Anna E.C. Harvey-Simoni (1916-2007), a personal memory of a very special person
The British Library in London is an unsurpassed institute housing not only many, but above all many interesting, collections. Some date from the time of the foundation of the - then - British Museum in the mid-eighteenth century, but many have later been acquired through bequests, other gifts or the copyright scheme. A national library, however, cannot justify its existence by simply storing acquired material; the holdings must be catalogued and made accessible, reading rooms must be provided for researchers, public relations have to be addressed and new books must be bought to enhance the existing collections or to replace lost books. In order to do all this, a library needs many curators, cataloguers, fetchers and other personnel. Each department, collection or language section has its own specialists of whom Anna Simoni, who died in January 2007, was one. When she joined the British Museum in 1950, she had already lived an eventful life; born in 1916 in Germany, moved to Italy in 1935 to study languages and literature, expelled in 1938 because of her Jewish origins, continued her studies in Glasgow (Latin, Italian and Greek), worked in the air force during the war and from 1950 in the library.(1)
As she used to say, working in the Dutch section came about more or less accidentally, as she had intimated that she spoke a few words of Dutch at her job interview. One thing led to another and within a very short time Anna spoke the language fluently and devoted herself to making a success of the Dutch department founded in 1953, nowadays referred to as the Dutch/Flemish section. Many students of (book) history and literature remember the welcoming reception they received when visiting the British Library and were lucky enough to be taken in hand by Anna; the BL could not wish for a better ambassador. An introduction and guided tour by Anna frequently evolved into an absorbing conversation about books and book history, sometimes even into friendship and a correspondence over many years, no, not email, ‘real’ letters. Such was also the case with the present author, albeit not with a beginning at the BL, but with a meeting of the Bibliographical Society where a paper had to be presented.(2) Two nervous researchers were put at ease by Anna with a cup of tea and a few friendly questions about acquaintances in the Netherlands and about the research subject with an immediate apology that she could not stay the whole evening as she had a three-hour train journey to undertake in order to get home. We promised to send her the complete text of the paper and that was the beginning of a mainly book-historical, but also personal exchange of letters. Anna liked to keep abreast of what was going on in book-historical Holland, ongoing research, the STCN (3), but also small personal items of news; a holiday, a museum visit, the garden or the repair of the shed with a leaking roof.
Although Anna officially retired in 1981, this by no means meant a break with her work; she was not one to sit quietly in a chair. Publish and be free : a catalogue of clandestine books printed in the Netherlands, 1940-1945, in the British Library had already been published in 1975, but for many years after her retirement Anna continued to come to the BL to work on her ‘AMO’ (Anna’s magnum opus), that is, the Catalogue of books from the Low Countries 1601-1621 in the British Library, published in 1990. She also continued her translation work for, among other journals, Quaerendo and wrote reviews and articles.(4) In 2003, her Ostend Story was published about the role Henrick van Haestens played in the reports of the siege of Ostend, a combination of historical, book-historical and literary research. During her whole life, Anna has always been admired and valued for her drive, her knowledge, her dedication and not least for her friendship. Official recognition has also been forthcoming; in 1998 she was appointed to Knight in the order of the Dutch Lion, in 1999 she was granted the honorary citizenship of Genoa and in 2000 she received an honorary doctorate of the University of Genoa.
But Anna remained Anna and apart from her ‘work’ she also had a busy private life with her husband Bill Harvey, such as the correspondence with and visits from and to family and friends across the world, her interest in birds, nature walks and lots more. The last couple of years, her visits to the library were reduced to one a week, on Tuesday, a day on which friends and colleagues knew where to find her: in the corner of the Rare Books reading room close to the bibliographical reference works. When I was in London to do some research, a meeting with Anna on Tuesday was always on the agenda and lunch or coffee breaks invariable ran into animated two-way catching-up-with-the-news session. A number of years before her death, Anna had started to identify the titles in the Radermacher auction catalogue(5), an immense task for which her bibliographical knowledge gathered in the half century since she first started at the BL stood her in good stead. Armed with paper slips, one for every title to be identified, she spent many days in the library looking for obscure references or unravelling bibliographical puzzles. Computers did not mean much to her and the Internet remained an unknown resource, but computers nevertheless served a purpose in replacing the typewriter, especially when in recent years writing became more difficult because of the tremor in her hand. In the last year - much to her frustration - she was no longer able to go the BL and she has not quite been able to complete her work on the auction catalogue. A paper edition will probably remain an unfulfilled wish, but to make sure not all her work is lost, the catalogue and the identifications she found have been put on a website.(6)
|Anna Harvey-Simoni gets her honorary doctorate from the University of Genoa (2000)|
Anna will, of course, be remembered as a sound bibliographer with a special interest in Anglo-Dutch relations throughout the ages, as someone with extraordinary talent for uncovering obscure facts and as someone who has produced a number of excellent books from which many of us have profited and will continue to do so in the future. But she will also remain in our memory for her enthusiastic and warm personality, her humour and her ever present willingness to share her knowledge, to introduce people or to show them the ropes; and last but not least as a very good and warm friend with whom it was a pleasure to have a chat or to correspond with. We shall miss her.
(1) See for more details the interview with Anna Simoni in De Boekenwereld, jrg 30 (2004), pp. 226-239.
(2) 18 april 2000: Ann Veenhoff and Marja Smolenaars. "Mr Samuel Smith, bookseller to the Royal Society, deals very much in books of a foreign growth ...”: On the track of a seventeenth-century stationer.
(3) Short-Title Catalogue Netherlands ( www.kb.nl/stcn)
(4) See for a bibliography of her work compiled by D.E. Rhodes: Across the Narrow Seas. Studies in the history and bibliography of Britain and the Low Countries, presented to Anna E.C. Simoni, ed. S. Roach, 1991 and the supplement in Anna’s Book, an informal collection presented to Anna E.C. Harvey-Simoni on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday, 2006. [Also available on this website.]
(5) Catalogvs Miscellanevs Variorvm ac insignius imprimis Latinorum […] Librorum […] D. Ioannis Radermacheri […] qui obijt Middelburgi anno 1617, Middelburg, 1634.
The above is a translation of "Anna E.C. Harvey-Simoni (1916-2007), een herinnering aan een bijzonder mens" which appeared in De Boekenwereld, vol. 24 (2007), pp. 2-4. With kind permission. De Boekenwereld is published by Uitgeverij Van Tilt.