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Private library

Charles Edward Brock's private library

A private library is a library under the care of private ownership, as compared to that of a public institution, and is usually only established for the use of a small number of people, or even a single person. As with public libraries, some people use bookplates – stamps, stickers or embossing – to show ownership of the items. Some people sell their private libraries to established institutions such as the Library of Congress, or, as is often the case, bequeath them thereto after death, through a will.


  • History 1
    • Mesopotamia 1.1
    • Egypt 1.2
    • Ancient Rome 1.3
    • Renaissance Europe 1.4
    • Colonial North America 1.5
    • Modern era 1.6
  • Library (domestic room) 2
  • Famous private libraries 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5


The Library at Dingestow by Charlotte Bosanquet
Private library of Russian archaeologist Ivan Zabelin

The earliest libraries belonged to temples or administration bodies, resembled modern archives, and were usually restricted to nobility, aristocracy, scholars, or theologians. Examples of the earliest known private libraries include one found in Ugarit (dated to around 1200 BC) and the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (near modern Mosul, Iraq), dating back to the 7th century BC.


Mesopotamia was home to a great number of private libraries with many harboring an extensive collection of over 400 tablets.[1] The nucleus of these private libraries were primarily texts which had been transcribed by the proprietors themselves from the time they acquired their education in the art of the scribe.[1] As insignificant as these libraries may seem, they established the basis for the Library of Ashurbanipal collection.[1]


While private libraries in ancient Egypt are not a common occurrence, they do exist to some extent. One of the problems in identifying potential individual libraries is that it is often difficult to distinguish between a personal library and one associated with a temple.[2] In any case, personal libraries have survived and are perhaps more numerous than traditionally assumed. Several private tombs have exposed copious texts whose content is scholarly in nature. In addition, extensive clusters of papyrus scrolls have been unearthed in association with domiciliary arrangements confirming some type of library endured there.[2] The Middle Kingdom Period (2055-1650 B.C.) offers the best clues to the presence of private libraries in ancient Egypt.

For example, one sepulcher contained a chest with books on bureaucratic relations, hymns, and incantations. In total, the cache revealed a twenty-volume library.[2] A rather large collection from the Thirteenth Dynasty suggests a library belonging to a doctor or necromancer.[2] In addition to general texts on assorted literature, there is a profusion of discourses on medicine and magic. A private library of considerable quantity is ascribed to a certain Kenherkhepshef. This library embodies nearly fifty manuscripts accommodating a collection of disparate subjects from correspondence missives to astrological recipes such as incantations and dream interpretations.[2] This particular library spanned many generations being passed to one family member to the next which gives the impression of the significance the library had.[2]

A manuscript known as the Westcar Papyrus from this same period alludes to an individual whose residence occupies spaces for a private library.[2] The text of the manuscript is a fanciful narrative; however, it proves that ordinary citizens were literate and accumulated books for their own use.[2] One Middle Kingdom tomb, associated with a healer and lector priest, contained over twenty books, one of which was the now famous Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.[3] Finally, A private library in a New Kingdom tomb at the site of Deir el Medina housed books on medicine as well as on love poetry and wisdom literature.[3]

Ancient Rome

The earliest appearing libraries in Rome were of the private type and were most often procured as spoils in times of war. For example, when the Roman general Aemilius defeated the Macedonian king Perseus in 168 BC the only plunder he wished to possess was the king's private library.[4] Likewise, in 86 BC, Roman general Sulla appropriated the library of the infamous Greek bibliophile and kleptobibliophile Apellicon of Teos.[4] Finally; around 73 BC, Lucullus removed and brought back to Rome the private library of King Mithridates VI of the Pontus region.[4] Nearly every house of nobility had a library and virtually every one was split into two rooms: one for Latin texts and one for Greek texts.[4] Rome may very well have been the birthplace of specialized libraries, with evidence of early medical and legal libraries. In Rome one can see the beginnings of book preservation. One author proposed that a library is better suited if it meets the rising sun in the east in order to ensure that it does not succumb to bookworms and decomposition.[4] Some examples of Roman-period private libraries include the Villa of the Papyri, the House of Menander, the House of Augustus, and the Domus Aurea.[4]

In the 5th century BC, on the island of Cos outside the city of Pergamum, a medical school complex with a library was built in the sanctuary of Asclepius. This is the first medical school known to have existed, and subsequently it could be credited with the first specialized library.

