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Modern Libraries: 1600s-1640s CE

Let's examine the spread of free, public libraries and the continuing developing of other types of libraries including university, church, monastery, academic, and castle libraries.

The 17th century marked the spread of free public libraries. However many of these libraries restricted access to approved citizens and most of the libraries were non-circulating. These libraries often began with endowments from local leaders or scholars. Receiving little or no outside funding, they relied on donations. Theft was a constant concern for many of the libraries chained their books.

Old Meets New

A time of cultural innovation and intellectual discovery in the arts and sciences, scholars revisited the classics. Many scholars sought to find old works for their libraries to promote their point of view.

Shakespeare First Folio Wikimedia Commons PDAt the beginning of the 17th century, Federico Borromeo traveled Europe seeking manuscripts for a new library in Milan called the Biblioteca Ambrosiana founded in 1609. He built the collection with acquisitions from the Bobbio Monastery and other well-known libraries. He wanted to promote Catholic scholarship in the wake of the Protestant movement.

William Shakespeare (ca 1564-1616) used his plays to invent and share new words and expressions. His plays were published during his lifetime.

In 1523, two of Shakespeare's friends published First Folio (right), a collected edition of Shakespeare's plays.

King James Bible Wikimedia Commons PDUntil the late 1500s, it was forbidden to translate the Bible into English.

However with a changing cultural and political environments, the King James Bible was published in 1611.

The King James Bible became the most widely published text in the English language.

Interest in book collecting and libraries was spreading. In 1666, Michel de Marolle published Catalogue de livres d’estampes et de figures en taille douce focusing on print collecting. Discussing topics like guidelines for acquisitions and market conditions, it reflected growing enthusiasm for building print collections.

Scottish Puritan John Dury and German-British educator Samuel Hartlib wrote a series of letters during the mid-1600s. They provide an excellent view into thinking during this time.

Published in 1650 as The Reformed Librarie-Keeper, the book discusses issues in librarianship.

Skim The Reformed Librarie-Keeper by John Dury.

By the mid 1600s, there were enough books about libraries and librarianship, that an anthology was produced. Written by Joachim Johann Mader and titled De bibliothecis atque archivis virorum clarissimorum libelli et commentationes. Cum praefatione de scriptis et bibliothecis antediluvianis, the work provides insights into libraries and library history.


Free Library

Chetham Wikimedia Commons Parrot of Doom CC A-SAchDuring the 1600s the concept of the free library was introduced. Although many towns in the United Kingdom built libraries, they were not well-endowed with few exceptions.

Chetham's Library
Manchester, England

Established in 1653, Humphrey Chetham's will stipulated that a free, public reference library should be established for scholars and others. Twenty-four feoffee were appointed to acquire a world-class collection. The materials were chained to book cases and stools were provided for readers. By the mid 1700s, the chains were removed when gates were erected to prevent theft. Originally, the collection was organized by size order.

Also on this site is Chetham's School of Music.

The image on the right shows the library today.

Learn more at A Brief History of Chetham's.

Innerpefrray Library

Organized before 1680, the Innerpeffray Library began as a family collection made available to the public. Scotland's first free public lending library, a separate library house was established in 1762. Circulation records show continuous use from 1747 to 1968.

Learn more about the Innerpetrray Library.

The Innerpetrray Library can still be visited today (image below).

Innerpeffray Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA

Plume Library
Maldon, England

One of the first public libraries, the Plume Library was established by Reverend Doctor Thomas Plume to house his library of over 8,000 books and pamphlets dating from 1487-1704. Three years before his death, the library was constructed from the ruins of an old church in the center of town. The collection was left to the town of Maldon to be used by the area parishes as well as individuals who want to borrow books.

Unlike most university libraries of the time, the library was designed with stacks providing no space for desks or cubicles. It was also not intended for expansion. The collection was intended to circulate. Specific instructions dictate that "any Gentleman or Scholar who desires, may go into it, and make use of any book there or borrow it, in case he leaves a vadimonium with the Keeper for the restoring thereof fair and uncorrupted within a short time."

At that time, most donated collections ended up in existing churches or libraries. According to Petchey (2004), the Plume Library is one of only two libraries local, purpose-build in England during the 17th century. The library was created as a public library and also contained grammar schools. It may be thought of the first school building created to serve as a school library.

Plume stated that "there was to be a well-qualified librarian who was 'a scholar who knows books,' who was to at be least a Master of Arts and a clerk (as the holder of the key) in holy orders." (Petchey, 13)

Learn more at Plume Library.


Gabriel Naude Wikimedia Commons PDGabriel Naude (1600-1653)

A French librarian, Gabriel Naude (1600-1653) believed in an open library for public use. In 1627, he wrote the book Advice on Establishing a Library providing a set of instructions for people wishing to create private collections.

This influential work was applied to the creation of a library for Cardinal Jules Mazarin that included 40,000 volumes. It became the first library in France to be open to the public without a requirement of references.

Gabriel Naude is shown on the right.

Academic Libraries

Thomas Bodley Wikimedia Commons PDAcademic libraries took a leadership role in collection development activities.

