George John, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834), politician and book collector, was educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a nobleman's MA degree in 1778. He was a life-long Whig, and was elected to Parliament for Northampton in 1780. He supported the Fox-North coalition in 1783 but turned down the offer to become lord lieutenant of Ireland. He succeeded to the earldom on the death of his father in October 1783, and for the next decade devoted himself to the management of his estates. However, the impact of the French Revolution on Britain stirred his sense of public duty and, with the Duke of Portland and other whig leaders, Spencer broke with Fox and Grey and joined the government of William Pitt in 1794. He served as First Lord of the Admiralty at a critical period in the history of the Royal Navy, until Pitt left office in 1801. Spencer then retired from political life, except for a brief hiatus when he served as Home Secretary under the Grenville-Fox ministry of 1806-7.
Lord Spencer was one of the greatest book collectors the world has ever known. He built upon the foundations of the family library at Althorp in Northamptonshire, which Dibdin estimated to contain some 7,000 volumes, including several rarities. However, he disposed of many of the books that his father, the first Earl Spencer, had collected in favour of better copies. Throughout his career George John was very willing to improve his collection in this way, and there were notable sales of duplicate and inferior copies from the Bibliotheca Spenceriana. He acquired several complete libraries by private treaty with their owners, and he purchased books through dealers and at auction, though he did not attend sales as frequently as some of his fellow collectors.
Spencer was fascinated by the classics and he eagerly sought first editions of all the principal Greek and Roman writers. One of his first significant purchases, in 1790, was the library of Count Reviczky, one-time ambassador of Maria Theresa in Warsaw. This was particularly rich in Aldine editions of the classics. Spencer bought heavily at the sensational Roxburghe sale of 18 May 1812, bidding against stiff competition from two of his chief rivals in book collecting, the Marquess of Blandford and the Duke of Devonshire. In 1813 Spencer paid £3,400 to Thomas Johnes of Hafod for the fine library previously assembled by Stanesby Alchorne, Controller of the Mint (d. 1800). In 1819-20 Spencer undertook a tour of Europe in quest of bibliographical rarities, in particular books produced by Sweynheym and Pannartz, the first printers in Italy. The high-point of the tour was Spencer's purchase of almost the entire library of the Neapolitan nobleman, the Duke di Cassano Serra. The duplicates from this collection were sold in 1821. By the time of his death Spencer had created the greatest library then in private hands, rich in incunabula, Bibles, Italian literature of the fifteen and sixteenth centuries, illustrated books, and examples of fine printing from all the major European presses. The collection was sold by his grandson, the 5th Earl Spencer, to Mrs Enriqueta Rylands for the John Rylands Library.
Source: Malcolm Lester, 'Spencer, George John, second Earl Spencer (1758-1834)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press - http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/26125.