This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced version of a review published in Medium Ævum 86, no. 2 (2017): 365–366.
This book, the fruit of nearly twenty years’ work, represents the zenith of the printed manuscripts catalogue. Before its publication, the most recent guide to the manuscripts of the Queen’s College had been the survey of college libraries by Henry Coxe (Catalogus codicum mss. qui in collegiis aulisque Oxoniensibus hodie adservantur, 1852). Kidd shows for the first time what treasures lie in this collection.
The descriptions are a joy to read, picking out not only the contents of these manuscripts but also their significance, with particularly brilliant attention to provenance. The entries follow the informal conventions developed in other catalogues of English college and cathedral libraries published in recent decades. An introduction summarizes the collection’s history and sources, noting clues to former incarnations of the Queen’s College library. More than a reference tool, this catalogue is worth reading cover-to-cover.
Most crucially, photographs are provided showing selections from the handwriting, decoration, and sometimes binding of every manuscript, providing both black-and-white plates within the text and an ample selection of colour at the back. This should be a mandatory feature of any catalogue. This allows the reader to confirm the cataloguer’s suppositions of palaeographical dating; it frees up the cataloguer from needing to describe more than the distinguishing features of a script; and it gives researchers the opportunity to look through a book to see whether there are any interesting hands or forms of decoration with which they might be familiar. Without images, a catalogue is little more than a printout of research data; but with images, it becomes a true discovery and teaching tool.
In a time when most academic books are both tawdry and far too expensive for anyone but research libraries to purchase, this book is a refreshing change. It is beautifully produced, and provided as part of the annual £20 subscription to the Oxford Bibliographical Society. The author’s approach to creating the book was also innovative: recognizing that we are reaching the point at which it is nearly impossible for one person to survey such a wide collection of manuscripts with precision, the descriptions were made available on the college website prior to the catalogue’s publication, with a public invitation for corrections.
By its nature as a gateway to new research, any printed catalogue will inevitably start to become out of date as soon as it is published, and new editions are rare. We cannot afford to repeat the situation of Coxe’s catalogue, in which a single book stands as the only guide to a collection for well over a century and a half (and has yet to be replaced for some other colleges). The college website indicates that the raw data underlying the catalogue will be released in the future in a searchable form. Many libraries are now releasing their manuscripts data as public domain or under an open licence, which allows integration with union catalogues and incipitaria, and enables connections with other collections. Readers of this book have the best of all worlds: a truly beautiful artefact to guide discovery, and data that is truly published, in the sense its Latin root in ‘made public’, and not merely commercialized.