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The Library on Private Libraries


The Library is happy to announce the second of its annual 'Virtual Issues'. Each will comprise a retrospective gathering of key articles in a particular field that have appeared in the pages of The Library since the journal’s first appearance. These will be chosen by a guest editor, who will also supply an editorial reflecting on the field, its history, and its prospects, here and beyond. This virtual issue is available, free of charge to any interested reader, on this page. The articles will remain freely available for three months, but the editorial permanently.

Virtual Issue no. 2: The Library on Private Libraries

The guest editor of this Virtual Issue is David Pearson, Director of Culture, Heritage and Libraries at the City of London Corporation and a Past President of the Bibliographical Society.

Historical bibliography during the twentieth century was dominated by enumerative and textual approaches to the discipline, seeking to create authoritative maps of what was published and to use that knowledge to establish canonical texts and ideal copies. It was the era of the short-title catalogues, and of monumental works in literary bibliography, from Greg to Hinman to Foxon. Moving into the twenty-first century, historical bibliography has evolved into the history of the book, influenced by trends which developed during the later decades of the previous century. We became less focused merely on what was produced, but wanted to know what impact it had; we started to look more closely at how books were distributed, owned, and read, the extent to which (in Elizabeth Eisenstein’s phrase) the printing-press was an agent of change. We came to realise that texts were more fluid things than had previously been assumed, that ideal copy was a far from ideal concept, and that communication was influenced by the material form in which any particular text might be consumed.

In this new landscape, the exploration of private libraries has a key role to play. If we wish to understand how books have been used, or not, we need to look at how they have been owned, what people have had on their own shelves, and what evidence survives of their use, be that scholarly marginalia or coffee stains. We need to consider patterns of ownership in historical context, how private libraries have grown and developed, and what the evidence of bookbindings can tell us about the values assigned to particular books. It is not surprising therefore that the study of private libraries, from all these angles and more, has been growing in recent years, and that The Library is rich in papers in this area.

Nearly thirty articles and notes relating to private libraries have been published in The Library since 2000, but there is a long tradition of interest in this area going back to the very beginnings of the Bibliographical Society and its journal. I have counted 107 articles and notes (excluding book reviews) from the 1890s to the present day. As early as the second volume of the first series, in 1890, there was a short piece on ‘Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex’s Books’—noting that an Essex book in the Duke of Northumberland’s library at Alnwick cast doubt on the theory that the disgraced earl’s library passed to the queen—and also a transcript of a list of books bought for King James VI of Scotland when he was a boy. Themes which we might think of as quite modern have a longer pedigree—although Jeremy Goldberg published an article in 1994 on the value of wills as evidence of book ownership, ‘Books Mentioned in Wills’ was a paper read to the Society in 1903 and printed shortly afterwards. Studies of the libraries of particular individuals, based on a catalogue or inventory, appeared in similar structural format in 1911 (C. A. Malcolm, ‘The Library of a Forfarshire Laird in 1710’), in 1932 (E. Hobhouse, ‘The Library of a Physician circa 1700’), and 1978 (J. L. Salter, ‘The Books of an Early Eighteenth-Century Curate’). Articles on the books of English monarchs featured in 1932, in 1976, and in 1998.

What has changed over the years is the emphasis and focus of the articles, the questions asked, what it is that we might be expected to find interesting. Many of them, obviously, are based around the private library of a particular individual, and a wide range of subjects can be found from the modest to the grand, dating from the late middle ages to the early twentieth century. Some of the individuals whose libraries were chronicled in earlier pieces were thought to be of interest because they owned rarities from the Shakespearean canon—Humphrey Dyson, written up by R. L. Steele in 1910, or Edward Gwynn, by W. A. Jackson in 1934. The ideas expressed in 1898 in an article on ‘Inscriptions in Books’ by Gilbert Redgrave, sometime Vice-President of the Society and best known as one half of the partnership that first created STC , would definitely raise eyebrows today—he found marginal notes ‘a mode of writing in old books which is frequently very exasperating to the modern collector’, complaining that ‘all writing of this kind appears to me to be an abuse of books’. He preferred annotators ‘who confine their observations and notes to the blank papers at the beginning and end. As these form no part of the actual books and can at any time be removed . . . without injury . . . such writing can do no harm’.

