British Museum Library, London

by Unknown


British Museum Library, London.—There is probably no other public institution in Great Britain which is regarded with so great and general interest as the British Museum. By the variety of its departments, this splendid national depository of literature, and objects of natural history and antiquities, meets in some way the particular taste of almost every class of society. The department of Natural History, in its three divisions of Zoology, Botany, and Mineralogy, contains a collection of specimens unsurpassed, probably unequalled, in the world. The department of antiquities is in some particulars unrivalled for the number and value of the articles it contains. But the library is the crowning glory of the whole. If, in respect to the number of volumes it contains, it does not yet equal the National Library of Paris, the Royal Library of Munich, or the Imperial Library of St. Petersburg—in almost every other respect, such as the value and usefulness of the books, the arrangements for their convenient and safe keeping, and, in fact, in every matter pertaining to its internal arrangements, the library of the British Museum, by the concurrent testimony of competent witnesses from various countries, must take rank above all similar institutions in the world. Well may the people of this country regard the Museum with pride and pleasure. The liberal grants of parliament, and the munificent bequests of individuals, are sure indications of a strong desire and purpose to continue and extend its advantages.

Some idea of the magnitude of the Museum, and of its vast resources, may be formed by considering that the buildings alone in which this great collection is deposited have cost, since the year 1823, nearly £700,000; and the whole expenditure for purchases, exclusive of the cost of the buildings just named, is considerably more than £1,100,000. Besides this liberal outlay by the British Government, there have been numerous magnificent bequests from individuals. The acquisitions from private munificence were estimated, for the twelve years preceding 1835, at not less than £400,000. The latest considerable bequest was that of the Right Hon. Thomas Grenville: his library, which he gave to the Museum entire, was valued at £50,000. The annual receipts of the institution of late years, from parliamentary grants and the interest of private legacies, have been about £50,000. The number of visitors to the Museum is immense. In the year 1848 they amounted to 897,985, being an average of about 3000 visitors per day for every day the Museum is open. On special occasions there have been as many as thirty thousand visitors on a single day.

This noble institution may be said to have originated in the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane, who, dying in 1752, left his immense collections of every kind to the nation, on the condition of paying £20,000 in legacies to different individuals; a sum considerably less than the intrinsic value of the medals, coins, gems, and precious metals of his museum. This bequest included a library of 50,000 volumes, among which were 3566 volumes of manuscripts in different languages; a herbarium of 334 volumes; other objects of natural history, to the number of six-and-thirty or forty thousand, and the house at Chiswick, in which the whole was deposited. The Harleian collection of manuscripts, amounting to 7600 volumes, chiefly relating to the history of England, and including, among many other curious documents, 40,000 ancient charters and rolls, being about the same time offered for sale, parliament voted a sum of £30,000, to be raised by lottery, and vested in trustees, for the establishment of a National Museum. Of this money, £20,000 were paid to the legatees of Sir Hans Sloane, £10,000 were given for the Harleian Manuscripts, and £10,000 for Montague House as a receptacle for the whole. Sloane's Museum was removed thither with the consent of his trustees. In 1757, George II., by an instrument under the great seal, added the library of the kings of England, the printed books of which had been collected from the time of Henry VII., the manuscripts from a much earlier date. This collection was very rich in the prevailing literature of different periods, and it included, amongst others, the libraries of Archbishop Cranmer, and of the celebrated scholar Isaac Casaubon. His majesty annexed to his gift the privilege which the royal library had acquired in the reign of Queen Anne, of being supplied with a copy of every publication entered at Stationers' Hall; and in 1759 the British Museum was opened to the public.

The value of the library has been greatly enhanced by magnificent donations, and by immense parliamentary purchases. In 1763, George III. enriched it with a collection of pamphlets and periodical papers, published in England between 1640 and 1660, and chiefly illustrative of the civil wars in the time of Charles I., by whom the collection was commenced. Among other valuable acquisitions may be mentioned Garrick's collection of old English plays, Mr. Thomas Tyrwhitt's library, Sir William Musgrave's collection of biography, the general library of the Rev. C. M. Cracherode, the libraries of M. Ginguené, Baron de Moll, Dr. Burney, and Sir R. C. Hoare; and above all, the bequest of Major Arthur Edwards, who left to it his noble library, and £7000 as a fund for the purchase of books. Four separate collections of tracts, illustrative of the revolutionary history of France, have been purchased at different times by the trustees, in the exercise of the powers with which they are invested. One of these was the collection formed by the last president of the parliament at Bretagne, at the commencement of the revolution; two others extended generally throughout the whole revolutionary period; and the fourth consisted of a collection of tracts, published during the reign of the Hundred Days in 1815—forming altogether a body of materials for the history of the revolution as complete in regard to France as the collection of pamphlets and tracts already mentioned is with respect to the civil wars of England in the time of Charles I. Another feature of the Museum Library is its progressive collection of newspapers, from the appearance of the first of these publications in 1588. Sir Hans Sloane had formed a great collection for his day. But to this was added, in 1818, the Burney collection, purchased at the estimated value of £1000; and since that period the Commissioners of Stamps have continued regularly to forward to the Museum, copies of all newspapers deposited by the publishers in their office.

