How to recognise a Newton library book in 60 Seconds (Scenes from the Library of Isaac Newton, Part 1)


I just returned from the fifth Scientiae conference, held in Toronto, ON. It is a gathering of scholars of Early Modern history of science, medicine, technology and the humanities with an emphasis on scientiae, knowledge.  And just like last year it was a delight. Thanks and hail to the organising committee for putting together three days of fascinating papers and discussion. In the (paraphrased) words of our keynote speaker Anthony Grafton, “people stayed for entire sessions of sometimes rather distinct papers, instead of hopping from one session to another, something I haven’t often seen before.”

Yours truly was allowed to deliver a workshop-like paper on Isaac Newton library books and reading practices. Over the next couple of weeks I will talk you through some of what I discussed in Toronto. For today Part 1: How To Recognise A Newton Library Book in 60 seconds. When Isaac Newton died in 1727, he left behind a large library of over 1700 books. The library was first sold to John Huggins, an infamous prison warden, who bought it for the behest of his son Charles who had recently become a parish priest and whom father John thought needed a decent library. Unfortunately, as Charles must have soon found out, Newton’s library was rather unfit for a proper Church of England chap: not only did it contain many books on physics and mathematics that Charles would have found incomprehensible, and a suspiciously large amount of alchemical titles (over a hundred and fifty in total), the almost five hundred theological books contained an interesting number of heterodox works that were openly anti-trinitarian. So far for pious hero of church and state Isaac Newton. After Charles Huggins’s death, the library was sold to the new rector James Musgrave, who made a comprehensive list of all the books he had received and added shelfmarks to the books themselves as well as his bookplate, which he often pasted over Huggins’s bookplate. A later James Musgrave, nephew of the former, recatalogued the library when it move to Barnsley Park and added a second system of shelfmarks to the books. Things went downhill in the 1920s, when the library was auctioned off piecemeal.  Eventually a substantial amount ended up in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, and a number travelled overseas to end up in the holdings of the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, the Memorial Library of Wisconson-Madison, and various other libraries and institutions. The exact number of books that belonged to Newton’s library is unknown. In his seminal The Library of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: CUP 1978), John Harrison identifies 1752 separate titles (1763 if we include titles of which Newton owned more than one copy), but as with many books in these days, titles were often bound together in one volume. As of 1978, about 770 titles where still unaccounted for. Some have been retrieved in the thirty-odd years since Harrison, hiding anonymously in special collections like those of the Huntington (about which I reported earlier) or, of all places, in Cardiff, suddenly turning up at auctions, or even making an appearance in Pawn Stars (episode: Put up Your Dukes). But these in total amount for no more than a few dozen. Today, over 700 titles that once belonged to Newton are missing. So, without further ado: How To Recognize A Newton Library Book in 60 seconds.

Huggins detail
James Musgrave’s bookplate, with the Barnsley Park shelfmark (here Case R. E.4.)

The first thing to look out for is Musgrave’s bookplate, as shown above. There is no mention of the name Musgrave: it only has the Latin “philosophemur”, which translates best as “May we philosophize”. At the bottom of the Musgrave bookplate we find the Barnsley Park shelfmark that was added by Musgrave’s nephew.

Huggins's Bookplate
Huggins’s bookplate, found below Musgrave’s.

Musgrave’s bookplate is often pasted over Huggins’s, although not all books on Musgrave’s list of Newton’s library books contain Huggins plate. It may be that Musgrave removed these, or that Huggins did not past bookplates in all of his Newton books. But there are also cases where a book was (accidentally?) added to the list, books that most likely never belonged to Newton. In any case, Huggins’s bookplate is sometimes found next to Musgrave’s, or Musgrave’s can be lifted up as in the image above, and we can clearly read “Rev. Carol(u)s Huggins, Rector Chinner in Com. Oxon.” In the left hand corner of the bookplated page we should then find the shelfmark that the first James Musgrave used, which looks like this:

Musgrave Shelfmark
Musgrave’s shelfmark.

To zoom out, this is what we are eventually looking for: Newton LB

Now, the one thing we still need to touch are Newton’s idiosyncratic reading traces: dog-ears. Not just dog-ears, but suspiciously large dog-ears that serve as more than just a page-mark. More about these in Part 2!

But for now: Librarians of planet Earth: scrutinize thy collections for Musgrave and Huggins’s bookplates, shelfmarks, and large dog-ears. And if you find something that might fit the above description: please drop me an email… keesjanschilt [at]

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