The first piece I have chosen for reprint, Herbert Vivian’s 1916 article on Napoleon’s library at Elba, is included primarily to show that serious scholarship on private libraries can nevertheless be found in pages from a hundred years ago. Vivian’s approach includes not only the size, contents and history of the collection but also evidence of use, subject analysis, and questions of purpose. Today we might not, however, share his value judgement that ‘Buonaparte enjoyed anything coarse, as is shown . . . by the indelicate engravings with which many of his books are illustrated’.

As the twentieth century progressed, we see an increasing trend to think more broadly about the significance and interpretative possibilities of private libraries, and to ask a wider range of questions. This virtual issue includes two solid pieces from the late 1940s dealing with two roughly contemporary eighteenth-century owners, Horace Walpole (by W. S. Lewis) and James West (by R. Charles Lucas). Lewis considers not only the physical arrangement of Walpole’s library, but also its purpose: ‘What use . . . did Walpole make of his library?’ Lucas looks in some detail at the sources of West’s library, and seeks to place it in a wider context of mid-eighteenth-century collections. Both articles also give attention to the dispersal of these libraries, and we are still to some extent in the world of justifying an interest in private libraries in terms of collectability, highlights, and connoisseurship.

Lewis opens his piece on Walpole by referencing Seymour de Ricci and his damnation of this collection with faint praise—it contained some very valuable books—and he felt the need to say, rather apologetically, that ‘there were few books at Strawberry Hill which would today reach four figures in a New York saleroom’. Walpole ‘did not have a single Shakespeare quarto and only one folio, the second, a copy which lacked the titlepage and half a dozen leaves’. Definitely not the Premier League. Lewis’s article also has some interesting reflections on book-trade practices of the middle of the twentieth century when ‘old-time booksellers . . . thought little of pulping unimportant books [from Walpole’s library] . . . in poor condition. The book-plate was always worth half a crown. The dealers soaked it off and either sold it separately or pasted it into another book. They stripped off the covers and threw the body of the book into a sack . . .’. The scale of destruction of our printed heritage through everyday practices, rather than through war, fire and catastrophe, remains an under-explored topic.

The great majority of the articles in The Library have dealt with English, American or western European owners, with occasional wider forays such as a piece by L. V. Charipova in 2003 on a seventeenth-century Russian Orthodox owner from Poland. There have been some sequences of articles over a number of years building up knowledge on a particular topic, most notably R. S. Matteson’s five articles on the library of Archbishop William King, published between 1975 and 1995; one of these has been selected for inclusion here. The Library has played its part in developing the flowering of knowledge about the post-Reformation dispersal of monastic libraries among sixteenth-century antiquaries by carrying over the years a number of articles by key players in that field, most notably Neil Ker and Andrew Watson, and that tradition is reflected here by including a typically thorough and expert piece by Ker, on Sir John Prise, first published in 1955.

Studies of individual libraries have been, and continue to be, the predominant genre in this field, and articles seeking to present more of an overview—such as Susie West’s consideration of architecture and design in country house libraries, from 2013—are relatively late on the scene. I sought to achieve something like this in a piece on early seventeenth-century bishops’ libraries in 1992, and more recently on seventeenth-century libraries in general, in 2012. An earlier manifestation of a different approach was an article by G. D. Hobson in 1949, ‘Et amicorum’, surveying the numerous European collectors known to have used the phrase in their inscriptions. Shortly after this, in 1953, the first article appeared which aimed to reconstruct someone’s reading, though not necessarily book ownership, from a journal rather than from a catalogue or surviving collection, when John Lough considered ‘Locke’s reading during his stay in France (1675–79)’.

