The duties and qualifications of a librarian (in the 17th & 18th centuries)

During my stint last week in SCOLAR cataloguing some of the Rare Books Collection, I catalogued a couple of books from the “Literature of libraries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries series”, published by A. C. McClurg, and printed by the Merrymount Press in 1906.  Just thought I would share some of the pearls of wisdom and advice that shone out from these texts.

From, The duties & qualifications of a librarian: a discourse pronounced in the general assembly of the Sorbonne, December 23, 1780 by Jean Baptiste Cotton des Houssayes.

Being helpful to users…

“He will never seek to steal away from the notice of all into some solitary or unknown retreat.  Neither cold nor heat, nor his multiplied occupations, will ever be to him a pretext for evading the obligation he has contracted to be a friendly and intelligent guide to all the scholars who may visit him.” (p. 39)

Collection management and cataloguing skills…

“He will therefore not admit indiscriminately every book into his collection, but will select such only as are of genuine merit and of well-approved utility; and his acquisitions, guided by the principles of an enlightened economy, will be rendered still more valuable by the substantial merits of an able classification.  It is impossible, in fact, to attach too much importance to the advantages resulting from an intelligent and methodical order in the arrangement of the library.  Of what utility would be the richest treasures if it were not possible to make use of them? Wherefore this complete arsenal of science, if the arms it keeps in reserve are not within reach of those who would wield them?  And if, as is said, books are the medicine of the soul, what avail these intellectual pharmacopoeias, if the remedies which they contain are not disposed in order and labelled with care? (p. 43-44)

Librarianship knowledge in general…

“A librarian truly worthy of the name should, if I may be permitted the expression, have explored in advance every region of the empire of letters, to enable him afterwards to serve as a faithful guide to all who may desire to survey it.” (p. 37)

From, The life of Sir Thomas Bodley, written by himself ; together with the first draft of the statutes of the public library at Oxon (1647)

Leave the books how you find them…

“Moreover, as it may be lawful and free for all comers in (being qualified in such sorts,as we shall after declare) to peruse any volumes, that are chained to the desks, in the body of the library, not forgetting to fasten their clasps and strings, to untangle their chains, and to leave as they found the books in their places: (whereas otherwise for their negligence, they shall be punished by the Purse, at the will and arbitriment of the Vice-Chancellor).” (p. 81)

Cataloguing hints & tips!

“Another chief point of the Keeper’s charge, is to range all his books, as well of the bigger as lesser fold, according to their Faculties: to assign to every Faculty their Catalogues and Tables; and to dispose of every table the authors therein names, according to the alphabet: Where besides the author’s name, and the title of his work, he must be mindful to express inwhat kind of volume the same was printed, with a note of the place, and year of that edition. For it so fareth often with a number of students, that the knowledge of some one of these petty particulars, may turn them in their studies to some singular advantage.” (p. 73-74)



Filed under Cataloguing, Librarianship

10 responses to “The duties and qualifications of a librarian (in the 17th & 18th centuries)

  1. Thank you SO MUCH for this post. It was really interesting, and came at exactly the right time for me. I’ve referenced it and nabbed some quotes – hope that you don’t mind, for my own blog post at

  2. What a great post! Thank you 🙂

  3. Carol Wright

    Great post

  4. Andy

    Plus ça change, eh?

    Thanks for this insightful little post!

  5. Interesting! Some things never change.

  6. Reblogged this on Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR) Casgliadau Arbennig ac Archifau and commented:
    Highlighting an excellent post from one of our cataloguers, featuring advice on customer care, cataloguing and collection management… from a 17th century librarian!

  7. Jenny Horler

    A brilliant find.
    I linked to you via Phil Bradley’s blog and then read your posts and realised that you had also done the CPD 23 Things as well, I am just getting into blogging etc but my biggest problem is finding enough time to read and write blogs as well as do my job (school librarian).
    “The duties and qualifications” haven’t changed much, just the medium.
    Thank you Jenny

    • Thanks Jenny!
      After doing cpd23 I was determined to keep up the blog, so try to do it in my lunch break. Keeping up with other blogs takes up time too, and I know I probably miss out on a lot. I think I rely on Twitter a lot to highlight blog posts!

  8. Pingback: Do libraries really change « bedsslgroup

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