When an art director needs to create a library on a movie set, he or she sends his staff to purchase books by the foot (the Philistines!) to fill up the bookshelves. From afar, the collection of books looks impressive, but upon close inspection you would see that it is a random assortment of outcast literary mongrels — obscure and surplus titles, like something you would see at a public library used book sale. But the library featured on Downton Abbey is the real deal — it’s a very large classic Victorian library (actually a double library) in Highclere Castle, built between 1839 and 1842 and remodeled in the 1870s.
The library contains more than 5,560 beautifully bound books on various subjects, like history, politics, religion, and travel. The owners, beginning with the 4th Earl of Carnarvon to its current owners the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon have gradually acquired books for the library over 150 years. The library is even catalogued according to the Dewey Decimal System. As one enters the library, just to the right are history books about previous owners of the castle written by Stephen Cassan: Lives of the Bishops of Winchester, Lives of the Bishops of Sherbourne and Salisbury, and Lives of the Bishops or Bath and Wells. Near one of the fireplaces, you will find a large section that focused on Egypt and archaeology reflecting the passion of an earlier owner, George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. In 1922, Herbert and his colleague, archaeologist Howard Carter, discovered King Tut’s tomb. The oldest book in the collection is Comedia Cassaria (1538) by Italian poet and playwright Ludovico Ariosto. What makes this book valuable and interest is that one of the translations of that play was used as source material by William Shakespeare for his play, The Taming of the Shrew (1590-52).
Just as you see in episodes of the show, the library is used to entertain guests before and after lunch and dinner. The 4th Earl of Carnarvon, who was an active Tory in Parliament and a member of Benjamin Disraeli’s cabinet in the 1860s, enjoyed discussing politics with his friends and colleagues over drinks and aromatic cigars. Almost a century later, the library still serves the same function. “A library is for reading, research, and conversation… rooms with cozy corners and different conversations,” explained Lady Carnarvon. “I might wish to show a bishop the books about various predecessors in the north library whilst my husband is holding forth in the other end!” No doubt, Lady Grantham would approve of such high-minded discourse.
For further reading: http://www.highclerecastle.co.uk/state-rooms