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Thomas Pennant Barton Collection (Rare Books & Manuscripts)

This guide contains information about the history, content, and use of the Thomas Pennant Barton Collection in the Rare Books and Manuscripts department of the Boston Public Library.

Thomas Pennant Barton Collection

The Thomas Pennant Barton Collection contains over 14,000 volumes related to William Shakespeare, early English drama, and continental European history and literature. The collection forms the nucleus of the BPL's Shakespeare holdings and is one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in the world. The Barton Collection is also the library's primary collection of rare, early modern editions of English-language literature.

Like all of the BPL's holdings, the Barton Collection is entirely open to the public. Books from the collection can be consulted in person within the BPL Special Collections reading room at the Central Library in Copley Square.



The title page from the BPL's copy of the First Folio, formerly owned by Barton.

History of the Collection

Thomas Pennant Barton (1803-1869) was one of the earliest collectors of Shakespeare in the United States. A well-connected former diplomat and avid book collector, Barton amassed a sizable library during his lifetime, which the BPL purchased from his widow, Cora Livingston Barton, in 1873.

Barton was the son of the physician and naturalist Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton and Mary Pennington. Born in Philadelphia in 1803, his family moved to France following his father's death in 1815. Little is known of Barton's early years, but even as a young man, he began to cultivate an interest in book collecting.

In 1833, Barton married Coralie (Cora) Livingston, the daughter of then-Secretary of State Edward Livingston. After his marriage, Barton moved to Paris to join Livingston -- then serving as Minister to France -- where he served in a diplomatic role until 1835. While abroad, Barton began collecting books more seriously and established connections with a number of prominent European booksellers.

After returning to the United States, Barton and his wife settled in Montgomery Place, an estate in Dutchess County, New York, which they shared with Cora's parents. There, Barton devoted the rest of his life to the development of his library and to cultivating an arboretum within the gardens at Montgomery Place

When Edward Livingston died in 1836, his library of roughly 4,000 volumes passed to Barton. Livingston's library, which remains embedded withing the Barton Collection, comprises mostly works on law and history. To Livingston's library, Barton added an extensive assortment of Western European literature and English drama, but the works of William Shakespeare remained Barton's focus.

Throughout his life, Barton sought to collect early quarto and folio editions of Shakespeare's plays and poems, particularly ones in pristine condition (Winsor, 1876). Through his network of booksellers and other collectors, Barton acquired all four seventeenth-century folio editions of Shakespeare's works and forty-five rare and early quartos of Shakespeare's plays, including nine quarto editions printed during Shakespeare's lifetime. He also sought early editions of other Elizabethan dramatic works, including the 1616 Ben Jonson folio and early editions of Christopher Marlowe's works.

1869-1873: Sale and Purchase

Book collecting was Barton's passion and the library that he built at Montgomery Place was his life's work. Prior to his death, he expressed a desire for his library to remain intact permanently, noting that it should one day be placed in a public institution, if at all possible.

Shortly after his death in April of 1869, Cora Livingston Barton began to search for a suitable home for her late husband's collection. BPL Superintendent Justin Winsor opened negotiations with Cora and her agent and in September of 1869, she visited the Library in order to speak with Winsor and George Ticknor.

Cora finally offered the collection to the BPL for $45,000, much less than it had cost to build the library. Even still, the the BPL was unable to raise the sum and declined her offer. After several years and additional attempts to sell the collection, Cora again offered the Barton Collection to the BPL trustees.

Recognizing the enduring value of the collection, the trustees strove to raise the necessary funds. The library issued a call for donations (see image at left), but the trustees ultimately looked to City Hall, which appropriated funds from the City's operating budget in order to facilitate the acquisition.

On March 27, 1873, the Boston Public Library purchased the Barton Library for $34,000, under the stipulation that the books be housed together in a room or alcove as "The Barton Library," restricted to in-library use, and properly cataloged and marked with a bookplate. Cora died two days after the delivery of the books to the Boston Public Library was completed, on May 23, 1873. Per Cora Barton's wishes, a printed catalog of the Barton Library was undertaken; the first volume was published by the Boston Public Library in 1878. The full catalog of the collection is still accessible (and useful) today.

1873-2022: The Barton Collection at BPL

In 1873, Charles Follen McKim's "palace for the people" -- the BPL's McKim Building -- had not yet been constructed; instead, the Boston Public Library occupied a smaller building located at 55 Boylston Street. When the Barton Collection was transferred to the Boston Public Library, it was housed, as per Cora Barton's stipulations, within separate alcoves in the Upper Hall, where the more scholarly volumes in the library's collection were held. However, as early as 1873, BPL's Examining Committee recommended that "it would be much better if separate rooms could be provided for large and valuable collections" such as the Barton Library (Annual Report, 1873). 

Even before the acquisition of the Barton Library, it was evident that the Boston Public Library would soon need additional space to house its ever-expanding collections. In 1880, the Massachusetts State Legislature allotted land in the newly-filled Back Bay neighborhood for a new library building. Within the new building, the third floor of the library was designated as the "Special Libraries Floor," which housed special collections within the library's holdings. The Barton Library was transferred into a room on north end of this floor, along with the Ticknor Collection, the Prince Collection, the Lewis Collection, and the Barlow Collection. Appropriately called the Barton Room (or the Barton Ticknor Room, after two of the major collections held within the space), it was also used as a small lecture hall and exhibition space. Today, this room is known as the Charlotte Cushman Room.

For many years, the varied collections of rare books and manuscripts were known as the Barton-Ticknor department and were housed on the third floor of the McKim building along with the Fine Arts and Music departments. In 1929, due to supervision and conservation concerns, books remaining in the Barton-Ticknor Room were transferred to the North Gallery with the rest of the rare books collections. Some materials from the Barton collection were displayed in the "Treasure Room," now known as the Cheverus Room. Following a major library reorganization in 1933, the Rare Books Department was established to oversee the rare books and manuscripts in the North Gallery and Treasure Room. The collections remained there until the construction and opening of the Boylston Street building in 1972, at which time the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department moved to occupy a space in the new building. Throughout its time at the Boston Public Library, the Barton Collection has remained one of the core collections of rare books within the library. In 2016, BPL curated and hosted a major exhibition, Shakespeare Unauthorized, which featured many of the materials in the Barton Collection.

Contact & Reading Room Hours

Contact us!

Rare Books and Manuscript Department
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston St
Boston, MA 02116

Reading Room Hours:


  • Monday: Closed
  • Tuesday: Closed
  • Wednesday: 9:30-4:30
  • Thursday: 9:30-4:30
  • Friday: 9:30-4:30
  • Saturday- Sunday: Closed