Small private libraries called bibliothecae were responsible for advancing the larger public libraries of the Roman world.[5] The design of these libraries was rather a novelty and became the archetype of later institutions, in particular libraries of imperial estates.[5] The form of private libraries during the late Republic Period and early Empire Period imitated Greek architectural characteristics.[5] The library itself was a repository of diminutive proportions whose purpose was to accommodate books. The books were actually supported on wooden shelving units or in cupboards situated against walls. Rooms annexed to the library were used primarily as reading rooms. The configuration of these libraries was rectangular and is considered more of niche than a separate room because they were always extensions of other structures.[5]

Acquiring books for personal use in order to cultivate oneself was contagious in the Roman world, partially galvanized by the monarchs who were often prolific writers.[5] Satirist Martial notes that it was quite accepted for the houses of the Roman elite to harbor a library.[5] One reason for the abundance of private libraries is the reinforcement of enlightenment and perpetuating the literary traditions.[5] There is another more pretentious reason. It was not uncommon for an individual to assemble a library in order to inveigle an emperor. The write Lucian of Samosata denounces one such individual who exploits his library to cajole the emperor.[5]

The emperor Augustus admired the works of authors and he was a prolific author himself. In this way the emperor encouraged the advancement of the library as an institution by harboring a private library of his own.[5] The library was the first to incorporate Greek and Hellenic architectural behaviors.[5] The shape of the library was in the recognizable rectangular style. This library marked the establishment of a binary collection with individual rooms supporting the literatures of Greek and Roman writers respectively.[5]

Both the philologist Aulus Gellius and the emperor Marcus Aurelius acknowledge the existence of a private library housed in the Domus Tiberiana. While Aurelius makes a passing reference to a bibliothecarius or palace librarian, Gellius comments on how he and author Sulpicius Apollinaris were engaged in erudite disquisition within the library.[5]

The Roman sovereign Hadrian had a fondness for all types of literature so it is no surprise to learn that his private sanctuary, the Villa Adriana, maintained in its own library.[5] Like the private library of Augustus, Hadrian’s collection promoted a doublet of Greek and Latin writings. It is difficult to ascertain how many manuscripts the libraries held; however, one assessment speculates that at a single wooden cabinet may have held at least 1,500 scrolls.[5]

During the tenure of Nero, an affluent residence was not complete without a library. In fact, libraries were as important as baths.[5]

The third century biographer Capitolinus remarks on a private library owned by the emperor Gordion II. Apparently the original owner of this library was the father of scholar and polymath Quintus Serenus Sammonicus whom Gordion was a student of.[6] Upon the death of Sammonicus in 212 AD, the library of some 62,000 manuscripts was entrusted to Gordion.[6] It is not clear what happened to this library, but it has been suggested that it was absorbed by the libraries of the Palatine, Pantheon, or Ulpian. It is also conceivable that it had been interspersed during the upheavals of the third century.[6]

Renaissance Europe

Mme Recamier in her library
Bibliothèque Royale de l'Hôtel de Bourvallais

The Golden Age brought with it a renewed interest in conserving the new ideas being put forth by the great thinkers of the day. The Kings of each European country created impressive libraries some of which have become the national libraries of today.

The National Library of France in Paris (Bibliothèque Nationale de France) was started in 1367 as the Royal Library of King Charles V. In Florence, Italy, Cosimo de Medici had a private library which formed the basis of the Laurentian Library. The Vatican library was also started in the 15th century.

The creation and expansion of universities prompted the gifting of private libraries to university libraries. One notable donation was by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester to Oxford University in the early 15th century.

