Essays in librarianship and bibliography/Librarianship in the Seventeenth Century

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LIBRARIANSHIP IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY[1]


The natural reaction against over-statements respecting the darkness of the dark ages, has led to the counter-statement that they were not dark at all. We librarians know better. We know that they must have been in darkness, inasmuch as our body did not exist to enlighten them. There can have been no librarians where there were no libraries; and the lists of collections of manuscripts preserved to our times sufficiently prove that no set of men professionally interested in the custody of stores so diminutive can have been required. The function of librarian must have been one of the numerous offices discharged cumulatively by a single monk, upon whom it may sometimes have been imposed by way of penance. It was otherwise in classical antiquity. To say nothing of the Alexandrian Library, and its connection with men as distinguished as Callimachus and Apollonius, so late as near the close of the third century of our era the decree of the Emperor Tacitus, that the historical works of his illustrious namesake should be transcribed and placed in the public libraries throughout the empire, indicates the existence of numerous institutions of this description, under responsible officers, servants of the State, or the municipality.

Almost all personal trace, however, of the famous librarians of antiquity has disappeared; but the interest attaching to the slow emergence of their modern representatives from the flood of ignorance and barbarism rivals that which the history of their prototypes would excite, could this be recovered. It would be interesting to know when and where in Renaissance, or post-Renaissance times, the accumulation of books first became so considerable as to demand the whole time of the officer entrusted with their custody, and thus to give birth to librarianship as a distinct profession. Into this inquiry I do not propose to enter. I wish merely, on the present occasion, to direct your attention to the evidence borne about the middle of the seventeenth century to the development at that period attained by librarianship, and the conception of its duties and possibilities entertained by John Dury, a man in advance of his times.

Dury was by birth a Scotchman, and by profession a divine. He had signalised his appreciation of libraries at an early age by repairing to Oxford with the object of studying in the Bodleian. He is entitled to figure on the roll of librarians himself, having been appointed deputy-keeper of the Royal Library after the execution of Charles I., which charge may very probably have suggested to him those thoughts on the duties of librarians and the standard of librarianship, of which I am to give you an account. The main object of his life, however, was the even more important but certainly less hopeful undertaking of allaying the acrimony of religious zealots. In pursuance of this mission we find him almost more abroad than at home; ever labouring to appease the dissensions of Protestants, now negotiating with Gustavus Adolphus, now with the Synod of Transylvania; now at Utrecht, now at Brandenburgh, now at Metz, where he submitted to the loss of his "great, square, white beard," as a peace offering to the prejudices of French Protestantism. He eventually, long after the Restoration, died in Hesse, where he was entertained and protected by the Regent. It is to be feared that nothing came of his well-meant endeavours but the witness of a good conscience and the blessing that rests upon peace-makers. It may, perhaps, have been inferred that he was not in all respects the most practical of men, and this, indeed, appears from his works on education rather than from his suggestions on libraries. But his utopianism was less owing to infirmity of judgment than to the habitual elevation of his moral and intellectual standard. He thought better of his fellow-men than they deserved, and was himself a man of eminent desert. If his own writings did not survive to speak for him, it would be sufficient to record that he was the intimate friend of Samuel Hartlib, the foreign guest to whom England is so greatly indebted as philanthropist and practical agriculturist, and to whom several of his own treatises are inscribed.

The tract in which Dury published his ideas respecting the duties of a librarian is entitled "The Reformed Library Keeper; with a Supplement to the Reformed School, as subordinate to Colleges in Universities" (London, 1650). It appears with a brief preface by Samuel Hartlib, to whom the "Library Keeper" is addressed in the form of two letters, and who had already published Dury's "Reformed School," to which another portion of the tiny pamphlet is a supplement.

From the general drift of Dury's observations, it would appear that in his view, which was very probably correct, librarianship had in his day reached such a degree of development as to have become an independent profession, but not such a degree as to be a very useful one. It was necessary to have librarians, but librarians, as such, had not enough to do to constitute them very important or valuable members of the community. The remedy for this state of things was destined to come slowly, partly by increase of books, and even more by an increase of readers. We know that the profession at present finds ample employment for well-nigh all the energies of its most active members. This was far from the case in Dury's day, and being unable so to accelerate the march of intellect as to find sufficing occupation for the librarian, and at the same time hating to see a functionary potentially so important comparatively useless, he not unnaturally sought to provide him with other vocations in which the more technical work of librarianship would have been merged. In so doing he anticipated the modern idea, especially rife in America, that the librarian should not only be a custodian and distributor of books, but a missionary of culture. Hence came the further idea that more being expected of the librarian more should be given him, and the office thus made worthy of the acceptance of men of parts and learning. Thus we find Dury, from a comparative outsider's point of view, coming to magnify the librarian's office and demand generous treatment for its incumbent, very much in the tone now held by the organs and representatives of the profession itself. It must be borne in mind that he speaks not so much in the interest of librarians as of the public; and pleads for them less in their capacity as custodians of books than with reference to the educational functions which he wishes to see superadded to their ordinary duties.

