From Private to Public: What has Happened to Private Libraries?

After our class visit to Special Collections, which was both eye opening and better than I ever imagined it would be, I could not help but wonder what has caused such a decline in the popularity of private libraries. I began to consider why people would have had private libraries within their homes in the early modern period and who these people would have been. I spoke to my nan, as I do about every thought that crosses my mind more than once, and asked her opinion on what she thought about these types of collections of books that seem to be a rarity in today’s society. I can clearly remember as a child that my nan and grandad had quite a large collection of books in their home that largely revealed their personalities and interests. There was a mixture of different types of books from cookery books to guides on war medals, children’s fiction, autobiographies and some travel guides for various parts of the world. I reflected on the similarities and differences between this type of collection and those that I saw in special collections that belonged to the Russell family. The Russell Collection also contained a variant of genres including literature, travel, sport and law and, similarly to my grandparent’s collection of books, reflected the interests of the family themselves.[1]In contrast to my grandparents relatively small collection of books, the Russell’s family library is rather extensive for a private library and sheds light on the status and wealth of the family to own so many books that would have been a considerable cost at the time.

I then began to question why a family of a certain status would have had a private library at all and what the books would have meant to them in accordance to the purpose that they served. From the module readings on private libraries it became quite clear that books were used, as they are today, for a variety of activities and this changed and developed over time. For example, by the sixteenth century, books were being kept more frequently and carefully by certain members of early modern society. This is evident in Hannah Murphy’s article which discusses the physician Georg Palma’s private library and how this, along with other similar private libraries and collections, have influenced archives and accessible documents today.[2]While Murphy’s article solely comments on the private libraries of medical professionals of the time, she sheds light on the importance of the condition of the books and how this shaped medicine in later years as well as the reflections it provides on the physician’s career itself. She comments, “Owning a book did not mean that it had earned a stamp of approval. It did not necessarily even mean that it had been read… Palma was a dutiful reader… A well-read book in his library is easily spotted.”.[3]

The importance of books and reading during this period was unmistakable but I delved further into readings on the eighteenth century to try and distinguish whether reading for leisure was something that was just as much a part of society as it is today. From an initial reading of Naomi Tadmor’s article I would have concluded that reading for leisure was most certainly prominent in early modern society. However, from a second reading it cannot be ignored that reading, whether for leisure or another purpose, was very much limited to a certain sector of society as it had been in previous centuries before. Tadmore focuses on women’s experiences of reading during this time but discusses, in her selected cases of two families, the husband’s experience also.[4]Alongside these experiences which are brought to life through diaries kept by the husband’s within the family, Tadmore identifies four key reasons as to why people, from a considerably average social status, would have read at this time; these were, “reading was part of a daily routine which consisted mostly of hard work. Secondly, reading was part of a religious discipline. Thirdly, reading was part of a social life, and, fourthly, reading was done intermittently”.[5]These reasons for reading, in my opinion, reflect extraordinarily in regard to why books were purchased in this period and what they meant to individuals within the family as well as the family as a whole. While not everyone had the opportunity to have a private library in their home, alongside the fact that a large number of the population could not read very well or at all, for those who did have access to books they were both personal and a gateway for socialization within a family. 

Mr Richardson, reading the Manuscript of Sir Charles Grandison in 1751 to his Friends. Cambridge, University Library, Nn.49.2

Using this experience and knowledge of private libraries, and reflecting on the lack of them today, it is rather sad that such a disinterest in books seems to be apparent in modern society. As someone who was read to frequently growing up and reads for enjoyment today, a visit to special collections is surely enough to spark an excitement and interest once more in private libraries as to have such a treasured collection is surely priceless! 


[1]Library Services <>University of Essex, <> [accessed 3rdApril 2019]

[2]N. Tadmore, “In the even my wife read to me’: women, reading and household life in the eighteenth century”, in J. Raven, N. Tadmore & H. Small, eds. The practice and representation of reading in England (Cambridge, 1996) pp. 162-174

[3]Tadmore, “In the even my wife read to me” p. 166

[4]H. Murphy “Common Places and Private Spaces: Libraries, Record-Keeping and Orders of Information in Sixteenth-Century Medicine”, Past & Present 230 (2016) pp. 253-268

[5]Murphy, “Common Places and Private Spaces”, pp. 259,260

Cite this blog post
nicolekenny (2019, April 29). From Private to Public: What has Happened to Private Libraries? The Digital Recipe Books Project. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from

2 thoughts on “From Private to Public: What has Happened to Private Libraries?

  1. I found you’re blog post very interesting, especially with the reasons as to why people form an average social class would be reading during the Early Modern History period. I would also agree that reading has decreased in our generation and not seen as much of leisure as it was in the past; but at the same time, there are also other platforms where you can easily read, such as on our phones.

  2. I enjoyed your comparison between your grandparent’s collection and those found in special collections. Although I would disagree that people are disinterested in books in modern society – I think the way that people read has changed with the production of e-books and apps designed for convenient reading. Perhaps private libraries have adapted to modern society and are held digitally or have become more individualised?

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