Dee deserves well of all writers and students for time everlasting because of his most praiseworthy efforts to found a State National Library of books and manuscripts, with copies of foreign treasures, wherever they might be. On January 15, 1556, he presented to Queen Mary "a Supplication for the recovery and preservation of ancient writers and monuments." Within a few years he had seen the monasteries dissolved and the priceless collections of these houses lamentably dispersed, some burned and others buried. He drew up a very remarkable address to the Queen dwelling on the calamity of thus distributing "the treasure of all antiquity and the everlasting seeds of continual excellency within this your Grace's realm." Many precious jewels, he knows, have already perished, but in time there may be saved and recovered the remnants of a store of theological and scientific writings which are now being scattered up and down the kingdom, some in unlearned men's hands, some walled up or buried in the ground. Dee uses powerful arguments to enforce his plea, choosing such as would make the most direct appeal to both Queen and people. She will build for herself a lasting name and monument; they will be able all in common to enjoy what is now only the privilege of a few scholars, and even these have to depend on the goodwill of private owners. He proposes first that a commission shall be appointed to inquire what valuable manuscripts exist; that those reported on shall be borrowed (on demand), a fair copy made, and if the owner will not relinquish it, the original be returned. Secondly, he points out that the commission should get to work at once, lest some owners, hearing of it, should hide away or convey away their treasures, and so, he pithily adds, "prove by a certain token that they are not sincere lovers of good learning because they will not share them with others." The expenses of the commission and of the copying, etc., he proposed should be borne by the Lord Cardinal and the Synod of the province of Canterbury, who should also be charged to oversee the manuscripts and books collected until a library "apt in all points" is made redy for their reception.
Finally, Dee suggests that to him be committed the procuring of copies of many famous manuscript volumes to be found in the great libraries abroad: the Vatican Library at Rome, St. Mark's at Venice, and in Bologna, Florence, Vienna, etc. He offers to set to work to obtain these, the expenses only of transcription and carriage to England to be charged to the State. As to printed books, they are to "be gotten in wonderfull abundance." In this generous offer of his life to be spent in transcribing crabbed manuscripts, we cannot see the restless genius of John Dee long satisfied, but at any rate he proved himself not seeking for private gain.
Thus was the germ of a great National Library first started by the Cambridge mathematician, nearly fifty years before Thomas Bodley opened his unique collection at Oxford, and close upon 200 years before there was founded in the capital the vast and indispensable book-mine known to all scholars at home and abroad as the British Museum. The Historical Manuscripts Commission, whose labours in cataloguing private collections of archives are also foreshadowed in Dee's supplication, only came into being with the appointment of Keepers of the Public Records, by an Act signalising the first and second years of Queen Victoria's reign.
It is needless to say that nothing came of Dee's very disinterested proposition. So he bacame the more industrious in collecting a library of his own, which soon consisted of more than 4,000 volumes, which were always at the disposal of the friends who came often to see him.
They came also for another reason.
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