Monday, February 24, 2020

The Seventeenth Century Library

by Deborah Swift

As soon as the printing press had opened up the world of print, people couldn't get enough books. What were once luxury items, individually copied for one particular patron, were now mass-produced for the first time, and in the 17th century, publishers and booksellers proliferated.

A seventeenth century print works

Many of these new publishers began as printing or bookseller apprentices. After their apprenticeship, they saw the profits made from books and opened their own businesses. Book piracy is nothing new, the reprinting of a popular book in its entirety without the permission of either author or publisher was a common practice, and booksellers openly sold these unauthorised editions. Some of these facsimiles even ended up in libraries.

Just like today, not all printing was accurate and seventeenth century typos were rife. Due to the vagaries of spelling in this period, which was not standardized, mistakes with the type-setting could easily be made. But one error was particularly disastrous - in 1631, the word ‘not’ was left out in a reprint of the King James Bible. King Charles I and the Archbishop of Canterbury were somewhat taken aback to read the commandment: Thou shalt commit adultery.

Barker and Lucas, the printers who produced it, immediately had their printing license revoked. All the bibles were ordered to be destroyed, but eleven escaped the cull, and still exist today. This version is now known as The Wicked Bible, the Adulterous Bible or the Sinner’s Bible.

In this period there were many ecclesiastical libraries, but not many had escaped Henry VIII's hatchet job on Catholicism. One example is the 17th century library at Winchester, named after Bishop Morley, whose books are part of the collection. Behind the beautifully carved bookcases, grooves can still be found where secret compartments were made to hide the communion vessels and other paraphernalia. In 1688, when the King had been restored, this library was constructed to hold rare medieval manuscripts such as the illuminated Winchester Bible.

Morley Library Winchester
With the burgeoning popularity of books in this period, it was unsurprising that someone would come up with the idea of a public library. One of the first ever libraries was founded in Birmingham between 1635 and 1642, by Puritan minister Francis Roberts. A building to house the library was finished in 1656, and the accounts of the High Bailiff of Birmingham for 1655 include 3 pounds, 2 shillings and 6 pence paid to Thomas Bridgens towards buildinge ye library. It was obviously meant to be of use to scholars because £126 2s 9d was paid out the next year for buildinge the library, repayreing the Schoole and schoole-masters' houses. This library was one of the first public libraries in England, but its Puritan roots led to the collection being broken up once the King was restored in 1660. It is so fascinating how such precious books have been either banned or preserved by the different religious factions of the day. The Birmingham library doesn't survive in its original seventeenth century building.

St John's Library Cambridge

Another notable library founded in this time is the Jacobean St John's College Library, Cambridge. There is a great artcle here about its history. Its shelves were categorised by lists in the 17th century and these hand-written labels still exist, with the following headings: philologi, philosophi, medici, theologi recentiores, theologi scholastici, historici ecclesiastici, SS Patres, liturgica, biblia sacra, concilia, iurisconsulti, lexicographi, historici, mathematici. So you can see that most libraries were heavily weighted towards scripture.

In Scotland, The Leighton Library, or Bibliotheca Leightoniana, in Dunblane is the oldest purpose built library in Scotland. Take a tour of it on the Youtube video above. It houses about four thousand books from the 16th to the 19th century. Robert Leighton, the then bishop of Dunblane and archbishop of Glasgow, had left the books to Dunblane Cathedral, and these were the bedrock of the collection. Built with £100 from the late Archbishop Leighton, this modest and unassuming building was completed in 1687. The structure is one long panelled room, with two stone vaults below, lit by windows to the south and west. During World War II, it was used as an air-raid shelter and had fallen into neglect, but more recently renovation, repair, and cataloging was carried out, and the library was officially re-opened in May 1990.
Pepys's custom-built bookcases
A more personal library of the time was Pepys's library, which is housed at Magdalene College, since the death of his nephew, John Jackson, His three thousand books, are the end product of a lifetime’s love for books, as evidenced in his diary. The books are housed in twelve matching and sumptuous late seventeenth-century oak bookcases. The collection's fine leather bindings, mostly commissioned by Pepys himself, are of the highest quality, showing how much he held his books in regard, and how much he wanted to show them off. Not everyone could afford to commission cases, and in the 17th century, books were often stored in coffers or trunks. There is a story of a young lad called Grotius escaping persecution and prison in a trunk used to carry books. The prison was Loevestein Castle, a state prison in the Spanish Netherlands, and he made his escape in 1621. Read the story here.
The book chest in which Grotius hid

Also popular in the seventeenth century were travelling libraries of miniature books - especially the Bible and books of Psalms or other religious tracts. Below is one that was brought up for auction recently and dates from 1627. Often these were put together in a series, like in the one below.

This 17th century Travelling Library is delightful, and contains forty volumes. While scholars don’t know exactly who made it, they believe it was commissioned by William Hakewill, an MP, a lawyer, a student of legal history, and an early member of the Society of Antiquaries. The miniature library was held in a wooden case, covered in brown turkey leather,effectively disguising it as one large volume, but it contains three shelves of books, each bound in vellum and tooled with gold-leaf.
The books include works by Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Horace and Julius Caesar. Hakewill seems to have given four similar sets as gifts to friends in the years 1617 and 1618. You can read more about the collection in this Daily Mail article, which calls this set of books 'the Seventeenth Century Kindle'.

Pictures from wikipedia, unless linked.
Sources ;
Samuel Pepys - Tomalin
Every One a Witness - Wolfenden
Voices from The World of Samuel Pepys - Bastable

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published on September 26, 2016.


Deborah Swift is the author of nine historical novels as well as the Highway Trilogy for teens (and anyone young at heart!). So far, her books have been set in the 17th Century or in WW2, but she is fascinated by all periods of the past and her new novel will be set in the Renaissance. Deborah lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.

For more information of Deborah's published work, visit her Author Page


  1. Absolutely fascinating history. Thank you. One of my dreams is to live in a library, for them I will finally have enough space for all my books! I didn't know Pepys was such a lover of books. He is more famous for his love of maids! Even after the printing press, such a display of books meant wealth.

  2. Thanks for posting this - I never get enough of reading about old libraries, old books, or both. :)

  3. This is fascinating. All of the libraries are gorgeous, but I'm especially drawn to Pepys'. The miniature travelling library is amazing.


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