The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, 3 Volume Hardback Set. By Peter Hoare, Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0521858083, 2072 pages.
First, a note about this reviewer. I am not a library historian although I am interested in our professional and institutional development. I received my library education in Ireland, although I have worked for much of my career in the UK and am now in the US. I observed the developments discussed in the latter parts of this volume and have contributed to the literature about them. I have met many of the contributors and am familiar with the writings of others.
The third volume of this landmark work covers the period of major institutional development of libraries of all types, 'an unprecedented expansion and diversification of library activity' as the Preface puts it. We also read that the 'lush texture' (sic) of modern library history requires 'a rigorous structuring of the varied types of libraries to be described'. The editors note that library historians have available a 'considerable amount of contextual knowledge' from this period, given the intense historical scrutiny it has received. They also note that the documentary record of this period is extensive, as it coincides with the emergence of bureaucracy and the records management practices that that entails. And they sketch the sources relevant to the library: the administrative records of libraries themselves, the recollections of librarians, and the treatment of libraries by others in the more general media.
In these opening pages also there is some discussion of methodology. The editors provide a simple and useful framing of approaches to library history in the modern period. They set up a contrast between 'description and analysis, between fact-grubbing and theory'. This suggests a continuum of activity, from where empirical research is required to gather the evidence for further research and analysis (they suggest, for example, that this is the case with 'hidden' libraries, libraries in community centres, pubs, hotels, and so on), to situations where there is a need for a balance between theory and factual discovery (here they place, for example, research into Higher Education libraries), finally to situations where there has already been significant empirical research synthesised in a range of secondary resources which can provide the basis for more theoretical approaches (here they place public library history).
In Chapter 1, the editors do a good job of sketching some library issues in the context of social and institutional development during this period. They focus on 'modernity' and draw on relevant theoretical and historical sources. Indeed, these opening sections set up strong expectations, for a library story informed by nuanced understanding of social context based on a rich historical record, for a treatment which has an appropriate balance between analysis and empirical research, and for a history which is adequate to the richness and range of libraries themselves based on multiple library and other sources.
Peter Hoare is the editor of the three volume set. Alistair Black and Peter Hoare edited this volume. The earlier two volumes were edited by different hands. Alistair Black is Professor of Library and Information History at Leeds Metropolitan University. In my view, Black does the most interesting work to come out of library and information schools in 'Britain and Ireland'. In addition to his work in public libraries, his historical research has taken other rewarding directions. He is sensibly alert to broader theoretical interests in history and the social sciences. Peter Hoare was formerly University Librarian at the University of Nottingham and has written widely on library history. The editors, and many of the contributors, have been associated with what is, now, the Library and Information History Group of CILIP. Clearly, this history has been a major intellectual and logistical undertaking. In this volume alone, by my count, there are 50 chapters and 42 authors.
Do they meet the expectations set out in the opening pages? Well, yes and no. They have provided a very useful volume that pulls together a great deal of description, commentary and analysis. There are some excellent contributions. However, this is very much a work of parts, indeed, it is difficult to grasp the volume as an integral piece. Individual contributions stick in the mind - like Frederick W Ratcliffe's interesting discussion of the interaction between city and university in Manchester - rather than broader pattern. The editors have not consistently drawn on the resources and expertise - and, to be fair, maybe they are not always available - to fulfil their commendable ambitions.
There is some prefatory material, an introduction about methodology and sources, and a good opening chapter on 'Libraries and the modern world'. This is then followed by thematic Parts, each comprising several chapters following a brief introduction:
So, Parts on public, academic and special libraries are well done, as is the Part on independent libraries. National libraries are treated less well as a group, and their shared issues are not really addressed. Other Parts seemed to me to be less well achieved and there is some difference of organisation and presentation. The level and type of treatment can vary considerably between chapters: some are theoretical, some less so; some are scholarly, some less so; some weave library developments into broader social and cultural contexts; some are very internally focused on the library. A small final point: I can't help thinking that more straightforward titles for the various Parts would have helped quite a bit, and done much to reveal the intended 'shape' of the volume (e.g. Public libraries, Academic libraries, Special libraries, ...). As it is, I felt that the current titles obstruct rather than advance understanding.
Having introduced the volume in general terms, I propose to look more closely at some particular topics suggested by the prefatory and introductory materials.