Colonial North America

Private libraries were actually a characteristic of the first colonists to North America rather than a peculiarity. For example, twenty seven libraries were known to have existed in Plymouth Colony alone between the years of 1634 and 1683.[7] In fact books and the idea of establishing libraries in the new world had always been a strong conviction for the early settlers. William Brewster was one of the many passengers on board the Mayflower on its maiden voyage to America who transported his library consisting of nearly four hundred volumes.[8] Even as early as 1607 these libraries were flourishing in English-settled Jamestown. The Virginia colony sovereign John Smith described a private library owned by the reverend Good Master Hunt which was incinerated during a fire destroying much of the town.[8] Another analogous finding from 1720 to 1770 in Maryland records that over half of the demographics population had at least the Bible in their libraries and in Virginia, there was close to one thousand private libraries scattered and these collections had a typical assemblage of twenty books.[7] Distinguished martial administrator Miles Standish owned fifty books while the governor of Connecticut John Winthrop the Younger carried a thousand books with him on his voyage to the recently established territories in 1631.[7]

George Washington’s proclivity towards reading and collecting books in general was also acclaimed. Washington’s personal library was originally housed in his estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia.[9] The library consisted of 1,200 volumes and a catalog of the titles included in his library was created before the time of his death in 1799.[9] During the mid-nineteenth century, nearly all of the former collection had been purchased by Massachusetts book and manuscript merchant Henry Stevens.[9] Stevens subsequently decided to auction the collection to the British Museum; however, interested parties from both Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts procured the collection where they bequeathed it to its current residence, the Boston Athenæum.[9] Washington’s library encompassed books in many disciplines such as economics, geography, history, and religion.[10] Some of his most beloved volumes were those that pertained to agriculture since he was a voracious farmer.[11] One work that he embraced dearly was a play entitled Cato written in 1712 by the English playwright Joseph Addison because he felt a connection between the main character Cato and his constant battle with totalitarianism.[11] In addition to the subject areas, the library accommodated diaries, travel, and over 100 federal correspondence letters.[10]

Like Washington, Thomas Jefferson was a prolific collector of books and a voracious reader. Thomas Jefferson actually owned three libraries over the course of his lifetime. The first library was maintained from ages 14 to 26 (1757-1770) at his birthplace of Shadwell, Virginia located in the county of Albermarle about five miles west of Monticello.[12] It consisted of forty volumes that he inherited from his father. Since his father had been a surveyor, the library contained a plethora of maps and topographical monographs though Jefferson added quite a few volumes on to the library from his studies. By 1770, Jefferson has acquired over 300 volumes worth an estimated 200 pounds.

It was during the period of the American Revolution in the 1780s that Jefferson amassed a collection of books that numbered in the thousands. This collection became his library at his home in Monticello, Virginia. Close to 2,000 books alone were purchased during the time he spent in France in the late 1780s. Because Jefferson was fluent in French and Latin languages, the library contained numerous books in these languages as well as fifteen other distinct tongues. This collection was abundant in books on law, philosophy, and history, but it accommodated volumes on many subject areas such as cooking, gardening, and more exotic avocations like beekeeping.Unlike some of his contemporaries, Jefferson traveled very little. As such, the library became his best travel guide.[13] Even though the library went through multiple stages throughout his lifetime, in 1814 it was known that he had the single greatest private library in the United States.[13] When the Library of Congress was consumed by fire, Jefferson persuaded the library to purchase his collection of between nine and ten thousand books in order to compensate for the collection lost by the Congress.[13] Congress accepted a portion of Jefferson's library (6,487 volumes) in 1815 for the cost of $23,950.[13] While that figure may be low, Jefferson insisted that he would agree to any price.[13] That figure in fact was obtained by calculating the number of books in addition to their dimensions. He remarked, "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from this collection".[13] Regrettably, December 1851 brought a second inferno to the Library of Congress which managed to extinguish over sixty percent of the collection acquired from Jefferson.[13] Jefferson, a true bibliophile, assembled a succeeding library of several thousand volumes. This second library was placed in an auction and purchased in 1829 in order to alleviate his indebtedness.[13]

