Sir Edward Bond—the man who transformed the British Museum Library

There aren’t many librarian superstars. Casanova was one, I suppose, but he was better known for his extra-mural activities. Panizzi of the British Museum was possibly another, but a successor, Sir Edward Augustus Bond (1815 -98), was arguably a greater innovator and was certainly more industrious.

Bond proved that if you had natural talent and were hard working and dedicated, you didn’t need a university education to get to the top in the British Museum at least—though this institution was an exception to the general rule that an Oxbridge degree was de rigueur for a career in the world of Victorian scholarship. Bond earned his spurs and his reputation as a gifted palaeographer, especially in Anglo-Saxon, while in the manuscript department of the Museum, which he had joined directly from school at the age of 17 in 1832. Although he ended up as Keeper of the department in 1867, he was expected to remain there until his retirement, so it came as a shock to many with more conventional educational backgrounds when he was chosen for the top job in 1873.

This letter, which is dated 19th January 1882 and was written to Robert Harrison, who may have been a proof reader,  belongs to his fifteen year reign as Principal Librarian, when, among other innovations, he introduced electric light into the Reading Room and storage areas( how amazing that there weren’t more fires in libraries during the eras of candles, gaslight and oil lamps) , built a large extension to house prints, drawings, manuscripts and newspapers, and oversaw the publishing of  the printed catalogue of books. In the letter Bond refers to certain errors (possibly printing errors) that Harrison has pointed out to him and requests that he: so good as to return to me 2 copies of each set of the Printed Accessions delivered to you during the past year, and I will instruct Messrs Clowes & Sons to send you for the future only one set of the Printed Accessions, together with the Printed General catalogue...

Bond retired in 1888, aged 73, and doubtless spent much of the remaining ten years of his life on scholarly projects. His publication legacy is not big—a four volume facsimile of Anglo-Saxon Charters and an edition of the speeches of Warren Hastings were notable—but his greatest gifts to fellow scholars are the innovations that  made the British Museum Library one of the world’s greatest academic collections. [RH]

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