Because the BL's collections are so rich and wonderful, it’s easy to get a bit blasé about precious and unusual items. It's not that we take our treasures – or any of our collections – for granted, but I tend not to be hugely surprised when, for example, I’m checking an antiquarian dealer's catalogue and see that we have two copies of the book marked "extremely rare", or when I discover that one of our early German books has beautifully hand-coloured plates or an interesting ownership inscription.
However, every now and then I come across something that does stop me in my tracks, and this happened the other day when I was following up an enquiry letter from Germany. The enquirer worked for an institution called the Daniel Sanders Haus , which commemorates the German lexicographer of that name. Like many English speakers who have studied German, I had actually heard of Sanders without realising it: together with one Eduard Muret, he compiled a German-English dictionary, first published in 1869, and the modern successor to that dictionary, published by the Langenscheidt Verlag, is still known as "Muret-Sanders".
Anyway, according to the letter I'd received, Sanders sold the working notes for the two-volume German dictionary which he compiled single-handedly and published between 1860 and 1865 to the then British Museum Library. I must admit I was initially inclined either to doubt the story or pass the enquiry on to a manuscripts specialist, but the enquirer had done his research thoroughly and provided two BL printed book shelfmarks, LR.276.a.2 and LR.276.a.3. When I ordered these I was amazed to discover that in each of these two copies, the two volumes of the dictionary were indeed swollen to five and six volumes respectively by the interleaved sheets of Sanders’ notes.
And what notes! Not just handwritten notes on the interleaved sheet, but additional slips pasted in, cuttings from newspapers and magazines with particular words and phrases highlighted and annotated, and in at least one place a whole little pamphlet of additional notes attached to the interleaved sheet.
Altogether a fascinating view of the lexicographer at work: it was one of those moments which made me want to spend the rest of the day (week, month…) examining the volumes, and I was amazed that I’d never heard of them in my 18 years at the BL.
So I wrote back to the enquirer explaining that he was indeed right about Sanders' notes. I hope that he or one of his colleagues is able to come and study the dictionaries in the detail they deserve, though it could potentially be a lifetime's work given the volume of material and the difficulty – even by 19th-century German standards – of Sanders' cramped handwriting. Meanwhile I'm very grateful to the enquirer for setting me on to the volumes; enquiries have often led me to interesting corners of the collection, but there are few which I have found so intriguing as this.