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Thomas Hollis V,

Harvard University

When a disastrous fire swept Massachusetts Hall at Harvard College in January 1764, it destroyed all of the college's scientific instruments and all but a few hundred volumes in the library's collection. The library was already more than a century old, it was the largest in British North America, and it was a resource consulted by the public as well as by the academic community. Its loss was a grave blow to the Colonies, not to New England alone. The very next day friends of the College and of learning began giving books and money to replace its collections, but its recovery would have been sluggish indeed had its custodians been forced to rely upon local sources. The American book trade was still largely a small provincial offshoot of the British trade. Few personal libraries on this side of the Atlantic were large and intellectually varied, and most of those were actively in use by their owners to a degree that would make them loath to part with their book except by bequest.

The repair of the Harvard Library would have been slow, and its shelves would have been heavily freighted with divinity and school books, had it not been for the intervention of an eccentric Englishman, Thomas Hollis of Lincoln's Inn, who over the next decade shipped from London to America some thousands of volumes, for the most part selected according to carefully worked out want lists covering fields of learning that he deemed important for the College. His first concern was for works on government, for, as he wrote, "if Government goeth well, ALL goeth well." Next were works of scholarship and classical antiquity, to develop in America "scholars, THE NOBLEST of men." He also sought and sent works on agriculture, geology, medicine, and other practical subjects. Modern literature hardly appeared in his lists.

The harassed Harvard librarian, working virtually unaided, could not begin to keep up with the immense influx of books, and the contemporary inventories preserved in the Harvard Archives are sketchy and far from complete. We still do not know precisely how many titles he sent, nor have all of them been identified and listed in modern times; but hardly a day goes by without Hollis books being actively consulted. And at his death in 1774 he bequeathed £500 for a fund to continue buying books, Harvard's oldest endowed fund for such a purpose, still actively increasing the collections every year.

This generous and knowledgeable donor lived from 1720 to 1774 and was the fifth member of the Hollis family to be named Thomas. His family's benefactions began with gifts of money and books by his great-uncle, Thomas Hollis III, who endowed at Harvard the first two chairs in any American educational institution, the Hollis Professorships of Divinity and of Natural Philosophy. Thomas III's brother Nathaniel was the father of Thomas IV, who in turn was the father of Thomas V, and who, with other members of the family, continued the tradition of generosity to the college in the New World; but Thomas V, of Lincoln's Inn, was the most substantial benefactor of all. The Hollises were Dissenters in religion and Whigs in politics, and hence were drawn to support the foremost dissenting academy in the Colonies, although no representative of the family ever crossed the Atlantic to see it for himself.

When Thomas V was still in his teens, he inherited two substantial family fortunes, so instead of following a commercial career, he was privately tutored in classics and modern languages; he read law in Lincoln's Inn for six years and spent another six in two Grand Tours of Europe from Scandinavia to Malta and as far east as Poland and Vienna, all in preparation for a life devoted to the service of religious and political freedom. Among various devices to forward such ends, he both collected and published books that he considered important and appropriate, had them spectacularly bound, and sent them anonymously to persons and institutions all over Britain and Europe. He also sent them to various recipients in North America, but he seems to have been more willing to be identified with his transatlantic gifts. At Harvard, his greatest beneficiary, he corresponded regularly with President Edward Holyoke as well as with the Boston ministers Jonathan Mayhew and Andrew Eliot, both closely connected with the College. There was never any mystery about the many crates of hooks that arrived in Boston for Cambridge.

Hollis wrote instructive and cautionary notes in many of the books sent, and in a few of them he inserted a letterpress book label printed London according to his own design: small capitals with full stops placed at hyphen height, in the manner of classical inscriptions—one of his special studies. This proudly proclaimed him an Englishman, a member of Lincoln's Inn, and a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries.

Gifts lacking this label were marked in Cambridge by the insertion of an engraved bookplate designed and cut by Nathaniel Hurd of Boston (1730-1770), with the donor identified in manuscript. Most Hurd plates were printed in black; a few were printed in red to designate valuable books that were not to circulate. Over the years the copperplate engraved by Hurd began to wear out, and in the first half of the nineteenth century it was replaced by an inferior imitation of the border cut in London, this time with Hollis's early letterpress label engraved in facsimile within the frame. The great Harvard librarian John Langdon Sibley (1804-1885) took particular interest in the Hollis gifts, which he identified as far as the imperfect early records permitted, and with his own hand wrote in the date of receipt when he could recover it, and the word "Ipsius" to distinguish the books Hollis gave from those later bought with his fund. In time the second plate also wore out and was replaced by a rather ugly line-cut, a sad decline from Hurd's original and not worthy of reproduction here. In 1935 this in turn was fittingly replaced by a photogravure plate copied from an eighteenth-century portrait of Thomas Hollis V, derived ultimately from a drawing from the life by Hollis's protégé, Giovanni Battista Cipriani (1727-1785). This plate is still used to mark current purchases on the Hollis Fund. 

W. H. Bond

Librarian of the Houghton Library

and Professor of Bibliography, Emeritus

 

[Originally published in Journal of Library History, vol. 22, no. 3 (Summer 1987): 338-341.]