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University of Oxford
Director of University Library Services and Bodley's Librarian

'The Bodleian and Blackwell's by aventure yfalle in felaweship: to telle yow al the condicion of ech of hem'

(from: A Moment in Time. Blackwell's at the Bodleian. An exhibition of selected editions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Celebrating 125 years of service to scholarship by 'Blackwell's of the Broad'. January-February 2004. Compiled and edited by Rita Ricketts (Oxford; Bodleian Library in association with Blackwell's, 2004), pp.5-11.)

For over a century the Bodleian has lived and worked happily with its nearest Broad Street neighbour, Blackwell's. As education expanded, boosted by the development of state provision during the early 20th century, so too the University's libraries flourished. And in turn, the librarians came to rely on the booksellers. Among these, Blackwell's stands out. For Basil Blackwell: 'bookselling and publishing … went hand in glove with … serving the needs of scholars and scholarly librarians the world over'.1

Although Blackwell's is renowned for its bookselling services to the library world, it is perhaps less generally well-known that the first 'Oxford' BH Blackwell (Benjamin Harris) was himself a librarian. Benjamin Harris Blackwell was described as having a 'circulating library' in the Oxford directories of the 1840s.

When he had first arrived in Oxford in the 1830s Benjamin Harris established a branch of the Teetotal Society, becoming its Librarian. He must have made something of a reputation for himself since when the City's Public Library was established in 1854, he was appointed as its first Librarian. But, unlike the days when Sir Thomas Bodley established his Library, when what was principally required by the 'good librarian' was 'leisure, learning, friends and means', the task of Public Librarian was no sinecure. 'One wonders', mused a contemporary, 'how Mr Blackwell and his assistant contemplated the future, in which it was their duty to be in constant attendance on weekdays, from 9.00am until 11.00pm (10.00pm in the winter months) and, after church, from 6.00-10.00pm on Sundays'.2 But contemplate it he did.

Unlike the Bodleian, and other similar institutions, public libraries were not primarily a facility for the leisured, or the academic, classes. Their function, as stated in the exalted prose of the 1850 Library Act, was 'that knowledge should triumph over ignorance', to become 'the means of enlightenment against utter destitution by self-improvement'.3 These noble purposes were dear to Benjamin Harris Blackwell, whose Teetotal Library was 'bold to demand a standing among the most important societies for the improvement of man, physically, socially, morally and intellectually'. With the opening of free public libraries, literature, art and science were to 'belong to all classes', especially as they were to remain open after everyday working hours. During the first year of Oxford's City Library, over 13,000 books were issued for reference, and the metropolitan and weekly newspapers, which it made available, were widely read.

Judging by a recorded daily attendance of over 400, the Library's 'handsome room', on the ground floor of the Town Hall in St Aldate's Street must have been a welcome respite from the workplace, or from an over-crowded family kitchen. In its interior, there was 'a neat little drinking fountain, affording copious libations of 'acqua pura''.4 Benjamin Harris Blackwell must have been more than gratified if his library's 'attractions' tempted people away from the public houses. But protecting his patrons from the demon of drink was only an inadvertent benefit for Benjamin Harris. His over-riding duty was to keep watch over the content of the new library's shelves, 'lest any work of an immoral or infidel tendency should be admitted'.5

Very little of Benjamin Harris's short term as the City's first Librarian is known; but a letter from William Ewart MP, the prime sponsor of the Public Libraries Act, rightly observed that 'The City's first Librarian bore a name which Oxford will always connect with books'.6 While establishing his Library, Benjamin Harris continued to develop his own bookshop, which had opened in St Clements, Oxford, in 1846. Already known to the Bodleian and the Libraries of Oxford University, he was keen to expand, and he started to compile annotated book catalogues to send out by post around Britain and overseas. Thus began a very important international connection with libraries and collectors of books worldwide.

But the excessively long hours in the Library, and the demands of running his own business, took their toll on the first B H Blackwell. He died young. And it was left to his son, the second B H Blackwell (Benjamin Henry) who founded the famous Broad Street Shop, to revive the bookselling business. Benjamin Henry, like his father, aspired to be a librarian, and he applied for the post of Librarian of the City of Cardiff. But, studious and enterprising as he was, his lack of formal education led to setbacks, and he failed to get the job. When the librarianship door closed, his disappointment made harder to accept by the fact that his father had been Oxford City's first Librarian, Benjamin Henry pinned his hopes elsewhere.

