An Account of the Harleian Library

By Samuel Johnson

The text, edited by Jack Lynch, is from volume 5 of the 1825 edition of Johnson's Works. A few obvious errors have been silently corrected, but spelling and punctuation have been reproduced from the 1825 edition exactly. Please report errors to Jack Lynch.
To solicit a subscription for a catalogue of books exposed to sale, is an attempt for which some apology cannot but be necessary; for few would willingly contribute to the expense of volumes, by which neither instruction nor entertainment could be afforded, from which only the bookseller could expect advantage, and of which the only use must cease, at the dispersion of the library.

Nor could the reasonableness of an universal rejection of our proposal be denied, if this catalogue were to be compiled with no other view, than that of promoting the sale of the books which it enumerates, and drawn up with that inaccuracy and confusion which may be found in those that are daily published.

But our design, like our proposal, is uncommon, and to be prosecuted at a very uncommon expense: it being intended, that the books shall be distributed into their distinct classes, and every class ranged with some regard to the age of the writers; that every book shall be accurately described; that the peculiarities of editions shall be remarked, and observations from the authors of literary history occasionally interspersed; that, by this catalogue, we may inform posterity of the excellence and value of this great collection, and promote the knowledge of scarce books, and elegant editions. For this purpose, men of letters are engaged, who cannot even be supplied with amanuenses, but at an expense above that of a common catalogue.

To show that this collection deserves a particular degree of regard from the learned and the studious, that it excels any library that was ever yet offered to publick sale, in the value, as well as number, of the volumes, which it contains; and that, therefore, this catalogue will not be of less use to men of letters, than those of the Thuanian, Heinsian, or Barberinian libraries, it may not be improper to exhibit a general account of the different classes, as they are naturally divided by the several sciences.

By this method we can, indeed, exhibit only a general idea, at once magnificent and confused; an idea of the writings of many nations, collected from distant parts of the world, discovered sometimes by chance, and sometimes by curiosity, amidst the rubbish of forsaken monasteries, and the repositories of ancient families, and brought hither from every part, as to the universal receptacle of learning.

It will be no unpleasing effect of this account, if those that shall happen to peruse it, should be inclined by it to reflect on the character of the late proprietors, and to pay some tribute of veneration to their ardour for literature, to that generous and exalted curiosity which they gratified with incessant searches and immense expense, and to which they dedicated that time, and that superfluity of fortune, which many others of their rank employ in the pursuit of contemptible amusements, or the gratification of guilty passions. And, surely, every man, who considers learning as ornamental and advantageous to the community, must allow them the honour of publick benefactors, who have introduced amongst us authors, not hitherto well known, and added to the literary treasures of their native country.

That our catalogue will excite any other man to emulate the collectors of this library, to prefer books and manuscripts to equipage and luxury, and to forsake noise and diversion for the conversation of the learned, and the satisfaction of extensive knowledge, we are very far from presuming to hope; but shall make no scruple to assert, that, if any man should happen to be seized with such laudable ambition, he may find in this catalogue hints and informations which are not easily to be met with; he will discover, that the boasted Bodleian library is very far from a perfect model, and that even the learned Fabricius cannot completely instruct him in the early editions of the classick writers.

But the collectors of libraries cannot be numerous; and, therefore, catalogues could not very properly be recommended to the publick, if they had not a more general and frequent use, an use which every student has experienced, or neglected to his loss. By the means of catalogues only, can it be known what has been written on every part of learning, and the hazard avoided of encountering difficulties which have already been cleared, discussing questions which have already been decided, and digging in mines of literature which former ages have exhausted.

How often this has been the fate of students, every man of letters can declare; and, perhaps, there are very few who have not sometimes valued as new discoveries, made by themselves, those observations, which have long since been published, and of which the world, therefore, will refuse them the praise; nor can the refusal be censured as any enormous violation of justice; for, why should they not forfeit by their ignorance, what they might claim by their sagacity?

To illustrate this remark, by the mention of obscure names, would not much confirm it; and to vilify, for this purpose, the memory of men truly great, would be to deny them the reverence which they may justly claim from those whom their writings have instructed. May the shade, at least, of one great English critick rest without disturbance; and may no man presume to insult his memory, who wants his learning, his reason, or his wit.

From the vexatious disappointment of meeting reproach, where praise is expected, every man will certainly desire to be secured; and, therefore, that book will have some claim to his regard, from which he may receive informations of the labours of his predecessors, such as a catalogue of the Harleian library will copiously afford him.

