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29 March 2023

Remembering Tim Neighbour

The 1st of April 2023 marks 100 years since the birth of Oliver Wray (Tim) Neighbour (1923-2015) former Music Librarian of the British Library, scholar and Library benefactor, who is fondly remembered by his former colleagues.

Tim began working at the British Museum Library as a cataloguer in 1946. He became Assistant Keeper in the Music Room in 1951, and was Music Librarian from 1976 until his retirement in 1985. His work was focused on building up the printed music collections (music manuscripts at that time were the responsibility of the Department of Manuscripts), adding appropriately to the existing collections. As his musicological knowledge informed this collection development activity, so his librarian's intimate knowledge of sources informed his scholarly writing. His publications include works on the consort and keyboard music of William Byrd, and the music of composers as varied as Orlando Gibbons, Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

During his time as Head of the Music department, he also oversaw the publication of the 62 volumes of The Catalogue of Printed Music in the British Library to 1980 (London: K.G. Saur, 1981-1987). This important work was the first published catalogue of the printed music collections, whose converted entries form the bulk of the records for printed music resources in the current online catalogue.

Photograph of Tim Neighbour
Tim Neighbour in the Music Room at the British Museum in 1998 [?] Photo: Robert Parker

During and after his tenure as Music Librarian, Tim was gradually building up a private collection of music manuscripts, which he left to the Library in his will; this collection includes autograph manuscripts of Corelli, Clementi, Puccini, Debussy, Coleridge-Taylor, Britten, Lutyens, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and many other composers. He also made a significant bequest to the British Library for the purchase of printed and manuscript music.

Tim's dedication to the British Library's music collections continued well beyond his retirement, as he transferred seamlessly to a Voluntary Assistant role and continued to attend every working day. Current members of the music teams have memories of him dating from the 1990s and 2000s.  Tim walked from his home in Marylebone to the Library every morning.  His arrival (at 10.34 precisely) was the signal for all who were so inclined to take a coffee break, where work matters might be discussed, along with other wide-ranging topics; from plans for walking and bird-watching holidays on the Isle of Skye (Tim was a keen ornithologist), to the merits of Alice in Wonderland, to the best method of drying clothes in a London flat, to the difference between the Catalogue of Printed Music's 'suppositious' and 'supposititious' works. He would then spend the rest of the day at work in the music office, lending his expertise to curatorial selection decisions and carrying out other projects.

At this time Tim chose to contribute through his existing specialist knowledge rather than spend time learning new technologies. He never embraced email as a means of communication; instead, explanatory notes were written in small neat handwriting with one of his selection of improbably short pencils. To copy him in to an email correspondence meant laying a printed copy of the relevant email on his desk!

Tim was always encouraging to colleagues and willing to share his detailed knowledge of the music collections and the quirks of their history. He was a familiar figure at social gatherings and outings, which he enjoyed, and was always interested in his colleagues' lives and activities, inquiring kindly after family members. We join his family and friends in remembering him with affection at this time.

Caroline Shaw, Music Cataloguing and Processing Team Manager

Further reading

Chesser, Richard. “Oliver Wray ‘Tim’ Neighbour (1923–2015)”, Fontes Artis Musicae, vol. 62, no. 4, 2015, pp. 349–51. JSTOR, Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

Shenton, Kenneth. ‘Oliver Neighbour: Versatile librarian and scholar who played a vital role in raising musicological standards in postwar Britain’, The Independent, Thursday 26 March 2015. Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.


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