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The early catalogues of the Cottonian Library



IN spite of the importance of the Cottonian library for a wide range of literary and historical studies we know very little about its organization and development in the first century of its existence. While its unique value was widely recognized long before the death of its founder, Sir Robert Cotton, in 1631, and while the collection was cherished and supplemented by his heirs - his son, Sir Thomas, and his eldest grandson, Sir John - it remained primarily a private library throughout the seventeenth century. Scholars and family friends were able to visit it and borrow books and manuscripts from it, but not until 1696 was the first printed catalogue published — the work of Dr. Thomas Smith, librarian to Sir John Cotton. Smith prefaced his volume with a note on the library's history and an analysis of its main subject divisions, as well as a longer essay on the Cotton family, but he was describing a long-established institution sixty years after the death of its founder and his catalogue was later to be criticized for its mistakes and omissions. However, in the eighteenth century. Parliamentary and public interest in the library grew: in 1700, by transferring ownership to a body of trustees, Sir John in effect presented the collection to the nation, while the fire of 1731 drew further attention to it. In 1753 it was removed to Montagu House to become one of the foundation collections of the British Museum, and in 1777 Samuel Hooper published another printed catalogue, a version of a late seventeenth-century manuscript catalogue of the library. All this activity culminated in the work of J. Planta who was responsible for publishing the official catalogue of the collection in 1802.


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