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The British Library - History of the General Catalogue of Printed Books

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The British Library

Formerly, the most important constituent part of the British Library, which was set up in 1973, was the former library of the British Museum which dates back to 1753.

When the British Museum was founded it had only three departments. From the Department of Natural and Artificial Productions developed in due course all the antiquities departments of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, which has been housed at South Kensington since the 1880s. The Departments of Manuscripts and of Printed Books were however the most important parts of the original British Museum, and they grew eventually into the greatest library of Great Britain.

The British Museum was a rather torpid institution in the 18th century, but it began to develop considerably after 1800. The foundation collections of manuscripts and printed books were formed by the Sloane, Cotton, Harleian and Old Royal Libraries. In 1799 C. M. Cracherode bequeathed 4,500 very fine books, and in 1807 the Lansdowne Manuscripts were acquired. The gift of the library of George III by George IV in 1823 added fifty per cent to the holdings of printed books, and the arrival of Sir Joseph Banks's library in 1827 greatly strengthened the collections of books on natural history. In 1830 the Earl of Bridgewater bequeathed the Egerton Manuscripts and a fund to augment them.

The great period of expansion began in 1837 when Sir Frederic Madden became Keeper of Manuscripts, and Antonio Panizzi Keeper of Printed Books. Madden improved the cataloguing and conservation of manuscripts and adopted a vigorous acquisitions policy. Panizzi organised the move of the bulk of the printed books from Montagu House (which had accommodated the Museum since 1753) to the new building which was erected in its garden between 1823 and the late 1840s. His other great achievements were to provide a new cataloguing system, to obtain a much larger purchase grant, to enforce effectively the law requiring the deposit in the Museum of a copy of every work published in the United Kingdom, and to supervise the building of the great circular Reading Room, surrounded by iron book stacks, which was constructed between 1853 and 1857.

His successors arranged for the printing of the Catalogue of Printed Books between 1881 and 1905, and for the compilation of a subject index from 1880 onwards. The Department of Manuscripts acquired the very valuable Stowe Manuscripts in 1883. From 1867 an extra Keeper was added to the Department of Manuscripts to take charge of the Oriental manuscripts, and in 1892 the Oriental printed books were added to the Oriental manuscripts to form a new department.

In the 20th century, because of overcrowding in the Library, the newspapers were moved to a building at Colindale, eight miles north-west of the British Museum, and the British Museum Newspaper Repository was opened 1905. Space problems at Bloomsbury were also eased by the construction of the White Wing in the 1880s, the King Edward Building between 1906 and 1914, and the rebuilding of the office space and part of the book stacks of the Department of Printed Books in the 1930s.

During the 1939-45 War about 225,000 volumes were destroyed in the British Museum building, and 30,000 volumes of newspapers were destroyed or damaged at Colindale, as a result of bombing. Large numbers of valuable books and manuscripts were evacuated from London.

The burned-out book stack in the British Museum building was rebuilt by 1954, but the need for a completely new building for the library became acute in the 1960s, when it became necessary to outhouse material at Woolwich and elsewhere in London. Plans to build on a site to the south of the British Museum were blocked by the Government as a result of protests on conservation grounds, and eventually in 1983 building began on a site adjoining St. Pancras railway station.

In the meantime, after an enquiry chaired by Dr. (later Lord) Dainton into the national library system, which took place between 1967 and 1969, The British Library was set up in 1973. It included the three library departments of the British Museum (Printed Books, Manuscripts, and Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts), the National Reference Library of Science and Invention (which had been developed from the Patent Office Library after its incorporation into the British Museum in 1966), and (from 1974) the Office of Scientific and Technical Information of the Department of Education and Science, the Library Association Library and the British National Bibliography.

A Lending Division was located at Boston Spa in Yorkshire, formed from the National Central Library (which dated back to 1916) and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology (set up in 1962). In 1982 the India Office Library and Records was transferred from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the British Library, and so were the Binderies hitherto run by Her Majesty's Stationery Office in the British Museum building and at Colindale. The British Institute of Recorded Sound (founded in the early 1950s) was incorporated in the British Library in 1983 and renamed the National Sound Archive.

History of the General Catalogue of Printed Books

The foundation collection of the printed books now forming The British Library, Humanities and Social Sciences, was that of Sir Hans Sloane. This comprised about 40,000 volumes. To it was added in 1757 the Royal collection, begun in the time of Henry VII and inherited by George II from his predecessors on the throne. The catalogue of Sir Hans Sloane's books still exists, albeit apparently not complete, in manuscript. It is Sloane MS. 3972c, a paper MS., partly in Sloane's own hand.

The catalogue of the Royal collection, also in manuscript, is preserved in the Library as well as several inventories and lists dating from 1650 to the 1730's.

The first general catalogue of the Library was an author catalogue, without pressmarks, compiled by P.M. Maty, S. Harper, and S. Ayscough:

Librorum impressorum qui in Museo Britannico adservantur catalogus. Vol. I (II). Londini, MDCCLXXXVII.

For the service of the visitors to the Reading Room and for the use of the staff, an expanding inventory of the contents of the library was kept in being by means of the addition of entries in manuscript in an interleaved copy of this printed catalogue. It was revised and the additions incorporated in March 1807-November 1810 and the resultant catalogue printed in 1813-l9:

Librorum impressorum qui in Museo Britannico adservantur catalogus. Vol. I (-VII). Londini, MDCCCXIII(-MDCCCXIX).

Compiled by Sir Henry Ellis and H. H. Baber.

This catalogue was inlaid on large paper and interleaved, and accessions were added in manuscript, but lists, first of donations and bequests and later of all accessions, were separately printed.