It will now be well to let him speak for himself.

"The library keeper's place and office in most countries are looked upon as places of profit and gain."

Rather a startling statement to us, who have been accustomed to look upon librarianship as under the special influence of the planet Saturn, which is said to preside over all occupations in which money is obtained with very great difficulty. It would seem, however, that mean as the prizes of librarianship might be, they were yet scrambled for.

"And so," he continues, "accordingly sought after and valued in that regard and not in regard of the service which is to be done by them unto the Commonwealth of Israel. For the most part men look after the maintenance and livelihood settled upon their places more than upon the end and usefulness of their employments. They seek themselves and not the public therein, and so they subordinate all the advantages of their places to purchase mainly two things thereby, viz., an easy subsistence and some credit in comparison of others, nor is the last much regarded if the first may be had. To speak in particular of library keepers in most universities that I know, nay, indeed, in all, their places are but mercenary, and their employment of little or no use further than to look to the books committed to their custody, that they may not be lost or embezzled by those that use them, and this is all."

Dury has, no doubt, here put his finger upon the main cause of the low condition of the librarianship of his day. The general conception of the librarian's functions was far too narrow. He was allowed no share in the government of his own library. He had not necessarily anything to do with the selection of new books, nor was it expected of him that he should advise and direct the studies of those resorting to the collections committed to his care. In fact he was not usually qualified for such activity, or even for the minor task of making these collections serviceable by means of catalogues and indexes. The development of literature had advanced so far as to necessitate the library custodian, but had not yet produced the library administrator—the Denis and Audiffredi of the succeeding century. Dury saw this, and also saw that the ideal librarian he had conceived in his own mind would need better pay that he might do better work. One exception to his apparently sweeping statements must be noted. Bodley's librarians in the seventeenth century were undoubtedly men of high literary distinction. Yet even here the arrangements for the librarian's remuneration were unsatisfactory, and wrong in principle.

"I have been informed," says Dury, "that in Oxford the settled maintenance of the library keeper is not above fifty or sixty pounds per annum, but that it is accidentally viis et modis, sometimes worth a hundred pound. What the accidents are, and the ways and means by which they come, I have not been curious to search after."

So we are not to know by what shifts Mr. Nicholson's seventeenth-century predecessor mended his salary. "Hay and oats," says Dean Swift, "in the hands of a skilful groom will make excellent wine, as well as ale, but this I only hint."

Dury now proceeds to develop his ideas in a fine and wise passage:—

"I have thought that if the proper employments of library keepers were taken into consideration as they are, or may be made useful to the advancement of learning; and were ordered and maintained proportionately to the ends which ought to be intended thereby, they would be of exceeding great use to all scholars, and have an universal influence upon all the parts of learning, to produce and propagate the same into perfection. For if library keepers did understand themselves in the nature of their work, and would make themselves, as they ought to be, useful in their places in a public way, they ought to become agents for the advancement of universal learning; and to this effect I could wish that their places might not be made, as everywhere they are, mercenary, but rather honorary; and that with the competent allowance of two hundred pounds a year [equivalent to about six hundred nowadays], some employments should be put upon them further than a bare keeping of the books. It is true that a fair library is not only an adornment and credit to the place where it is, but an useful commodity by itself to the public; yet in effect it is no more than a dead body as now it is constituted, in comparison of what it might be, if it were animated with a public spirit to keep and use it, and ordered as it might be for public service. For if such an allowance were settled upon the employment as might maintain a man of parts and generous thoughts, then a condition might be annexed to the bestowing of the place; that none should be called thereunto but such as had approved themselves zealous and profitable in some public ways of learning to advance the same, or that should be bound to certain tasks to be prosecuted towards that end, whereof a list might be made, and the way to try their abilities in prosecuting the same should be described, lest in after times unprofitable men creep into the place to frustrate the public of the benefit intended by the donors towards posterity. The proper charge, then, of the honorary library keeper in a university should be thought upon, and the end of that employment, in my conception, is to keep the public stock of learning, which is in books and manuscripts; to increase it, and to propose it to others in the way which may be most useful unto all; his work, then, is to be a factor and trader for helps to learning, and a treasurer to keep them, and a dispenser to apply them to use, or to see them well used, or at least not abused."

