Dating Diderot acquisitions

Nowadays many library users of the University Library collections have the classmarks of the books and journals they wish to consult before they enter any Library building. In the main University Library the room at the top of the central stairs, which still contains the printed guardbook catalogue, is often deserted, but 40 years ago when the guardbook was the only place where readers could locate most material, the catalogue hall was a constant hubbub of activity. The guardbook catalogue still has an important function today, but only on the rare occasions when online data seems unclear or inconsistent, or there is reason to suspect an item has missed retrospective conversion and doesn’t appear on the computer.

Guardbook catalogues

Guardbook in the Catalogue Hall of the University Library

The printed guardbook does have other values, however, which the online catalogue cannot replicate. Anyone who is interested in the history of the Library’s collections can quickly make an initial assessment of when titles were acquired by running the eye over the individual guardbook entries. The colour of the paper and the varying styles of printing give lots of clues. As well as the classmark in the top left-hand corner of each slip, there is a printing number in the top right-hand corner, which usually incorporates in an abbreviated form the year in which the catalogue entry was produced.

As far as European languages are concerned, it would not be true to say that the collections have been built up systematically over the centuries. In 2014 the Library has wonderful antiquarian collections of European literature, but relatively little was held a hundred years ago. Indeed, many early editions of writers such as Diderot, Calderón, Montaigne, Goethe and Rousseau were only added after the guardbook was closed to new entries at the end of 1995, and have therefore never featured in the Library’s print catalogues at all.

Diderot entries in the Guardbook catalogue

Diderot entries in the Guardbook catalogue

Dating the moment when specific Diderot items entered the collections is sometimes very difficult. It seems probable that Cambridge’s first Diderot title was his edition of the Encyclopédie, but this has only been at its current classmark, 7900.a.13-47, since the early 1930s. Earlier generations of librarians had a mania for rearranging and reclassifying the stock, and our set of the Encyclopédie has had at least two earlier classmarks. It has not been possible to identify with confidence an entry for the Encyclopédie in the earlier author catalogue of printed books, compiled between 1818 and 1826, and which was updated and remained in use until the introduction of the guardbook replacement in 1861.

The 1818 edition of Diderot’s Œuvres (K.29.14-20), published by A. Belin, is one of three items by Diderot listed in this early 19th century catalogue, but we have no specific date of acquisition. Also entered here is an 1829 edition of Diderot’s correspondence with Friedrich Melchior Grimm (XII.24.1-16), and Diderot’s account of the reigns of Claudius and Nero, Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron, et Sur les mœurs et les écrits de Séneque : pour servir d’introduction à la lecture de ce philosophe (VI.8.14). This purports to be a London 1782 imprint, but was in fact published in Bouillon in Belgium. The first collected edition whose acquisition date can be established with accuracy was published in 1875 by Garnier (Hh.50.22-41), and was evidently obtained immediately after publication. It was only at about this time that the Library started to stamp its books with a date of receipt, in this instance 14 May 1875.

Title page of the UL's early catalogue of printed books

Title page of the UL’s early catalogue of printed books

These were probably the only French language Diderot items in the University Library in 1900. An edition of the Œuvres choisies arrived with the Acton library in 1902 (Acton.d.51.105-110). Although the Library owned an English translation of Le neveu de Rameau in 1897 (Misc.7.89.1620), the first separate French edition of the text we acquired was only published in 1925 (737.d.92.181). The first separate edition of La religieuse in the University Library was the 1796 publication, acquired in 1928 (Syn.5.79.7). The first entry in the catalogue for Jacques le fataliste was for the 1956 printing (738:35.d.95.9), with one 18th and two 19th century editions added much later.

Diderot entries in the catalogue of printed books

Diderot entries in the catalogue of printed books

At the time we made our first acquisition of a play by Diderot, the 1758 edition of Le père de famille (7735.d.273), on 29 September 1970, we still used a stamp which incorporated the full date of acquisition. But by the time we purchased our copy of the 1757 edition of Le fils naturel (7735.d.796) in July 1985, we were using a much less obtrusive stamp of ownership, in accordance with approved modern practice, and recorded the date of acquisition in pencil on the inside back board.

Some of the last Diderot acquisitions to be recorded in the guardbook catalogue were titles from the library of Professor Ralph Leigh, acquired between 1982 and 1985. The catalogue records immediately catch the eye both by the relative freshness of the paper on which the bibliographical description is printed, and the size of typeface used. A few years later the Library’s Diderot holdings were further enhanced by acquisitions from the library of Robert Wokler, which will be the subject of a future blog post.

David Lowe

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