Nor is the use of catalogues of less importance to those whom curiosity has engaged in the study of literary history, and who think the intellectual revolutions of the world more worthy of their attention, than the ravages of tyrants, the desolation of kingdoms, the rout of armies, and the fall of empires. Those who are pleased with observing the first birth of new opinions, their struggles against opposition, their silent progress under persecution, their general reception, and their gradual decline, or sudden extinction; those that amuse themselves with remarking the different periods of human knowledge, and observe how darkness and light succeed each other; by what accident the most gloomy nights of ignorance have given way to the dawn of science; and how learning has languished and decayed, for want of patronage and regard, or been overborne by the prevalence of fashionable ignorance, or lost amidst the tumults of invasion, and the storms of violence. All those who desire any knowledge of the literary transactions of past ages, may find in catalogues, like this at least, such an account as is given by annalists, and chronologers of civil history.

How the knowledge of the sacred writings has been diffused, will be observed from the catalogue of the various editions of the Bible, from the first impression by Fust, in 1462, to the present time; in which will be contained the polyglot editions of Spain, France, and England, those of the original Hebrew, the Greek Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate; with the versions which are now used in the remotest parts of Europe, in the country of the Grisons, in Lithuania, Bohemia, Finland, and Iceland.

With regard to the attempts of the same kind made in our own country, there are few whose expectations will not be exceeded by the number of English Bibles, of which not one is forgotten, whether valuable for the pomp and beauty of the impression, or for the notes with which the text is accompanied, or for any controversy or persecution that it produced, or for the peculiarity of any single passage. With the same care have the various editions of the book of Common Prayer been selected, from which all the alterations which have been made in it may be easily remarked.

Amongst a great number of Roman missals and breviaries, remarkable for the beauty of their cuts and illuminations, will be found the Mosarabick missal and breviary, that raised such commotions in the kingdom of Spain.

The controversial treatises written in England, about the time of the Reformation, have been diligently collected, with a multitude of remarkable tracts, single sermons, and small treatises; which, however worthy to be preserved, are, perhaps, to be found in no other place.

The regard which was always paid, by the collectors of this library, to that remarkable period of time, in which the art of printing was invented, determined them to accumulate the ancient impressions of the fathers of the church; to which the later editions are added, lest antiquity should have seemed more worthy of esteem than accuracy.

History has been considered with the regard due to that study by which the manners are most easily formed, and from which the most efficacious instruction is received; nor will the most extensive curiosity fail of gratification in this library, from which no writers have been excluded, that relate either the religious, or civil affairs of any nation.

Not only those authors of ecclesiastical history have been procured, that treat of the state of religion in general, or deliver accounts of sects or nations, but those likewise, who have confined themselves to particular orders of men in every church; who have related the original, and the rules of every society, or recounted the lives of its founder and its members; those who have deduced in every country the succession of bishops, and those who have employed their abilities in celebrating the piety of particular saints, or martyrs, or monks, or nuns.

The civil history of all nations has been amassed together; nor is it easy to determine which has been thought most worthy of curiosity.

Of France, not only the general histories and ancient chronicles, the accounts of celebrated reigns, and narratives of remarkable events, but even the memorials of single families, the lives of private men, the antiquities of particular cities, churches, and monasteries, the topography of provinces, and the accounts of laws, customs, and prescriptions, are here to be found.

The several states of Italy have, in this treasury, their particular historians, whose accounts are, perhaps, generally more exact, by being less extensive; and more interesting, by being more particular.

Nor has less regard been paid to the different nations of the Germanick empire, of which neither the Bohemians, nor Hungarians, nor Austrians, nor Bavarians, have been neglected; nor have their antiquities, however generally disregarded, been less studiously searched, than their present state.

The northern nations have supplied this collection, not only with history, but poetry, with Gothick antiquities and Runick inscriptions; which, at least, have this claim to veneration, above the remains of the Roman magnificence, that they are the works of those heroes by whom the Roman empire was destroyed; and which may plead, at least in this nation, that they ought not to be neglected by those that owe to the men whose memories they preserve, their constitution, their properties, and their liberties.

The curiosity of these collectors extended equally to all parts of the world; nor did they forget to add to the northern the southern writers, or to adorn their collection with chronicles of Spain, and the conquest of Mexico.

Even of those nations with which we have less intercourse, whose customs are less accurately known, and whose history is less distinctly recounted, there are in this library reposited such accounts as the Europeans have been hitherto able to obtain; nor are the Mogul, the Tartar, the Turk, and the Saracen, without their historians.

That persons, so inquisitive with regard to the transactions of other nations, should inquire yet more ardently after the history of their own, may be naturally expected; and, indeed, this part of the library is no common instance of diligence and accuracy. Here are to be found, with the ancient chronicles, and larger histories of Britain, the narratives of single reigns, and the accounts of remarkable revolutions, the topographical histories of counties, the pedigrees of families, the antiquities of churches and cities, the proceedings of parliaments, the records of monasteries, and the lives of particular men, whether eminent in the church or the state, or remarkable in private life; whether exemplary for their virtues, or detestable for their crimes; whether persecuted for religion, or executed for rebellion.

That memorable period of the English history, which begins with the reign of king Charles the first, and ends with the Restoration, will almost furnish a library alone; such is the number of volumes, pamphlets and papers, which were published by either party; and such is the care with which they have been preserved.

