In April I presented a paper on Pepys’ book collecting habits at the ‘Collecting Texts & Manuscripts, 1660-1860’ conference at Plymouth University. It was an ideal forum in which to share more about Pepys beyond his notable reputation as a diarist.
I presented an informal overview of Pepys’ book and print collection, and how he set about arranging it in the library’s bookcases, or ‘presses’ as Pepys called them. The delegates were very taken with the idea that the Pepys arranged his books by height, and most of the questions after my presentation were centred on this topic!
A theme which repeatedly emerged throughout the conference was the idea of ‘collecting friendships’ and how book collectors’ personal connections informed and influenced their own collecting. For example, the relationship between John Couch Adams and his friend Francis Bashforth was discussed in a paper by Sophie Defrance from Cambridge University Library. Pepys was greatly influenced in his collecting by John Evelyn, also a prolific diarist. Initially Evelyn and Pepys knew each other on a professional basis (Evelyn was a commissioner for sick and wounded sailors) then their connection grew into a friendship.
Being a great collector of books himself, Evelyn offered Pepys advice throughout his life on what sort of items he should be purchasing for his library. Pepys received this book about libraries and collecting shown below as a gift from Evelyn, inscribed inside ‘be pleased to accept this trifle from your most humble servant J.E’. Evelyn translated the book from the original French by Gabriel Naudé.
The complete text is available to view at Early English Books Online, to which the University of Cambridge subscribes.
In this particular book, Naudé advises to arrange books into subject classifications. Without putting this principle into practice, Naudé argued, a library with 50,000 books would only be as useful as a large army that was not divided and managed in smaller groups. Pepys’ decision to organise books by size, a completely different approach, perhaps was influenced by his penny-pinching tendencies. Arranging books by size was the most efficient way of storing the books in the fewest number of presses, in addition to the appearance being aesthetically pleasing. Having books of the same size standing next to each other is a help to the collection in the present day; the books are well supported by their neighbours and therefore helps to keep them in excellent condition.
Pepys cropped up again in a conference paper concerning Sir Thomas Mostyn’s Library from 1670-1690, given by Mary Chadwick from Aberystwyth University. Mostyn had attempted to buy some manuscripts from the auction of the Duke of Lauderdale’s collection, only to have been outbid by Pepys. An example of one of the manuscripts Pepys acquired in this auction is the ‘Maitland Folio’, an important manuscript of Scottish literature from the 15th and 16th century which the Pepys Library still holds.
The conference coincided with the centenary of the Cottonian Collection being given to the city of Plymouth. The Cottonian collection contained fine eighteenth and nineteenth century bookcases with glazed fronts, reminiscent of Pepys’ book presses.
The conference was a fantastic chance to hear from academics and staff in the heritage sector about other collections, and help find new angles for each other’s research. It was also an opportunity to promote the Pepys library as a source of research highly relevant to some of the delegates’ studies, and also as a place for the public to visit.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections