J. S. G. Simmons

Bibliographer and Slavonic scholar
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The Independent Online

J. S. G. Simmons was for many years an animating spirit in the worlds of bibliography and of Slavonic studies. He was in his heyday almost the only, and undoubtedly a very effective, channel of communication between British bibliographers and their estranged brethren behind the Iron Curtain.

He was a Birmingham boy, born John Simon Gabriel Simmons in 1915 and educated at King Edward's School, who at the age of 17 became a Student Librarian at Birmingham University Library, while studying for an honours degree in Russian and Spanish. He intended to carry out doctoral work on the early history of Russian printing, but his 11 years on the library staff were interrupted by army service, and in 1949 he moved to Oxford to take charge of the university's Russian and Slavonic acquisitions at the Taylor Institution library and the Bodleian. His Birmingham experience remained important to him, and he was very pleased in 1987 to be awarded an honorary doctorate by his first university, 50 years after taking his BA there.

Oxford secured his devotion. He became learned in university history and tradition, and from the Taylorian, where his post involved teaching as well as curatorship, he produced a stream of articles and reviews, among them a valuable series that drew attention to little-known collections of Slavica in British libraries. He was promoted in 1965 to be Reader in Russian and Slavonic Bibliography.

Printing history and the study of paper manufacture and watermarks also engaged his interest. From 1954 to 1960 he was Printer's Librarian at the University Press, and he contributed to Stanley Morison's great folio John Fell, the University Press and the "Fell" Types (1967). His work on the history of papermaking resulted in several articles and a translation for the Paper Publications Society (an international body which he served as General Editor) of the standard history of Russian paper mills. Finally, after many years of work, his substantially revised and updated translation of N.P. Likhachev's influential but very rare work on Russian watermarks, Likhachev's Watermarks, was published in two volumes in Amsterdam in 1994.

Until retiring in 1982 he was one of the most regular of contributors to the quarterly journal The Book Collector, becoming its editor's hot line to Moscow, and he wrote for it on collections of early European books in Russian libraries as well as on Slavonic themes. He had a widespread network of Russian correspondents, and kept in touch with many of them by privately printed Christmas cards on ailurophilic themes (for cats gave him great pleasure). His friends willingly assisted his researches in the knowledge that their assistance would be fully reciprocated by all manner of learned kindnesses. "Yours adjuvantly" was one of his favourite salutations in an extensive correspondence carried out using an electric typewriter, which in those pre-computer days he employed with much compositorial ingenuity.

All Souls elected him to a fellowship in 1965, and in 1970 he became Librarian of the college, taking charge of the elegant long room of the Codrington Library and its important collections in law and history. On retiring in 1982 (the year he published The Librarian as Exhibitionist: a keepsake to mark the occasion of an exhibition of keepsakes to mark other occasions) he served for some years as "Deputy Archivist", to finish off work on the college's uncatalogued muniments. He became a guardian of the college's memory, mounting special exhibitions, compiling a list of fellows since the foundation, and adding to his knowledge of the history of the fabric. He was a helpful presence about the college, not least to the annual contingent of distinguished academic visitors, for whom he proved a valuable guide to the complexities of the Oxford library system.

Simmons was a bountiful supplier of information that he felt would be of particular interest to individual scholars. He had a firm conviction that "the mere intermediary, informant, and bibliographical recorder has an important part to play in the process whereby learning advances", and knew that the process had an essentially scholarly nature. He even devised a special tie (in Oxford blue) which he gave to over 200 friends who were deemed to share this belief: the four interlocking silver Cs stood for "Conserve, Consider, Contribute, Co-operate". Simmons himself was a leading practitioner of each of these "four categoricals", and an encourager of others, in the world of Slavonic studies - and beyond.

He disliked Festschrifts, regarding them as "mass-graves in which the trivial and vital are equal made in common oblivion". With his 60th birthday approaching his friends threatened him with such a volume. He was quick to take pre-emptive action by compiling his "autobibliography", not indeed out of self-regard but because he felt that the 200 copies he distributed might be useful to others. A decade later a supplement was needed, and yet another in 1995.

With his brisk manner and neatly trimmed grey moustache, latterly white, there was something of the military in his bearing. He was a notably small man, and far from ashamed to be so. When a new Bodley's Librarian was appointed, Simmons expressed himself eager to meet him. "He'll say to me, 'I'm Fifoot' ", and I can then reply, "I'm Fifoot two.' " He had a fund of anecdotes, and some good puns, saying for example that he would like to see a kerb around the Hawksmoor quadrangle lawn, inscribed "circumgresse" - or "step around".

There was abundant good-humour, which did not seem excessive when his underlying commitment to the advancement of learning was so readily apparent. Simmons was companionable to the elderly, a good friend in their time of the senior Johnsonian scholar L.F .Powell and a helpmeet of the Evelyn and Locke scholar Esmond de Beer. He helped John Sparrow to sort out his extensive library after his retirement from the wardenship of All Souls. He was as generous and helpful to the next generation, seeing that groups of books from his own working library went to appropriate owners after he in his turn retired and moved to a small flat. And he was encouraging to the young, whether they were the coming generation of library professionals or the novice book collectors he encountered at the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles. Above all, however, he enjoyed a devoted domestic life with his wife, Fanny, who shared many of his interests. After her death in 1999 he was heard to remark, "Well, there's so much still to do."

And he did it, adjuvantly as ever, even into his 10th decade.

Alan Bell