This new category of book collectors who established personal libraries included members of the noble and upper classes, both those with hereditary titles and those who had accumulated wealth through commerce, manufacturing, and banking. They typified the enthusiastic response of the human spirit to the new ideas and knowledge that encouraged the building of libraries. Libraries became the possession not only of the privileged segments of society, but also, eventually, of the middle classes.
Early examples of this kind of princely library include that of Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary (14401490), whose magnificent collection was dispersed by the invading Turks in the early sixteenth century. The Medici family in Florence exemplifies the merchant class; among the Medici projects was its great library, now the Laurentian Library, one of the first modern libraries to have its own building (1571). Other wealthy families competed in building library and art collections that brought them esteem. The Papal library at the Vatican, which dates its modern founding to Nicholas V and Sixtus IV in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is another
And yf that olde bokes were aweye, Yloren were of remembraunce the keye.[And if all old books were lost, Lost too would be the key of memory.] • Chaucer C1342/43—1400)
Good example. As books became more appealing as collectors’ items, the gentleman’s library became a trademark of the social class. Some of these collections grew into their own institutions; others merged through sale or bequest into other collections.
In the sixteenth century, libraries were increasingly attainable by the middle class through the proliferation of popular printed reading material. Books became cheaper and more widely available, and thus were collected by more people—a trend that has accelerated to the present. Political, religious, and social groups all tried to exploit the potential for promoting their messages; the Reformation and the civil conflicts accompanying it unleashed the power of political pamphlets and books. The Lutheran Reformers promoted education and reading as a public good that demanded public support, which made libraries even more significant. The Jesuits likewise considered a serious education, requiring books and libraries, to be essential in promoting the Catholic faith. Beginning in the early eighteenth century the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) published and distributed Protestant religious and educational materials throughout the British Empire, and through the influence of the Reverend Thomas Bray (1656-1730) they established several kinds of libraries for popular and clergy use, notably in England and the British colonies in America.
The growth of nationalism and colonialism from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries supported the spread of books and libraries. The voyages of the Portuguese, Spanish, French, and British explorers yielded journals, maps, and specimens that resulted in further research and study and new books to record new ideas. Royal and national libraries, as well as libraries of societies and other institutions, collected this material, which enriched their museums and laboratories as well as their libraries. The colonialism that often followed nationalistic adventuring provided opportunities for those with an interest in books and libraries to press for translation work, literacy, education, and cultural integration. In Asia and Latin America and then later in Africa, agencies in the colonizing nation established schools and libraries as desirable institutions in their nation’s colonies abroad. Like the SPG, the Jesuit missionaries provided books and libraries for the colleges they established in China, Japan, India, Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere.
As they profited from their new ventures, royal houses and noble families began to assemble library collections that served as treasure houses of books. Beyond the local nobility and regional princes, the sovereigns of the royal houses began to consolidate their bibliographical holdings so that libraries were not dispersed periodically. Thus began the royal and ducal libraries in Europe that frequently merged into royal libraries for the nation and, ultimately, national libraries. These institutions, such as those in France, Prussia, Austria, Spain, and Sweden, were destined to become some of the great national libraries of the eighteenth century and beyond. They would be joined by comparable institutions such as the British Museum-Library (now British Library) in 1753, the U. S. Library of Congress in 1800, and the Russian State Library and the National Library of China in the twentieth century. These libraries, like those of other nations, continue to hold a place of honor and responsibility as repositories of the national cultural record. They perform a functional as well as a symbolic role because they frequently lead in organizing library activities for the nations they represent.