Natural History Manuscript Resources in the British Isles.

Submitted by Steve Wilkinson on Mon, 10/05/2010 23:29

G. D. R. Bridson, V. C. Phillips, and A. P. Harvey, xxxiv+473pp, Mansell, London: R. R. Bowker & Co., New York, 1980.

Review source

Originally reviewed by Peter F Lingwood in 1984.

Published in Journal of Conchology (1984), Vol.31

The bane of any historian using primary sources is the finding, or in many cases, not finding relevant archival material. Until now his success in the natural history field has relied on a happy combination of expertise, familiarity with existing catalogues of individual depositories and sheer luck. The work in question aims to reduce the tedious task of fruitless enquiries by attempting to catalogue, in one volume, all natural history manuscripts in the British Isles.

The authors have used a laudably wide and flexible definition of manuscript to include such diverse material as annotated copies of printed works, manuscript copies of the original pattern sets, correspondence, bills, inventories etc. The inclusion of photocopies of manuscripts is however perhaps a little too catholic an interpretation.

To make the project feasible, only depositories in the British Isles are surveyed. Unfortunately, this therefore includes, by definition, not only material concerned with foreign natural history, but also excludes material on British natural history housed in foreign depositories. The scope of the book is further limited by the omission of some important depositories, i.e. those in private hands (presumably because of problems of access and security) and the Public Record Office (presumably because of the sheer weight and diversity of its contents as well as the existence of a printed catalogue).

The archives of some of the larger provincial museums appear to have been excluded. I would hope that this is unintentional because these must, at the very least, contain material relevant to the institutions themselves and to the local natural history societies. Although these omissions may be the result of the disruptive effect of local government re-organisation, which interrupted the survey, I suspect that it owes much to local authority centralisation of archival responsibility into one department, so that museum archives are ignored as being extra- departmental or incorporated without separate identification. The result is anything if not confusing, but hardly the fault of the authors.

It is difficult to identify the exclusion of individual manuscript collections because by their very nature, they may have never been previously catalogued. Omissions may be attributable to the method of the book's compilation, i.e. the supplementation of data gleaned from existing catalogues by a questionnaire followed by a personal visit. Although a valuable tool, the questionnaire inevitably brings into question the validity of the results, i.e. its accuracy, completeness, extent and uniformity of coverage. Inevitably the entries are the result of subjective judgements not only by those compiling the original catalogues, but also by those completing the questionnaires and those editing the results. It is hoped that some uniformity if not objectivity was introduced by the personal visit, but physical endurance alone must have precluded detailed visits to all 443 depositories listed.

Turning to the book itself, I found it particularly easy to use. The initial pages of introduction by D. E. Alien (who is credited as being one of the main inspirers of the work) and the authors' explanatory preface is followed by an annotated general bibliography, the brevity of which (7 pages) belies its considerable usefulness as an introduction for the novice and a checklist for the more experienced worker. The main body of the text, 379 pages, is arranged alphabetically in order of place names. The individual institutions have an address, telephone number, hours of opening, together with details of any catalogues, printed or otherwise, and whether the archives are recorded at all by the National Register of Archives. The archives themselves are separated into collections which are individually identified by a unique sequential number, prefixed by that of the institution. This decimal notation is used throughout for indexing. The collections are so arranged that those relating to the institution and to local societies have precedence and are followed by correspondence (under the collector's name) etc. in alphabetical order. Each collection is briefly described as to its size and contents.

In general, the animal kingdom is the best represented by extant archives, with the plant kingdom coming a close second; molluscs being more fully treated than any other invertebrate group except the insects. The poor coverage of the fossil mollusca, despite the enormous number of extinct species reflects the general sparse earth science coverage. The general impression after consulting all the archives indexed under Mollusca was that the collections referred predominantly cither to the published works of Lister, da Costa and the Sowerby's or to local collections of mollusca. Archives on the mollusca are widely scattered and it comes as no surprise to find that the most extensive molluscan archival collections are primarily in the National Museums.

The indexing, which to my mind, is a general indicator of a book's scholastic value, is particularly detailed and occupies almost one fifth of the book. It is divided into three sections, i.e. names, places and subjects, which index not only the collection heading but also the individual items it contains- The subject index utilises a hierarchical decimal system to enable detailed cross-referencing, so that, for instance, molluscan collection can be located under collection - mollusca or Mollusca - collection. The Mollusca can in fact appear in four sections - namely collections (22 items), drawings (31 items), living fauna (148 items) and fossil (16 items). Although some of the divisions are contrived (would one in fact really wish to look at just drawings of molluscs without looking through the entire molluscan entry?) and there is ample scope for duplication e.g. drawings of a fossil molluscan collection, there is less than would be anticipated. The system works well.

The index has been compiled, and must therefore be used, intelligently. The words 'shell' and 'conchology', although appearing in the text, are included in the index only as 'mollusca'.

My initial attitude to this book's publication was ambiguous; while obviously welcoming anything which more fully documented primary sources, I was at the same time perturbed that such a wealth of information so readily available would remove, so to speak the 'excitement of the chase', the unexpected discovery of an essential manuscript. This was but wishful thinking. This book but catalogues collections and only sparingly describes their significant contents. Such an appraisal is at best subjective and cannot hope to identify items of significance to a particular researcher. In any event while there are still entries such as 'Hoyle W. E. 2 boxes of assorted material unsorted' (National Museum of Wales) and 'William Swainson miscellaneous manuscripts unsorted' (Cambridge), there is obviously scope for further work which without this publication might remain unknown to those interested.

This book attempts therefore to bring together the natural history researcher and the relevant manuscripts. The need for a comprehensive catalogue of natural history archives has long existed and the present work goes a long way to satisfying it. It is disappointing that the book's prohibitive price will inevitably restrict the number of purchasers to a minute fraction of those who will undoubtedly consult it.