“Revisiting Cataloging in Medieval Libraries”

Beth M. Russell’s succinct but compelling article offers an interesting look at the diverse catalogs of medieval libraries. Throughout the piece, Russell uses a variety of examples to argue that cataloging is not an entirely modern development, nor is it a field which has developed dramatically in complexity over time. Rather, many medieval library catalogers faced similar problems as modern catalogers do today, trying to facilitate local needs for access while still maintaining order. Despite the fact that many ancient catalogs have not been preserved or recorded, Russell uses small indications and synthesis of sources to follow the thought processes and values of the sometimes highly idiosyncratic medieval catalogers. Some of these catalogers used the simplest of possibilities, the inventory catalog, essentially a list of holdings. Russell insists that these were not primitive proto-catalogs, but rather a very basic way of keeping track of things. Another of the most basic of sorting methods mentioned is that of physical separation – illustrated by a monastery keeping the books used in services in a different place from the rest of the collection. Sometimes basic location descriptions (what chest a book was in or where it was on the shelf) were employed. Interestingly, Russell speculates that chained books were added to these location listings not just to guard against theft, but also the make sure that the community could access them. In addition to location, some catalogs included physical descriptions. These could be fairly useless, if entertaining (one book is recorded as “big and pretty,” a description I can fully sympathize with), but some were quite rigorous, providing not only the size but also the current condition of the volume.   The article touches also upon a very rare example of a union list, comprising a fair number of monastically held books listed by title. medieval example. Russell also brushes past the tradition idea of medieval organization around the seven subjects of study, noting that such a set up would have been inadequate for the larger libraries of the time. She shows how during medieval times libraries began to organize alphabetically, by author, and by subject, sometimes based on which attribute was most known or sought by the patrons of the library. She concludes the article with a discussion of the difficulties brought to catalogers by composite books, showing that the techniques of medieval catalogers in dealing with this issue were as sophisticated and adhered to their users’ needs as those of today.

Although Russell’s transtions are sometimes rough, jumping disjointedly from one thought to the next with little logical sequence, her article overall is highly insightful and interesting. Of especial value is her ability to offer challenging alternative views drawn from evidence traditionally interpreted one way.