AT the September meeting of the Andover History and Archaeology Society, Tim Pye, newly appointed as National Trust Libraries’ curator, described the importance of the libraries in the Trust’s collections.

There are around 750,000 books on the shelves in 165 different houses, and 400,000 different titles, dating from the Caxton ‘Lyme Missal’ of 1487 to 20th century gothic novels. Some visitors think the finely-bound books in a house’s library have been ‘bought by the yard’. In fact, the book collection — along with the furnishings and paintings — is a key to unlocking the story of that house. While the national libraries are for scholars, the National Trust libraries bring the ordinary visitor in touch with significant books.

In its early days, the trust was more interested in the house than its contents, and books were sold off or dispersed to other houses. In a country house, the books were used by the owners, rather than displayed to impress. For instance, the books in Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire were rebound by its Anglo-American millionaire owner, but include a unique collection of hand-coloured plate books bought by this discriminating collector.

In Wimpole Hall, also near Cambridge, the library was begun in 1711, with the bibliophile Harley family, the Earls of Oxford, augmenting its collection to 50,000 volumes. Although these were sold off, the library was replenished by their successors, the Hardwickes. In the 20th century, under the ownership of Elsie Bambridge, a daughter of Rudyard Kipling, a number of the English writer’s books were added.

The benign neglect of country house libraries gave them an advantage over the national libraries.Their books may also contain interesting material: notes showing what a contemporary reader thought important; doodles; a postcard from Mark Twain; a prayer book with changes of monarch in the state prayers; artistic bookplates; a shopping list.

Tim gave a local example. James Payne — not known by every member — was a famous Palladian architect whose 300th anniversary of his birth in Andover falls in October this year. His great buildings include Nostell Priory, Kedleston Hall and Chatsworth House. He was unfortunately eclipsed by Robert Adam. One of his smaller commissions, Felbrigg Hall, has an important library with Payne’s book on architecture next to Adam’s own book with its beautifully-tooled spine, rubbing in the rivalry.

Women might transform a library, bringing collections with them on marriage. Sabine Winn, the daughter of a Swiss baron, brought her library of French books to Nostell Priory on her marriage in 1761. Smaller collections are also in industrial premises, and are significant for local social history. For instance, Quarry Bank, a Manchester cotton mill, has a workers’ library, with reprints of classics, improving SPCK books and a record of who borrowed what.

Cataloguing began in 1991, and the project is about two-thirds completed. All the titles can be searched online in the national Copac catalogue, or through the National Trust collections website,

Tim was thanked very warmly for his talk and the society wished him well in his daunting task of cataloguing and conservation.