An entry in Benjamin Henry Blackwell's diary for 1877, after an apprenticeship in bookselling lasting seventeen years, recorded the germ of his ambition: 'I have now been with Mr Rose six years and seem likely to stay for a year or two, at the end of which I hope to be able with a little assistance to open in London or elsewhere a business on my own account.'7 Hearing of vacant premises at 50 Broad Street, opposite the Bodleian, Benjamin Henry opened his tiny shop on January 1, 1879. >From a room twelve feet square, the business grew, becoming a household name in the world of academic bookselling and publishing.

From the outset the relationship between the Bodleian and Blackwell's became osmotic. If neither Mr Blackwell nor his staff could answer a customer's enquiry, the most junior apprentice would be sent 'opposite' (to the Bodleian) and would be expected to return with an answer: 'If the customer knows the book, so must we: find it'. To further their research, Blackwell's apprentices were equipped with Bodleian readers' tickets; and how the academics of Oxford must have delighted in the work of these 'un-paid' research assistants! By the same token, the Bodleian was not averse to sending its readers to Blackwell's, and many an expert librarian came to rely on Blackwell's ready expertise.

During Benjamin Henry's time, and continuing on under his son, grandsons and great grandsons, Blackwell's became an important supplier to academic libraries worldwide, from America to Africa and the Antipodes. These new customers may, at first, have been more of a burden than a benefit to Blackwell's. A one-time librarian of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, wrote of his embarrassment at the 'meagre purchases', which 'for decades could hardly have covered the printing and postage costs' incurred in servicing his library.8 But, as was his way, Benjamin Henry did not see things solely in a commercial light, and nor did his customers.

A visit to Blackwell's, 'the literary man's house of call', became an established custom as much for librarians as for would-be writers, students and established literati. It is on record that Oliver Wendell Homes, emerging from the Bodleian clutching an honorary degree, made straight for Mr Blackwell's. 'Finding a copy of his Poet at the Breakfast Table (2 volumes), (Holmes) autographed it and presented it to the proprietor'. He also asked for a copy of his The Autocrat, 'but alas! It was out of stock',9 though doubtless the deficit was made good as truly Blackwell's reputation was predicated on service. Before the shop had reached its twenty-first year, Lord Rosebery was heard to refer to it 'as a remarkable shop kept by a remarkable man'.

All this was very well; but what Mr Blackwell wanted most was that Blackwell's should become a place for self-improvement: a place where scholars and booklovers, whether from the University or the town, could read under the same roof. His shop was open to all comers: it was for anyone interested in books and their own 'self' education, formal or informal. Side by side with the Colleges of Oxford, Blackwell's had become a place of learning in its own right. Twenty years before Benjamin Henry died, a daily newspaper summed up his contribution: 'Many men will aver that the greatest educative influence of Oxford resides neither in the Bodleian, nor schools, nor tutors, nor lectures, nor college societies, but in the excellent management and most liberal facilities of one of the best bookshops in the world - Mr Blackwell's'.10

Within a very short time Blackwell's had become internationally known by booklovers. It provided not only a refuge for town and gown but for the exiles whenever they returned to Oxford:

'Though Dons and Schools make Pundits out of fools,
They have come to Blackwell for their tools:
And seek, to turn their dunces into Sages,
The Delphic oracle of Blackwell's pages.'11
Given the success of his 'little shop', Benjamin Henry Blackwell could doubtless have made a larger fortune if he had been more hard-hearted. But if he had any motive, other than the spread of knowledge, it was to shore up the future by putting his family business on a broader footing. By the time of his death, in 1924, the shop was world famous, and its infant publishing house had on its lists names that went down in the literary annals. It was now the turn of Benjamin Henry's son (Basil Henry), the third B H Blackwell. Under the chairmanship of Basil Blackwell the family firm grew into a bookselling and publishing empire. He was rewarded with a knighthood - the first to go to 'trade'.

Writing in the 1960s, Jan Morris claimed that Blackwell's had almost certainly become 'the greatest bookselling complex in this, or indeed any country'. And an anonymous reader was heard to say that he could 'often get a book more easily at Blackwell's than at the Bodleian'. Sir Basil Blackwell had the greatest affection for the Bodleian, and numbered its Keepers among his closest associates. When the Broad Street shop celebrated its centenary, in 1979, Sir Basil made a gift to the Bodleian of William Beckford's literary manuscripts, correspondence and personal papers. William Beckford, 1760-1844, was a gifted, learned, and artistic collector and connoisseur, as well as travel writer. His plays and novels (including the celebrated Vathek) brought him immediate fame, and in addition he was a distinguished musician and architect. His enormous archive was housed in Fonthill Abbey, rebuilt to his extraordinary and extravagant designs, a residence (now vanished) which the late Lord Clark described as 'by far the most exciting building of its time'.

