Amassing Treasures for All Times: Sir George Grey, Colonial Bookman and Collector by Donald Jackson Kerr
|Reviewed By:||Leigh Dale|
|Reviewed in:||Australian Journal of Politics and History|
|Date accepted online:||14/01/2008|
|Published in print:||Volume 53, Issue 03, Pages 465-504|
Sir George Grey (1812-1898) has been regarded as one of the giants of British imperial administration. On leaving Cape Town in 1861 he gifted more than 5,000 works to the city, effectively founding the South African Public Library; in a later, even more staggering act of generosity he donated around 15,000 works to the Auckland Public Library in 1887. If these are Grey's most unambiguously positive legacies, they have nevertheless attracted criticism: his adopted niece felt that "Someone else might just as well of have had the value of [the library] - the people here do not, & never can be educated up to it. Those who can afford to interest themselves in these sort of things, would not live in Auckland" (p. 251).
Writers on Grey have long been divided between those who take him at face value as the great purveyor of a benign civilisation, and those who don't. Donald Jackson Kerr, who worked with the Grey collection in what is now the Auckland Central City Library for fourteen years, sees in these actions proof of the governor's true nature. His self-described "bio-bibliography" of Grey's libraries examines marked sale catalogues, correspondence between Grey and booksellers, and library holdings - materials on which it makes sense to take Grey at his word - to establish the provenance of Grey's books, and to analyse his patterns of selection. Kerr argues there is continuity between Grey's earliest purchases and both his later collections, whilst also showing that Grey's collecting was of two quite different kinds.
Grey bought many rare early printed works and manuscripts by classical European and great English authors, as well as dozens of translations of the Bible. Working within what Kerr describes as an English collecting tradition, he spent significant sums on items from the catalogues of renowned London booksellers and others. More rarely and more importantly - although this is perhaps not Kerr's view - Grey became an obsessive collector of works published in the Indigenous languages of southern Africa and the Pacific. Both patterns of acquisition depended on carefully cultivated and maintained networks of suppliers (and, in the case of Indigenous works, authors and publishers). Kerr does not bring into dialogue his evidence about the strength of Grey's belief that all should share in the riches of European Christianity, and his view that the languages of Indigenous peoples were, inevitably, disappearing: one set of books was to be a treasury for living, the other a curious memorial.
Those interested in the circulation of books as objects will be mesmerised by the sheer scale and energy of Grey's collecting, as well as by the details Kerr offers on several thousand individual purchases. That the index lists very few of these books is perhaps a disappointment, although this would have been a massive task and there are published catalogues to both collections. Production and presentation are of high quality, although editing could and should have stripped the Introduction (in particular) of repetition. Following the main text there are colour plates of images from books in the Grey collections, a small set of letters, and Grey's well-known paean, "Old Books". These are lighter touches in a volume that might in the end be regarded as a more significant contribution to histories of the book than to Grey studies