H. G. Whitehead

Devoted British Museum librarian
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The Independent Online

Harold George Whitehead, librarian and Hispanist: born Bradford, Yorkshire 5 July 1918; married 1954 Mary Pidduck (died 1989; one son, two daughters); died Sevenoaks, Kent 2 April 2005.

H.G. Whitehead was a most valuable and devoted member of the staff of the Department of Printed Books of the British Museum - from 1973 of the British Library - who was in charge of its Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American collections for 35 years.

Born in Bradford in 1918 (but connected with Wales on his mother's side) Harold Whitehead was educated at Belle Vue School there, and went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to read Modern Languages. In 1939, after two years at university, he joined an infantry regiment and was later transferred to the Intelligence Corps. He took part in the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and then served with Canadian troops as they moved north through Italy.

He was demobilised with the rank of captain, returned to Cambridge to complete his course, and in July 1946 joined the staff of the Department of Printed Books. After initial training in cataloguing he worked on the Subject Index, and was promoted Assistant Keeper, First Class, in 1948.

He became the selector of material from Spain, Portugal and Latin America. He developed these collections considerably, making numerous overseas visits in order to find new sources of supply and building up a remarkable body of agents. In 1964 he travelled 19,000 miles to visit Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. He also included Welsh among his responsibilities.

Whitehead, further, supervised the cataloguing of the material that he acquired. In 1954 he was put in charge of the Newspaper Library at Colindale and spent part of each week on this task until 1959. Then in 1966 he was given the responsible post of Placer; this involved determining where new accessions should be placed in the bookstacks (the arrangement at that period was by broad subject area) and planning the accommodation of the collections generally.

After a reorganisation in 1975 he was able to devote all his time to strengthening the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian collections which were his great interest. International politics impinged on the workings of the Hispanic Section in 1982 when, during the Falklands War, a consignment of purely academic Argentinian publications was detained at Dover under suspicion of being of intelligence value.

Whitehead organised a number of exhibitions, including one on Lope de Vega on the fourth centenary of his birth in 1962, and another illustrating the riches of the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American collections as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the British Museum in 1953. He contributed articles on Hispanic bibliography to the British Museum Quarterly and, between 1980 and 1984, articles to British Library Journal on the notable 18th-century Spanish printers Joaquín Ibarra, Antonio de Sancha and Benito Monfort.

The British Museum Library had begun the tradition of issuing short-title catalogues of its collections in particular languages in 1921, with Sir Henry Thomas's catalogue of books in Spanish printed before 1601. Whitehead's initial intention on his retirement in 1983 was to redo the catalogue of 17th-century Spanish books which had appeared in 1974. This was not an official BM publication, and was much criticised. Whitehead instead turned his attention to compiling a successor catalogue rather than a rival, and produced the Short-Title Catalogue of Eighteenth-Century Spanish Books in the British Library, a task that entailed reading the entire British Library catalogue.

Whitehead's researches allowed him to refine the dating and identify the printers of a number of works. The catalogue was published by the library in three volumes in 1994. In accordance with library custom, Whitehead's name as compiler did not appear on the title page, and his responsibility for its contents was stated only in the Preface and Introduction. Certain minor publications, principally some 300 items of popular printing in Spanish and Catalan, had been omitted from this catalogue, a lack remedied in his Catalogue of Eighteenth-Century Spanish Chapbooks in the British Library, which appeared in 1997.

The death of his wife, Mary, in 1989 was a devastating blow but his three children and their families were a great consolation. His first catalogue was dedicated to her memory, and his second to them.

P. R. Harris