Beckford's library had been dispersed at auction in 1822, and the archive had passed to his daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton. It was subsequently purchased by the firm of Blackwell's in 1977. The gift of the Beckford Archive is an abiding tribute to Blackwell's founders, and to Richard Blackwell, who died in 1980. It is also a fitting monument to Sir Basil Blackwell. Although the third B H Blackwell never worked, or aspired to work, in a library, he valued his own library above almost everything. He amassed it over a period of eighty years, starting with the Bible his mother gave him, and his copy of The Earthly Paradise. Sir Basil always gave pride of place to books themselves, and urged others to consider the efforts that went into bringing books into their hands.

'Behind every book', Sir Basil liked to explain, 'are all the bookmen: the researchers, the authors, the publishers, the typographers, the printers, paper-makers, binders, booksellers and librarians'. And the librarians, in Basil's view, had the happiest lot, 'though some may think it (the job) lacks the excitement which risk and enterprise provide'. There was a hierarchy nonetheless: '…if he is a Public Librarian he is, to a certain extent, at the mercy of the Library Committee and of the public grant of money'. But '…if he is a College or University Librarian, he is perhaps happiest of all, should the bent of his mind be studious'.

Having the honour of being the present Librarian of the Bodleian, I do indeed still count myself as 'happy', even if my 'studious bent' is exercised all too rarely in these over-pressurised times. Today's libraries, like bookshops, have to 'pay their way', by finding and generating the resources necessary to meet the demands of the ever-expanding academic community and its disciplines. Today, perhaps more than ever, Blackwell's and the Bodleian have a common cause: furthering the cause of scholarship by providing books for readers from all walks of life, while still 'staying in business'. The Bodleian has managed this for over four hundred years; and I take this opportunity of warmly congratulating 'Blackwell's of the Broad' on its 125th year of successful trading. In honour of the contribution made by the Blackwell family, and especially Sir Basil, to the printing and publishing of books, and to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the opening of the 'shop across the road', the Bodleian is mounting this special exhibition: Blackwell's at the Bodleian - A Moment in Time.

The choice of Chaucer, by Rita Ricketts, as the focus of the exhibition derives from Sir Basil's love of fine printing and his deep interest in the early printers, from Aldus Manutius to Plantin and Caxton to William Morris. Sir Basil's own attempts to produce a 'Chaucer' as a work of art, worthy of its antecedents, was also an iconic act, and we can readily sympathise with it. In this small exhibition we have put the Blackwell 'Newdigate' Chaucer, published by the Shakespeare Head Press between 1928-9, together with parchment manuscripts, compiled while the Tales were still being edited. The 'Merton' Caxton Chaucer of 1476-7 stands alongside a critical edition of 1532 by William Thynne, Clerk of the Kitchen in Henry VIII's court - the members of which would doubtless have felt at home among the pre-Raphaelite maidens adorning the pages of William Morris's 1896 Kelmscott edition.

Whatever the future holds, Blackwell's and the Bodleian have shared a remarkable moment in time - a moment in the history of Oxford, its University, and of the worldwide academic community. May the emperors of the Sheldonian continue to guard us both well!12

  1. Basil Blackwell's own manuscript notes. [Back]
  2. Scrapbook, Oxford City Library, 1855-1954, p.5. [Back]
  3. The Public Library Act, 14 August 1850. Joseph Taylor, Oxford City Library, 1855-1954, pp. 4 -7. [Back]
  4. Dutton, Allen and Co., Directory and Gazetteer, 1863. [Back]
  5. Op. cit., Oxford City Library, p. 4. [Back]
  6. Letter from the House of Commons dated June 14 1854, in A History of the City of Oxford, Ruth Fasnacht, Basil Blackwell, 1952, p. 193. [Back]
  7. Benjamin Henry's diaries, 1877. [Back]
  8. Op. cit., Norrington, p. 41. [Back]
  9. Oxford Magazine, January 1939. [Back]
  10. Morning Post, 1906. [Back]
  11. Ode to Scholarship, Poona, April 1912. [Back]
  12. The material for this introduction is drawn from Rita Ricketts, Adventurers All, Tales of Blackwellians, of Books, Bookmen and Reading and Writing Folk. The book contains material now in the Merton Blackwell Collection, Merton College Library. An introduction to Blackwell's genre of book-production can be seen here at the Bodleian. A small display of books and other effects can also be seen in the Gaffer's Room in Blackwell's Broad Street shop. [Back]

Reg Carr
Bodley's Librarian