Bodleian Library
Oxford, England

During the Reformation, the library at Oxford was stripped. In 1598, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613) took the challenge of re-founding the library. In addition to bringing the library up-to-date, he made a significant contributions to librarianship.

Re-established in 1602, the library is the second largest in England and one of the oldest in Europe. The library was one of the first libraries open to the public in England.

Policies and Procedures

Bodley develop specific policies regarding use of the library. Users were required to agree to the following terms of library use.

"I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library."

Friends of the Library

Bodley saw the importance of recognizing contributions made to the library. He prepared a register of donations known as the Benefactors' Book that was displayed prominently. This idea became the foundations for friends of the library.

Legal Deposit Libraries

By creating an agreement between the library and the Stationer's Company, Bodley received a copy of every book on the condition that it could be borrowed and reprinted as needed. In this way, all published works could be preserved.

This model has been replicated around the world.

University of Leyden Library
Leiden, Netherlands

Founded in 1575 during the Enlightenment period, the scholar Josephus Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) said of the library "the greatest advantage of the library is that those who want to study, can study". Scaliger bequeathed his collection of manuscripts to the university library.


The library collection was established by confiscating the collection of a nearby Catholic monastery. The first printed library catalog called the Nomenclator was printed in 1595. By 1860, patrons were able to use an alphabetical register in the form of bound catalog cards.


The library contained a single row of books chained on a bar front of a shelf. Readers consulted the books while standing. The eleven bookcases are located on each side of the room. In addition, two cupboards possibly for manuscripts are also included. Globes and maps were also included in the library.

The images below show the Leyden Library during this time period (left, 1610; right, 1695).

Leyden Clark, 1901 PDLeiden 1694 Wikimedia Commons PD

Trinity Hall Library
Cambridge, England

Built under the direction of Thomas Preston around 1600, the library (65 feet long and 20 feet wide) contained five desks and six seats on each side of the room at right angles to the walls. Chains continued to be used on the desks. In this case a lock existed at the end of the book desk to allow for books to be moved.

The image below shows the Trinity Hall Library. Notice the drawing of the chain system on the right below.

Trinity Clark 1901 PDTrinity Clark 1901 PD


Church and Monastery Libraries

Church and monastery libraries continues to thrive in some areas. However chained libraries became less popular as collections grew larger and materials became less expensive.

Francis Trigge Chained Library
Granthan, Lincolnshire, England

Founded in 1598, Francis Trigge developed a library over the south porch of the St. Wulfram's Church for use of the clergy and townspeople. It is sometimes referred to as the first public library in Britain. The town furnished the rooms and Trigge spent about one hundred pounds on books. However access was restricted to approved patrons. A local smith used a standard pattern to produce the chains used on the library's book.

Learn more about the Francis Trigge Chained Library at Wikipedia.

Hereford Cathedral Library
Hereford, England

Originally, the working library of the cathedral, the Hereford Cathedral library was established in 1611. One of the only surviving chained libraries, it contains books date from the 12th to 19th century.

Read Medieval library with chained books gets annual cleaning by Emma Kasprzak to learn more about this library.

Durham Cathedral Library

Durham Clark 1901

The library (115 feet long by 40 feet wide) contains windows for light. The bookcases include some with multiple shelves mixed with standing desks.

The image on the right shows the Durham Library.

Monastery of Citeaux

Six scriptoria were located on the ground floor and the library was built over them. A staircase led from the ground floor to a small library located above one of the chapels and the main library (83 feet long by 25 feet wide). The vaulted ceiling contained six windows to provide light.

The images below show the layout of the Monastery of Citeaux.

Citeaux Clark 1901 PDCiteaux Clark 1901 PD

Citeaux Clark 1901 PD

Abbey of Saint Germain des Pres
Paris, France

The library of the Abbey of Saint Germain des Pres is a good example of how libraries expand to meet increasing demands. The first library was created as part of the original foundation in the thirteenth century. In 1555, the library was placed over the south walk of the cloister. By the 1700s, the library extends to include a second story on the west side of the cloister. When combined, the three library rooms were around 384 feet in length. At the time of the Revolution, it contained 49,000 books and 7000 manuscripts.

Castle Libraries

Some weathly families maintained personal libraries in their castles.

Earl of Worcester's Library
Raglan Castle, Wales

The modern Raglan Castle was built between the 15th and 17th centuries. The castle contained an important collection of Welsh documents and books. In 1646, the parliamentary army burned the library during the English Civil War.

In the photo of the Raglan Castle ruins below, the library is in the center between the apartments to the left and gatehouse to the right.

Ragan Castle Wikimedia Commons CC ASA Hchc2009

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Comerford, Kathleen M. (1999). What did early modern priests read? The library of the seminary of Fiesol, 1647-1721. Libraries & Culture, 34(3), 203-221.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Birkwood, Katherine (2010). 'Our learned primate' and that 'rare treasurie': James Ussher's use of Sir Robert Cotton's manuscript library, c. 1603-1655. Library & Information History, 26(1), 33-42.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Gwynn, Lucy (2010). The architecture of the English domestic library, 1600-1700. Library & Information History, 26(1), 56-69.


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

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