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Modern Libraries: 1550s-1590s CE

Let's examine the rise of printing, publishing houses and the impact of the Renaissance.

During the 1500s, book publishing houses gained momentum with the introduction of the printing press increasing the availability of books. Many of the beautiful libraries of this period include contributions by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Printing and the Renaissance

Andreas Vesalius Fabrica Base of the Brain 1543 Wikimedia Commons PDThe cultural period known as the Renaissance spans the 14th through the 17th centuries in Europe. Although the impact of the movement varied from country to country, the themes include the introduction of diplomacy in politics, a return to the classics of literature, an emphasis on observation in science, and a focus on learning and educational reform.

For instance, Flemish anatomy professor Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) published De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) in 1543, an influential anatomy book. The image on the right is from this famous book.

Forme of Cury Wikimedia Commons PDBy the 14th century, the library collections included a wide range of subjects to meet the needs of a growing number of library patrons.

In the late 1300s, the master-cooks of King Richard II wrote a cookery manuscript titled The Forme of Cury or The Forms of Cooking. The roll was written around 1390 on vellum with around 250 recipes.

It wasn't until the 1500s that cookery books became common in libraries.

Cookbooks of the late 1500s began to target a female audience, however the literacy rates among women were still low so the book was likely aimed at the privileged class that could afford the valuable ingredients called for in the recipes. The example on the left is a copy from the 1700s.

Library Catalogues

The growth of printing translates into libraries of increasing size. With this growth comes the need for organization and access. During this time, individuals and librarians focused on the creation of collection catalogues. For instance, physician Jeremias Martius created and printed a catalogue of his personal library in 1572. In 1575, a public library catalogue to the City Library of Augsburg, titled Catalogus Graecorum librorum manu scriptorum Augustanae bibliothecae was published and printed by Hieronymous Wolf and Johann Jakob Fugger.


In addition to library catalogues, publishing and printing bibliographies also became an important way to organize and share information about materials. In 1584, French bibliographer Francois Grude de la Croix du Maine published the first French national bibliography. He also proposed a classification system

Special Collections and Donations

Individuals continued to amass large private collections during this time. The art of collecting was gaining in popularity.

Upon their death, the collections of these book collectors were sometimes dispersed. However in some cases they were donated to a single library. While the collections sometimes became part of the larger library collection, some were kept in separate special collections. These collections provide interesting insights into the collector and the times.

Some examples are listed below:

Matthew Parker donated hundreds of manuscripts and 1000 books to the Corpus Christi College Library in Cambridge around 1574.

Robert Bruce Cotton was a collector of original manuscripts. Upon his death, the manuscripts became part of the British Museum and Library.

Samuel Pepys had one of the most significant private libraries of the 17th century. Upon his death, his diaries and thousands of volumes became part of the Magdalene College Library. The library reamins intact as Pepyr requested and is arranged on the original presses providing additional insights into the collection.

Publishing Houses

FrobeniusBy the 1500s, the printing press was making a tremendous impact on the production of books. During this time, books began to assume their modern format in terms of material, shape, and proportions. Books also included a title page and numbered pages.

Book acquisitions began to change as the first large-scale book publishers came on the scene. Large publishing houses of the era included French etienne, Dutch Christoph Plantin, and Johannes Frobenius of Basel.

Johann Froben (Johannes Frobenius)
Basel, Switzerland

Johann Froben (1460-1527) was a printer and publisher. After becoming friends with printer Johann Amerbach, Froben established a printing house around 1491. He was gained a reputation for accuracy and quality works. The city of Basel became the center of the Swiss book trade. Focusing on humanism, he published works of the classical Latin-Greek writers including books of philosophy and medical subjects. Hans Holbein the Younger to was commissioned to illustrate the books.

The image on the right shows Johannes Frobenious.

Aldus Manutius
Venice, Italy

Aldus Pius Manutius (1449-1515) was a printer and founder of Aldine Press in Venice. The press was founded in 1495 and continued through successors until 1598. His goal was to ensure that Greek literature was secured and available. For instance, he published works of Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Demosthenes, Seneca, Homeros, and others. Manutius is noted for inventing italic type and establishing modern use of the semicolon. His grandson went on to establish a standardized system of punctuation.

Manutius introduced inexpensive books in small format known as octavo similar to today's paperbacks. These small volumes were bound in vellum. The image below (left) shows the 1501 edition of Virgil from Aldine Press. The image below right shows a painting made in 1894 depicting "Jean Grolier in the House of Aldus Manutius". Manutius is the man standing.

The most complete collection of Aldine editions is available at the John Ryland Library in Manchester. Learn more about this collection at the John Rylands University Library's Special Collection.