By 1834 the inlaid interleaved copies of the 1813-l9 Catalogue extended to twenty-three volumes and the compilation of a new author catalogue was ordered by the Trustees. Much discussion ensued, in the course of which the advantages of a classed catalogue were freely canvassed, but the Trustees reaffirmed their original order in 1838 and instructed Panizzi to prepare an author catalogue on the lines of that of Ellis and Baber of 1813-l9. Panizzi was against printing, on the grounds that much more preparation was essential before printing could begin. He was over- ruled, however, and as a preliminary to the preparation of the catalogue he drew up his famous XCI Rules to serve as the basis for the work on the new catalogue. These rules were printed in the prefatory matter to Volume I of the new catalogue which appeared in 1841. The application of the rules was left by the Trustees to the discretion of the Editor, subject to the condition that a Catalogue of the printed books in the library up to the close of the year 1838 be completed within the year 1844. With a view to the fulfilment of this undertaking it was deemed indispensable that the Catalogue should be put to press as soon as any portion of the manuscript could be prepared; consequently the early volumes presented omissions and inaccuracies, which, it was hoped, would diminish in number as the work proceeded. Volume I was published in 1841, but it was hopelessly incomplete. While in and arrangement it was superior to other catalogues, the method of printing piecemeal, while compilation was proceeding, made it inevitable that innumerable cross-references and other matter needing to be included under the letter A, but discovered only in the course of work on the later letters, were omitted. The imperfections of this first volume were such that the attempt to complete the printing was abandoned; and one volume only was published:

Catalogue of Printed Books in the British Museum. Volume I. London. Printed by order of the Trustees. MDCCCXLI. Letter A only; no more published.

The addition of manuscript insertions to the 1813-l9 catalogue continued, but in 1849 the device of the separate slip for each book was evolved. All the accumulated new titles were written on separate slips and packed into large folio volumes of blank leaves. The new catalogue thus created filled 150 volumes when it was placed at the disposal of the public in 1850. By 1880, however, owing to the rapid growth of the Museum collections of books, this slip catalogue had grown to nearly 2500 volumes, some of them very bulky, and the cost of binding, and of frequently breaking-up and rebinding these very large volumes was prohibitive. Consequently the of printing was revived and quickly adopted. In 1879 lists of accessions for printing were prepared and in 1881 the printing of the whole catalogue was begun:

British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books. London: Printed by William Clowes and Sons, Limited 1881-.

Printed in double columns. No title-e. Issued in parts in paper wrappers lettered as above. Parts were printed as soon as they had been completed without regard to any alphabetical sequence.

The work was edited by Richard Garnett and A. W. K. Miller. A general title-e and preface was issued in Nov. 1900:

Catalogue of the Printed Books in the Library of the British Museum. Printed by order of the Trustees of the British Museum. London: Printed by William Clowes and Sons, Limited 1881-l900.

This is the Catalogue known as GKI. A Supplement designed to contain the titles of all books which had been added to the Library of the British Museum during the years 1882-99 inclusive, and not incorporated in the General Catalogue during the process of printing, was begun immediately on the conclusion of the main work. It had no general title-e; the title of the parts was as follows:

British Museum. Catalogue of Printed Books. Supplement. A- Academies (Academy-Amyraut, &c.). London: Printed by William Clowes and Sons, Limited, 1900(-l905).

A number of important headings were excerpted and issued separately with special wrappers of the style:

William Caxton. An excerpt from the General Catalogue of Printed Books of the British Museum. London: Printed by William Clowes and Sons, Limited

These headings were:

Charles I
Horatius Flaccus
Jesus Christ
Periodical Publications
church of-Popes

GKI in its laid-down version includes printed GKI and the published supplements. It is at Woolwich and a microfilm of it is at Mic.C.485.

A new edition of the General Catalogue, known as GKII, was begun in 1930:

British Museum. General Catalogue of Printed Books. Volume I [&c.]. A-AEG [&c.]. Printed in Great Britain by William Clowes and Sons, Limited, London and Beccles, 1931-.

By 1950, it was clear that the work on GKII would take too long unless the number of staff was substantially increased. This catalogue differed from previous new editions because it involved the re-cataloguing of each book. The following headings were excerpted:


The advent of BNB and the slow progress in GKII led to the proposal that the revision of the catalogue should be abandoned and that a photolithographic reproduction should be made from the updated working copies maintained in the Library. Although this would sacrifice quality, the alternative would be to abandon the project altogether, and there was a growing demand for an updated version of the catalogue. The last volume of GKII to be published was 51, issued in March 1955.

The third version of the General catalogue GKIII was completed by 1966:

General Catalogue of Printed Books to 1955. London: The Trustees of the British Museum, 1959-l966,1955. (Supplements 1956-65,1966-l970,1971-l975.)

The laid-down copy of this is still in the Reading Room. There is a microfilm at Mic.C.10050. As each supplement was published, it was cut up and pasted in, in parallel sequence with the original pre-l955 sequence. The exception to this is the 1971-l975 sequence, which was entered as a continuous sequence for each volume on the blue es at the back of the respective volumes. As about 20,000-30,000 entries were missed from the 1971-75 sequence these were printed on the usual white slips and pasted into the main sequence.

In August 1975 this catalogue was closed and the Current Catalogue on computer was begun. Entries for books received after 1975, dating before 1971, were still added to the General Catalogue, and all books received after 1975, dating from 1971, were put on the Current Catalogue. In 1983, GK was closed and any entries that would have been made there, made on GK Marc. GK Marc was in its turn closed in 1987, and older material was added to the Current Catalogue. In 1990 the contents of GK Marc were added to BLC online.


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