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Berwick Sayers on annotation 2

Berwick Sayers by Juliet K Pannett

The second and last part of Berwick Sayers masterly work  Annotation in Catalogues (1948). Sayers was, like Casanova, a prince among librarians and also a man with many other interests - he wrote poetry, music, fiction and a book on the black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. He also wrote a travel book Over some Alpine Passes. Memories of 1908. His life was commemorated in a work published a year after his death The Sayers memorial volume : essays in librarianship in memory of William Charles Berwick (1961.) He also wrote much on librarianship, including some dryish titles like: Report on the hours, salaries, training, and conditions of service of assistants in British municipal libraries (1911.)

He wrote a comprehensive history of Croydon and his life was spent there, mostly at Croydon Library. Croydon is a large London outer suburb of some importance - one time residents include: Flower Fairies creator Cicely Mary Barker, singer Desmond Dekker, Raymond Chandler, Emily Blunt, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, A. Conan Doyle, Amy Winehouse, Kate Moss, Tracey Emin, D.H. Lawrence, Alfred Russell Wallace, Brit-pack artist Sam Taylor-Wood, Katie Melua, Kirstie MacColl, Roy Hodgson, billionaire Philip Green, Noel Fielding (Mighty Boosh) Victorian sexologist Havelock Ellis, Jeff Beck and Emile Zola.

 Annotation in Catalogues. Part 2.

 7.  One very important branch of annotation is that devoted to fiction. The tides of fiction are often far from descriptive, and no more indicate the fare they introduce than does the inn-sign, "The Spotted Dog," introduce the notion of beer ; e.g., A Flame of Fire, The Choir Invisible and A Ladder of Swords convey no meaning whatever to the average reader. For all these titles tell, any of these books might or might not be suitable for women or men or for children. The annotation of these should be a brief description of the type or character of the story ; its locale ; its period ; if historical, the names of real persons introduced should be mentioned; for example :

 Parker. A Ladder of Swords.
 Romance of the court of Queen Elizabeth. Leicester and the Queen play prominent parts in the story.

 Phillpotts. An American Prisoner.
 Early 18th century love story of a Dartmoor girl and a young American prisoner of war immured in Princeton, Dartmoor.

 Crockett. Maid Margaret.
 Galloway in the 15th century.

Although in the foregoing examples the character of the story is indicated, no attempt should be made to outline the plot, as this will ruin what is the main interest in the story for many readers.

 8.  The last type of annotation it is necessary to mention is that of books for children. In the juvenile catalogue of the Pittsburgh Public Library, the annotations are addressed to the child. In England it has been advocated that, "it is a sound premise . . . that the catalogue should be such as can be understood by those who are to use it." This would imply that annotations for these books should be written in the language of the books as far as possible. Mr. E. A. Savage, however, urges that annotations of books for children under ten should be addressed to parents, and for more advanced works the language of the books might be used. One example will suffice to exhibit the necessities of juvenile annotation :

 Bronson. Through Uganda Forests.
 The author made two journeys through Uganda in 1896 and 1898.
He describes the way he took from Momhasa to Lake Victoria Nyanza, and far into the forests round about Lake Albert Nyanza ; he had many fights with savages, lost his way in the swamps, ran short of ammunition and had several narrow escapes: The journeys were made to study the animals of the country. He discovered an animal called an Ipaka, which is like a very small yellow giraffe.

 9.  This brief outline of some of the principles of annotation will serve to illustrate its principal uses. If the character of a book is concisely outlined in a note, it follows that the would-be reader, on consulting that note, discovers
 1. Whether the work is modem and embraces earlier researches ;
  2. Whether it is an extension of the knowledge of the subject ;
 3. Whether his own knowledge is equal to, or too far advanced for, useful study of the book.
The reader, uncertain of the nature of the book, and doubtful whether the subject has any interest, is given a brief glimpse of what it really is, and is helped to a decision. The chief use of annotation, as I know it, is to bring the contents of the book clearly before the searcher's view, without passing any direct opinion on its merits or defects. It supplements classification, became the latter shows the available material on any subject, and annotation shows the nature of that material ; moreover, as a closely classified catalogue or shelf shows the approximate sequence of the material, so a good annotation shows the actual sequence by referring to books preliminary to, and books extending, the subject. The value of fiction annotation lies in its power to assist the reader in deciding whether he or she desires the book annotated. Some readers have no taste for historical novels, while others prefer them. Annotation will either warn these from books not desired, or show some unknown feature in them which shall attract to reading in an unaccustomed direction : thus fiction annotation may serve a double use.

