We all know what we want — we want library holdings on the web, where we can all see them. So I was rather delighted to see a news article yesterday that Cambridge University Library were going to put their collection of pre-1500 printed books on the web.
This would be quite a first — the obscurantism of UK libraries has to be experienced to be believed. The Andrew Mellon Foundation, who have done so much for the world in funding online initiatives, have granted them 300,000 GBP to do the job; not a huge sum, but probably enough. The BBC article here gives the impression that the incunables will go online.
But then a revealing aside:
Over the next five years the University library will produce detailed records for each item.
This made me look twice at the glowing claims, and look further. There’s no information on the library website at all, which is not good news. History Today magazine has an article here. This tells the real story:
Cambridge University announced, today, the beginning of a new project to catalogue, for the first time, the University Library’s celebrated collection of incunabula, pre-1501 printed books. The term incunabula literally means swaddling-clothes, or cradle, in Latin and was adopted to describe a book printed at an early date, in the first infancy of printing.
Very few records of the Library’s 4,650 treasures are currently in its online catalogue. Records will begin to be catalogued this autumn and, over the next five years, the University Library will produce detailed records for each item, which will be accessible through its Newton Universal Catalogue. …
Although the project does not involve a complete page-by-page digitisation of the Library’s incunabula, the Gutenberg Bible has been fully digitalised …
As if anyone has any use for yet another Gutenberg online.
So, the real intention is to have one or two staff members sit there for five years writing little card indexes (or whatever). Digitisation? Am I too cynical, to suppose that they’ll merely do a handful of books, as a sort of fig-leaf for what they really wanted to do?
Not that cataloguing is bad; but what we need, desperately need, is ACCESS TO THE BOOKS!!! Not more catalogues. Compiling a catalogue was the excuse used in the 19th century by Vatican libraries for denying scholars access to the library, and refusing them sight of what catalogue existed. I don’t know if that ever-so-complete catalogue ever appeared, indeed. But the obstruction of access was real enough.