Frequently I’ll hear visitors to the Bauman Rare Books gallery comment: “These should be in a museum!” We answer that we sell to museums and institutions, as well as to private individuals. However, I am surprised when a visitor replies that it is such a shame private parties buy these items. In fact, the private book collector has been key to the survival and dissemination of many important books. Here are a few reasons why, using the great collector Robert Cotton:
1. Many important works have survived only because a private individual took the effort to find and save them.
In the 16th century, Henry VIII gutted the monasteries of England as part of the English Reformation. In the process, many precious books and manuscripts were lost or destroyed. So many articles owned by monasteries were treated with disdain that one letter writer noted people were using manuscripts “to scour their candlesticks, and some to rub their boots; some they sold to the grocers and soapsellers [as scrap paper].”
Enter Robert Cotton (b. 1571). A student of the famous William Camden, at sixteen Cotton founded the Elizabeth Society of Antiquaries. By eighteen he had started projects to gather up as many documents of the country’s history as possible.
Cotton’s collection includes the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic.
It also includes the Lindisfarne Gospels, which contains the earliest translation into English of the Gospels. And it includes the only surviving copy of Gawain and the Green Knight.
Without Cotton, these manuscripts would likely have been lost forever.
2. Many of the most important rare book collections in the world’s public institutions were formed first by private individuals, who had the means and resources to gather them.
It’s a practical reality that in most cases public institutions do not have the funds or the manpower to create truly great collections. However, it has been practice (and remains the intention) for many private collectors to donate their collections to public institutions. This is how the Bodleian at Oxford was formed; the Widener at Harvard; the Beinecke at Yale; the Library of Congress, after the War of 1812; the Lilly Library at Indiana University; and many, many more.
The British Library, containing one of the greatest research and rare book collections in the world, was first formed through the donations of a number of private “foundation collections”—among them, Robert Cotton’s.
Private collectors in general simply have more means to amass important collections than public institutions. Cotton was known to have spared no expense to track down and purchase manuscripts—a descendant of his in fact complained that his inheritance had all been spent on Cotton’s practice of obtaining manuscripts at any cost.
It was a later descendent who donated Cotton’s library to the nation in 1700. In honor of Cotton, the books retain his unusual method of classification, called the “emperor system.” Each of his fourteen cases was topped with a bust of a Roman emperor or empress. The Beowulf manuscript is known as “Cotton MS Vitellius A. xv.” The Lindisfarne Gospels is “Cotton MS Nero D. iv.”
3. Private collectors’ obsessions benefit the scholarly community.
One common trend in collecting over the years has been towards “completist” collections, or collections that cover one particular author or subject in incredible depth, over gathering materials from a wider (and more shallow) range. Collectors can be quite obsessive in their hunts. This can often lead to the discovery of previously unknown materials. For centuries scholars and biographers have benefitted from these individual collectors, who allowed them access to letters, documents, and printings that they otherwise may not have even known existed.
Contrary to popular belief, many collectors open their collections to scholars, and in fact love providing any access that will lead to further scholarship in their beloved field. They often become renowned scholars in the field themselves.
While Cotton wasn’t a strict completist in this sense, his collection was so extensive and contained so many manuscripts unobtainable elsewhere that it was a great resource for contemporary scholars. Ben Jonson used it as a reference library, as did a great many noblemen and members of parliament.
Collecting books is about preserving them because we see value in them. Robert Cotton is a personal hero of mine because of this never-ending quest. Anyone else have a personal favorite collector from the past?