“You only miss something once it’s gone”, they say. So it is with one particular volume in the historical Copyright Music collection at St Andrews. I transcribed and tabulated every single loan of music between 1801-1849, and I’ve been calculating which were the most popular books. To be truthful, there’s a lot more to be done with my data, but I began with the most popular book of all. And as luck would have it, the most popular music volume isn’t in today’s online catalogue. Did the last-known elderly borrower – who was both a professor of logic, and a local church minister – not return it after he borrowed it on Christmas Eve, 1842? (What was an old minister of 73-4 wanting quadrilles for, anyway? For a relative? For a party? He did have fifteen siblings who made it to adulthood!) At any rate, I’ll need to double-check the loan records to see if the loan was crossed out; if so, this would mean that he did return it! Clearly if he did, then it went missing some time later; I stopped checking loan records at the end of that particular book, because music loans were markedly tailing off after the legal deposit legislation changed.
(Since you can take the music librarian out of the job title but not the music librarianship background out of the researcher, I’ve taken the precaution of enquiring whether the book is really, truly missing, or just uncatalogued. It doesn’t make much difference whether the book’s completely gone or lying in fragments in some cataloguer’s nightmare box, but the romance of the story requires that we know one way or another. At the time of writing, it’s something of a Schroedinger’s cat, which would probably upset Revd. Professor James Hunter mightily!)
The book’s contents consist entirely of dance music for the piano. I have a good idea what was in it, because the original 1826 catalogue lists the contents. By comparing these sketchy details with volumes in other libraries, and sometimes, with matching instrumental volumes in the St Andrews collection, I am reasonably confident that I can identify nearly every piece, and if I had a mind to, I could see nearly all of them in libraries as far apart as Aberdeen and London.
It would be fun to reconstruct the volume by getting copies of every item. Getting digital copies of it all, and permission to “publish” it, even online, could be quite expensive. However, I suspect it will all be fairly functional music, and maybe quite unremarkable. At the same time, it was indisputably the most borrowed music in St Andrews University Library. We might consider the music mundane, but it clearly had appeal for its contemporary borrowers! So – I’m debating how far to take this:-
- I could get pictures of the title pages (where they exist) and first page of music in each item, which would at least show what they looked like.
- Knowing my penchant for paratext, I could scour each item to see if any interesting commentary was hiding amongst them, including dance steps.
- I could record whole or partial pieces to give an idea how they sounded.
- I’ve had a brilliant idea! A workshop!
I shall return to this posting if further ideas occur to me! Meanwhile, I’ve started looking at what I can in Glasgow Uni’s collection …. and genning up on quadrilles, balls and assembly rooms, not to mention characterising the music I’ve looked at so far.