Letter to The Salisbury Review
I was stung into writing this letter by an article by one Hugh Nicklin, complaining about his difficulties in getting hold of a copy of a book by Robert Lowe opposing the extension of the franchise. As I recall, a truncated version appeared in The Salisbury Review.
The Salisbury Review:
As a lifelong member of the ‘loony left’, I often have a glance at The Salisbury Review to see how the other half think. I was particularly amused by Hugh Nicklin’s article ‘Tour de Farce’ (Spring 2003).
Despite his low view of his fellow citizens, Mr Nicklin clearly isn’t the brightest candle in the chandelier. Although he had previously been in correspondence with the British Library – presumably on headed notepaper – he went to the wrong address. Moreover, he was surprised that it took as much as an hour to deliver a book. The British Library stores well over ten million volumes and requires rather more complex logistics than shuffling the copies of Stalky & Co. in the school library.
Furthermore Mr Nicklin has been misinformed. The British Library does not have the only copy of Robert Lowe’s Speeches and Letters on Reform (sic – not ‘Letters and Speeches’ as Mr Nicklin writes). There is a copy in the London Library, available for borrowing on the open shelves. The London Library (where I read the Salisbury Review) is a private sector, fee-paying (but non-profit-making) institution, which I should have thought would be more congenial to Salisbury Review readers than the nationalised British Library. Mr Nicklin will doubtless be delighted to learn it has been borrowed ten times since 1979, and twice in the present millennium.
There is one snag. I was delayed a full five minutes in locating the book by the fact that the London Library insists on cataloguing and shelving the work under the name Viscount Sherbrooke, though the name Lowe is on the title page. It would indeed be strange if it turned out that the existence of the aristocracy was one of the ways in which ‘the British establishment makes it hard for you to see what it doesn’t want you to see’.
However, the main point that interested me was the parallel between Mr Nicklin’s search and my own interests. For those of us on the far left – especially those who belong to a tradition which was vigorously anti-Stalinist even when old Joe was sitting down to dine with Winston Churchill – there are many books we believe valuable which have virtually vanished into oblivion.
What do we do about it? We track them down, if necessary travelling to libraries in Britain and abroad, photocopy them, translate them if necessary, scan them into websites or publish them through small, non-profit-making publishing houses. I personally know well over a dozen people who do such work, in their own time and at their own expense, because of the ideas they believe in. They certainly don’t expect the nanny-state, in the form of the British Library, to do it all for them.