By the end of the twentieth century, articles on private libraries could always be expected to embrace that broader book-historical perspective around the intellectual rationale, and would be asking questions about use and purpose based on the whole or on individual books. I chose Matteson’s 1991 article on ‘Archbishop William King and the Conception of his Library’ from among his various pieces on King because it employs evidence of use in individual books, as well as on library contents more widely, to form conclusions about King’s aims (‘To an extent, the library King assembled served his own scholarly interests . . . In the larger context of his career, however, it seems virtually certain that King saw his library as a significant resource gathered to support and improve the fortunes of the Church of Ireland’).

It is a fact that the great majority of recorded historic book owners have been men, but I have tried to balance that unavoidable gender bias by including Paul Morgan’s piece on Frances Wolfreston, an article which has prompted several subsequent studies and attempts to locate more of her books. Here again, beyond systematic consideration of biography, contents and dispersal, and illustrations of characteristic inscriptions, attention is given to motivation (‘why did this country squire’s wife have so many books of types that can only be described as leisure reading?’), while noting the difficulty of determining ‘how typical she was of her time and class in the absence of comparative evidence’.

The two most recent articles in this selection focus on two very different nineteenth-century collections, but are also examples of thorough and rounded treatment of their subjects. Karen Attar’s 2004 piece on Durning-Lawrence has the opportunity to show how contents, markings and methodology can be seen as evidence of a library compiled with ‘determined missionary motivation’, in this case to prove, as set out in his 1910 magnum opus , that Bacon is Shakespeare . Allan Westphall’s 2012 article illustrates a much smaller, more personal library of a previously unrecorded American book-owner of Irish extraction, whose extensive annotations and pasted-in additions to his books demonstrate very clearly the potential of books as material objects; ‘they are enhanced as physical objects that have the power to materialize religious belief and domestic closeness’. Preceding these, I have included Jason Scott-Warren’s exemplary article from 2000 on Sir Thomas Cornwallis, based primarily on sixteenth-century correspondence which reveals a wealth of information about seeking, acquiring, and using books, for a variety of purposes from building chariots to philosophizing: ‘the buying of books, like the exchanging of news, served to extend Cornwallis’s engagement in the world’. The opening section of this article is also a very useful survey of academic approaches to the study of private libraries and the history of reading.

Making this selection was a tricky business, because there are so many good articles on private libraries in the pages of The Library , particularly in more recent years, and there are numerous others which could have been added to or substituted for the ones I have chosen. I have tried to put together a set which is representative of the way the subject has developed, while being valuable articles in their own right, of lasting informational and citational value, and readable. I hope that colleagues whose equally worthy articles or choices might have been included or mentioned here will forgive me and understand that exclusion does not imply any critical judgment. The key point is that the study of private libraries has been thriving in The Library , with a long history of having done so, and that there is every expectation that this will continue. The range of subjects, and a growing diversity of research methodologies, all go to support Scott-Warren’s conclusions at the end of his survey in 2000, that there is no one way to approach private libraries and that there is an ‘ongoing need for both qualitative and quantitative evidence in this emergent field’. Long may this continue.


Buonaparte’s Library at Elba
by Herbert Vivian
The Library (1916) s3-VII (26)

Horace Walpole's Library
by W.S. Lewis
The Library (1947) s5-II (1)

Book-Collecting in the Eighteenth Century: The Library of James West
by R. Charles Lucas
The Library (1949) s5-III (4)

Sir John Prise
by Neil R. Ker
The Library (1955) s5-X (1)

Frances Wolfreston and 'Hor Bouks': A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book-Collector
by Paul Morgan
The Library (1989) s6-XI (3)

Archbishop William King and the Conception of his Library
by Robert S. Matteson
The Library (1991) s6-XIII (3)

News, Sociability, and Bookbuying in Early Modern England: The Letters of Sir Thomas Cornwallis
by Jason Scott-Warren
The Library (2000) s7-I (4)

Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence: A Baconian and his Books
by K. E. Attar
The Library (2004) s7-V (3)

‘Laboring in my Books’: A Religious Reader in Nineteenth Century New Hampshire
by Allan F. Westphall
The Library (2012) s7-XIII (2)

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