Librarians and Library Founders

In honour of my recent post about one of mankind’s greatest achievements – libraries, here’s a list to reflect the honorable practice of founding, assembling and maintaining them.

Some of History’s Famous Librarians, Library Founders and Bibliophiles 

Ashurbanipal (c. 668 – 627BC)

King of the neo-Assyrian empire and founder of one of the earliest known libraries. He filled his palace at Nineveh with thousands of Cuneform documents, the so-called Library of Ashurbanpial many of which are now housed at the British Museum. 

Eratosthenes (c. 276BC – 194BC)

Polymath and chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria, the content of which was subsequently destroyed by fire on one of several dates, including Julius Caesar’s conquest of Egypt in 48BC.

Liu Xin (c. 50BC- 20AD)

Chinese astronomer, historian and editor as well as librarian of the Imperial Library and the first person to establish a library classification system. 

Suetonius (c.69 – 122)

More an historian than a librarian, but he worked as an archivist producing his best-known work The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.

Cosimo de’Medici (1389-1464)

Florentine banker, statesman and founder of the Medici dynasty, he was also an avid bibliophile who financed the first public library in Florence at San Marco, in 1444. He was a patron of the arts and helped establish humanism in the city. 

Pope Nicholas V (1399-1455)

First Humanists pope and founder of what became the Vatican Library and preserver of many works of Greek and Latin including some pagan works. The cataloguing of the same was begun in the papal reign of Benedict XIV (1740-1758), a polymath and fellow bibliophile.

John Dee (1527- c.1608)

Astrologer, alchemist and polymath who deserves a mention for assembling one of the largest private libraries of books on the sciences, philosophy and of course, the occult. Sadly much of this was lost after his house was ransacked while he was abroad and following his return to England in c. 1589 was never restored. He also tried (in vain) to interest Mary I (1553-1558) in setting up a national library, which would have been England’s first. 

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Statesman and essayist who retired from public life in 1571 to write his ‘Essais.’ He amassed a collection of some 1,500 works in his personal library, housed in the tower of his chateau, which he called his ‘Citadel.’ 

Thomas Bodley (1545-1616)

Scholar and the founder of the modern Bodleain Library at Oxford University whose collection augmented what was already there. One of the oldest surviving European libraries.

Sir Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653)

Merchant, philanthropist and founder of Chetham’s Library, the world’s oldest lending library based in Manchester.

Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602-1661)

French statesman and bibliophile whose large collection formed the basis of Le Bibliotheque Mazarin, France’s oldest public library.

Elias Ashmole (1617-1692)

Antiquarian and student of alchemy with a large personal library. He was also a keen collector of unusual objects and donated much of his collection to Oxford where it eventually became the Ashmolean Museum  (1683) – thought by some to be the world’s oldest public museum. 

Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753)

Irish-born physician and bibliophile who donated his vast collection of books and cabinet of curiosities to what became the British Museum. 

Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1760)

Statesman and founder of what became the first American library (and for a time, its librarian).

Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798)

Better known as an eroticist, he spent his final years as librarian for Count Waldstein in Bohemia where he wrote his racy memoirs.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Founding father who donated thousands of his own books to help replenish the stock of the Library of Congress, the world’s second largest library by collection size. A lifelong bibliophile, he once said: “I cannot live without books.” 

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Scottish philosopher and one of the founders of the London Library (1841) one of the world’s largest lending libraries. This move began with his dissatisfaction with the British Museum Library where he complained he was often unable to find a seat. The London Library. 

William Ewart (1798-1869)

Reformer and statesman who established in the UK legislation to provide free public libraries supporter by the ratepayers (in 1850).

William Gladstone (1809 – 1898)

British Prime Minister and founder of Gladstone’s Library, the world’s only residential library which he funded in addition to donating a large collection of his own personal library.

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919)

American industrialist and philanthropist who founded numerous libraries around the world. Often identified as one of the richest men in history, he proclaimed his ‘gospel of wealth’ calling upon the rich to use their resources for the betterment of mankind. 

Melvil Dewey (1851 – 1931)

Founder of the Dewey Decimal System, one of the best-known systems of organising books.

Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan (1892-1972)

Mathematician and founder of library science. Formulated the five laws of the library, those being 1. Books are for use 2. Every book its reader 3. Every reader his book. 4. Save the readers’ time. 5. Understand that the library is a growing organism.

Jose Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Author who worked as a librarian in Argentina and whose famous work includes the Library of Babel short-story.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

English poet and librarian at the University of Hull for much of his working life. Refused the poet laureateship.

Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

Italian intellectual and novelist. An avid bibliophile, he amassed a remarkable 50,000-volume personal library split between his two residences. His best-known work The Name of the Rose (1980) features a labryinth-like library in a medieval monastery plagued by mysterious murders. 

The British Government

Created the British Library via the Library Act in 1972 – the largest library in the world by collection size. It opened in 1973. 

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