Looking back from 1700: problems in locating the country house library

West, Susie (2015). Looking back from 1700: problems in locating the country house library. In: Dimmock, Matthew; Hadfield, Andrew and Healy, Margaret eds. The Intellectual Culture of the English Country House, 1500-1700. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 178–194.

URL: http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/cgi-bin...


Print culture provides the material and intellectual basis for historians interested in the history of ideas, of the emergence of early modern science, of literature and political debate. In England, the seventeenth century and its political fractures have proved particularly fruitful contexts. Research on the practices of keeping and using books, gathered together as the history of reading, investigates how readers stored, processed and made use of the content of their books. This is a flourishing field, with the past decade of research producing rich accounts of individuals and networks of readers and writers. However, the material conditions of keeping a book collection, as a library, have received less attention. This is partly a problem of evidence, in that pre-1700 library rooms and their intact collections are almost invisible, and partly a division of labour between modern disciplines. Working with the current state of the history of reading scholarship and with a detailed survey of a county network of book owners, some of the gaps in our understanding of the early modern country house library can be addressed.

Architectural history and the history of the book have complementary, but rarely united, methods for locating historic libraries. This chapter looks back from the viewpoint of 1700, a point when private libraries in England are still elusive to architectural historians, and considers the nature of the invisibility and how it might be investigated. Eight case studies from Norfolk houses are presented. The differential survival of books and their rooms is argued to be primarily a problem of evidence for the modern historian, and not a guide to the realities of intensive household use of books in the daily life of a country house during the seventeenth century.

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