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The First Complete Catalogue of the British Museum Library Following Panizzi's Rules (1881 – 1905)


The Catalogue of Printed Books in the Library of the British Museum  was published in 393 parts from 1881-1900, followed by a Supplement in 44 parts published from 1900-05. Various other supplements were later published. This was the first iteration of the complete British Museum catalogue implementing Antonio Panizzi's 91 Rules, promulgated in 1841, for standardizing the cataloguing of printed books. 

"The General Catalogue is, by common consent, a research tool of undisputed importance for historians of European civilisation from the invention of printing to the present day. Its utility and the universal esteem in which it is held derive from two principal factors: the richness of the collections it seeks to describe, and the principles underying the methods of that description. Unlike most library catalogues which provide access to collections via the main entry-points of author title, the General Catalogue has, from the beginning, sought rather to incorporate the best traditions of German analytic cataloguing into the general framework of an author catalogue. The logic of its structure is derived from thesaural rather than lexical principles. Generations of scholars have testified to the benefits for research which its rich contextual organisation make possible. The juxtaposition of related materials, frequently arranged in a chronological rather than merely alphabetic sequence (in recognition of the scholar's needs), is a feature designed to encourage a systematic and exploratory response from the user. Thus, the search for a specific item (especially if that item was published anonymously) can yield a rich and perhaps unsuspected harvest of related items, and opportunities for discovery are further multiplied by the elaborate system of cross-references between authors and headings. The format of the catalogue was itself devised to encourage the user to explore sequences of entries rather than to focus upon the individual entry. It is as though Panizzi conceived of books as members of a vast related community and obligingly sought to demonstrate their relationship within the constraints of a library catalogue. For certain kinds of anonymous publication, Panizzi's rules were designed to allow a subject approach, based on the wording of the title page. But within such headings the sequences are where possible based on historical principles. Such familiar collective headings as:- ENGLAND, FRANCE, AMERICA; LONDON, ROME, PARIS; BIBLE, LITURGIES; GEORGE III, LOUIS XIV, PIUS IX, PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS- represent the imposition of an historically understood order upon a considerable body of heterogeneous publications. For the user in search of a specific anonymous title the catalogue's disposition to arrange items in an historical context (derived from a significant element within the title) can be frustrating if only the first few words of the title are known, or if the cataloguing principles for choice of heading are imprefectly understood. But the alternative, now widely regarded as standard, procedure of entering anonymous titles under first word, while facilitating access to individual works (the title-index to ENGLAND is undoubtedly invaluable) distributes irrecoverably related items frequently crucial to the user's requirements. It is clear that for the collections of a major research library multiple access is desirable, but for a machine-readble catalogue such as ESTC the search possibilities provided by the computer fortunately make these problems less acute" (Alston & Jannetta, Bibliography, Machine-Readable Cataloguing and the ESTC [1978] 20).

McCrimmon, Power, Politics, and Print. The Publication of the British Museum Catalogue 1881-1900 (1981).

(This entry was last revised on 08-23-2014.)