The British Museum and the History of its Special Library

BM-1Andrea here, due to a family health issue, I’m posting an “oldie but goodie” past blog today in which I’m musing on two of my favorite subjects: libraries and museums. And as it so happens, the British Museum in London—an amazingly wonderful institution that always makes my heart go pitty-pat—has a fascinating story in its history that combines the two!
BM-12It all begins with Sir Hans Sloane, who donated his vast collections of “interesting stuff” (a true cabinet of curiosities of 71,000 items—you can see one of the drawers to the right) to King George II and  the country in return for £20,000, to be given to heirs. The items included books, coins, prints, drawing and ethnographic artifacts. By an act of parliament, the gift was accepted and established as the British Museum in 1753. It was the first national public museum in the world, and admission was free to “all studious and curious persons.”

George-ii Now, not to be outdone, George II followed suit by donating the “Old Royal Library,” which consisted of books collected by the past sovereigns of England and royal manuscripts, to the museum in 1757. In 1759, the British Museum opened to the public, its array of items housed Montagu House, a 17th century mansion that once stood on the site of the current museum.
It quickly became a very popular attraction for Londoners as well as visitors. (How many of us authors have set a scene there!) From Egyptian, Greek and Roman artifacts to exotic natural history displays and fine art, it showcased wonders BM-2from around the world. And of course there were the marvelous books. By the early 1816, it had acquired such historic treasures as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon  Sculptures (commonly called Lord Elgin’s Marbles . . . but that’s a whole other story.)
Books were also a passion of George II’s grandson, George III. As his father had given away the Old Royal Library, George III set about collecting a new trove of royal bibliographic treasures. Now, between the American Revolution and his bouts of madness, George III gets a bad rap in the U.S. but his scholarly interests are well-documented.
His first major acquisition was the 6,000 volume library of Joseph Smith in 1763, which included 262 incunabula (books printed before 1501). Starting in 1766, George II spent around £1,500 per year on books, and even when he lapsed into his bouts of madness, the purchases were made by his trustees to keep the collection growing.
Kings library 1It was open to anyone with “a genuine scholarly purpose—John Adams and Joseph Priestley, one of the leading men of science of his day, were visitors. And Samuel Johnson was one of the literary luminaries who advised the king on acquisitions.
The library was kept is specially-built quarters within Queen’s House (which was later expanded and renovated into Buckingham Palace.) A book bindery was set up in the basement—by 1776 it took up five rooms. The royal style was said to be “fine, but not extravagant.”

When George III died in 1820, it was unclear what would become of the library. (There were questions about whether it was now the private property of George IV or belonged to the Crown.) Given Prinny’s profligacy, it’s not surprising that nasty rumors arose that he was thinking of selling the library to Tsar Alexander for much-needed blunt.

However, any potential battle over custody was avoided when he donated the collection to the British Museum, with the stricture that it be kept together.  It wasn’t an altogether altruistic decision—the yearly upkeep ran over £2,000 per year. And in return, he received government help in creating Buckingham Palace, a project near and dear to his heart. (George IV kept 33 books for himself, including a First Folio Shakespeare and a Mainz Psalter.)
BM-3The King’s Library was a wonderful addition to the Museum’s collection, adding 65,000 books on a wide range of subjects, including geology and theology, along with such treasures as a Gutenberg Bible and Caxton’s first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (but no works of Jane Austen!)
Space was now needed to house all the volumes, and in 1823, the museum built a neoclassical extension, and the library was put in the east wing.. It wasn’t until 1970s that the King’s Library was formally given to the British Library and transferred to the institution’s new building, where the reading public is still allowed access to it. Its original space in the British Museum has been reorganized with a permanent exhibition called Enlightenment—Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. (all prints courtesy of wikicommons; all photos by the author.)
I love that the King’s Library was part of both of my favorite worlds—libraries and museums! So, do you have a favorite library or museum?

19 thoughts on “The British Museum and the History of its Special Library”

  1. Thanks, Andrea, for this post. The history of the British Museum is fascinating.
    I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Historical Society. I also enjoy the Morgan Library, which had a wonderful exhibit years ago of Jane Austen’s letters and other items associated with her life.

  2. I enjoyed a visit to the British Museum years ago, Andrea, and would happily return.
    I hope that the family health issue will resolve well.

  3. Andrea – Thanks so much for a wonderful post. The link to your post has now been added to the Literary Miscellany I write and edit for The Baltimore Bibliophiles, a group of book collectors who I know will be interested. Beautifully done and beautifully illustrated.

  4. First, thanks so much for the wonderful post. I would love to be able to visit the museum and the library.
    Second, I hope that you family issue has a good outcome and everything will be well.
    Take care.

  5. All those places are among my favorites, Patricia. Esecially the Morgan Library, which is the perfect combination of musuem and library. Their exhibitions are some of the most interesting I’ve seen, and I love that the scale is always so manageable.

  6. Many thanks for this post, Andrea, especially when you have far more important matters on which to focus. Wishing good health to all your family!
    I consider myself extremely lucky to live near the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The current museum combined the Peabody Museum, founded by the East India Marine Society in the late 18th century, and the Essex Institute. Each had its own library, named for the Phillips family, and the combined libraries are now called the Phillips Library. Just a few years ago, the Library was given its own new state-of-the-art-facility. While I do miss the smell and creaking floors of the old library, it is wonderful to know that the rare manuscripts and ephemera it holds are in a safer, more sustainable place. And the Museum itself is such a treasure – I highly recommend a visit, if only to its website!

  7. Hope everything is ok Andrea!
    I love the Library in Trinity College Dublin which houses the Book of Kells.
    Lovely post.

  8. Thanks so much for the good wishes, Constance.
    I have not been to the Peabody Essex Museum or the Phillips Library, but they are now on my To Visit List. They sound amazing. I know what you mean about the old creaky floors and smell of old books. But how nice that all the priceless treasures are being taken care of for future generations.

  9. Arrgh. You are absolutely right . . . George II and his son Frederick were always at odds, which his grandson George III duplicated with his eldest son. I knew that . . .but sometimes the mind goes a little blank.
    Thank you for the correction! I have just corrected tthe text.

  10. You may be interested to know that Donna Thorland, who wrote some great historical romances set during the American Revolution, used to work at the Peabody Essex Museum. I really loved her books, but she then moved on to writing for the TV series “Salem”(very apt!) and other pursuits. Maybe she’ll go back to writing books one day.

  11. I didn’t know that, Karin, and I’ve never read her books, but now I’ll go find them! I can imagine that working at the PEM could inspire many, many romances – it’s such a wonderful place! Thanks!

  12. Fascinating. Just a personal note – from the 1911 Copyright Act (UK)there are six ‘copyright’ libraries who receive a Legal Deposit of every book published in the UK, and of course the BM is one. The others are The National Library of Scotland, of Wales, The Bodleian in Oxford, Cambridge University Library, and Trinity College Library in Dublin. My father worked in the National Library of Scotland for most of his career, and I was very pleased as an Honours student at the University of Edinburgh to be eligible to use the Reading Room there, no books to be removed from the building but one’s books were kept together on demand at the Desk for the following day/evening.


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