Though Jefferson is recognized most for the breadth of his library, the most astounding characteristic of it is how it was cataloged. While most libraries during this period in American history classified their holdings alphabetically, Jefferson chose to catalog his collection by subject.[13] His method of classification was based on a modified version of Lord Bacon's table of science, hierarchy of memory which included history, reason which included philosophy and imagination which included the fine arts.[13] It is interesting to note that Jefferson often disregarded his own classification scheme and shelved books according to their size.[13]

The most recognizable individuals in colonial North America of course were proprietors of substantial personal libraries. John Adams; for example, owned more than three thousand volumes which were entrusted to the Boston Public Library in 1893.[7] Adams was not only a bibliophile, but an amateur librarian in which he maintained his collection fastidiously and even opened his library to the public.[14] Legislature James Logan was a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin who developed a relationship with Franklin out of a passion for books. Logan was a true bibliophile consuming his time in pursuit of acquiring the written word.[15] According to Logan there was nothing more important than the acquisition of knowledge. His appetite for enlightenment led to the establishment of a private library of nearly 3000 titles acknowledged as one of the largest in Colonial America.[15] In 1745 Logan converted his private library into a public library which was the first structure in America to be recognized as a library for the public.[16] Benjamin Franklin; who was instrumental in establishing the first subscription library in North America, was the owner of a private library of considerable proportions. This clandestine miscellanea is not well known though a contemporary of Franklin; a certain Manasseh Cutler, observed this library firsthand. Cutler notes, "It is a very large chamber and high studded. The walls were covered with book shelves filled with books; besides there are four large alcoves, extending two-thirds of the length of the chamber, filled in the same manner. I presume this is the largest and by far the best, private library in America".[17] There are no extant catalogs of what treasures were held in Franklin's library; however, his will contained a register which included some 4,726 titles.[7]

Modern era

Theodor Heuss private library in Stuttgart

Private libraries in the hands of individuals have become more numerous with the introduction of Special Libraries Association.

Library (domestic room)

The word library also refers to a room in a private house in which books are kept. Generally it is a relatively large room that is open to all family members and household guests, in contrast to a study, which also often contains a collection of books, but is usually a private space intended to be used by one person.

Famous private libraries

Library by Carl Spitzweg


  1. ^ a b c Simo Parpola (18 January). "Assyrian Library Records" (PDF). Journal of Near Eastern Studies ( 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Webb, K. (2013). The House of Books: Libraries and Archives in Ancient Egypt. Libri, 63(1), 21-32.
  3. ^ a b "Libraries". Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Jerry Fielden (2001). "Private Libraries in Ancient Rome". Retrieved 29 March. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Bruce, L. (1986). Palace and Villa Libraries from Augustus to Hadrian. The Journal of Library History, 21(3), 510-552.
  6. ^ a b c Bruce, L. (1981). A Reappraisal of Roman Libraries in the "Scriptores Historiae Auguste" The Journal of Library History, 16(4), 551-573.
  7. ^ a b c d e Kraus, J.W. (1974)
  8. ^ a b (Kraus, J.W. (1974)
  9. ^ a b c d O'Neal, Lonnae (2012-05-25). "Mount Vernon replicates George Washington’s personal library". Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  10. ^ a b "The Personal Library of George Washington". 2014-08-25. Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  11. ^ a b "A Place of Reading: Personal Libraries Washington". Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  12. ^ "Shadwell | Thomas Jefferson's Monticello". 1989-04-26. Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Jefferson's Library - Thomas Jefferson | Exhibitions - Library of Congress". 2000-04-24. Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  14. ^ Kraus, J.W. (2009)
  15. ^ a b "Franklin and Logan: A Mentoring Friendship". Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  16. ^ "The Loganian Library of Philadelphia". 2011-03-28. Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  17. ^ Kraus, J.W. p. 43 (1974)

Further reading

  • Geddes-Brown, Leslie. Books Do Furnish a Room. London: Merrell, 2009. ISBN 1-85894491-0
  • Hayes, Kevin J. and Wolf, Edwin. The Library of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia : American Philosophical Society/Library Co. of Philadelphia, 2006. ISBN 0871692570
  • Houston, George W. Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and their Management in Antiquity. Chapel Hill : The University of North Carolina Press, 2014, ISBN 1469617803
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