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The Social History of a Library: Four Stages in the Life of the Collection of Sir Richard Ellys (1682-1742)

Citation: Greer, Eleanor (2022) The Social History of a Library: Four Stages in the Life of the Collection of Sir Richard Ellys (1682-1742). Doctoral thesis, The Warburg Institute.

Eleanor Greer Full Thesis with revisions.pdf

Creative Commons: Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the notion that books were of value only by virtue of their intellectual utility gave way to an expanded sense of books as both texts and material possessions. With book production soaring, serious collectors were no longer able to purchase all worthy books, and personal taste emerged as a major factor in acquisition decisions. A large private book collection became an index of status and taste among the upper classes. Much work has been done on this period of tension and changing priorities in book collecting, but most scholars have assumed that collectors saw their libraries either as repositories of information or as signifiers of social status deployed to impress their friends.

This thesis introduces the idea that libraries have social histories, with varied experiences between books; rather than looking for a unifying purpose behind a book collection, it is valuable to interpret book collecting as an anthropological phenomenon made up of multiple behaviours. This work is built upon a close examination of the wonderfully preserved early 18th century library of Sir Richard Ellys (1682-1742), now held by the National Trust at Blickling Hall. Ellys’s library is a strong candidate for this approach, as there is now very little documentary evidence relating to his life or his library. In the absence of archival material, the books themselves will provide almost all the evidence of Ellys’s behaviour.
The thesis will attempt to answer the question of how we can use the evidence of behaviour in the books themselves, as opposed to documentary evidence, to illuminate the social history of this library. It will make use of a biographical understanding of objects, a concept borrowed from material culture studies, and will posit four stages in the life cycle of collected books: acquisition, integration, use, and afterlife.

Acquisition is the stage in which a book was brought into the library. This involves activities such as browsing catalogues and selecting specific books for purchase. It is clear from examining Ellys’s acquisition behaviour that he was responding to a variety of interests and purposes in the development of his library. It is also clear that procuring books was a social activity, and that personal relationships were cultivated with authors, booksellers, and other collectors. During the integration phase a book became part of the library, and was subsumed into the collection. Ellys employed a librarian, John Mitchell, who was particularly involved in this stage by producing a catalogue of the library and writing his cataloguing code in most of the books. Examining the activities of integration demonstrates how the library as a whole was shaped to reflect Ellys’s interests, priorities, and even identity. The use phase involved such diverse activities as reading, lending, and displaying. The behaviours in this phase make clear that books were valued in multiple ways: some were read thoroughly, some were skimmed, some were never opened, some functioned to display Ellys’s position of social status. Even after Ellys’s death, the books continued to be used in many of the same ways by his heirs. The afterlife phase begins when use ends, with the books metamorphosing into historical artefacts. For Ellys’s collection, this phase has seen the National Trust take ownership of the collection. The books are now held in a museum environment and are interpreted as heritage objects rather than information sources.
By foregrounding the behaviour involved in developing and managing a private library, these four stages support the notion that libraries have social histories. Examining the evidence of all four phases in the life cycle of Ellys’s books illustrates the complex, seemingly paradoxical, but ultimately authentic relationship between a collector and his library.

Creators: Greer, Eleanor and
Subjects: History
Keywords: Library history, book collecting
Divisions: Warburg Institute
Collections: Theses and Dissertations
  • 13 May 2022 (submitted)


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