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Panizzi's 91 Rules for Standardizing the Cataloguing of Books


In 1841 Antonio Panizzi, Keeper of the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum (now the British Library), issued 91 Rules for Compilation of the Catalogue. These rules represented the first rigorous and thorough attempt to standardize cataloguing of printed books. In the promulgation of these rules Panizzi was assisted by four coadjutors: Edward Edwards, John Humffreys Parry, John Winter Jones, and Thomas Watts. The rules appeared in the Catalogue of Printed Books in the British Museum, Volume 1, pp. v-ix, published in 1841. Remarkably only this single volume, covering the letter A, was published under Panizzi's direction. Though Panizzi supervised compilation of the full catalogue of the British Museum library in manuscript, the full catalogue did not begin to appear in print until 1881, two years after Panizzi's death. 

Along with publication of his 91 Rules, Panizzi had his new discipline of cataloguing applied in the first volume, which consisted of 457 two-column pages in small folio. Various of Panizzi's rules reflect social attitudes of the day. For example:

"V. Works of Jewish Rabbis, as well as works of Oriental writers in general, to be entered under their first name."

Concerning the rules and the catalogue Panizzi wrote in his preface to the first volume:

"The rules on which this Catalogue is based were sanctioned by the Trustees on the 13th of July, 1839; and, with the exception of such modifications as have been found necessary in order to accelerate the progress of the work, they have been strictly adhered to. Some additional rules, the want of which was not foreseen at the commencement, are printed in italics.

"The application of the rules was left by the Trustees to the discretion of the Editor, subject to the condition that a Catalogue of the printed books in the library up to the close of the year 1838 be completed within the year 1844. With a view to the fulfillment of this undertaking it was deemed indispensable that the Catalogue should should be put to press as soon as any portion of the manuscript could be prepared; consequently the early volumes must present omissions and inaccuracies, which it is hoped, will diminish in number as the work proceeds.

"In giving to the world the first volume of a Catalogue, which promises to be of an unprecedented extent, the Editor thinks that it would be premature to name each gentleman in his department to whose zeal and talents he is indebted for much that will add to its usefulness. He looks forward to a continuation of the same assistance; and he, therefore, reserves till after the conlusion of the work the particular expression of his obligations.

"British Museum, July 15th, 1841

"A. Panizzi"

From his comments above we may assume that Panizzi may have originally intended to issue a complete printed catalogue within the time frame set by the Trustees. However, he must have felt that the first volume of the catalogue was "rushed" into print in order to meet the Trustees' deadline of a complete catalogue being issued by the end of 1844. That no further volumes of the printed catalogue appeared in print until 40 years later, beginning two years after his death, was in no small part due to Panizzi's own objections to the huge cost of printing versus what he perceived as relatively small utility, and rapid obsolescence of printed catalogues, requiring frequent supplements. Having only a manuscript catalogue meant, of course, that the catalogue could only be consulted by users of the reading room. It also meant uneven legibility depending upon the quality of handwriting of whoever entered the data. It also meant that making a duplicate copy of a large printed catalogue would be very costly and might incorporate scribal errors. Having a printed catalogue would, of course be more legible, and having more than one copy available would allow more than one user to search the same portions at a time. Having the printed catalogue available at other research libraries would allow users in other cities and countries to know the holdings of the British Museum. Clearly this would stimulate scholarship. But to Panizzi and other librarians accustomed to working with manuscript catalogues these aspects did not seem convincing at the time. In his Memoirs of Libraries, Vol. II (1859) librarian and historian of libraries Edward Edwards devoted a chapter (pp. 850-868) of his section on library economy to the question of whether to print or not to print library catalogues because this was a topic currently in active discussion. Edwards clearly believed that the act of preparing a manuscript catalogue for the press would improve cataloguing, and that printed catalogues were superior to manuscript.  But the wheels of progress seem to have turned slowly in the catalogue department of the British Museum and in other national libraries, including the Bibliothèque nationale de France where the printed author catalogue did not begin to appear until 1897

The dramatic improvements in cataloguing resulting from Panizzi's new rules are evident if we compare the new catalogue entries with those in the prior British Museum catalogue compiled in Latin under the editorship of Henry Baber and Henry Ellis: Librorum impressorum qui in Museo britannico adservantur catalogue (7 vols. in 8, London, 1813-19). In August 2014 a digital facsimile of the first volume A-B was available from the Hathi Trust Digital Library at this link. Among the limitations of the Baber & Ellis cataloguing format, based on 16 rules loosely drawn up by Ellis, were sporadic cross-referencing and the cataloguing of anonymous works under a single title word arbitarily chosen by the individual cataloguer. For a discussion of the eventual advantages to scholarly research resulting from Panizzi's rules see my entry for the printed catalogue (1881-1900).

In spite of the eventual advantages to scholarship that would be gained by more sophisticated and standardized cataloguing, critics such as Nicolas Harris, decried the excess time and effort involved in these reforms. In 1846 Harris, who became one of Panizzi's most vocal critics, published Animadversions on the Library and Catalogues of the British Museum: A Reply to Mr. Panizzi's Statement; and a Correspondence with that Officer and the Trustees.

(This entry was last revised on 08-25-2014.)

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