On 18th May 1716-17 a Bench Table Order was issued: “No copy or transcript is to be taken by any person of any manuscript books in the Library, and no books to be delivered or taken out of the Library without leave of the Table. This order to be hung up in the Library”. Thus was formally established the principle that the Library was essentially for reference and not for borrowing. But though the books were now housed either in close presses or frames with wire guards the manuscripts seem to have been easily available (at least to Masters of the Bench) and were as often consulted out of curiosity as out of need; their availability not being restricted in the modern sense until late in the nineteenth century. If in the early days the Library’s acquisition of books had been haphazard it was regulated by a Bench Order of 1713 directing the Treasurer to expend £20 a year on books, but it was the Librarian, Joshua Blew, who was responsible for the actual purchase of books, often their selection too, their binding, and on occasion, the publication of the manuscripts. During his years in office he produced four catalogues. These are notable for the careful and accurate annotations to entries, for Blew had all the instincts of a good bibliographer.
In the eighteenth century the great majority of books purchased were law books; of the books presented the majority were also law books. But antiquarian, historical and literary interests were also held by the members of the Society, and the purchase or presentation of books reflected these interests as is duly recorded in the catalogues subsequently to be issued.
This diversity of interests, continued to the present though in modified form, explains the presence today of many valuable works, all either original or second editions: Higden’s Polychronicon, Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes (1810), Hakluyt’s Voyages (1598-1600), Clarendon’s History (1702-4), Saxton’s Atlas of England and Wales (1579) and, Seller’s Atlas Maritimus 1678. The list of incunabula acquired is shorter but includes The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), volumes of statutes printed by Caxton in 1490, as well as two out of the three volumes of statues issued by Machlinia, the first of the English law printers. On the whole however the purchase policy towards legal and allied materials was highly selective, and books had to prove themselves before they were bought. The forty eight titles purchased in 1723 range in publication date from 1651 onwards but only four of these were current publications.
The catalogue of 1773, the work of another Librarian, the Rev. William Jeffs, was the last to be in manuscript and was the most scientifically planned to date. It was ordered that “The Librarian … to make a complete Catalogue of all the books in the Library and to range the books relating to the several subjects they treat upon in distinct presses so as to compose a separate Library of Law and Equity, Civil Law and Parliamentary proceedings, Classics, General and Biographical History, Theology, Heraldry, Physic, Miscellaneous Books or others relating to any particular science or subject and manuscripts; that in the Catalogue to be made there shall be one column to signify the number of the press, another the shelves, another the name of the book, another the name of the printer and another the date of the year, and that the books may follow in an alphabetical manner, as much as may be, and that all duplicates may be placed together in two or three presses, and that the same may be completed by the first full week in Michaelmas term, and for which this Society do desire his acceptance of ten guineas.”
In 1784 Randall Norris, a clerk in the Treasurer’s department (he subsequently became Sub Treasurer) was appointed Librarian, and it was during his tenure of office that the earliest printed catalogue, dated 1806, was issued. The surviving evidence suggests that the appointment of Norris was not a happy one. His intellect was not powerful and he possessed none of the qualities that make a true librarian. When he died in 1827 Charles Lamb wrote a famous letter about him to Crabbe Robinson: “In him I have a loss the world cannot make up. He was my friend, and my father’s friend, all the life I can remember. I seem to have made foolish friendships ever since … To the last he called me Charley. I have none to call me Charley now. Letters he knew nothing of, nor did his reading extend beyond the Gentleman’s Magazine. Yet there was a pride of Literature about him from being among books (he was Librarian) and from scraps of doubtful Latin which he had picked up in his office of entering new students, that gave him very diverting airs of pedantry. Can I forget the erudite look with which, when he had been in vain trying to make out a black letter text of Chaucer in the Temple Library, he laid it down and told me that “in these old books, Charley, there is sometimes a deal of indifferent spelling”, and seemed to console himself in the reflection”.