The Librarian Connection

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings….Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances.

– from ‘The Library of Babel‘ by Jorge Luis Borges.

Here at Aberystwyth University there have always been librarians, assisting students and staff to find what they’re looking for and ensuring that all the resources needed for teaching, learning and research are available.  The latest rare book display at the Thomas Parry Library includes a number of volumes and papers owned by the University that are associated with famous historical librarians.

Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677) with notes by Henry Ellis


Henry Ellis  became Principal Librarian of the British Museum in 1805, and remained in that position until 1856 – he was an accomplished antiquarian and scholar.  His assistant, and direct successor in the post at the British Museum was Anthony Panizzi, who doubled the number of books (making the collection the largest library in the world) and push through many reforms.  

Ellis had previously argued against some of these reforms in a parliamentary committee – he stated that if the museum were not closed for three weeks in the autumn, the place would positively become unwholesome, and that to open on Saturdays would be a mistake as that was when the most mischievous part of the population was abroad (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).   This copy of Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire was owned by Ellis during his time as a student at St John’s College, Oxford in the 1790’s.

Copy of Virgil owned by Thomas James Mathias



Thomas James Mathias became Librarian at the Queen’s House in 1813 – before this he had published a biting work of satire entitled ‘Pursuits of Literature, or, What you will’. Published initially as four segments of an anonymous poem and extensive notes between 1794 and 1797, it held up numerous contemporary writers for ridicule and attacked many for their political views – especially those in any way sympathetic towards the French, Catholics, or the emancipation of women. While in some political circles the poem was celebrated, in 1794 the ‘Monthly Review accused Mathias of scaremongering:

Our literary Mesmer very successfully magnetizes his readers into a perpetual hysteric, and convulses them with the titillatory spasms of ever-varying fears. (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Sixteen editions of ‘Pursuits’ were eventually published, and it’s reception continued to be mixed – in 1812 Lord Byron described the poem as the worst written of it’s kind, but thought it’s sole merit lies in the Notes, which are indisputably excellent.  Mathias eventually moved to Italy, where he continued to deny his authorship of ‘Pursuits’despite letters proving otherwise.  This copy of Virgil dates from Mathias’ time as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Letter from S.R. Ranganathan (17/5/1949)



Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan (1892-1972) was a mathematician and librarian, whose work is very familiar to all those trained in librarianship and information science – the Department of Information Studies here at Aberystwyth is surely no exception.  Ranganathan trained at University College London (then the only institution offering a graduate degree in library science in Britain), and became a professor of library science at both Benares Hindu University and the University of Delhi.  He is particularly known for developing Colon classification (the first faceted classification system), and for devising his 5 Laws of Library Science:

1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader his [or her] book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the reader.
5. The library is a growing organism.

In this letter (dated 17th May 1949) to Bernard Palmer, then Education Officer at the Library Association in the U.K, his work on classification is mentioned as well as his work teaching library science in Delhi.  In conclusion, he makes reference to his early career, as a mathematician and professor of mathematics – a background that was valuable in tackling the problem of classification:

I am now reading Mathematics with my son. It is real fun to go back by forty years and then come again to the present seeing all the changes which have come over the subject…

Every year the 12th of August, Ranganathan’s birthday, is celebrated in India as National Libraries Day.


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Filed under Aberystwyth University, Rare Books

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