Julian Roberts: British Museum and Bodleian librarian who led his field for half a century

Anyone who had anything to do with books and libraries and their history over the last 60 years was almost certain to have met Julian Roberts.

His professional life was almost equally divided between two libraries, the British Museum Library, where he was an Assistant Keeper from 1958 to 1974, and the Bodleian Library, Oxford, of which he was Keeper of Printed Books from 1974 to 1997 and Deputy Librarian, 1986-97. In both places his responsibilities and interests coincided: he had a natural affinity for old English books, and their custody, cataloguing and acquisition was his daily business. It did not stop at library walls, however, but extended over a wide range of scholarly interests, with friendships with many workers in the same field on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Roberts family were Welsh, the father from Llangollen and mother from Cardiff, but they were living in Ely when their elder son was born. They moved to Pinner soon after, but his education proper started when they moved again, to Harborne, outside Birmingham, from which he won a scholarship to King Edward's School, Birmingham. He was the first of his family to go to university, to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read English under CS Lewis. Always interested in natural history and antiquity, he began to collect modern poetry (his Welsh roots gave him a special affinity for RS Thomas, whose works he had complete). This was a constant in his life, even if that took a different professional direction.

After National Service came the diploma course in Library Studies at London, then his first job, at Lambeth Palace Library. There he found and edited the poems of Cardell Goodman (1608-1654), Rector of Freshwater, Isle of Wight; Beawty in Raggs: or, Divine Phancies Putt into Broken Verse was published in 1958. Lambeth led to the British Museum, where Roberts was interviewed by the late Sir Frank Francis, then Principal Keeper of Printed Books. Francis recognised Roberts as a congenial and reliable coadjutor, and a great deal of day-to day work came his way, more so when Francis, not a natural delegator, became Director and Principal Librarian the following year.

Roberts often deputised for him as Secretary of the Bibliographical Society, and when Francis was elected President in 1964 Roberts succeeded him seamlessly. He met and corresponded with a widening circle of those of the same totem, and he contributed to The Library, its journal, and to The Book Collector.

So life might have continued but for the sequence of events between 1968 and 1973 that led to the divorce of the library departments from the museum and their amalgamation with other government-funded libraries as the British Library. It was not a happy time for those involved, and the invitation to move to Oxford and join congenial colleagues, several of them friends of long standing, was irresistible. He quickly found a place among those who worked with him in the New Bodleian building, and the larger group of those in and outside the library who met regularly in the canteen downstairs. He wore his new authority lightly, serving several Bodley's Librarians well, especially his last, David Vaisey. He had become a Fellow of Wolfson College in 1975, was Vicegerent from 1983-85 and Emeritus from 1997. He was President of the Bibliographical Society from 1986-88.

His scholarly interests were wide, but from 1974 they centred on the enigmatic John Dee, "Queen Elizabeth's astrologer" but also one of the foremost scholars and astronomers of the 16th century, who introduced Euclid into the English language. Dee had a very large library by the standards of the time, by his own estimate 3,000 printed books and 1,000 manuscripts. Roberts was especially interested in Dee's annotations in his books, and his friend and colleague Andrew Watson in Dee's manuscripts. They undertook to edit his surviving 1583 library catalogue at Trinity College, Cambridge. The problems of transcribing this vast document were surmounted by the avant-garde method of reproducing it in facsimile, with a commentary and notes. John Dee's Library Catalogue came out in 1990 to general acclaim.

Early bald, with, indeed, "a noble dome", Roberts was instantly recognisable and a welcome and welcoming figure. Genial as he was, he was not indiscriminate in friendship, but would go to any length to help a friend in need – help that often led far further than those who received it could imagine. Hundreds of other scholars owed as much to it, instantly given and always enduring.

Richard Julian Roberts, librarian: born Cambridge 18 May 1930; Assistant Keeper, British Museum 1958-74; Keeper of Printed Books, Bodleian Library 1974-97, Deputy Librarian 1986-97; Fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford 1975-97 (Emeritus), Vicegerent 1983-85; FSA 1983; President, Bibliographical Society 1986-88; married 1957 Anne Ducé (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 20 October 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?