In 1823, the Royal Library collected by George III. was presented to the British nation by his successor George IV., and ordered by parliament to be added to the library of the British Museum, but to be kept for ever separate from the other books in that institution. The general plan of its formation appears to have been determined on by George III., soon after his accession to the throne; and the first extensive purchase made for it was that of the library of Mr. Joseph Smith, British consul at Venice, in 1762, for which his majesty paid about £10,000. In 1768 Mr. (afterwards Sir Frederick) Barnard, the librarian, was despatched to the continent by his majesty; and as the Jesuits' houses were then being suppressed and their libraries sold throughout Europe, he was enabled to purchase, upon the most advantageous terms, a great number of very valuable books, including some very remarkable rarities, in France, Italy, and Germany. Under the judicious directions of Mr. Barnard, the entire collection was formed and arranged; it was enlarged during a period of sixty years, by an annual expenditure of about £2000, and it is in itself, perhaps, one of the most complete libraries of its extent that was ever formed. It contains selections of the rarest kind, particularly of scarce books which appeared in the first ages of the art of printing. It is rich in early editions of the classics, in books from the press of Caxton, in English history, and in Italian, French, and Spanish literature; and there is likewise a very extensive collection of geography and topography, and of the transactions of learned academies. The number of books in this library is 65,250, exclusively of a very numerous assortment of pamphlets; and it appears to have cost, in direct outlay, about £130,000, but it is estimated as worth at least £200,000.

The nucleus of the department of manuscripts at the British Museum was formed by the Harleian, Sloanean, and Cottonian collections. To these George II. added, in 1757, the manuscripts of the ancient royal library of England. Of these, one of the most remarkable is the "Codex Alexandrinus;" a present from Cyril, patriarch of Constantinople, to King Charles I. It is in four quarto volumes, written upon fine vellum, probably between the fourth and sixth centuries, and is believed to be the most ancient manuscript of the Greek Bible now extant. Many of the other manuscripts came into the royal collection at the time when the monastic institutions of Britain were destroyed; and some of them still retain upon their spare leaves the honest and hearty anathemas which the donors denounced against those who should alienate or remove the respective volumes from the places in which they had been originally deposited. This collection abounds in old scholastic divinity, and possesses many volumes, embellished by the most expert illuminators of different countries, in a succession of periods down to the sixteenth century. In it are also preserved an assemblage of the domestic music-books of Henry VIII., and the "Basilicon Doron" of James I. in his own handwriting. The Cottonian collection, which was purchased for the use of the public in 1701, and annexed by statute to the British Museum in 1753, consists of 861 manuscript volumes, including "Madox's Collections on the Exchequer," in ninety-four volumes, besides many precious documents connected with our domestic and foreign history, about the time of Elizabeth and James. It likewise contains numerous registers of English monasteries; a rich collection of royal and other original letters; and the manuscript called the "Durham Book," being a copy of the Latin Gospels, with an interlinear Saxon gloss, written about the year 800, illuminated in the most elaborate style of the Anglo-Saxons, and believed to have once belonged to the venerable Bede. The Harleian collection is still more miscellaneous, though historical literature in all its branches forms one of its principal features. It is particularly rich in heraldic and genealogical manuscripts; in parliamentary and legal proceedings; in ancient records and abbey registers; in manuscripts of the classics, amongst which is one of the earliest known of Homer's "Odyssey;" in missals, antiphonars, and other service-books of the Catholic Church; and in ancient English poetry. It possesses two very early copies of the Latin Gospels, written in gold letters; and also contains a large number of splendidly illuminated manuscripts, besides an extensive mass of correspondence. It further includes about three hundred manuscript Bibles or Biblical books, in Hebrew, Chaldaic, Greek, Arabic, and Latin; nearly two hundred volumes of writings of the fathers of the church; and a number of works on the arts and sciences, among which is a tract on the steam-engine, with plans, diagrams, and calculations by Sir Samuel Morland. The Sloanean collection consists principally of manuscripts on natural history, voyages and travels, on the arts, and especially on medicine.

In 1807 the collection of manuscripts formed by the first Marquis of Lansdowne was added to these libraries, having been purchased by parliament for £4925. It consists of 1352 volumes, of which 114 are Lord Burleigh's state papers, 46 Sir Julius Cæsar's collections respecting the reigns of Elizabeth and James I., and 108 the historical collections of Bishop Kennet. Other valuable collections are the classical manuscripts of Dr. Charles Burney, the Oriental manuscripts collected by Messrs. Rich and Hull, and the Egyptian papyri presented by Sir J. G. Wilkinson. It would be endless, however, to enumerate these treasures; we have indicated enough to convince our readers that the library of the British Museum is worthy of the nation to which it belongs.