 10.  It remains to state briefly the principal abuses made of the art of annotation. As our definition says annotation must be descriptive and implies the exclusion of criticism, our first view of abuse must be the introduction of criticism. J. Churton Collins is responsible for the statement that modem criticism is unscientific and merely reflects the personal point of view. A librarian who undertakes the office of general censor of literature adopts a position which the public will not accept. One may easily illustrate its faults. Dr. E. A. Baker, whose knowledge of literature few would challenge, in an annotation states that Meredith is "the greatest of living novelists." This may or may not have been true at the time, but it is certain that many people with claims to consideration gave the position indicated to Tolstoy. Hence the statement introduces the personal equation, and this is an abuse of annotation. Such statements as "complete," "elementary," "advanced," "exhaustive," "useful," are not necessarily criticism ; are, indeed, matters of fact easily demonstrable. However, even these should only be used with judgment.

 11.  Another abuse of annotation lies in the attempt to give too much information. An annotation is not an essay, and to attempt to give the pith – or to make a précis – of a book in an annotation is clearly wrong. The note should indicate what information is to be found in the book, not attempt to give that information. One of the commonest abuses is the lack of accuracy that distinguishes many notes. Here is a note which has apparently no flaw in it.

 Wallace. Darwinism. 1904.
 A study of the theory of Natural Selection embracing later researches than those of Darwin.

But this note fails to give the date of Darwin, and also the period covered by the later researches. Darwinism has run through several editions : the note does not give the date of the first, 1889, and except to thorough students of evolution, implies that it states the whole study of the theory down to the date of publication, which is manifestly inaccurate. Another example of insufficient statement is as follows :

 Ball. In Starry Realms.
 Presumes a knowledge of mathematics.

But the note fails to say how much knowledge of mathematics is necessary ; for a reader might wonder whether an acquaintance with literal equations would serve, or whether calculus and trigonometry were demanded.

 12.  Irrelevant details are often given in the author note. For example, if a man writes a book on "The Fertilisation of Soils," it is of no consequence to the reader to know that "the author was Chancellor of the Exchequer." Such information should bear directly on the author's qualifications in relation to his book or be omitted.

 13. Information already conveyed by the title is also redundant in a note. The following illustrates this abuse :

 Wood. British Trees.
 A handbook to trees growing in Great Britain.

 Harrison. The Boys of Wynport College.
 A schoolboy story.

The notes in these cases add nothing whatever to the titles.

 14.  In fiction annotation one very prevalent abuse is the outlining of the plot in the note. We have indicated how far fiction annotation should go ; and it is manifestly unfair to the novelist and to the readers to give away the denouement of the story. In connection with fiction we may say that drawing attention to undesirable books by danger notes may also come under the heading of abuses. To quote Mr. Jast, "to say that a book is 'not written for girls' schools' must really be frightfully tantalising to any normally built schoolgirl." It is better in dealing with books not virginibus puerisque either to ignore them altogether in annotating, or to make no reference to their undesirable features.

 15.  The greatest abuses of annotation may arise from too great a devotion to this work. The introduction into catalogues of fine writing or elaborate language is an abuse greatly to be deprecated. Notes unduly long and therefore likely to be skipped by the reader may also arise from any such introduction. And if we leave the simple and direct work of description for notes which are too expensive for the cataloguing funds of the library to bear ; if it unduly delays the circulation of books ; and the preparation of the catalogue keeps the readers too long without a catalogue, we ace committing indirect abuses of the art. Annotation is, after all, only a secondary part of cataloguing ; but one of immense importance if used wisely.

 16.  Before I leave the subject I would revert to the question of criticism in library catalogues, especially as my younger colleagues are insisting upon their qualifications as guides to readers. They know good books and want to tell readers that they are good. By a curious paradox, I notice that my younger colleagues also object to that form of book-selection which they call censorship, on the grounds that the librarian is not the person to discriminate in such matters. The juxtaposition of these two facts illustrates the danger. If the librarian cannot judge in the elementary matter of morality or the want of it, he cannot, I am afraid, judge books from other points of view, seeing that content, form and influence are all inextricably mingled in every book. The safer way is to describe and not to criticise, although I have every sympathy with the librarian who wants to pass on a good book.

 17. Finally, who that has written on annotation could fail to remind modem students that the best work on the subject is Mr. E. A. Savage's Manual of Descriptive Annotation for Library Catalogues, which appeared in the year 1906, when this paper was originally written? It is one of the most workmanlike textbooks we have, and it is regrettable that it is out of print. It is, however, available in many libraries, and a wise student will not lose the advantage of knowing it.


Made and Printed in Gt. Britain
by H. & E. Jones Printers Limited
Birmingham, 12

An appreciation of William Charles Berwick Sayers (1881-1960) on the centenary of his birth. Sayers was a member of that small but remarkable group of librarians who gave some measure of distinction to the British public library service during the early decades of the present century. Most of his career was spent with Croydon Public Libraries, first as deputy to L. Stanley Jast, and then as Chief Librarian. But his work as a practising librarian, though well above average, and in its day outstanding in the provision of library services for children, was eclipsed by his success as a writer and teacher of librarianship, particularly in the field of library classification.

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