Why Book Collectors Matter: The Story of Robert Cotton

Frequently I’ll hear visitors to the Bauman Rare Books gallery comment: “These should be in a museum!” We answer that we sell to museums and institutions, as well as to private individuals. However, I am surprised when a visitor replies that it is such a shame private parties buy these items. In fact, the private book collector has been key to the survival and dissemination of many important books. Here are a few reasons why, using the great collector Robert Cotton:
1. Many important works have survived only because a private individual took the effort to find and save them.
In the 16th century, Henry VIII gutted the monasteries of England as part of the English Reformation. In the process, many precious books and manuscripts were lost or destroyed. So many articles owned by monasteries were treated with disdain that one letter writer noted people were using manuscripts “to scour their candlesticks, and some to rub their boots; some they sold to the grocers and soapsellers [as scrap paper].”


Bust of Robert Cotton at the British Library (credit Mike Peel)
Bust of Robert Cotton at the British Library (credit: Mike Peel)


Enter Robert Cotton (b. 1571). A student of the famous William Camden, at sixteen Cotton founded the Elizabeth Society of Antiquaries. By eighteen he had started projects to gather up as many documents of the country’s history as possible.
Cotton’s collection includes the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic.


The first page of the Beowulf manuscript
The first page of the Beowulf manuscript


It also includes the Lindisfarne Gospels, which contains the earliest translation into English of the Gospels. And it includes the only surviving copy of Gawain and the Green Knight.
Without Cotton, these manuscripts would likely have been lost forever.



2. Many of the most important rare book collections in the world’s public institutions were formed first by private individuals, who had the means and resources to gather them.


It’s a practical reality that in most cases public institutions do not have the funds or the manpower to create truly great collections. However, it has been practice (and remains the intention) for many private collectors to donate their collections to public institutions. This is how the Bodleian at Oxford was formed; the Widener at Harvard; the Beinecke at Yale; the Library of Congress, after the War of 1812; the Lilly Library at Indiana University; and many, many more.


The entrance to the British Library (credit Mike Peel)
The entrance to the British Library (credit: Mike Peel)


The British Library, containing one of the greatest research and rare book collections in the world, was first formed through the donations of a number of private “foundation collections”—among them, Robert Cotton’s.
Private collectors in general simply have more means to amass important collections than public institutions. Cotton was known to have spared no expense to track down and purchase manuscripts—a descendant of his in fact complained that his inheritance had all been spent on Cotton’s practice of obtaining manuscripts at any cost.
It was a later descendent who donated Cotton’s library to the nation in 1700. In honor of Cotton, the books retain his unusual method of classification, called the “emperor system.” Each of his fourteen cases was topped with a bust of a Roman emperor or empress. The Beowulf manuscript is known as “Cotton MS Vitellius A. xv.” The Lindisfarne Gospels is “Cotton MS Nero D. iv.”


One of the most famous pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels
One of the most famous pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels


3. Private collectors’ obsessions benefit the scholarly community.


One common trend in collecting over the years has been towards “completist” collections, or collections that cover one particular author or subject in incredible depth, over gathering materials from a wider (and more shallow) range. Collectors can be quite obsessive in their hunts. This can often lead to the discovery of previously unknown materials. For centuries scholars and biographers have benefitted from these individual collectors, who allowed them access to letters, documents, and printings that they otherwise may not have even known existed.


Roger Babson, an entrepreneur who credited his success to the influence of Newton. In 1995, his 600-volume collection of historical material related to Newton is now in the Berndy Library (which in turn was founded by private collector Bern Dibner).
Roger Babson, an entrepreneur who credited his success to the influence of Newton. In 1995, his 600-volume collection of historical material related to Newton was deposited in the Berndy Library (which in turn was founded by private collector Bern Dibner).


Contrary to popular belief, many collectors open their collections to scholars, and in fact love providing any access that will lead to further scholarship in their beloved field. They often become renowned scholars in the field themselves.


While Cotton wasn’t a strict completist in this sense, his collection was so extensive and contained so many manuscripts unobtainable elsewhere that it was a great resource for contemporary scholars. Ben Jonson used it as a reference library, as did a great many noblemen and members of parliament.


First editions of the collected works of Ben Jonson, who used source material from Cotton's library
First editions of the collected works of Ben Jonson, who used source material from Cotton’s library

Collecting books is about preserving them because we see value in them. Robert Cotton is a personal hero of mine because of this never-ending quest. Anyone else have a personal favorite collector from the past?



8 Comments Add yours

  1. dohaeng says:

    A. Edward Newton is my favorite. I discovered him by accident, through a copy of “A Magnificent Farce” – his second book of essays on book collecting – that was in a thrift store. It was amazing to see that his collection was auctioned off after his death over three separate three-day periods.

  2. Robert Moody says:

    Colonel Ralph Isham’s passion for discovering and collecting the works and correspondence of James Boswell deserves mention, along with Donald and Mary Hyde (later Viscountess Eccles), whose collection of material related to Boswell and Dr. Johnson is legendary.

  3. This is excellent, Rebecca. A wise photographer once told me, “Institutions are where art goes to die.” So much gets stored away, never to be seen again…

  4. justmybooks410 says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article, and appreciate the value of the private collector. I think the one thing that separates individuals from institutions in this respect is the word Rebecca uses in the 3rd point, “Obsession”. Collectors tend to be infinitely more obsessive about their holdings and finding material, as institutions generally have to wait for the good stuff to come to them, usually donations from the collectors. Great piece!!

    1. Yes, I think that being “obsessive” is a prerequisite for most serious collectors of any type!

  5. justmybooks410 says:

    Reblogged this on justmybooks410 and commented:
    This post by Rebecca contains a nice addition to my Obsessions post, see the 3rd point she makes about collectors.

  6. Mine is Henry Huntington. I can remember years ago, the first time going to the Huntington Library and Gardens and being stunned at what was out on the shelves in his personal reading room of his house. Row after row of amazing books, classics, all the famous authors (too many to list) of that time, first editions of rare books…I was in awe of what a private collector could…and given the money…would do to fill out a collection. And the most incredulous aspect to me was that these were not the treasures of his collection. The truly rare and irreplaceable volumes were held, behind gated doors, locked in a separate building, the Huntington Library, with access granted only to researchers with proper credentials…in there were a Gutenberg, incunabula, Chaucer, complete Audubon folios…I could go on and on…but it showed to me how a private collection can become one of the most powerful research institutions in the world if preserved properly. In my opinion, just like wild lands being preserved as national parks, collections like these deserve our protection in the public domain rather than being broken up for sale…dj
    P.S. sorry Rebecca as I know I’m going against your business of selling rare books…my apologies as I do appreciate what you do, particularly the obtaining, preservation and appreciation of these rare objects.:-)

    1. Thanks for the comment. Since your choice was a private collector who could not have built his collection without the hard work, expertise, and participation of rare book dealers like myself, I don’t think we’re really at odds. 🙂 As long as public institutions have the funding to maintain, catalog, and provide access to the bequests of private owners, of course that is a wonderful thing. Sadly, they often do not.

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