Skip to main content


Bibliotheca illustris Medii Templi Societatis, 1700

The September rare book of the month is the Bibliotheca illustris Medii Templi Societatis, printed in London in 1700. This is Middle Temple’s first printed library catalogue, and the earliest printed catalogue of the four Inn of Court libraries. According to the English Short Title Catalogue, not only is this a rare title (only nine other copies are recorded), it is the earliest printed institutional library catalogue from a London printer. Unfortunately, the printer is unknown. The next institutional library catalogue to be produced in London appears in 1760 for the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. According to the ESTC, the earliest library catalogue produced in England is that of the Bodleian Library, in 1605.

Although a library was re-founded at Middle Temple with the Robert Ashley bequest of 1641, due to various circumstances, a catalogue of the books was not drawn up until 1684, in manuscript form. It was updated by subsequent Keepers of the Library until 1696. It was not until 1700 that a printed library catalogue was produced, and even then it was commissioned privately by Bartholomew Shower, who was Treasurer of the Inn in 1699.

The copy now held by Middle Temple Library was donated to the Inn in 1834 by Robert Maitland. As can be shown in the scanned images here, it was donated by Shower on the 3rd of December 1700 to Walter Williams of the Middle Temple, and subsequently belonged to Robert Chambers in 1764. Williams was admitted to the Inn in 1666, called in 1673 and was Keeper of the Library from 1700-1708. It is not clear how the catalogue came into the possession of Robert Chambers (admitted 1754, called 1761, benched 1799), as presumably Shower intended the catalogue to remain in the library, for the use of members; it is possible that the 1700 catalogue was seen as obsolete once a new catalogue was produced in 1734- the Catalogus librorum bibliothecæ Honorabilis Societatis Medii Templi, Londini

It may seem strange that a printed library catalogue was produced 43 years after the founding of the collection, yet manuscript catalogues and ledger books provided greater flexibility than did a printed catalogue. Printed catalogues had to be amended by hand with every new acquisition, whereas the 1684 manuscript ones have blank spaces and pages for additions. Copies of the 1734 catalogue still held in the library have extensive manuscript annotations and notes. In addition, supplements had to be commissioned and printed every so often (1766), in order to keep the catalogue up-to-date. Fully new catalogues were produced in 1845, 1863, 1880 and 1914 before the library finally moved to a card catalogue system, which provided greater flexibility for amendments and additions.

The 1700 catalogue is arranged by subject (“classes”), divided by language and size. It is therefore difficult to search, as there is no order to the works once divided. The 1734 catalogue, in contrast, is arranged alphabetically by author. For some reason, however, many titles that are found in the 1700 catalogue (and are intact in the library today) are not listed in the 1734 catalogue. The 1700 catalogue therefore provides a better snapshot of the original founding bequest made by Robert Ashley in 1641.  

Earlier this year, the library took part in a new project to make Latin printed works searchable through Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This project attempts to make OCR scanned texts in Latin more reliable in their searching; until recently, OCR renditions of scanned Latin texts have not returned reliable results. See their website for more details about the software used to make this possible: Two scanned books were made into OCR files by Rescribe Ltd- the 1700 catalogue and the May rare book of the month. Although the OCR is not perfect, it does allow the reader to search the text by using the CTRL-F function. The highlighted word or text will appear slightly off-centre from its actual location in the printed text. So, unlike the original printed version, we can now easily search for the author of a work listed in the 1700 catalogue!  

Renae Satterley

Librarian, September 2016