Edward Edwards (librarian)

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Edward Edwards (1812–1886) was a British librarian, library historian, and biographer. He was an important figure in the establishment of free libraries in the United Kingdom. He died and is buried in Niton on the Isle of Wight.

Early life and work[edit]

He was born in London, England on 14 December 1812. His father, Anthony Turner Edwards, was a builder. There is no record of Edwards' education and early employments, but in 1836 he appears as a pamphleteer on subjects of public interest, and his productions evince considerable information as well as mental activity and intelligence. He wrote on national universities, with especial reference to the University of London, whose charter was then under discussion; on the British Museum, at the time undergoing thorough investigation from Benjamin Hawes' committee; and, at a somewhat later date, on the reform of the Royal Academy. His attention was probably directed to the latter subject by the work he undertook in 1837, in connection with the patentees of the Collas system of engraving, on the great seals of England, and on the medals struck under the French Empire. His account of the latter extends from 1804 to 1810, but was never completed. He also about this time assisted William Macarthur in his account of New South Wales, though his name did not appear in connection with the work.

Association with the British Museum[edit]

Meanwhile, his pamphlet on the museum and the evidence he had given before the museum committee had attracted the attention of the authorities, and in 1839 he became a supernumerary assistant in the printed book department, for especial employment on the new catalogue ordered by the trustees. Edwards was one of the four coadjutors of Anthony Panizzi in framing the ninety-one rules for the formation of this catalogue, the others being John Winter Jones, later principal librarian; Thomas Watts, later keeper of printed books; and John Humffreys Parry, then, like Edwards, a supernumerary assistant. On the commencement of the catalogue Edwards was assigned to the duty of cataloguing the collection of English civil war tracts, formed under Charles I and the Commonwealth by the bookseller Thomason, and containing more than thirty thousand separate pieces. These were entirely catalogued by him, and his titles are generally very good, sometimes perhaps overly detailed. The task seems to have absorbed his energies for several years, or any other literary work which he may have produced was anonymous. About 1846 he began to devote great attention to the statistics of libraries, collected returns supplied by foreign librarians or excerpted by himself from foreign publications, and published the results in the Athenaeum. Unfortunately these statistics were frequently fallacious, and Mr. Watts, in a series of letters published in the Athenaeum under the signature "Verificator," easily showed that Edwards's assertions and conclusions were little to be relied on. They had served, however, to make him a popular authority, and he was able to render very valuable service to William Ewart, whose committee on free libraries in 1850 originated the Public Libraries Act. It was natural that Edwards should be offered the librarianship of the first important free library established under Mr. Ewart's act, which he was the more disposed to accept as his engagement at the museum had from various causes ceased to be satisfactory to himself or the authorities.

Association with the Manchester Free Library[edit]

He accordingly became in 1850 the first librarian of the Manchester Free Library (opened 1852), and applied himself with much energy to the management and development of the institution. His project for a classified catalogue was published in 1855 in the form of a letter to Sir John Potter, chairman of the library committee. The relations of the librarian of a free library and his committee frequently require tact and forbearance on both sides, and this was certainly wanting on the part of Edwards, whose temper was naturally impatient of control, and who admits in the pamphlet already mentioned that he had been taxed both with indifference to economy and with an undue regard to his own reputation. His position grew more and more uneasy, and in 1858 he was compelled to resign.

Later life[edit]

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève from Edwards' Memoirs of Libraries

The rest of his life was devoted to the literary labours which will chiefly contribute to preserve his name. In 1859 appeared his Memoirs of Libraries, a work of great value, containing a general history of libraries from the earliest ages, continued and supplemented by his Libraries and their Founders, 1865. By his Lives of the Founders of the British Museum (1870) he made himself the historian of the national library. He had written the article Libraries in the Encyclopædia Britannica, published (1869) a small book on Free Town Libraries; written his Chapters on the Biographical History of the French Academy (1864); edited the Liber Monasterii de Hyda for the Rolls Series; and produced (1865) his biography of Sir Walter Raleigh. The second volume is particularly valuable, containing for the first time a complete edition of Raleigh's correspondence; the memoir also has considerable merit, but it appeared almost simultaneously with that of James Augustus St. John; and it was remarked with surprise that each biography appeared to be deficient in whatever gave interest to the other, and that the two would need to be blended to produce a really satisfactory work. After the publication of his history of the museum, Edwards accepted an engagement to catalogue the library of Queen's College, Oxford, which occupied him for several years. On the formation of the Library Association in 1877 he was proposed as its first president, but was unable to carry out the role due to deafness.

After the completion of his Oxford engagement he retired to Niton, Isle of Wight, and occupied himself with projects for a recast of his Memoirs of Libraries, with great alterations and improvements. A prospectus of the intended work was issued by Trübner & Co. Edwards negotiated for the appearance of a portion of it in the Library Chronicle, and was understood to have collected considerable material for it, but it is unknown whether this still exists. His last published book was a Handbook to Lists of Collective Biography, undertaken in conjunction with Mr. C. Hole, the first and only part of which appeared in 1885. He also wrote the greater part of the article Newspapers in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

In his final years in Niton, he lived in poverty, on the charity of Rev John Harrison, a Baptist minister. In November 1885, he was found in a state of hypothermia on the nearby downs, and caught pneumonia. He died at Niton, on 10 February 1886, and is buried in the graveyard of the local Church of England church.



  • Greenwood, Thomas (1902). Edward Edwards, the chief pioneer of municipal public libraries. London: Scott, Greenwood & Company.


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