As the editors note, the period covered by this volume is one of major growth and institutional formation for libraries. Of course, libraries are not ends in themselves, and this development has been in service of evolving educational, civic, business and cultural goals established within wider organisational settings. The institutions of education, government and business have evolved rapidly in the context of the progressively reconfigured - and multiply labelled - influences of industrialisation, modernity, globalisation, and so on. These changes are discussed in the Introduction and by Chapman and Webster in their concluding chapter.
The editors take a sensibly mixed approach. However the balance between editorial framing, individual contributions and 'horizontal' thematic pieces - along the lines of the Chapman and Webster or Cornelius contributions, or in a different way the Part on library automation - does not quite come together and contributes to the sense I have that the whole is less than the sum of the parts. There is a reliance on individual contributors to supply context so that it is not very evenly spread. In some cases, this is well done. The section on academic libraries, for example, relates changes to changes in the policy context of Higher Education. Jack Meadows' section locates special libraries quite well. However, much of the volume is quite internally focused, without really connecting libraries to that wider context. The sophistication in this regard of Black's own contributions to the volume highlights its absence elsewhere.
Perhaps fuller Part introductions might have helped. I think that the general introductory material to the volume is strong and well done, but this contextual framing is not carried through the volume.
The Chapman and Webster chapter prompts some thought about other such general topics. It places a library discussion in the context of general political trends, particularly a move they see from public to private provision of goods. I can think of three other topics where a general picture would have been interesting but does not come through.
The introduction talks about the 'public sphere' (in Habermas's sense) and 'social capital', and Alistair Black talks about public libraries as 'important agencies of modernity, fashioning alongside other rational institutions a public sphere of open, democratic discourse and social and individual progress'. Frank Webster, joint author of the final chapter, writing elsewhere about Habermas, has claimed that public libraries are the nearest thing in the UK to an 'achieved public sphere'. This prompted me to expect Part 3, which has Public Sphere in its title, to pick up some of these issues in general terms. This is not really the case. Here, and more generally, there is little stepping back from the individual stories to talk about libraries' broader public sphere role. Their relationship to communications, to publishing, and to debates about information policy, participation and social and educational policy receive fragmented and limited attention.
Second, the general relationship between libraries and broader cultural life, social change and identity formation does not come through very strongly, although there are occasional localised references. For example, the relationship between collections and interpretation comes through in several places, for example in John C. Crawford's discussion of the Scottish library scene or in Chris Baggs's discussion of 'radical reading' and 'working class libraries'. I mentioned how Lionel Madden touches on the relationship between the National Library of Wales and national self-identity, and Philip Henry Jones' discussion of Welsh public libraries and the Welsh language. However, these examples underline the absence of discussion of general issues of representation, cultural diplomacy, interpretation and the role of national institutions in shaping and being shaped by evolving national identities. Also absent are general discussion of race and immigration, and their impact on library provision. The influence of British models on countries of the Empire and the cultural diplomacy role of the British Council are mentioned in early pages but this is not a topic for later discussion. The role of national and other institutions in tourism, genealogy, and cultural relations do not figure.
And third, libraries support readers and writers whose own behaviours change over time. The information and education environment evolves. Learning, teaching and research practices change, and this is certainly an area where technology is having a big impact. This perspective came through in places, but again not consistently.
There were also some notable omissions of 'description'. Most striking for me was a general shortage of numbers. Numbers of libraries. Budgets. Collection sizes. Circulation and inter-library loan data. And so on. The presence of numerical data within contributions (with Ian Mowat on Higher Education since the 1960s, for example, or Evelyn Kerslake writing about Margaret Reed and the composition of the UK labour market) was striking given the general gap. There was also little discussion of the industry that supports libraries, whether in terms of system vendors, subscription agents, publishers and booksellers. It would have been interesting to have followed through the note in the introductory material about the portrayal of libraries in literature, cinema and television.
Of course, there are not yet good secondary sources for much of what is covered in this volume. This is a general issue as we approach the present. I think it is noticeable that the discussion of more recent developments is often less good than material covering earlier stages, and less good than in the earlier volumes. It is also difficult to marshal expertise across the full range of what is included, especially across countries. There is less original research or synthesis to draw on, in organisational records, in the grey literature of reports, or in personal memoirs.
