Librarianship and European Literary Romanticism: A Review of an Unending Love Affair

Image from Europe a Prophecy by William Blake

[Reproduction of a print made by William Blake, 1757–1827. From: Europe: A Prophecy, Plate 1, Frontispiece. 1794. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Used by Permission.]

In the mid nineteenth century, Anthony Panizzi's "Rules for the Compilation of the Catalogue" of the British Museum sparked a national controversy, which today seems all out of proportion to the issues at stake. And yet, as Nancy Brault details in her fascinating monograph, The Great Debate on Panizzi's Rules in 1847-1849 (Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles Library, 1972), Panizzi's cataloging rules became a cause célèbre in Britain, engulfing not only the nation's intellectual elites, but also, at a time when the collections of the British Museum had become a tangible symbol of Empire, the broader public at large. The Times printed letter after high-dudgeon letter on the subject, and reported in its august columns the latest developments in the controversy. Panizzi's resignation was demanded. His critics called into question his "Englishness", darkly hinting that Panizzi, an Italian immigrant of inscrutable motives, ought not be trusted with the management of the national library. Between 1836 and 1849, Panizzi was the subject of two major government investigations: the first conducted by the House of Commons, the second by a Royal Commission. A flashpoint in the controversy was Panizzi's second cataloging rule: Titles to be arranged alphabetically [...] under the surname of the author. A vocal opposition rose up, demanding a classified—or classed—catalog, which is to say a catalog organized by subject. Panizzi's defense of his second rule was curiously simple, given the scale of the controversy. He said the catalog should be organized by author because that was the most natural approach by the user.

There is, of course, no natural approach to a library catalog. Like other technologies, a library catalog—be it as low-tech as a manuscript codex, or as high-tech as an electronic database—is elaborately wrought and patently artificial. It functions effectively only insofar as it serves the acculturated expectations of its users. Therefore, if, as Panizzi argued, a catalog organized by author was more natural to library users, then that's because of the way in which library users had come to think about authorship as a cultural category. The stridency of the opposition, however, suggests that whatever cultural work went into producing this new category was far from complete at the time Panizzi published his rules.

Spoiler alert: Panizzi prevailed, and his cataloging code became one of modern librarianship's foundational documents. And yet, after reading Brault's book, one is still left wondering, what was all the fuss about in the first place? Obviously I cannot answer that question, but Panizzi's cataloging rules, and the controversy surrounding those rules, do begin to make a little more sense when viewed in the context of European literary Romanticism.

Although Panizzi did not invent the idea of organizing library catalogs by author, he was critical in making it the de facto standard for large library catalogs. Prior to Panizzi, librarians were organizing their catalogs in almost every conceivable manner, from the helpful (e.g. entries arranged by chronology, entries arranged by subject heading, entries arranged by subject classification), to the almost completely unhelpful (e.g. entries arranged by books' physical sizes, entries arranged by order of books' accessions). Whatever the organizing principle used in the catalog, it commonly reflected the actual arrangement of books on the shelves. By Panizzi's time, the classified catalog was considered, in Britain at least, the gold standard for a library catalog. Since a classified catalog is essentially a subject-based approach to organizing catalog records, the crux of the controversy surrounding Panizzi's second rule was whether subject or author provided superior access to the books in a library collection. When Panizzi asserted that authorship was a book's most natural access point, he made certain assumptions not only about authorship, but also about textual works.

The idea of authorship today seems fairly unproblematic—one is almost tempted to call it natural and obvious. The revised second edition of the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (Chicago: American Library Association, 2002) defines author as the person chiefly responsible for the creation of the intellectual or artistic content of the work. Of critical importance to the modern concept of authorship, as evidenced by this definition, is the idea of creation, originality, or inventiveness. For most of Western history, however, the word author would have implied no such thing as creativity, originality, or inventiveness. In Critical Terms for Literary Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), Donald Pease writes that, at the time of its inception, the word 'author' was used interchangeably with its predecessor term 'auctor,' which did not entail verbal inventiveness, but the reverse—adherence to authority and cultural antecedent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), the word author in today's sense, the person who originates or give existence to anything, would tend to have been reserved for God, because only God could be credited with true, originary power. The word author, therefore, had religious overtones, as did its companion term, auctor: The auctour of matrimonye, that is Crist (OED). Note that the word here denotes the Creator (capital "C" Creator): O autour of nature! (OED). In short, there was one Creator, and human authors were mere interpreters of His world, the "work" of the one and true "Author".

