Susan David Bernstein deploys a peculiar neologism in her new book on the British Museum’s Victorian readers. One of her critical tools is a ‘catalogical reading’ of female presence in the Museum’s Round Reading Room. The approach isn’t given enough methodological underpinning for us to know precisely what Bernstein is trying to achieve, but one of its outcomes is to highlight the value of catalogues, broadly defined, as an archival source.
Bernstein takes her cue from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, one of the most famous, influential and distortive uses of a library catalogue in literature. Woolf’s highly-selective transcription of the contents of the Reading Room’s catalogue entry for ‘women’ provides her with plentiful ammunition for an assault on patriarchy. Her misrepresentation is unfair to the catalogue’s compilers and, as Bernstein establishes, has occluded the feminist history of the Reading Room.
My review of the book, Roomscape: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf, appears in the July 18, 2013 edition of the Times Higher Education.