Obituary: Professor J. D. Pearson

B. C. Bloomfield
Friday 08 August 1997 23:02

J. D. Pearson was the most influential librarian in Oriental and African studies ever known in Britain. When he was appointed to the library of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies in 1950, the library had 17 staff members and a stock of 100,000 volumes; when he gave up the librarianship 22 years later the staff stood at 40, the stock at some 500,000 items, and it was the most important library of its kind in Europe.

James Douglas Pearson was born in 1911 and educated at Cambridge County High School for Boys. He left school at the age of 16 with, as he himself termed it, "undistinguished attainments" and secured a post as a book-fetcher, or "library boy" in the Cambridge University Library.

Inspired by the example of the librarian, A.F. Schofield, he developed a passion for languages that became a byword among his contemporaries in the library. "A scholarship was then found for me at St John's College," he recalled, "and there, and later at Pembroke College . . . I was able to indulge an addiction to Oriental languages for six years." The scholarship was for Hebrew and his studies lasted from 1932 to 1936, when he returned to the University Library as an Assistant in the Oriental Section.

Called up for military service in 1941 as a signaller, he was later transferred to the Field Security section of the Intelligence Corps and served in Germany at the end of the war. Demobilised from the Army on the last day of 1945 he returned to Cambridge University Library as an Assistant Under-Librarian.

His first marriage was dissolved and he later married Hilda Wilkinson, who was to assist fully with his bibliographical work. The demands of a growing family (he had four sons) meant that, when in 1950 he was offered the post of Librarian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, he accepted even though it meant leaving Cambridge.

At SOAS the library was only just being re-assembled after its wartime dispersal, and was housed in numerous different stores throughout various buildings; the staff was small, and the book-buying budget tiny. Pearson applied himself with energy to promoting the library's cause in the councils of SOAS and to securing increased staff and money to buy books. Academics going on study leave in Africa or Asia were supplied with lists of wanted titles and money to make local purchases. Gradually, in spite of accommodation problems, the library became better equipped to serve the teaching and research needs of the school.

Major expansion came with the appointment of a new Director, Sir Cyril Philips, in 1957. Philips appreciated the need for a strong library to underpin the special studies undertaken by SOAS, and encouraged Pearson to expand the library and its staff. He secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support SOAS and among the projects was a series of country- wide surveys of manuscripts relating to Asia and Africa. These surveys were supervised by Pearson and carried out by Doreen Wainwright and Noel Mathews and published by Oxford University Press.

Meanwhile Pearson had already begun his work on Oriental manuscripts with Oriental Manuscript Collections in the Libraries of Great Britain and Ireland (1954), followed later by Oriental Manuscripts in Europe and North America: a survey (1971). But his principal work, Index-Islamicus, 1906-1955 (1958), is a catalogue of periodical articles on Islamic subjects, continued in succeeding cumulations and quarterly issues, and regularly cited as "Pearson".

He was responsible for initiating the first listings of higher degrees in African and Asian studies and securing their publication; he chaired the first International Conference on African Bibliography in Nairobi in 1967 and edited the proceedings (1970) with Ruth Jones; he published A Bibliography of Pre-Islamic Persia (1975); revised and annotated the Asian and African entries from Besterman's A World Bibliography of Bibliographies (1975); edited South Asian Bibliography: a handbook (1979); and after retirement produced a supplementary volume (1984) to Creswell's bibliography of Islamic art and architecture, and continued to revise the Wainwright and Mathews surveys, working on them in the University Library up to a few weeks before his death.

(The supplementary volumes for South and South East Asia and Africa appeared in 1989-90 and 1993.)

From 1959 Pearson taught a course in Oriental and African bibliography for student librarians in the School of Librarianship and Archive Studies at University College London and many of his students subsequently rose to important posts in Asia and Africa, while his lectures and seminars led to Oriental and Asian Bibliography: an introduction with some reference to Africa (1966), the first textbook of its kind published.

Pearson played a full part in the affairs of SOAS, serving on numerous committees and the Academic Board, but outside SOAS he was a founder of the Standing Committee for Library Materials on Africa (SCOLMA) and subsequently its Chairman, and he was also Chairman of the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries (SCONUL) Group of Orientalist Librarians. He was instrumental in founding other regional groups of librarians and promoting co-operation between them both nationally and world-wide.

He was the founding Chairman of the International Association of Orientalist Librarians, and attended most of the International Congresses of Orientalists until his retirement; he was Library Adviser to the Inter-University Council from 1969 to 1975, and provided much of the material for the chapter on libraries in the influential Hayter report on the development of Oriental and African studies in the UK.

Pearson gave up the librarianship of SOAS in March 1972 just as the library was about to move into its new and long-expected building, designed by Denys Lasdun & Partners. He was first appointed Senior Research Fellow, then to the first Chair in Bibliography "with reference to Asia and Africa" at London University. He retired from the Chair in September 1979 and moved back to Cambridge. He was appointed Professor Emeritus, made an Honorary Fellow of the Library Association in 1976 and awarded the Walford Prize for lifelong achievement in bibliography in 1992.

Jim Pearson's warmth and cheerfulness made dry meetings go with a swing, and his indefatigable energy and willingness to persevere with seemingly thankless tasks produced bibliographical works of enduring value. When SOAS library closed for Christmas each year, the party that began in the Librarian's room just before closing became an annual institutional event.

As Librarian of SOAS he was one of the great travellers, when it was unusual for librarians to move outside their libraries. All his life he retained a love of Cambridge and a keen interest in flora and natural history.

James Douglas Pearson, librarian and bibliographer: born 17 December 1911; Assistant Under- Librarian, Cambridge University Library 1939-50; Librarian, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University 1950-72, Professor of Bibliography, with reference to Asia and Africa 1972-79 (Emeritus); married first Rose Betty Burden (one son; marriage dissolved), second Hilda Wilkinson (three sons); died 1 August 1997.

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