By Panizzi's time, Europeans were reexamining and reconsidering a vast range of cultural categories. In literature, this trend culminated in the Romantic era's cult of the creative genius. Like author, the word genius as we tend to conceive of it today is actually of fairly late development. The first known use of the word in its modern sense, Native intellectual power of an exalted type, does not appear until 1749 (OED), and even then, this meaning was far from universally recognized: Samuel Johnson did not, for example, include it in his Dictionary of the English Language (London: J. and P. Knapton, 1755). In fewer than thirty years, however, this new sense of the word genius appears to have become fully mobilized, because Hugh Blair wrote, in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (London: A. Strahan, 1787) that Genius always imports something inventive or creative (emphasis added)—an astonishingly rapid semantic transformation, and one that sheds light both on Panizzi's decision to organize his catalog by author, but also on the resistance that his decision provoked. Through the catalyst of Romanticism, which was almost always regarded as culturally subversive, even when it was not, the author became so closely identified with his own work that, for Panizzi at least, author represented the most natural approach by the user.

Not surprisingly, this shift in the way people thought about authorship accompanied a shift in the way people thought about the textual objects that were the product of authorship. M.H. Abrams famously identified this shift in his book The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), where he argues that, before Romanticism, a text would have been conceptualized in terms of its relationship to the natural world, a way of thinking about texts which he names the Mimetic critical orientation. In the Mimetic critical tradition, a text is viewed as something that imitates nature; the author does not invent or create anything new, but rather imitates something that already exists in nature. Describing the Mimetic orientation, Abrams writes that the author is the indispensable efficient cause, the agent who, by his skill, extracts the form from natural things and imposes it upon an artificial medium; but his personal faculties, feelings, or desires are not called upon to explain the subject or form of a text. The author might be praised for the skill with which he imitates, describes, explains, or interprets something found in nature, but not for inventiveness or creativity.

From a Mimetic critical orientation, therefore, the crucial bibliographic relationship obtains not between textual work and author, but between textual work and the thing in nature the textual work imitates, which is to say the subject. For somebody accustomed to the Mimetic orientation, subject classification would be the more natural method of arranging a library catalog.

According to Abrams, however, Romanticism changed the way people thought about authors and texts, but this change did not occur quickly or seamlessly: 'Imitation' continued to be a prominent item in the critical vocabulary [...] all the way through the eighteenth century. The word 'imitation' or else one of those parallel terms which, whatever differences they might imply, all faced in the same direction: 'reflection,' 'representation,' 'counterfeiting,' 'feigning,' 'copy,' or 'image'. Before the cultural category of author could be redefined, it first had to be ill-defined, or made problematic. Abrams argues that this period of ambiguity ended sometime in the early nineteenth century, where Abrams locates a radical, even if not decisive, shift to the artist in the alignment of aesthetic thinking, an alignment of thinking that Abrams names the Expressive critical orientation: In the course of time [...] increasing attention was given to the mental constitution of the poet, the quality and degree of his 'genius,' and the play of his faculties in the act of composition [...] A work of art is essentially the internal made external, resulting from a creative process operating under the impulse of feeling, and embodying the combined product of the poet's perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. With the Romantic era, the text came to be seen not as an imitation of nature, but as the unique and completely original product of the author's genius. From an Expressive critical orientation, therefore, the crucial bibliographic relationship obtains between the text and its author, not the text and its subject.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the nineteenth century was a period of increasing interest in book collecting, bibliography, textual authenticity, and textual purity. The great Shakespeare authorship question was launched in 1785, when John Wilmot first argued that Francis Bacon actually wrote the works traditionally attributed to William Shakespeare. That controversy grew more heated into the nineteenth century, as new theories were advanced to explain the authorship of those plays. The nineteenth century also saw a massive increase in the literature of bibliography, and a growing market for high-priced first editions, even modern first editions. First editions assumed an almost totemic importance—as the earliest ancestor in a lineage of printings, it was the physical embodiment of the work, aside from the manuscript, that was closest to the author himself. Veneration of first editions was a manifestation of this new cult of the author. The author of the Romantic era was a far cry from the earlier version of the same, who merely imitated—more or less skillfully—what was already to be found in nature. The author of the Romantic era was a creator in his own right.