Finally there is an occasional over-reliance on personal and anecdotal knowledge, or on a sampling of existing literature. For example, one of the weakest of the Parts is the technology one, which is not really an adequate description of developments in the last 30 years or so, either in terms of the actual detail of what happened, or in terms of appropriate contexts. In particular, Eric Hunter's chapter on the automation of library processes has a very anecdotal feel. It does not delve into the administrative records of the organisations he talks about, or the grey literature of the period, or very deeply into the newsletter/journal literature. Indeed, it does not really go much beyond some readily available secondary resources and personal knowledge.
In one of the few strongly theoretical pieces in the book, Ian Cornelius remarks: 'We meet the complexities of the information age without having developed a character to legitimate the profession by giving it a moral force that helps define the age rather than just accommodating to it'.
Cornelius suggests that as library professionalism 'has increasingly emphasised organizational technique and technical competence' it has lost the moral fervour of earlier identities. Indeed, I think that the naïve identification of professional bodies and others with opportunity in the 'information age' or the 'knowledge economy' is particularly misplaced. One of the purported characteristics, after all, of such an age is that many professions need to develop these competencies.
Cornelius points to the 'information manager' as the profession's preferred legitimating self-image. This may have been the case. I sense a recent shift towards education and learning, and the librarian as a crucial partner in learning, whether this is formal or informal. For example, Bob Martin, the last Director of the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) in the US made this a central plank of his message while in role: 'Libraries are essential educational institutions. We often say that libraries are in the information business, that they select, organize, retrieve, transmit and preserve information. That's true. But those are activities of the library, not the mission. The primary role of the library-any type of library-is to provide resources and services that support education. And education is what the public wants from the library."  And certainly we have seen much more emphasis on the educational role of the library in academic library thinking.
Some corroboration of Cornelius's views is offered by consideration of this volume as a whole. I have observed a strong internal professional focus, which places the library in broader political, educational or cultural contexts in limited ways. One has a sense of a profession more comfortable in asserting rather than demonstrating value, which focuses on means rather than ends, and which does not do a good job of connecting its agendas to broader social and political agendas.
During this period there were major developments in the political composition of what the title calls 'Britain and Ireland', and in the relationship between the changing political entities on 'these islands'. The relationship between the parts is complex and evolving, and the impact of different jurisdictional, policy and funding regimes is an important part of the story of libraries in 'Britain and Ireland', as is acknowledged in the introduction to Part 3. There, Peter Hoare discusses the plural 'home nations' that make up 'Britain and Ireland', and suggests that perspectives in this section will 'cross-cut' the experiences described in other chapters. It might have been useful to the readers to have sketched some more historical context about the make-up of 'Britain and Ireland' during this time, or to have provided a timeline which communicated some of the shifting contexts within which developments occurred. This context would have been useful to readers; indeed it may also have been useful for contributors. However, again, decisions about context seem to lie with individual authors and practices vary.
Consider for example Part 6, The rise of professional society. B.C.Bloomfield's chapter on rare books and special collections is interesting but is almost exclusively about England. Jack Meadow's references to the Royal Dublin Society in the excellent chapter on support for the scientist and engineer seem perfunctory, as does the treatment of libraries in Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the concluding paragraph of Christopher Murray's chapter on government and parliamentary libraries. On the other hand, Guy Holborn has parallel sections on England and Wales and on Scotland and Ireland in his chapter on law libraries. In discussing medical libraries, Antonia Bunch notes that in the absence of extensive published materials on Irish medical libraries, she has consulted an Irish colleague. And it is interesting that the only references to the libraries of Queen's University Belfast, and University Colleges Dublin, Cork and Galway, in the index are to mentions of medical libraries in her chapter. The only other mentions of Queen's and University College Dublin are to their library schools in a very good chapter by David Muddiman on the emergence of library education, which, again, does actually consider developments across all the 'nations'. Incidentally, this almost total absence of discussion of general academic library development in Ireland seems a debilitating gap in a volume of this title. (There is also one mention of Maynooth in the index, pointing to the chapter on religious libraries. Trinity gets pulled in to more discussions.)
Despite this acknowledgement of a plurality of nations, we revert to a singular nation in the title of Part 3, on the British Library, The nation's treasury. Which nation? I have already mentioned Lionel Madden's discussion of 'library and nation' in respect of Wales and the role of the National Library of Wales. This inconsistency points to a general editorial gap around issues of cultural and national identity. It is reasonable for English experiences to occupy the larger part of the narrative given the relative scale of library activity involved. However, the allocation of attention should be the result of conscious editorial judgement, rather than the side effect of habitual ways of thinking.