This established, Dury proceeds to point out how the library should be made useful. His main idea is that a library should be a kind of factory, and it is astonishing how often he contrives to introduce the word "trade" into his proposals. Underlying this peculiar phraseology is the thought that so long as the library only exists for the advantage of those who may choose to resort to it, it is like a talent buried in a napkin; that to be really useful it must go to the public, and that the librarian must place himself in active communication with men of learning. It was hardly conceived in Dury's day that any but scholars could have occasion for libraries, but translating his proposals into the language of our time, it will appear that they contemplate such an ideal of librarianship as is professed in America, and is realised with no small success in many of our leading free libraries. The first condition is a good catalogue:—

"That is," says Dury, "all the books and manuscripts according to the titles whereunto they belong, are to be ranked in an order most easy and obvious to be found, which I think is that of sciences and languages, when first all the books are divided into their subjectam materiam whereof they treat, and then every kind of matter subdivided into their several languages."

Evidently Dury was little troubled with the questions which have so exercised librarians since his time. "The subject-matter of which a book treats" is not always easy to ascertain. It might have puzzled Dury himself to decide whether his own tract should be catalogued along with books on libraries, or with the "Reformed School" to which it is professedly an appendix, and to which half its contents have a direct relation. The suggestion that books should be catalogued by languages was propounded before the British Museum Commission of 1849, and promptly dismissed as the fancy of an amateur. It would be curious to see Pope's Homer in one catalogue, Voss's in another, and the original in a third.

Dury next judiciously adds that room must be left in the library for the increase of books, an indispensable condition not always easy of fulfilment; and that "in the printed catalogue a reference is to be made to the place where the books are to be found in their shelves or repositories." That is, the catalogue must have press-marks; in which suggestion Dury was two centuries ahead of many of the most important foreign libraries. It will be observed that he takes it for granted that the catalogue shall be printed, and in this he was ahead of almost all the libraries of his time, and until lately of the British Museum. In fact he could not be otherwise, for a printed catalogue is an essential condition of his dominant idea that the librarian should be a "factor" to "trade" with learned men and corporations for mutual profit. Hence he prescribes "a catalogue of additionals, which every year within the universities is to be published in writing within the library itself, and every three years to be put in print and made common to those that are abroad."

The full plan of communication is unfolded in the following passage:—

"When the stock is thus known and fitted to be exposed to the view of the learned world, then the way of trading with it, both at home and abroad, is to be laid to heart both for the increase of the stock and for the improvement of its use. For the increase of the stock both at home and abroad, correspondence should be held with those that are eminent in every science to trade with them for their profit, that what they want and we have, they may receive upon condition; that what they have and we want, they should impart in that faculty wherein their eminence doth lie. As for such as are at home eminent in any kind, because they may come by native right to have use of the library treasure, they are to be traded with all in another way, viz., that the things which are gained from abroad, which as yet are not made common and put to public use, should be promised and imparted to them for the increase of their private stock of knowledge, to the end that what they have peculiar, may also be given in for a requital, so that the particularities of gifts at home and abroad are to meet as in a centre in the hand of the Library Keeper, and he is to trade with the one by the other, to cause them to multiply the public stock, whereof he is a treasurer and factor.

"Thus he should trade with those that are at home and abroad out of the university, and with those that are within the university, he should have acquaintance to know all that are of any parts, and how their view of learning doth lie, to supply helps unto them in their faculties from without and from within the nation, to put them upon the keeping of correspondence with men of their own strain, for the beating out of matters not yet elaborated in sciences; so that they may be as his assistants and subordinate factors in his trade and in their own for gaining of knowledge."

Further instructions follow respecting the control to be exercised over the librarian, who is to give an account of his stewardship once a year to the doctors of the university, who are themselves, each in his own faculty, to suggest additional books proper to be added to the library. Dury seems to have no doubt that funds will always be forthcoming, as well as for the librarian's "extraordinary expenses in correspondencies and transcriptions for the public good." It seems to be expected that he will frequently make advances out of his own pocket. Dury glides lightly over these ticklish financial details, which, however, remind him of the existence of a law of copyright, and the probable accumulation of accessions undesirable from the point of view of mere scholarship. His observations on this point are full of liberality and good sense:—

