Douglas Matthews obituary

Other lives: Librarian with a global reputation as a master of indexing

My friend Douglas Matthews, who has died aged 93, was a librarian who was regarded by many grateful authors and researchers as the master of all book indexers.

Among his achievements were the monumental indexes to the papers of Daniel Defoe, the works of Isaiah Berlin, the Dickens letters and the magisterial three-volume life of Kaiser Wilhelm written by John Röhl, who recalled Douglas’s “astonishing ability to keep hundreds of thousands of names and places in his head all at once, like doing Rubik’s Cube without the cube”.

Born in Middlesbrough to Benjamin Matthews, an accountant, and Mary (nee Pearson), a nurse, Douglas went to Acklam Hall school before studying geography at Durham University, where his jobs in the holiday terms included castrating sheep in the Yorkshire Dales and reading palms at Butlin’s holiday camps.

After a course in librarianship at the North Western Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University), he joined the India Office as assistant librarian in 1952. During his 10 years there he spent a year on secondment to the Royal Library of Sweden in Stockholm, where he was approached by a historian needing someone to compile the index to an English-language volume he had written. Thus began a second career that ran parallel to his librarianship.

After the India Office Douglas spent a couple of years at the Home Office library before being appointed deputy librarian at London Library in 1965. He rose to be librarian in 1980, setting up the London Library annual lectures and organising the authors’ party for its 150th anniversary in 1991. It was characteristic of his modesty that he never introduced the eminent speakers at the lectures himself, always finding other well-known members to do the honours.

A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, in 2008 he was awarded the society’s Benson Medal, occasionally given to non-authors who have provided exceptional service to literature. He was appointed MBE in 2013 for services to literature and was a trustee of the Royal Literary Fund.

He completed his final index, for a detailed study of the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), just a few months before he died.

In 1968 he married Sarah Williams. The marriage was dissolved in 1991. He is survived by their daughters, Katharine and Hari.

Barbara Abbs

The GuardianTramp

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