‘Copyright London Borough of Merton
“Reference books you may have missed” appeared in the first issue of Refer in 1980 and subsequently in every issue until 2003. This rapidly became the first thing many readers turned to and we were heartbroken when Charles called time. David Butcher’s choice was inspirational, because it became essential reading for reference staff and library schools as well as all booklovers. Charles worked at Wimbledon Reference Library and was acutely alert to the information needs of his readers and how to serve them. He had edited more than 20 bibliographies, including the regularly updated Basic reference works for the public library, for which he received the Walford Award in 2000.
He intended to alert busy reference librarians to new titles, large and small, that could be useful. Latterly, he accommodated an increasing number of websites. Moreover, he was vigilant in his search for new titles and critical in evaluating material. Because he viewed titles in the context of their practical usage he was alert to their pitfalls as well as their strengths. In 1981 he listed, ‘Some reference books you may have been glad to have missed’ which was some spurious titles promoted by a convicted fraudster. He questioned the need for some books: ‘How many film guides do you need? and declared ‘there are too many directories of publishers and none of them complete’. His comments were always astute and based on scrupulous analysis.
Faced with his vigilant and critical eye, many a reference book failed to impress. He was adept at pointing out errors. He disliked the poor quality reproductions in a book on rail track plans. In 1999 he provided a very illuminating comparison of various rivals to Whitaker’s almanac, which was typical of just how much time he devoted to spotting inaccuracies and gaps in coverage of the various contenders.
Humour was always there. His analysis of a language identification table discovered that if he input, “My ma said ‘ta’ to pa for giving her the po”, it would be identified as Polish.
His eagle eye spotted that a team of two detectives Dickens and Jones was incorrect as they were named after the London store Dickins and Jones. He was aware of his vigilance and stated ‘readers beware, errors leave themselves open to nitpicking reviewers like me’.
In his valedictory message, Charles wrote ‘I have tried to emphasise the practical aspects of using materials to answer enquiries, and to take a properly critical approach to reviewing; reference books, if they are reviewed at all, tend to get bland treatment elsewhere’. They certainly did not in his pages.
The very first issue was devoted to a subject dear to him – transport and travel. This theme regularly surfaced, particularly concerning bus timetables. The range of subjects covered was enormous. It is hard to find anything that escaped his eagle eye.
The tone of the pages was witty and informative and essentially human. It was this that made it so popular. Who else could write in Spring 1997 ‘if ever there was a reference book to take to bed with you and chortle over it, this is it’? I liked the remark under a heading on Witches, ‘No don’t skip this bit – it’s not just about old hags on broomsticks’ in his final contribution. One of the delights was the sub-headings which encouraged us to want to read further. Examples included: ‘Oh ye gods’ relating to a child asking, ‘What does God do?’ and ‘How to annoy a librarian’ about publishers changing titles of serials and renumbering volumes. Others that caught my eye were: ‘Jokes, sex and knitting’; ’Oh no it isn’t’, on misleading titles; and ‘How to avoid saying what you mean’. ‘Wouldn’t you like an extended version of Brewer’s dictionary of phrase and fable?’ was typical as he identified gaps in provision. Likewise he bemoaned the paucity of information on the Chinese New Year.
Charles was always on the lookout for the quirky and he certainly found plenty to entertain us. Of Aardvark exterminators Charles remarked ‘and no, they won’t exterminate anything larger than a pigeon’. Likewise the lettering FUN TO HUG on the spine of a multi-volume was worthy of amused comment. I laughed out loud at ‘what could be dreary is made readable by the sense of humour of Sid and Doris Bonkers, two librarians (or is it one? – well actually it’s a pseudonym)’. In 1985 he sadly announced that they asked him ‘to erect a tombstone in these pages inscribed ‘DQ RIP’. Titles should never be taken at face value: Birds of Britain turned out to be a book of pin-ups.
Besides all the mirth there was plenty of serious content to assist librarians. A regular Update paragraph looked at new editions of established warhorses of the reference shelves. Another regular was ‘Collecting things’ which covered some bizarre items alongside the predictable.
This is offered as a tribute to Charles, who celebrated his 90th birthday in August 2017. Reading through all his contributions has been a rare delight, thanks to Charles’s meticulous attention to detail, perceptive analysis, erudition and above all wit. I found myself laughing aloud frequently. The columns provide us with an informed portrait of reference publishing in the last decades of the twentieth century. In his own words, ‘I hope the column has been of use, and occasionally amusement to its readers’.
Thank you, Charles. It is a tribute to the excellence of your columns that nobody felt worthy enough or able to continue them. It was far too hard an act to follow.
Copyright Note: The photograph of Charles Toase was kindly provided by copyright holders The London Borough of Merton. Further historic photographs of Merton can be found on the Merton Memories website http://www.merton.gov.uk/memories
K & IM Refer 33 (2), Autumn 2017