Personal libraries of famous people and scholars have long been revered for their wealth of insight into the lives of their collectors. We can analyse the content of a library by subject area in order to identify its strengths and weaknesses, track the signatures and dedications inscribed under the covers to map social circles or simply examine the books for signs of use – weakened spines, marginalia and notes or pamphlets pressed inside as bookmarks can be tell-tale signs of how treasured or useful a book may have been to its owner. This is an online exhibition to compliment the new display in the Wren library which explores Sir Isaac Newton’s personal library as a case study to investigate the value of this form of special collection.
A History of Sir Isaac Newton’s Library
Upon his death in 1727, due to the lack of a last will and testament and to settle the outstanding debts from his position as the Master of the Mint which fell upon him personally rather than to the governmental position, the personal library of Sir Isaac Newton was purchased by one John Huggins for his son Charles, rector of Chinnor in Oxford, rather than inherited by Newton’s nieces and nephews. At this time a catalogue known as the Huggins List, now preserved at the British Library, was formed and this is the most reliable list we have of the original contents of Newton’s library. The list claims 1,934 volumes, although the repeated use of the word ‘circa’ in terms of numerical values does not inspire a great deal of confidence in that conclusion. This is an enormous amount considering it was a time of slow literary production and expensive books and therefore we already have evidence to suggest that Newton was a wealthy man.
Charles Huggins also died without will or heirs in 1750, at which point the library was sold on to the new rector, James Musgrave, for the price of £400. Musgrave seems to have had a lot more involvement with the books, compiling a much more detailed catalogue and even adding his own shelf marks. However, the number of volumes detailed here skyrocketed to 2,385. Between these two vague lists it is impossible to know exactly how many genuinely belonged to Newton and how many were added by the subsequent owners, yet it is possible to compare them, as titles which appear on both can be identified as almost certainly passing through the hands of Newton himself.
To complicate matters, after trickling down the generations of the Musgrave family, being moved to a new estate at Barnsley Park, and steadily losing the recognition of the public eye, a very large part of the library was put up for auction in 1920 with utter disregard for their provenance. The collection has never been together since, certain titles are still, despite the greatest efforts of cataloguers, missing, and years later individual volumes would be uncovered in second hand bookstores. Lots can be found in institutions all over the world from the Huntington Library in California, to Babson College in Massachusetts, to Cambridge University Library. However, 864 volumes were donated to this Library by The Pilgrim Trust in 1943 and here, at Newton’s alma mater, they occupy their own special bay as a signal of their continued value to scholarship today.