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

Nicolas Barker
Saturday 27 November 2010 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


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.

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