A change in place and order: the 1745 Lyon’s Catalogue

Continuing his quest to explain the logic behind the earliest Library manuscripts catalogues, Visiting Cofund Fellow Torsten Wollina’s fourth post brings us up to the eighteenth century.

From Peter Fox’s Trinity College Library Dublin. A History (CUP, 2014) the impression emerges that Trinity Library really came into its own in the 18th century. This is, of course, tied to an allocation of larger funds to the library and librarians (God bless them) (Flattery will get you nowhere. Ed.)  but it is still visible on campus today because that new library building is nowadays known as ‘the Old Library’. Almost every day, hundreds of visitors line up to see the exhibition on the famous Book of Kells and marvel at the grand design of the Library’s main chamber, the Long Room. 

The main chamber of the Old Library is the Long Room, 65m in length.

The construction of the Old Library was a huge endeavor for Trinity College. Money became scarce at several points during the roughly two decades from the first intent to build to the opening of the new building in the early 1730s. The design featured also two pavilions on each end of the Long Room and the current manuscripts reading room is situated in the western one. Moving the manuscripts to their new home had other consequences, as well.

A new catalogue was required which allowed items to be located within the new Library space. The task fell on John Lyon who overhauled the previous system by introducing a new thematic order. This new system was not only reflected in the catalogue itself but was imposed on the shelves in the manuscript room also. Peter Fox states that this new system created issues for contemporary scholarship as it diverged from  J. H. Bernard’s seminal union catalogue of 1697 without offering a concordance. People were confused.

From our current perspective, however, the Lyon’s Catalogue is rather clear and straight-forward. It uses three columns (from left to right): the first gives a manuscript reference number depending on book format or size,[1] the second and largest contained the descriptions, and the final one was dedicated to donors (donator in the header). And, in my opinion, it displays the most beautiful handwriting and page layout of all the historical catalogues. Just look at the swing of the pen!

On the left, the thematic classifications are described; the catalogue begins on the right with ‘Classis A’ ( TCD MUN/LIB/1/53, fols. 2v-3r)

Lyon’s ordering system initially consisted of seven ‘presses’ (shelf sections) by theme or subject matter and assigned them letters A through G (on the left side of the image above). Each press consisted of shelves on five levels. Books were placed on these guided by the very practical concern not to tip over the shelves. This means that larger and therefore heavier books would be placed on the lowest shelves and, the higher one got, the smaller the books became. This also helped librarians to safely retrieve books. Just imagine standing on a ladder while trying to get down a folio volume (around 30 cm high) which might weigh several kilos!

In the last post on the 1688 catalogue I had mentioned the occasional arbitrariness of Lyon’s thematic system. The Arabic collection can serve to exemplify this further. Lyon grouped all of them in the A and B section, both of which contained biblical and theological materials. However, several of those would have fitted much better in the D section (for philosophy, medicine, poetry) or the E section which housed works on genealogy and history (I have described some of these manuscripts here). The same might apply to manuscripts in other languages Lyon did not master.

The influx of further manuscripts soon required an expansion of Lyon’s press system. Interestingly, in the process of this expansion, we can glimpse the emergence of an ‘othering’ of non-European languages towards what nowadays is called ‘Orientalism’. We know little about the original motivations behind it but, by the mid-19th century, all further acquisitions in, for instance, Persian or Arabic, would be placed in the M section. The first Arabic manuscripts that were placed in the M section were donated to Trinity Library in 1783.[2]

More than the earlier catalogues, the Lyon’s Catalogue provides information on the provenance of manuscripts. This might have been a result of the large-scale reorganizing as well as rebinding project he oversaw. In particular, he ascribes several manuscripts to Ambrose Ussher, the early-deceased brother of Archbishop James Ussher: Hic codex olim fuit Ambrosii Ussher. This information suggests that, for instance, the two Arabic manuscripts (MS 1530 and MS 1517) had been at Trinity Library already by 1670 (see previous post) although neither of them shows up in the preceding catalogues.

Moreover, through the inclusion of provenance information, the Lyon’s Catalogue enhances our understanding of Trinity Library’s collection as a whole and uncovers the historical entanglements through which its Arabic collection came to be.

Dr. Torsten Wollina

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow

Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute 


[1] „F“ for folio (around 28-30 cm high). The two smaller formats were „quarto“ and „octavo“.

[2] MSS 1532, 1533, and 1541 were all donated by George Andrew Ram.