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The emperors were ambitious, at length, to give their names to the libraries they founded; they did not consider the purple as their chief ornament. Augustus was himself an author; and to one of those sumptuous buildings, called Thermae, ornamented with porticos, galleries, and statues, with shady walks, and refreshing baths, testified his love of literature by adding a magnificent library. One of these libraries he fondly called by the name of his sister Octavia; and the other, the temple of Apollo, became the haunt of the poets, as Horace, Juvenal, and Persius have commemorated. The successors of Augustus imitated his example, and even Tiberius had an imperial library, chiefly consisting of works concerning the empire and the acts of its sovereigns. These Trajan augmented by the Ulpian library, denominated from his family name. In a word, we have accounts of the rich ornaments the ancients bestowed on their libraries; of their floors paved with marble, their walls covered with glass and ivory, and their shelves and desks of ebony and cedar.

The first public library in Italy was founded by a person of no considerable fortune: his credit, his frugality, and fortitude, were indeed equal to a treasury. Nicholas Niccoli, the son of a merchant, after the death of his father relinquished the beaten roads of gain, and devoted his soul to study, and his fortune to assist students. At his death, he left his library to the public, but his debts exceeding his effects, the princely generosity of Cosmo de’ Medici realised the intention of its former possessor, and afterwards enriched it by the addition of an apartment, in which he placed the Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldaic, and Indian MSS. The intrepid spirit of Nicholas V. laid the foundations of the Vatican; the affection of Cardinal Bessarion for his country first gave Venice the rudiments of a public library; and to Sir T. Bodley we owe the invaluable one of Oxford. Sir Robert Cotton, Sir Hans Sloane, Dr. Birch, Mr. Cracherode, Mr. Douce, and others of this race of lovers of books, have all contributed to form these literary treasures, which our nation owe to the enthusiasm of individuals, who have consecrated their fortunes and their days to this great public object; or, which in the result produces the same public good, the collections of such men have been frequently purchased on their deaths, by government, and thus have been preserved entire in our national collections.[1]

LITERATURE, like virtue, is often its own reward, and the enthusiasm some experience in the permanent enjoyments of a vast library has far outweighed the neglect or the calumny of the world, which some of its votaries have received. From the time that Cicero poured forth his feelings in his oration for the poet Archias, innumerable are the testimonies of men of letters of the pleasurable delirium of their researches. Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham, and Chancellor of England so early as 1341, perhaps raised the first private library in our country. He purchased thirty or forty volumes of the Abbot of St. Albans for fifty pounds’ weight of silver. He was so enamoured of his large collection, that he expressly composed a treatise on his love of books, under the title of Philobiblion; and which has been recently translated.[2]

He who passes much of his time amid such vast resources, and does not aspire to make some small addition to his library, were it only by a critical catalogue, must indeed be not more animated than a leaden Mercury. He must be as indolent as that animal called the Sloth, who perishes on the tree he climbs, after he has eaten all its leaves.

Rantzau, the founder of the great library at Copenhagen, whose days were dissolved in the pleasures of reading, discovers his taste and ardour in the following elegant effusion:–

Salvete aureoli mei libelli,
Meae deliciae, mei lepores!
Quam vos saepe oculis juvat videre,
Et tritos manibus tenere nostris!
Tot vos eximii, tot eruditi,
Prisci lumina saeculi et recentis,
Confecere viri, suasque vobis
Ausi credere lucubrationes:
Et sperare decus perenne scriptis;
Neque haec irrita spes fefellit illos.