Virgil 1501 Wikipedia PDAldus Manutius, Wikipedia, PD

Vatican Publications
Vatican City, Italy

The introduction of the printing press allowed editors to easily create revisions in liturgical texts causing confusion about the accuracy of texts. The Council of Trent (Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church) recognized the need for consistency. In 1570, an edition of the Roman Missal was mandated. This liturgical book contains the texts for the celebration of Mass in the Roman Catholic Church.

The book below shows the the Missale.

Learn more about the Roman Missal at Wikipedia.

Missal wikimedia commons PD

Intellectual Freedom and Censorship

Index Librorum Prohibitorum PDAt the same time that the Vatican was promoting their own publications, they banned the works of those author they considered immoral or incorrect. In 1559, Pope Paul IV established the first version of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. A revised version was authorized by the Council of Trent.

Published by the Roman Catholic Church from the 1500s through the 1900s, this index provided a long list of prohibited books.

The book banned works by leading scientists like Johannes Kepler's Epitome astronomiae Copernicianae.

Learn more about the Index Librorum Prohibitorum at Wikipedia.

Explore a list of authors and works found in Index Librorum Prohibitorum at Wikipedia.

Renaissance Libraries

As the cultural movement known as the Renaissance spread across Europe, new libraries were established.

Herzog August Library
Wolfenbuttel, Germany

Established in 1572, the collection began with the collection of Duke Augustus the Younger. The library was expanded in 1887 to include eight buildings. At one time it was one of the largest collections in Europe.

Visit the Herzog August Library online.

Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)
Florence, Italy

laurenziana reading room CC A-SA sailko

Constructed in 1525, the library was designed by Michelangelo in the Mannerism style. The building is an architectural achievement and deemed innovative at the time of its construction.

The core collection of manuscripts and books was donated by the Medici family as a sign of their wealth and intellect. Appointed as librarian in 1756, Angelo Maria Bandini (1726-1803) made additions to the collection. Today, the library contains many important works.

Learn more about the Laurentian Library at Wikipedia.

codex wikimedia commons CC-A Gary Francisco KellerThe Florentine Codex is the result of a 16th century ethnographic research project completed by Franciscan Friar Bernadino de Sahagun.

Stored in the Lautentian Library, the 2400 page codex was written in Nahuati, the native language of the Aztec people.

Intended as a way to better understand history and culture of the Mesoamerican people, the work was also intended to evangelize the Aztecs.

The image on the left shows the Florentine Codex.

Learn more about the Florentine Codex at Wikipedia.

College and University Libraries

Corpus Christi College Library
Cambridge, England

Founded in 1516, the library (79 feet 6 inches by 21 feet wide) used a different approach for shelving. Each bookcase contained shelves on each side as well as a desk. Benches were provided between each bookcase. This designed allowed multiple shelves however it also required a modified chaining system (see images below).

Corpus Clark 1901 PDCorpus Clark 1901 PD



School Libraries

During this time many school libraries were established including St. Alban's School, King Edward VI School, Bury St. Edmunds, and Rivington Grammar School in England.

Royal Grammar School at Guildford
London, England

In 1509, the will of Robert Beckingham provided for free grammar school with a schoolmaster. The first evidence of the library is reflected in the bequeath of a former student of books in 1573.

According to Clyde (1981), there's evidence that the library also served the town. The earliest list of books mentions 73 titles in the chained collection.

The image below shows the Royal Grammar School around 1750. The chained library is housed in the room over the central door.

Royal Grammar School, Guilford 1750, PD

Shrewsbury School
Shrewsbury, England

Shrewsbury School Annals of Shrewbury School 1899 PDThe School Ordinances of 1578 drawn up by the first headmaster, Thomas Ashton gave priority to the creation of a school library. He stated that

"a librarye and gallerye for the sayd schole, furnished with all manner of bookes, mappes, spheres, Instrumentes of Astronomye, and all other Thinges appartayninge to learninge, which maye be either given to the schole or procured with the schole moneye."

The photo right shows the library.

As early as 1587, Bailiffs asked permission of St. John's College to take money from the school chest for the library. The library was formally established in 1606 by headmaster John Meighen. By 1612, the library was in use. Many donations were also received. For instance, in 1596 a globe was presented by Rev. Thomas Laughton.

Skim Shrewsbury School website for more information.

Soro Academy Library

The Cistercian monastery was established around 1140. After Reformation, the King took over a medieval Cistercian monastery and converted it to a school. One of Denmark's largest boarding schools, the school library began around the time the school was established in 1586. As such, the library has a large collection of old and rare books.


Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Clyde, Laurel A. (1981). The Magic Casements: A Survey of School Library History from the Eighth to the Twentieth Century. PhD Thesis, James Cook University. Available: http://eprints.jcu.edu.au/2051/

Fisher, George William and Spencer, John (1899). Annals of Shrewbury School. Methuen. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=y-CgAAAAMAAJ

Oldham, J.B. (1959). Shrewsbury School Library. The Library. Fifth Series.

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