I am a bibliophile! And am thankful for it. And you, the reader of this musing, are most likely one as well. A bibliophile loves books, in a nutshell. But the bibliomaniac has an obsessive-compulsive disorder that compels him or her to acquire books/manuscripts regardless of their content or worth relative to the items that are already in their possession. I must confess that I have had moments where the mania has become an influencer. You?
I would now like to introduce to you, perhaps, the most famous bibliomaniac of all time. A collector, no – an accumulator – active in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Meet Sir Thomas Phillipps.
Sir Thomas Phillipps, 1st Baronet (1792 – 1872), was an English antiquary who amassed the largest collection of manuscript material in the 19th century. He was an illegitimate son of a textile manufacturer and inherited a substantial estate, which he spent almost entirely on vellum manuscripts and, when out of funds, borrowed heavily to buy manuscripts, thereby putting his family deep into debt. Phillipps recorded in an early catalogue that his collection was instigated by reading various accounts of the destruction of valuable manuscripts. Such was his devotion that he acquired some 40,000 printed books and 60,000 manuscripts, arguably the largest collection a single individual has created, and coined the term "vello-maniac” to describe his obsession, which is more commonly termed bibliomania. Phillipps would go into bookshops and purchase the entire stock; he would receive dealers' catalogues and buy all the listings; his agents bought entire lots of books at auction.
During his lifetime, Phillipps attempted to turn over his collection to the British nation and corresponded with the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Disraeli so that it should be acquired for the British Museum. Negotiations proved unsuccessful and, ultimately, the dispersal of his collection took over 100 years. A five-volume history of the collection and its dispersal, Phillipps Studies, by A. N. L. Munby was published between 1951 and 1960.
Phillipps Studies No. I: The Catalogues of Manuscripts & Printed Books of Sir Thomas Phillipps – Their Composition and Distribution; by A. N. L. Munby, at the University
Press, Cambridge, 1951.
Phillipps Studies No. II: The Family Affairs of Sir Thomas Phillipps; by A. N. L. Munby, at the University Press, Cambridge, 1952.
Phillipps Study No. III: The Formation of the Phillipps Library up to the Year 1840; by A. N. L. Munby, at the University Press, Cambridge, 1954.
Phillipps Studies No. IV: The Formation of the Phillipps Library between 1841 and 1872; by A. N. L. Munby, at the University Press, Cambridge, 1956.
Phillipps Studies No. V: The Dispersal of the Phillipps Library; by A. N. L. Munby, at the University Press, Cambridge, 1960.
I acquired these books in 1978. A read them the following year and, as I am wont to do, I wrote in pencil in each volume “read 1979 – excellent”. Collectively, it was a remarkable story, written by a remarkable bibliophile and writer A. N. L. Munby, who was the Librarian of King’s College, Cambridge.
It became clear to me that we, the public, owe a great deal to Phillipps, for he saved from oblivion and destruction, countless unique manuscripts, and printed works.