10 Facts About our Library and Book Collections

1. We Currently Have Over 15,000 Books on Our Shelves.

When we first opened in 1888 we had approximately 14,000 volumes on our shelves this gradually increased to 22,000 in 1985. When we moved to our new home in 1988 the collection was scaled down. You can search the items on our shelves via our online library catalogue.

2. We Use an Old version of the Dewey System to Catalogue our books.

Many of the items we have on our shelves are older than we are. While we use the modern version of the Dewey system to help us categorise newer items the 6th edition published in 1945 suits the older items in our collections better. We also use authors surnames and place names to help us classify the items on our shelves.

3. The Oldest Book on Our Shelves was Published in 1597

Although the Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed was first published in 1577 it was still in print some 20 years later. This may explain why the Chronicle was supposed to have been used as a reference for William Shakespeare when he was writing his historical plays.


4. The Smallest Item on our Shelves is by local born Poet and Playwright John Gay.

The 1831 edition of John Gay’s Fables is just under 9.5cm tall and the book-plate which is inside the cover had to be cut down to fit. The book is part of our John Gay collection.

5. The Largest Book in our Collections is Actually part of our Document Collection

From the smallest book in our collection to the largest, the maps of William Barbor’s estate were produced in the 18th Century and bound together to create one very large volume. It is affectionately known as “the monster” by the team. There are also original documents in our archive collections which concern his estate.

6. The Library is Divided into Four Main Sections

The Library is split into sections Local, General, Reference and Special Collections. The Local Section covers Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset and has a separate section covering Exmoor. Our Special Collections include items by and about John Gay, Francis Carruthers Gould and William Richard Lethaby. It also contains a complete set of the England Under Victoria images published by our Founder, William Frederick Rock.

7. You can find items written by several Directors and Librarians as well as those written by Our Founder.

We have always had a tradition of researching and writing about the history of North Devon and beyond. Many of our current and former librarians and directors have transcribed parish registers and other records over the years. Director, John Roberts Chanter and Librarian, Thomas Wainwright were amongst the most prolific transcribing many of the Barnstaple Borough and Parish records in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

8. You can also Find Unpublished Manuscripts in Our Collections

Some items are unpublished, handwritten manuscripts which have been bound and placed into the collection. One such example are the Incledon Monumental Inscriptions. Three volumes which contain the handwritten and drawn inscription of monuments and tombstones of some 128 churches throughout Devon copied by Benjamin Incledon during later half of the 18th Century.

9. We know certain areas of the collection so well, we can find something without needing to know its class mark!

Some of the items even have nicknames. Several of the history books on Barnstaple, for example are simply known by their author’s surname rather than their title. The Memorials of Barnstaple by Joseph Besly Gribble is simply known as Gribble by staff members, we also know exactly where copies the book are located on our shelves.

10. The Directors Once Ordered Certain Books to be Destroyed!

During the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1919 the directors temporarily closed the lending library and ordered the Librarian to go through the shelves and take out any items which looked worse for wear and destroy them to help stem the spread of the virus!

…Barum Athena

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