The Missing Librarian

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Somewhere high in the Austrian Alps there may lie the body of a librarian, for that is where Robert Proctor was last seen, at the head of the Taschach valley, on the morning of Sunday, 6 September 1903.

Proctor’s final day at work at the British Museum before his intended three-week holiday in the Eastern Tyrol had been Friday, 28 August. He had been planning his expedition for some time, sending off to Innsbruck for maps of the Zillertal and Otzal Alps. The former, when it arrived, he had had cut up and mounted by a man at the museum. He had also ordered maps of the Vorarlberg at Dulau’s, the international booksellers on Soho Square, but these had still not come when he called for them that Friday. Nor had the ice axe he had requested from Fulpmes in the Tyrol.

However, other last-minute tasks had kept him busy. He had brought his luggage up to Waterloo that morning and arranged for it to be sent on to Charing Cross. At lunchtime he had gone there himself to buy his ticket. He had also called at the Crédit Lyonnais and exchanged sterling for francs and Austrian crowns. Like most people before setting out on a journey he was restless. He closed his diary entry that evening with the question, ‘What shall I be when I open this book again three weeks hence?’

It was probably a relief to get away, at least temporarily, from the British Museum’s Department of Printed Books. He had worked there for a decade as an Assistant, but the last couple of weeks had been even more stressful than usual. His current grand project was to remove all the incunabula, those books printed before 1501, from their places scattered throughout the collections to shelves in the museum’s Arch Room. There he was arranging them in what came to be known as Proctor Order, first by country, then by place of publication, then by printer, finally by size. Often these details could only be determined after minute investigation of the typefaces used.

Typography fascinated h

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About the contributor

C. J. Wright was Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library until his retirement in 2005. Proctor’s ordinary diaries, though not his official or holiday diaries, have been published in a limited edition: John Bowman (ed.), A Critical Edition of the Private Diaries of Robert Proctor: The Life of a Librarian at the British Museum (Lewiston, New York, and Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010).

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