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A Shelving Problem

March 10, 2012

Romance of the Middle AgesChristina writes: A recent addition to our library, The Romance of the Middle Ages by Nicholas Perkins and Alison Wiggins, published in conjunction with the current exhibition at the Bodleian Library, presented me with the problem of deciding which of the designated sub-divisions of our collections was the most appropriate in which to shelve it. A blurb on the back cover by Helen Cooper, the current occupant of the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge (once occupied by C.S. Lewis), helps to explain the difficulty: ‘This book’, she wrote, ‘is at once an informative and lively introduction to all aspects of romance – medieval and modern, its writers and readers, in manuscript and print – and a treasure-trove of some of the Bodleian’s visually most remarkable holdings.’

The volume reproduces (fig. 76) a draft manuscript page by Tolkien, with a drawing of Shelob’s lair, for The Lord of the Rings, but as this has been reproduced several times before, I decided that The Romance of the Middle Ages would not be shelved in our Tolkien collection. Had it been the first publication of the page, it would have fallen within a continuation of Section E of Wayne’s Descriptive Bibliography of Tolkien and its shelf location would have been clear, since our Tolkien collection takes priority over all others.

Chapter 6 of the Bodleian book, ‘Romance in the Modern World’, views some kinds of modern fantasy as successors to medieval romance, hence its references to Tolkien. In addition to the draft Lord of the Rings page, it also illustrates a printed page of the 1925 edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, with manuscript notes by C.S. Lewis; but although this is interesting, I felt that it wasn’t enough to persuade me to shelve this book with our C.S. Lewis collection. Nor did a reproduction of the well-known upper cover of the Puffin edition of Lewis’s Prince Caspian with an illustration by Pauline Baynes incline me to place the book with our Baynes collection. (In most instances, our Pauline Baynes collection cedes priority only to our Tolkien library. If we have only one copy of a book relevant to both, it goes with Tolkien; otherwise, Baynes takes precedence, and thus all of our Narnia books are shelved with Baynes, not Lewis.)

The discussion of romances in earlier chapters of the Bodleian volume is profusely illustrated by scenes of events in the stories, mainly depicted in illuminated manuscripts (including two from the only surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). This being so, I could shelve the book with others that we have devoted to illuminated manuscripts. And yet, it also illustrates scenes in ivory, wood, enamel, and so forth, which suggests placement with our more general collection on medieval art – but again, that’s not quite right, for the book also reproduces post-medieval works, and is primarily concerned with the content of the illustrations, not with the illustrations themselves as works of art. Furthermore, two of the illuminations reproduced are from Persian manuscripts with their own romance versions of the story of Alexander, and thus are concerned with Islamic rather than European art, which is another collection yet again.

The Romance of the Middle Ages also pays attention to the writing, adaptation, production, and circulation of romances through the centuries, to those who commissioned the great illuminated manuscripts or who assembled collections, or who just enjoyed reading them or hearing them read aloud. This suggests another possible shelf location, with a collection on the history of the book which lives in Wayne’s studio, close at hand for a bibliographer’s work.

Romances may survive individually, but often also in collections. The popularity of an individual romance may be indicated by the number of copies that survive, though much depends on chance. Romances could be, as Perkins and Wiggins state, ‘partly or wholly subordinated to hagiographical themes, moral topics and a religious mood and tone’ (p. 76), and some the collections are very diverse, binding romances together with devotional texts and saints’ lives. The authors describe a compilation of five romances (including Sir Orfeo), plus thirty-eight other texts mainly of moral and spiritual instruction, all copied by hand by one John Rate, apparently as ‘a guidebook on how to live a pious and moral life within the framework of the family, such as could be read by or to the various members of his household’ (p. 78). This has tentative connections with the rather miscellaneous collection of items in the social history subsection of our collection of books devoted to ancient, medieval, and early renaissance history (with only a minimal extension into later periods), but I discarded this solution almost as soon as it occurred to me.

Having considered all of those possibilities, since the main emphasis of The Romance of the Middle Ages  is on the content of earlier romances and the stories they tell, I eventually decided that the best fit would be with medieval and Renaissance literature. It is not a perfect fit, because of the significant amount of artwork reproduced and the closing section on more modern literature. Also, most of the books in that section of our library contain texts or translations of texts with comment confined to introductions and notes, whereas The Romance of the Middle Ages has commentary with brief quotations, and reproductions from contemporary manuscripts. In some ways, it would fit better with our Arthurian collection, which includes a subsection of books on Arthurian literature, but the coverage of the volume is much wider, and Arthurian texts aren’t predominant.

The shelving of a book is never an idle question. Although we keep lists of the books we own, these are arranged by author, not by subject; instead, we count on finding each book by placing it in its most appropriate section, and then according to whatever shelf arrangement seems appropriate to the section, alphabetical and/or thematic. Generally we have no difficulty finding a book on our shelves, but sometimes it can take a little effort – not so much, however, that it would be worth adding a ‘call number’ component to our lists, which at this point would be an enormous amount of work.