The author, especially the literary author, underwent a process of aggrandizement that served to obscure rather than illuminate the relationship between the author and his work. Donald Pease argues that the Romantic cult of genius tended to dehistoricize the author's work: The genius identified the basis for his work with the laws of the Creator. Consequently, the realm of genius was defined as utterly autonomous. Free from determination by any cultural category other than the absolutely free constructions of his creative imagination, the genius broke down the reciprocal relationship between author and the rest of culture. For librarians, this idea that a textual work exists free from determination by any cultural category has been an enabling myth, making possible Seymour Lubetzky's landmark assertion of a distinction between work and book. For Lubetzky, and for just about every librarian since, the work transcended the book, which was merely a physical carrier of the author's intellectual work.

Lubetzky's work/book distinction uncannily echoes Descartes's theory of mind and body. For Descartes, the mind possesses an ethereal quality, which elevates it above the mere bodily. Just as the mind transcends its physical container, the body, so too, after Lubetzky, does the author's intellectual work transcend its physical container, the book. For Descartes, God is the third quantity in the equation, because God creates both mind and body:

Descartes's theory of mind and body schematized

If we substitute the textual work for mind, and the book for body, it requires only one small step to put the author in the position of God.

Lubetzky's theory of work and book schematized

This diagram highlights just how problematic the book becomes: neither its existence—for the author almost never creates the physical book—nor the way in which it might actually shape the work's very meaning, is adequately accounted for. Since Lubetzky, librarians have treated the book as an almost neutral vessel that simply carries the work to the reader, without shaping or altering the work itself.

Outside of librarianship, however, the almost naïve simplicity of Lubetzky's work/book distinction failed to have an enduring influence, especially after the demise of New Criticism in college literature departments. Jerome McGann, in his monograph Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), denounces the old formalism, and posits instead the idea of a "social text", arguing that authority, in a 'social text' approach, lies not with the author, but with the social process of textual production that always predicts, influences, and shapes an author's work. McGann's argument seems key for understanding why modern librarianship is a legacy of European literary Romanticism, because McGann reverses Lubetzky's paradigm. While almost every other discipline that studies textual objects has been steadily moving in the direction of what McGann calls a social text approach, librarianship has not only clung to Lubetzky's work/book distinction, but actually elaborated it in Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (Munich: K.G. Saur, 1998), the document that became the theoretical foundation for the profession's current cataloging code.

The author's intellectual work, as distinct from the book which is its physical embodiment, continues to occupy a privileged place in librarianship, as if it has a prioritized, even an a priori, existence. The book merely instantiates the work, almost as an effect of the work itself. Just as the author causes the work to come into existence, so too does the work cause the book.

Did Romanticism influence Panizzi's cataloging code? I think it likely. His second rule codified the very cultural trend that Abrams later identified, and Panizzi worked on these rules throughout the 1830s, precisely the decade that Abrams singled out as the moment of a truly radical shift toward expressive theories of art. Panizzi was no stranger to contemporary trends in literature, having edited a nine-volume edition of Orlando Furioso (London: W. Pickering, 1830)—see British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005) for more on the significance to the Romantics of Ariosto's epic.

In the cult of the creative genius, we see most clearly how modern librarianship remains, in some respects, a moribund legacy of European literary Romanticism. For librarians, the idea of creation has become so central to the concept of authorship that the most recent cataloging code for the anglophone world, Resource, Description & Access (Chicago: American Library Association, 2013), scraps the word author altogether, substituting instead creator, which essentially intensifies, even reifies, the centrality of original creation in the concept of authorship. Thus, in a way, RDA represents the final usurpation of God by the Romantic Author.