue was in its proof stages, new problems had arisen. As one of the great Hebrew scholars of the day Bodley avidly collected Judaica for his library but bemoaned his librarian's difficulty with the language: "You have almost failed in every one of your Hebrew books which were printed with Hebrew letters," he wrote to an overworked James (Aug 8 1604). Moreover he found fault with the catalogue's printer: "It doth somewhat move me, to see a work of this expectation, and charge unto me, to be so much disgraced through the Printer's carelessness considering what warning I gave him..." (Aug 24 1604). 

Bodley worried that so many mistakes would diminish the catalogue's credibility, and hurt sale of future editions and appendices James might compile, not to mention that it would harm the international reputation he had worked to acquire:

"The very first impression, that men shall have had upon the sight of your Catalogue, will be it that shall give credit or discredit to the Library: because the Appendix perhaps will either not be bought, or not perused after. The general conceit as well of other nations, as of our own at home, of the Library store, is so great, that they imagine in a manner, there is nothing wanting in it: wherein when they find their expectation greatly frustrated, I doubt the credit of the place will be hardly recovered, with many after Appendixes. And hereof I pray you consider very thoroughly. I am further to tell you from Mr. Norton [King's printer and bookseller], that there are many books forgotten to be put in the Catalogue, which are in the Library, of which I willed him to send me some for example, which I have here enclosed, and know most assuredly they are in the Library." (Oct 26 1604)

While an appendix of some 200 books was then added to the end of the Catalogue before its final publication in the New Year, Bodley's letters of dissatisfaction continued across the years. The difficulty in accurate record keeping exponentially increased for James when the library became the first for the legal deposit of all books printed by the Stationer's Company in 1610. 

What is it that makes this catalogue, inaccurate and bearing little evidence of the intellectual labor that produced it, worth so much? The book was popular in the auction room, provoking a four-way bidding war among those in attendance, and ultimately acquired by a telephone bidder. If the Bonhams sale was proof positive for interest in early printed books in general, the sale of the Bodleian library catalogue was a about the sustained interest in the history of libraries in particular. Even geekier, and more exciting, its commanding figure shows a strong interest in the history of information science. As the earliest catalogue of its kind, the decisions Bodley and James made about what books to acquire, how they were to be arranged, and even the errors in their arrangement, were decisions that impacted literally generations of scholars and students. The book is as important in its flaws as it is a record of cultural accumulation. James' struggle to keep up with the incoming titles and authors isn't an individual story of information overload, but one that shaped the experience of anyone that walked into the library. As James wrote in an earlier manuscript catalogue he compiled, taking from St. Paul: Non quaero quod mihi utile est, sed quod multis, "I seek not what is good for myself, but for many" (1 Cor. 10.24). 

If catalogues are about recovering works for use by many, market confidence in the value of old catalogues and what they have to tell us about our intellectual heritage can only be good news.

Further Reading:
The catalogue has been printed in facsimile with a useful introduction:

The letters of Thomas Bodley to Thomas James have been collected and edited by G.W. Wheeler.