The unexpected death of Charles Benson, former Keeper of Early Printed Books and Special Collections in Trinity College Library, on November 13th last year was a terrible shock to his family, his colleagues and his many friends. Charles was an outstanding bibliographer and scholar of international repute who is sorely missed. A leading authority on the 19th-century Irish book trade, his combination of knowledge and instinct for books meant he could determine, almost at a glance, not only the characteristics of any book shown to him but its significance in the book trade at the time of its publication.
Charles was born on April 2nd, 1946, in Co Dublin and took his undergraduate degree in Trinity from 1963-1967. Following a brief spell in the UK, he joined the library in Trinity in 1968 as a graduate trainee and soon developed a passion for early printed material that was to fuel his professional life for over four decades. Having obtained his librarianship qualification in Queen’s University Belfast, he began his career in Early Printed Books, later succeeding the legendary Mary Pollard in the role of Keeper in 1988. Although his table was piled high with papers and books of all kinds, in his “office” in the upper gallery of the Long Room, Charles would always find time for anyone seeking his guidance, and scholars of all ages benefitted enormously from his enthusiasm and willingness to share his knowledge of books and of print history.
Charles was a superb cataloguer and librarian, striving even through difficult financial times to maintain the high standards of his department. His 23-year tenure as Keeper was marked by his vision of the early printed collections in the library as a key resource for scholars, for students, and for the public. His acute awareness of the importance of investment in developing the collections in order to attract scholars nationally and internationally fuelled his farsighted and proactive acquisition policy, when funds were available, and Trinity's holdings of pre-1820s material were extensively developed during his time. One such acquisition, of many, was of the first book ever printed in Irish, the Abidil Gaoidheilge agus Caiticiosma (printed in 1571), only four copies of which are known to exist (the other three held in UK libraries). His fostering of the French collections in particular led to his being made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2010.
In addition to facilitating the access by scholars to the early collections in order to ensure the Long Room remained a living, working library, Charles was also keenly aware of the importance of fostering student interest. Many students will recall the dedication and enthusiasm he brought to his teaching of historical bibliography on a number of MPhil courses in the 1990s, not least the practical sessions in the Printing House, as students learnt how to operate a 19th-century press. In a different vein, his desire to highlight the extraordinary wealth of material held in the library, and to foster public enthusiasm in the printed book and in book history, led to his curating a number of fascinating exhibitions in the Long Room on a wide range of subjects from botanical imprints to the Irish in India.
His doctoral thesis “The Dublin Book Trade, 1801-1850” (TCD, 2000) is a pioneering work of primary scholarship. It includes an invaluable “Dictionary of the Dublin Book Trade, 1801-1850”, the development of which Charles returned to, on his retirement. This gives details of 5,280 persons or firms, and includes fascinating details about all aspects of Irish printing and bookselling: among the colourful individuals can be found practitioners of medical electricity, sellers of musical instruments, forgers of bank notes – and at least one printer known as “an incorrigible tippler”. One can only hope that this monumental work by a great Irish scholar will soon appear in print.
Charles’s dry sense of humour, quick wit and generosity of spirit animated many a social gathering. He was a loyal friend and avid fisherman.
He is survived by his wife Gillie, son Ralph, daughter Caroline, grandsons Louis and Alexander, and by his sisters Pam, Miriam and Judy.