With the rapid spread of the printing press, printed books began to replace tediously hand-copied texts (Harrison and Laslett, 1965). This proliferation gave rise to the Golden Age of Libraries (Murray, 2009, pp. 116-118). Both private and institutional libraries grew as a result of increased trading revenues and spoils of war (Murray, 2009, pp.116-118).
Harkening back to the days of the Roman libraries, private libraries were seen as a status symbol. Men such as Medici, Montefeltro, Richard de Bury, and Lord Spencer amassed huge collections, some of which would become the genesis for national libraries (Murray, 2009, pp. 69, 74-75). Not all libraries, however, served such purposes. As books became cheaper and more attainable, scholars began to create personal libraries for their own personal use (Harrison and Laslett, 1965, p.1).
The personal libraries of John Locke and Isaac Newton were not ornamental but utilitarian. Their books were not for pleasure but for use (Harrison, 1978, p. 1). Neither library would be considered grand. Locke had 3,641 and Newton had around 2,100 (Harrison and Laslett, 1965, p. 1; Harrison, 1978, pp. 11-12). Though small compared to the likes of Huber, de Bury, and Lord Spencer, nobody could argue that they did more with less.
These two polymaths had the one main ingredient to building a library: income. By no means wealthy, Newton did have a considerable income which allowed him to purchase books (Harrison, 1978, p. 7). He liked to purchase books for a discount and even noted such occasions in the book itself with pleasure (Harrison, 1978, p. 4). Newton would also get his books as gifts, presentations from other authors due to his scientific eminence (Harrison, 1978, p.12). Even though Newton rarely ventured far from Trinity College at Cambridge, Newton never cataloged his library. Surprisingly, for a man who helped organize the universe and how it operates, Newton’s library was in a “regulated state of apparent disorder” (Harrison, 1978, p. 1). Newton died without a will and his library was subsequently bought by the Warden of the Fleet Prison for next to nothing (Harrison and Laslett, 1965, p.13).
Locke, on the other hand, was meticulous in his record keeping, consistent with his training as a physician (Harrison and Laslett, 1965, p. 13). In fact it is possible to see the growth of his library from his first year of school at Christ Church in 1652 to the year of his death in 1704 (Harrison, 1965, p. 13-14). Unlike Newton, however, Locke never had the whole of his library with him until the last years of his life (Harrison and Laslett, 1965 p. 18). This was because he spent a considerable amount of time overseas in political exile due to the religious wars that were ravaging the country. In fact, Locke witnessed the last general burning of books in England before fleeing to Rotterdam (Harrison and Laslett, 1965, p.3).
As Locke travelled, he spent his money freely on books. Before his exile, Locke travelled extensively in France, collecting books along the way. Eventually he ran out of room and was forced to send some home. Like the philosopher, his books did a great deal of travelling as they were often spread throughout England (Harrison and Laslett, 1965, pp. 2-3). Locke never stayed at the family estate he inherited, and thus, never had a permanent place for his books until the last fourteen years of his life. When he was forced into exile, his books at Oxford were barely rescued by his friend James Tyrell (Harrison and Laslett, 1965, p.3). Like his friend Newton, Locke’s library was built by purchases and gifts as presentations. Others made his way to his library as either defenses or criticisms of his works (Harrison and Laslett, 1965, p.5). During the last years of his life, he continued to increase his holdings, becoming more of a bibliophile than a philosopher in need of books. When he died, he had no children. He divided his books between his cousin and the young boy of his patrons (Harrison and Laslett, 1965, p. 8-9).
In conclusion, these are two examples of private libraries assembled for a specific purpose. No thought was given during their creation for bestowing them to a university as a seed for a larger library or having them live on as part of an institution. As utilitarian creations, their existence ceased when their creators died, having served their purpose for their masters and, in a larger sense, humanity.
Harrison, J. (1978). The library of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harrison, J., & Laslett, P. (1965). The library of John Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Murray, S.A.P., (2009). The library: An illustrated history. Chicago: Sky Horse Publishing.