The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIX. The Foundation of Libraries

§ 1. A retrospect

IN previous volumes of the present work, some account has been given of early monastic libraries, of collections of books made by such men as Richard of Bury, of the contents of a typical collegiate library as illustrating the reading of the medieval student and of the effect upon libraries of the dissolution of the monasteries. The work accomplished by Sir Thomas Bodley within the period covered by the present volume provides an occasion for a brief retrospect of the foundation of libraries generally, and for the presentation of certain details regarding monastic, cathedral and collegiate libraries, supplementary to the references which have been already made.

A recent publication enables us to realise the conditions under which such collections were preserved and accumulated, from the days when the papyrus rolls began to multiply on the shelves in the archives of Assur down to those of dean Boys of Canterbury, who, to the day of his death, in 1625, still adhered to the practice of placing the volumes of his library on the shelf with their fore-edge outwards.

Beginning our retrospect, however, with the time when the roll, “book” or “volume,” began to take shape as a series of leaves fastened together by the art of the binder, we find the movable press, with shelves and doors, and supported on legs, appearing as the most ancient form of the bookcase. As the press became larger and heavier, the legs were discarded, and in those cathedrals or convent churches in which there was a triple apse, one of these would be used for keeping the service books, while the armarium (or chest) would be sometimes represented by a recess in the wall closed by a door. The apse also, not unfrequently, served as the depository for the library of the choir school, and of this, together with the service books, the precentor would sometimes be the custodian; but, in larger cathedrals, the duty would be assigned to a second functionary, known as the armarius.

“An examination of the statutes affecting the library in the codes imposed upon the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge shows that their provisions were borrowed directly from the monastic customs.” But it is not less certain that the monastic rules themselves were partly derived from practice anterior to western monasticism itself. In Vitruvius (who wrote probably in the time of the emperor Augustus) it is laid down as a canon that “bed-rooms and libraries should face the East, their use requiring the morning light; while in libraries, books will be preserved from rotting.” But where the presses were movable, it was the practice to place them at right angles to the windows; and it was not until the accommodation thus afforded became insufficient, that shelves, resting against the wall, began to make their appearance, and, in many cases, ultimately superseded the movable press. In either case, the volumes on the shelves were generally placed with their edges outwards, and with their titles, or certain distinctive marks, inscribed on the same, the covers being compressed together, sometimes with massive clasps, sometimes with strings, and each volume secured in its place by a hanging chain which fastened on a rod passing along the transom of the bookcase. This rod was itself made fast by a vertical metal plate attached to the end of the case, and opened or closed by a lock. Underneath the lock, there would be a framed list of the contents of the shelves.