Private library

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Not to be confused with Subscription 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.


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.


The region of Mesopotamia was home to a copious amount 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]


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.[2] Likewise, in 86 BC, Roman general Sulla appropriated the library of the infamous Greek bibliophile and kleptobibliophile Apellicon of Teos.[2] Finally; around 73 BC, Lucullus removed and brought back to Rome the private library of King Mithridates VI of the Pontus region.[2] 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.[2] 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.[2] 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.[2]

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.

Renaissance Europe[edit]

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[edit]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[4] 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.[3] 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.[3]

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. [5] 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. [6] During the mid-nineteenth century, nearly all of the former collection had been purchased by Massachusetts book and manuscript merchant Henry Stevens. [7] 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 Athenaeum. [8] Washington’s library encompassed books in many disciplines such as economics, geography, history, and religion.[9] Some of his most beloved volumes were those that pertained to agriculture since he was a voracious farmer.[10] 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.[12]

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.[3] 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.[13] 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. [14] 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.[3]

Modern era[edit]

Theodor Heuss private library in Stuttgart

Private libraries in the hands of individuals have become more numerous with the introduction of paperback books. Some nonprofit organizations maintain special libraries, which are often made available to researchers by appointment. Nearly every law firm and some hospitals maintain either a law library or a medical library for staff use. Most of the English speaking world categorizes these libraries as special libraries. Many large corporations maintain libraries that specialize in collections specific to research specific to the areas of concern to that organization. Scientific establishments are especially apt to have a library to support scientists and researchers. Manufacturing facilities are also likely to have an engineering library to help with troubleshooting and the assembly of complicated parts. Those libraries are generally not open to the public. The librarians and other staff of special libraries often join the Special Libraries Association.

Library (domestic room)[edit]

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[edit]

Library by Carl Spitzweg


  1. ^ a b c Simo Parpola (January 1983). "Assyrian Library Records". Journal of Near Eastern Studies (University of Chicago Press) 42 (1): 1–29. doi:10.1086/372983. JSTOR 544744. Retrieved 29 March 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Jerry Fielden (2001). "Private Libraries in Ancient Rome". Retrieved 29 March 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Kraus, J.W. (1974)
  4. ^ a b (Kraus, J.W. (1974)
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  13. ^ Kraus, J.W. (2009)
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  17. ^ Kraus, J.W. p. 43 (1974)

Further reading[edit]

  • 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