Libraries congregate in a variety of co-operative arrangements. Antonia J Bunch has a short chapter providing some detail of co-operation (again, one looks for central parts of the literature: there is no mention for example of Peter Stubley's book on BLCMP (Birmingham Libraries Cooperative Mechanization Project) in the bibliography ). The recent story of co-operation is closely bound up with technology as digital networks reconfigure organisational networks and alter the pattern of services. Again, the editors in Chapter 1 make an interesting point that is not picked up later in the volume: the UK is untypical in that the emergence of lending and document supply services from the British Library has meant that more co-operative, or national, apparatus common in other counties is less well developed here. In fact, it is interesting to observe the development of SWALCAP (South West Academic Libraries Co-operative Automation Project), BLCMP, SCOLCAP (Scottish Libraries Cooperative Automation Project) and LASER in different directions, and later of COPAC, and to note similarity and differences from the bibliographic and resource sharing arrangements that emerged in Europe  and North America . It is also interesting to observe the later development of shared infrastructure in the academic sector through JISC.
Writing about library provision across the University of London, Bernard Naylor draws a contrast between 'strength through diversity' and 'diseconomy through dispersal'. The pervasiveness of networking makes this a general and pressing question. Since the digital turn libraries have seen two major reconfigurations, one around shared cataloguing and resource sharing, and another around the externalisation of A&I services and electronic journals. What we are now seeing is a set of questions about further reconfiguration: mass digitisation, offsite storage, shared procurement, disclosure to search engines, and so on. The balance between shared centralised provision through the BL and JISC, or other organisations, collaborative sourcing through co-operative arrangements, outsourcing to third parties, and local innovation is an unexplored - but central - one.
Graham Jefcoate poses a series of suggestive questions at the beginning of Part Eight, the chapter on library technology. He notes the profound impact of digital developments and wonders if a future History will recognise major change or whether it will acknowledge that libraries and librarians could not 'be untied from the "legacy" media of manuscript and print'. However, more generally, this volume is surprisingly tentative about the impact of technology. There are many conventional references to recent technical changes and to likely future change. But actual engagement with the issues is limited. However, recent developments also affect how we see the trajectory of library services and library institutions and surely this should influence how we tell the story of that trajectory? So, for example, I questioned Rodney Brunt's claim about cataloguing and classification above. Can we quite tell that story in the same way when we now look at the abundance of resources that need to be managed? Think of national libraries archiving the Web, large image repositories or other newly digitised materials, the computational analysis enabled by mass digitisation, and so on. It is becoming clearer that many of our current approaches were developed in a time when information resources were scarce, were 'fixed' and were amenable to this type of manual attention. How do these approaches sit alongside approaches taken in the abstracting and indexing field, or in newer network services?
This is one reason why the treatment of technology is disappointing. Not because one wants a discussion of latest trends, but because the co-evolution of libraries with developing network services and behaviours does raise questions about ends. And it touches on core issues. Think about knowledge organisation, the curation of the scholarly record, changing scholarly communications, the impact of major gravitational network hubs like iTunes, Google and Amazon, on personal information behaviours and the changing patterns of learning and research.
As our sense of where we are going changes, so does our sense of where we have been. It is a pity therefore that the volume is not more comfortable with the impact of technology. Indeed, much of it could have been written 25 years ago.
The volume is handsomely assembled and there is a pleasing consistency of layout.
The multiple contributions might have benefited from some cross-referencing. I thought that a couple of critical remarks reflected more on their authors than on their subjects and could have been removed without loss. I am thinking of B.C. Bloomfield's disparagement of 'continental literary theorists' and Alistair Duff's mention of 'a fashionable social theorist', when citing Manuel Castells, who incidentally is favourably mentioned elsewhere in the volume. That the footnotes were not indexed was an inconvenience: unless somebody was explicitly mentioned in the text it was not possible to find them through the index. I thought that there was some editorial laziness around names, consistent with the general treatment of the 'home nations' issue. Many of the contributors, including the editors, use the contested term 'British Isles'. Sometimes Britain or Great Britain is used when the United Kingdom may be intended (see for example page 298 which talks about Britain and Great Britain). It would have been useful to have been consistent.
In conclusion, this volume brings together a lot of material in a very valuable way. I think that the volume makes a very fine collection of essays. Some contributions were excellent. However, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. I think that it does less well as a synthetic history of the development of libraries in 'Britain and Ireland' during this period. Ironically, some of the ways in which it might have been better are highlighted in the fine opening chapters by the editors.