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Thomas Osborne Issues "The British Librarian", the First Periodical Published in English on Rare Books & Manuscripts

1737 to 1738

From January to June, 1737 London rare book dealer and publisher Thomas Osborne published six issues of The British Librarian: Exhibiting a Compenious Review or Abstract of our most Scarce, Useful and Valuable Books in all Sciences as well in Manuscript as in Print. The six issues were collected and republished as a book in 1738. The British Librarian was the first periodical published in English on rare books and manuscripts, and it may be the first periodical on these topics in any language, as the antiquarian book trade was beginning to become organized around this time. Notably, the earliest recorded full-fledged rare book catalogue— as distinct from an auction catalogue— was also issued in 1738.

The anonymous author of the periodical, William Oldys, included descriptions of unique manuscripts, of examples of early printing such as several works printed by William Caxton, and of other works which were considered rare and collectable at the time. He sometimes included details of bindings, and of private collections. While Oldys' descriptions lean toward the verbose, and there is a certain lack of analysis, the periodical provides valuable insight into how rare books were appreciated and marketed in the first half of the eighteenth century. It is especially helpful since, as Oldys remarks, booksellers' catalogues and library catalogues of this period were primarily listings, and almost never annotated.

William Oldys devoted his life to antiquarian and bibliographic pursuits, compiling valuable notes on Langbaine's Dramatick Poets (1691), writing an important "Life" of Sir Walter Raleigh (published in the 1736 edition of Raleigh's History of the World), and amassing a library of historical and political works. In 1731 Oldys sold his library to Edward Harley (1689-1741), second Earl of Oxford probably the greatest English collector of printed books and manuscripts of his time. From 1738 to 1741 Oldys served as the Earl's librarian, but had to give up the post upon his patron's death. In 1742 The Earl of Oxford's immense library of printed books was purchased by bookseller Thomas Osborne, publisher of The British Librarian and one of England's first rare book dealers. Osborne hired Oldys and Samuel Johnson to prepare a descriptive catalogue of the Harleian collection prior to its sale; the resulting Catalogus bibliothecae Harleianae was issued in four volumes plus a supplementary fifth volume of books from Osborne's stock, between 1743 and 1745. Oldys and Samuel Johnson also worked together on The Harleian Miscellany, an annotated reprint of selected tracts and pamphlets from the Harleian library edited by Oldys and Johnson, and published by Osborne.

After the death of Harley ", . . Oldys worked for the booksellers. His habits were irregular, and in 1751 his debts drove him to the Fleet prison. After two years' imprisonment he was released through the kindness of friends who paid his debts, and in April 1755 he was appointed Norfolk Herald Extraordinary and then Norroy King of Arms by the Duke of Norfolk" (Wikipedia article on William Oldys, which derives material from the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica).

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