Both the British Library and the Library of Congress, incidentally, also decided that The Romance of the Middle Ages should be shelved with books on medieval literary history.

Image: The upper cover of The Romance of the Middle Ages, a detail from Bodleian Library MS Bodl. 264, a collection of Alexander texts.

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5 Comments
  1. John Vawter permalink
    March 10, 2012 7:00 pm

    “You guys line up alphabetically by height, and you guys pair up in groups of three, then line up in a circle.” – Bill Peterson, Florida State football coach

    I take the first part to heart. Since my bookcases have adjustable shelves I store books by height (folios together, paperbacks likewise) so I can squeeze more shelves into fewer units. Each shelf in turn is alphabetical by author. But if I had as many items as you do my system would quickly fall apart without computer tracking.

    Drifting a bit OT…looking at the pic of your Tolkien shelves a few posts back I spotted multiple copies of the red leather, single volume LOTR that eluded me all through the 80s and 90s. When I located a copy, I didn’t have the cash; when I had the cash, I waited for a backordered copy for literally years. It took the advent of eBay to finally get a copy, and in my estimation it’s still the most physically appealing of the printings. Which brings me to my question. Since this copy is too precious to me to be my reading copy, I have an Alan Lee 1991 volume that I’ve shamelessly battered to bits in my yearly readings, and it’s due for retirement. Given that you two have probably every printing known to man at your disposal, which edition do you use for your reading copies, and is there a reason for choosing a particular edition?

    • March 11, 2012 5:19 pm

      John, we also shelve by height as well as by category. That adds a complication, but as you say in other words, it’s necessary to maximize space.

      We’ve had different reading copies of The Lord of the Rings over the years; but it’s been a while since either of us has read it for pleasure, so we would have to think about which edition we would want to use for that purpose, and where we would be doing the reading. If read at a table, we would probably opt for a one-volume hardcover which would open flat and not have to be weighted to stay open; but for reading in bed, we might choose the new, lighter three-volume paperback from HarperCollins. Since 2004, our working (rather than reading) edition has been the Houghton Mifflin deluxe one-volume 50th anniversary edition, which we edited, and because we edited it, we received extra copies; and we’ve found that it holds up very well to a lot of use (it was our reference text for our Reader’s Companion and Companion and Guide). But if you were to choose a one-volume edition (or some other edition) for yourself, a later printing would include the expanded index: see our comparison in an earlier post.

      • John Vawter permalink
        March 13, 2012 4:56 pm

        Thanks Wayne, Christina & Geordie! I’ve decided on the HMCo. Deluxe 50th single volume, since W&C report that it’s durable. I guess I can’t complain about the Alan Lee 1991 enduring 20 years of abuse, and surviving the Northridge and Landers earthquakes, each time crashing to the floor. The new one probably won’t need to last as long, since *I* probably won’t last that long. :-)

  2. geordie permalink
    March 11, 2012 6:11 am

    Wayne and Christina – thanks, as ever, for a well-written and illuminating piece. Me and mrs.g. went to the exhibition last month, and it is fabulous – literally! The illuminated pages glitter like jewels in the half-light of the exhibition room, esp. the page used for the cover illustration. Two of the highlights for me – the unique Gawain manuscript, and Burne-Jones’ personal copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer, with its cover by the Dove bindery – made my jaw drop.

    The Oriental pictures reminded me of Pauline Baynes’ colour illustrations in my copy of Amabel Williams-Ellis’ edition of ‘The Arabian Knights, rather than the other way round.

    Tolkien’s LotR manuscript page is a joy to see, as ever; and we had a laugh at Terry Jones’ Monty Python script – and the rather peeved letter from someone at the Board of Film Censors, with their latest list of objections.

    When it comes to organizaton of books – I tend to sort by height, too. I have sections for Anglo-Saxon related books, and that sort of thing – but sometimes it can take me ages to find the book I want. I am not assiduous, nor orderly, as Tolkien says of Bilbo (though he was referring to Bilbo’s skills as a narrator, not a librarian).

    If I might offer my own answer to John’s question above – hi, John – I have several dozen copies of both LotR and TH, but I don’t have a specific reading copy of any of my Tolkien books. I have a boring job at a workbech in a factory, and we’re allowed to listen to tapes and cds, so I intersperse LotR and Tales from the Perilous Realm etc. with other favourites, including Tony Hancock. I also have Terry Jones’ readings of Tolkien’s translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo on tape. Terry came to our town a few years back, as part of a tour promoting one of his books. Me and mrs g. went to his talk at our Town Hall, and I got him to sign my tape covers.

    If I need to look something up in any of my Tolkien books I grab the nearest copy to hand, but for extended periods of reading I prefer one of my large-print editions of LotR (I have two). And large-print eds. of TH and The Children of Hurin too, for some reason. I don’t think they did other titles; odd that.

  3. March 12, 2012 10:58 pm

    “…our Tolkien collection takes priority over all others.”

    I love it! The Inklings shelves are also preeminent in my own library!

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