The Trustees of Thomas Plume’s Library decided to mark the tercentenary of the library by commissioning an Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC). This is an extensively researched and computerized catalogue searchable online by Boolean operators across a range of fields.
The earlier catalogues built progressively upon one another. The earliest surviving – and fragmentary – account of Thomas Plume’s library is the manifest of the first six casks in which the books were delivered to Maldon in 1704. A much fuller and vellum bound manuscript is entitled A Catalogue of the Books now found in the Plume Library, dated January 1st 1761, by R. Hay M.A., Librarian 1760-1771, and Vicar of Heybridge, Essex. A still more comprehensive catalogue exists in two stoutly bound copies of A Duplicate Manuscript Catalogue of the Books now found in Archdeacon Plume’s Library, dated 24th July 1848. This was compiled by the Revd Robert Prentice Crane A.M. Cantab, Vicar of Tolleshunt Major and of Heybridge, Plume Librarian 1844-1852.
A printed short-title catalogue was published by the Trustees in 1959. This was the work of Mr S.G. Deed M.A., Plume Librarian 1947-1966, with the assistance of Miss Jane Francis and with a foreword by Mr F.C. Francis C.B., Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum.
The OPAC is a catalogue of all Thomas Plume’s books as bequeathed to his home town. It expands upon Deed by including those books currently missing and adds full titles, other names such as editors, translators, artists, engravers, printers and booksellers, indications of provenance, Plume’s ownership signature (curiously little found) and occasional prices.
Descriptions of bindings, manuscript interpolations, scholia and memorabilia and evidence of provenance are included except for replacement copies. These provide researchers of the library a rare and valuable resource for the study of book collecting and library formation in the seventeenth century.
Descriptions of signatures and paginations are indicative of ideal copies. Variants and defects that are departures from the standard are recorded as far as this has proved feasible.
Thomas Plume’s books when bequeathed to Maldon may be summarized as approximately 8100 publications of which 5800 are present in bound state, 1600 as unbound books and pamphlets and 700 lost books of which 248 have been replaced. These provide rarely rivalled evidence of buying activities in the book stalls and early book auctions in the vicinities of Fleet Street and St.Paul’s.
The library has sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century small format editions of the classics such as were produced for school and university needs. Some of these bear Plume’s ownership signature in a smaller neater form than is typical – his signature as a young man perhaps. Prices are here recorded much more commonly than in the bulk of his library. Plume was at that time a conscientious recorder of his books, if vexingly silent about his personal life story. The supposition must be that his careful autograph and the price reflect the proprietorial concerns of the impecunious undergraduate.
He was later collecting books which were already antiquities when he acquired them. The earliest publication in his library is a four-volume Latin bible which came into the world at Nuremberg in 1487.
Plume’s acquisitions greatly exceed the needs of the most scholarly and voracious reader. He was buying in bulk. Many of the ‘pamphlets’ are in fact unbound books, a significant number of which are present in two or more copies, one of which is now present in bound form while others remain ‘unpressed, untrimmed, stitched as issued’, in the parlance of the antiquarian book world. Many of the sermons and the more ephemeral publications in his possession are bound several to a volume; still more are left unbound.
A substantial majority of his books are plainly and stoutly bound in calf leather devoid even of gilt lettering, at a cost to the time and patience of present day library staff. He was clearly using a limited number of binders who were under an imperative to cover his books and preserve them for posterity at a minimal cost. Elaborately gilded binding are mostly present on continental publications and were without doubt thus bound when Plume acquired them.
The volume of Plume’s acquisitions, the hundreds of publications left in the state in which they came from the press and the economical binding style are entirely consistent with the buying activities of a collector with substantial but not limitless resources who was assembling a library of a size and scope worthy of the gentry and scholars of his town.
Approximately 700 of Plume’s books were missing, mostly lost in the early part of the twentieth century, before the Trustees, with the financial support of the Friends of Thomas Plume’s Library, began a programme of replacement. It is frequently not possible to identify the edition of the missing publication, as the sole source for identifying missing books is the Crane catalogue which rarely provides dates. Where there is more than one edition published before the death of Thomas Plume the OPAC cataloguing of the replacements necessarily has to resort to the formula ‘replacement copy of an unknown edition’. The books of Thomas Plume which are still missing are catalogued with inevitable brevity.
Plume bequeathed the sum of twenty shillings per annum for the purchase of new books. In recent years acquisitions have been confined to the replacement of missing books and the occasional reference work, purchases that are usually funded through the generosity of the Friends of Thomas Plume’s Library.
Since the death of Thomas Plume his library has become a repository of books thought appropriate to be housed in his library. These are substantially books from the Maldon Mechanics’ Institute that passed to the Plume Library in the late nineteenth century, at a time when such institutes were overtaken by the public library service and adult education that led to the disbandment of the Maldon institution among many others. Other repositories include those of Dr J.H. Salter DL JP of Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Mr R.E. Thomas of Beeleigh Abbey, and former Plume Librarians Revd Edward Russell Horwood, Vicar of All Saints’ Maldon, and Dr William Petchey. The Heraldry Collection has now been transferred to The Essex Society for Archaeology and History, housed at The Albert Sloman Library at the University of Essex.
With Thomas Plume’s bequest, his library in Maldon acquired a substantial archive in manuscript form. One quarter of these are in the hand of Dr Plume himself and include his sermon notes and notebooks such as his personal accounts from his undergraduate days at Cambridge.
Since the death of Plume his library has accumulated an archive that documents its history since his death. These are represented by such archives as visitors’ books, minute books and records of the Plume charitable trust.