Nor is history without the necessary preparatives and attendants, geography and chronology: of geography, the best writers and delineators have been procured, and pomp and accuracy have been both regarded; the student of chronology may here find, likewise, those authors who searched the records of time, and fixed the periods of history.

With the historians and geographers may be ranked the writers of voyages and travels, which may be read here in the Latin, English, Dutch, German, French, Italian, and Spanish languages.

The laws of different countries, as they are in themselves equally worthy of curiosity with their history, have, in this collection, been justly regarded; and the rules by which the various communities of the world are governed, may be here examined and compared. Here are the ancient editions of the papal decretals, and the commentators on the civil law, the edicts of Spain, and the statutes of Venice.

But with particular industry have the various writers on the laws of our own country been collected, from the most ancient to the present time, from the bodies of the statutes to the minutest treatise; not only the reports, precedents, and readings of our own courts, but even the laws of our West-Indian colonies, will be exhibited in our catalogue.

But neither history nor law have been so far able to engross this library, as to exclude physick, philosophy, or criticism. Those have been thought, with justice, worthy of a place, who have examined the different species of animals, delineated their forms, or described their properties and instincts; or who have penetrated the bowels of the earth, treated on its different strata, and analyzed its metals; or who have amused themselves with less laborious speculations, and planted trees, or cultivated flowers.

Those that have exalted their thoughts above the minuter parts of the creation, who have observed the motions of the heavenly bodies, and attempted systems of the universe, have not been denied the honour which they deserved by so great an attempt, whatever has been their success. Nor have those mathematicians been rejected, who have applied their science to the common purposes of life; or those that have deviated into the kindred arts of tacticks, architecture, and fortification.

Even arts of far less importance have found their authors, nor have these authors been despised by the boundless curiosity of the proprietors of the Harleian library. The writers on horsemanship and fencing are more numerous and more bulky than could be expected by those who reflect, how seldom those excel in either, whom their education has qualified to compose books.

The admirer of Greek and Roman literature will meet, in this collection, with editions little known to the most inquisitive criticks, and which have escaped the observation of those whose great employment has been the collation of copies; nor will he find only the most ancient editions of Faustus, Jenson, Spira, Sweynheim and Pannartz, but the most accurate, likewise, and beautiful of Colinæus, the Juntæ, Plantin, Aldus, the Stephens, and Elzevir, with the commentaries and observations of the most learned editors.

Nor are they accompanied only with the illustrations of those who have confined their attempts to particular writers, but of those, likewise, who have treated on any part of the Greek or Roman antiquities, their laws, their customs, their dress, their buildings, their wars, their revenues, or the rites and ceremonies of their worship, and those that have endeavoured to explain any of their authors from their statues or their coins.

Next to the ancients, those writers deserve to be mentioned, who, at the restoration of literature, imitated their language and their style with so great success, or who laboured with so much industry to make them understood: such were Philelphus and Politian, Scaliger and Buchanan, and the poets of the age of Leo the tenth; these are, likewise, to be found in this library, together with the Deliciæ, or collections off all nations.

Painting is so nearly allied to poetry, that it cannot be wondered that those who have so much esteemed the one, have paid an equal regard to the other; and, therefore, it may be easily imagined, that the collection of prints is numerous in an uncommon degree; but, surely, the expectation of every man will be exceeded, when he is informed that there are more than forty thousand engraven from Raphael, Titian, Guido, the Carraccis, and a thousand others, by Nanteuil, Hollar, Callet, Edelinck, and Dorigny, and other engravers of equal reputation.

There is also a great collection of original drawings, of which three seem to deserve a particular mention: the first exhibits a representation of the inside of St. Peter's church at Rome; the second, of that of St. John Lateran; and the third, of the high altar of St. Ignatius; all painted with the utmost accuracy, in their proper colours.

As the value of this great collection may be conceived from this account, however imperfect; as the variety of subjects must engage the curiosity of men of different studies, inclinations, and employments, it may be thought of very little use to mention any slighter advantages, or to dwell on the decorations and embellishments which the generosity of the proprietors has bestowed upon it; yet, since the compiler of the Thuanian catalogue thought not even that species of elegance below his observation, it may not be improper to observe, that the Harleian library, perhaps, excels all others, not more in the number and excellence, than in the splendour of its volumes.

We may now, surely, be allowed to hope, that our catalogue will not be thought unworthy of the publick curiosity; that it will be purchased as a record of this great collection, and preserved as one of the memorials of learning.

The patrons of literature will forgive the purchaser of this library, if he presumes to assert some claim to their protection and encouragement, as he may have been instrumental in continuing to this nation the advantage of it. The sale of Vossius's collection into a foreign country, is, to this day, regretted by men of letters; and if this effort for the prevention of another loss of the same kind should be disadvantageous to him, no man will hereafter willingly risk his fortune in the cause of learning.