"I understand that all the book-printers or stationers of the Commonwealth are bound of every book that is printed, to send a copy into the University Library; and it is impossible for one man to read all the books in all faculties, to judge of them what worth there is in them; nor hath every one ability to judge of all kind of sciences what every author doth handle, and how sufficiently; therefore I would have at this time of giving accounts, the library keeper also bound to produce the catalogue of all the books sent unto the University's library by the stationers that printed them; to the end that every one of the doctors in their own faculties should declare whether or no they should be added, and where they should be placed in the catalogue of additionals. For I do not think that all books and treatises, which in this age are printed in all kinds, should be inserted into the catalogue, and added to the stock of the library; discretion must be used and confusion avoided, and a course taken to distinguish that which is profitable from that which is useless; and according to the verdict of that society, the usefulness of books for the public is to be determined. Yet because there is seldom any books wherein there is not something useful, and books freely given are not to be cast away, but may be kept, therefore I would have a peculiar place appointed for such books as shall be laid aside to keep them in, and a catalogue of their titles made alphabetically in reference to the author's name and a note of distinction to show the science to which they are to be referred." It seems then, that if Dury could have advised Bodley, and Bodley had listened to him, the Bodleian would have been rich in early Shakespeares, and might have preserved many publications now entirely lost.

Dury's second letter on the subject merely repeats the ideas of the first with less practical suggestion and in a more declamatory style. It contains a striking passage on the ruin of the library of Heidelberg, a terrible warning to librarians. It had books, it had manuscripts, but it had no catalogue, and its candlestick was taken away.

"What a great stir hath been heretofore, about the eminency of the library of Heidelberg, but what use was made of it? It was engrossed into the hands of a few, till it became a prey unto the enemies of the truth. If the library keeper had been a man that would have traded with it for the increase of true learning, it might have been preserved unto this day in all the rareties thereof, not so much by the shuttings up of the multitude of books, and the rareness thereof for antiquity, as by the understandings of men and their proficiency to improve and dilate knowledge upon the grounds which he might have suggested unto others of parts, and so the library rareties would not only have been preserved in the spirits of men, but have fructified abundantly therein unto this day, whereas they are now lost, because they were but a talent digged in the ground."

Well said! and it may be added that one good reason for printing the catalogue of a great library is that, in the event of its destruction, it may at least be known what it contained. The greatest library in the world was within an ace of destruction under the Paris Commune: had it perished, the very memory of a large part of its contents would have been lost. Respecting Heidelberg, it should be remarked that the destruction was not quite so irreparable as would appear from Dury's passionate outburst. The books and manuscripts to a considerable extent went not to the Devil but to the Pope, though Dury probably could see little difference. But even the Pope did not ultimately retain them. No fewer than eight hundred and ninety MSS. were subsequently carried off by Napoleon, and being thus at Paris at the entry of the allies, were reclaimed by the Bavarian Government, and restored to the University of Heidelberg, with the sanction of the Pope, at the special instance of the King of Prussia.[2]

Appended to the tract is a short Latin account, also by Dury, of the Duke of Brunswick's library at Wolfenbuttel, famous on many grounds, and especially for having had Lessing as its librarian. It appears that on May 21, 1649, it was estimated to contain 60,000 treatises by 37,000 authors, bound in 20,000 volumes, all collected since 1604. It must therefore have been administered with an energy corresponding to the demands of Dury, who concludes his enthusiastic account with an aspiration which every librarian will echo on behalf of the institution with which he is himself connected:—

"Faxit Deus, ut Thesaurus hie rerum divinarum æternarum sit et ipse æternus, neque prius quam mundi machina laboret aut intercidat."

It will have been observed that Dury's suggestions have reference solely to university libraries. The conception of a really popular library did not then exist, and it may be doubted whether in any case even one so much in advance of his time could have reconciled himself to the idea of a collection where every description of literature, embodying every variety of opinion, should be indiscriminately accessible to every condition of men. But this very limitation of his views should render his admonition, and his lofty standard of the librarian's duty, more interesting and significant to the librarians of the nineteenth century. For if the advising function was rightly deemed so important in him who had to consult with university professors, men probably of more learning than himself, much more is its judicious exercise required in him who has to aid the researches and direct the studies of the comparatively ignorant. "The Reformed Library Keeper," therefore, has a message for our age as well as its own; and we need not regret the half-hour we have spent with good old John Dury, the first who discovered that a librarian had a soul to be saved.

  1. Read at the Monthly Meeting of the Library Association, March 1884.
  2. See Wilken, "Geschichte der Bildung, Beraubung, und Vernichtung der alten Heidelbergischen Büchersammlungen" (Heidelberg, 1817).