The Bamburgh Library and a Puzzle of Books

The Bamburgh Library. Image courtesy of Durham University.

One of Durham’s bookish treasures, the Bamburgh Library at Palace Green Library, is being made more accessible. In this second of two posts, Dr Danielle Westerhof identifies some of the rare and puzzling books in the collection.

John Sharp (1644? – 1714) Archbishop of York. Reproduced via National Galleries of Scotland (CC BY NC licence).

The origins of what became the Bamburgh Library lie with the books purchases made by John Sharp 1 (1645?-1714) in the 1660s while he was taking a degree in divinity from Christ Church Cambridge. Throughout his life, Sharp continued to add to his collection, which developed into a rich and varied tapestry of volumes on theological and political issues of the time, natural philosophy, literature, local antiquarianism, and numismatics. After his elevation to the archbishopric of York, he regularly received books and pamphlets, inscribed to the Archbishop by their authors.

After his death, the Archbishop’s will stipulated that his library was to be equally divided between his two sons, another John (1677-1727) and the Thomas mentioned above. With the death of John 2, the library was for the most part reunited until 1758, when it was once again divided – this time among Thomas 1’s numerous offspring. The English, Italian and French books without Thomas’s bookplate were left to the younger children, while the bulk of his amassed library was shared between the eldest son (John 3) and the second son (Thomas 2). More attrition came in 1792, when John 3 left subject-specific books to his brothers and the choice of 100 English literature volumes to his widow.

As a consequence of the latter, it is perhaps inevitable that the Bamburgh Library currently has a relative dearth of works by well-known English authors. What is there is characterised more for its curiosity value than as particular bibliographic highlights, such as a set of Alexander Pope’s collected works from 1760 or the fourth edition of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, 1782. The exceptions are early editions of Chaucer and Gower, works published by some of the well-known early English printers (William Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde, or Richard Pynson), and relatively rare 17th-century English drama by John Dryden, Nathaniel Lee and others. Other items are still in contemporary bindings and carry the marks of previous owners, for example, Raymond of Sarbunde’s Theologia naturalis (printed in Strasburg in 1496), which was previously owned by Sir Kenelm Digby 1603-1665 and possibly purchased in the sale of Digby’s books by John Dryden in 1680.

However, it isn’t always clear how and when these works entered the collection. John Sharp 1 stopped writing his name in volumes after 1667, although lists of contents appear in in his hand in a number of pamphlet collections. Thomas Sharp 1 in his will distinguished books carrying his bookplate and book that didn’t, making ownership association of those without hard to prove. John Sharp 2’s book ownership can only be glimpsed, although he inherited a substantial portion of his father’s library. He and his brother compiled a list of tracts belonging to their father. John 3 left a catalogue of his and his brother Thomas 2’s books, which could form the basis of a research project into the proto-history of the library before it was housed at Bamburgh. Thomas 2’s books can occasionally be identified through his use of an elegant Chippendale-style bookplate. To complicate matters, some rare volumes were donated to the charity in the early 19th-century and not all rare items were listed in the early Bamburgh Library catalogues.

What makes the collection so interesting is not only the breadth of content, but also the occasional signs of interaction with the materials. Several catalogues and book lists survive from the period in which the family library was transferred to the Lord Crewe’s Charity, including some containing valuations. The tract catalogues created by John Sharp 2 and Thomas 1 allow us to trace the survival of pamphlet material through to the present day, while the library catalogues issued by or on behalf of the trustees in the 19th and 20th century show us what works were added to the collection after 1797, which is when the Bamburgh Library was formally opened. Borrowers’ registers for the period give an insight into what was being read by the ‘well-known householders’ and visiting clergy.

More research remains to be done on this library by the sea, in particular in relation to the changes to the collection over time in response to individual interests; artistic or clerical patronage; religious, political, social and cultural changes; as well as borrowers’ interests in the collection’s later history. John Sharp 1 as book owner straddles the transitional period between books bought as necessary to learning and books bought as collectors’ items; is it possible to find this trend in volumes associated with him? As a relatively complete clergymen’s library, how does it compare to other similar libraries? What was the status of the Bamburgh Library in the context of other subscription libraries in the North East? Where have the books come from if they were not purchased new? There is still much to discover among the shelves of this intriguing library.

Read Danielle’s first blog post, in which she explains how the Bamburgh Library came to be in Durham. The Bamburgh Library project is funded by the Lord Crewe’s Charity.

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