1360. Robert Southey to Longmans, 20 September 1807

1360. Robert Southey to Longmans, 20 September 1807 ⁠* 

Sept. 20. 1807.

Dear Sirs,

I have been considering and re-considering the plan of a Critical Catalogue. [1]  On the scale which you propose, it approaches so nearly to what we had formerly projected as a complete Bibliotheca Britannica, [2]  that I should be loth to go so near it, and yet stop short. On the present scale (and were you disposed to extend it to the original extent, it would be quite impossible for me till my historical labours are closed) the opinions given must necessarily be so short, that in most instances the main business would be to copy title-pages. Now it would take an amanuensis more time tenfold to hunt out the book than to do this; and yet, as you say, my time may be employed more satisfactorily for myself, and probably more to your advantage as well as my own, than in mere transcription.

Of the possible size of such a work I cannot form even a decent conjecture. Scarce books are more numerous than good ones, have longer titles, and require sometimes a long description. Perhaps the best way would be to begin with a chronological list of all that have been printed before the accession of Henry VIII., when printing may be said to have become common. All these books have a great value from their scarcity, – indeed, their main value, –and better be classed together than under any separate heads. A complete list might be furnished by Mr. Dibdin, who must already have collected all the necessary knowledge for his edition of Ames. [3]  Mr. Park could supply the poets, and, indeed, manage the whole better than any other person. [4]  I could give a better opinion of works than he could, and believe that I know more of them: but there is a sort of title-page and colophon knowledge – in one word, bibliology, which is exactly what is wanted for this purpose, and in which he is very much my superior. The way in which I could be best employed would be in looking over the MS., adding to it anything in my knowledge, if anything there might be, which had escaped him, and supplying a brief criticism, where it was wanted, and I could give it.

Any such assistance I should willingly give; but upon slow and frequent consideration, I certainly think the whole may be better executed in London than here, and by many others than by me; for of all sorts of work it is that in which there must be most transcription, and in which it will be most inconvenient to employ an amanuensis.

The extent of such a book will probably be wholly immaterial to its sale. None but those who have libraries will buy it; and all those may almost be calculated upon. There will also be some sale for it abroad, more than is usual for English books. The one thing in which it seems possible to improve upon the best catalogue is, by arranging the books in every subdivision chronologically, according to the time when they were written.         .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .          .

Yours truly,

R. Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 107–109 [in part]. BACK

[1] Longman had asked for Southey’s advice ‘about a classified Catalogue Raisonnés of English Books – for those who form Libraries & for Booksellers’; see Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [end of August 1807], Letter 1356, and had promised to consider the idea; see Southey to Longmans, 25 August 1807, Letter 1354. BACK

[2] Southey did not publish a Catalogue Raisonné, nor a Bibliotheca Britannia. In 1824 a Bibliotheca Britannia complied by Robert Watt (1774–1819; DNB) was published. BACK

[3] Typographical Antiquities: or The History of Printing in England Scotland and Ireland: Containing Memoirs of our Ancient Printers, and a Register of the Books Printed by Them, ed. Joseph Ames (bap. 1687, d. 1759; DNB), ed. William Herbert, Rev. Thomas Dibdin (1776–1847; DNB) (1810). BACK

[4] The critic, editor and literary historian Thomas Park (1758/9–1834). BACK

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