In the course of preparing for our new exhibition, ‘Edward Lear and the Scientists’, I came across an undated letter from Charles Darwin to an unidentified librarian. The letter, which has been transcribed online by the Darwin Correspondence Project, contained Darwin’s request to borrow a volume of the Philosophical Transactions, and ‘a great work descriptive of animals in Ld. Derby’s menagerie’. The latter is Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall, a lavish privately-printed publication with illustrations by Edward Lear. I was about to put the Royal Society’s copy of this work, which had been donated to the library by Lord Derby himself, on display. Could Darwin have asked to borrow this very volume?

'Red Macauco - Lemur rufus', by Edward Lear, from 'Gleanings from the menagerie and aviary at Knowsley Hall' (1846)

Actually, as detective jobs go, this one was relatively straightforward, thanks to the record-keeping of past Royal Society librarians. In our archives we have a set of library lending registers from the 19th century, containing names of borrowers, dates, titles borrowed, and (most importantly from the librarian’s point of view) a column recording whether the volume had been returned. Opening any of the volumes immediately reveals what an important resource the Royal Society’s collection was for 19th century scientists, and how many of them took advantage of what were obviously rather more relaxed borrowing rules at the time (these days we don’t lend out Newton’s Principia!). Regular borrowers included Edward Sabine, John Lubbock, Charles Lyell, and Thomas Henry Huxley. One name that appears frequently is James Orchard Halliwell, who was later banned from the Reading Room of the British Museum on the suspicion he had stolen manuscripts from Trinity College Library (all his borrowings from the Royal Society seem to have been returned safely).

Another name that appears very frequently is C. Darwin. Darwin was elected as a Fellow in January 1839, and his first entry in the lending register appears in April 1839, when he borrowed volume 4 of the Transactions of the Geological Society. He obviously found the Royal Society’s library collection a useful resource, because over the years to 1860 he borrowed books and sets of journal volumes on more than 120 occasions (and more after that date – I just haven’t counted them yet). The Society’s library gave him access to foreign journals, including the publications of the St Petersburg Academy (now the Russian Academy of Sciences), Berlin’s Königliche Akademie der Wissenschaften (Royal Academy of Sciences), and the Brussels Académie Impériale et Royale des Sciences et Belles-Lettres. Darwin also borrowed travel books, some dating back to the 18th century. These included Constantine Phipps’s A Voyage towards the North Pole undertaken by His Majesty’s Command 1773 (London, 1774), which contained the first European description of the polar bear. Occasionally Darwin borrowed much older volumes, including Francis Willughby’s Ornithology, published in 1678, and the Italian Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi’s works on birds (1599) and quadrupeds (1637).

And what about the Gleanings from the Menagerie at Knowsley Hall? Darwin’s letter to the unidentified librarian was undated, and the Darwin Correspondence editors suggested it may have been written in 1846, shortly after the first volume of Gleanings appeared (a second volume was printed in 1850). In fact, after looking through page after page of the lending registers, I discovered that Darwin borrowed the two-volume set much later, in 1856. This is what the page with the entry looks like:

Royal Society Library Lending Register (MS/403), showing that Charles Darwin borrowed the Royal Society Library’s copy of 'Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall' in 1856

The ‘Knowsley Menagerie’ volume appears three lines from the foot of the page. Darwin has not signed the lending book next to this entry. It was probably the Royal Society’s librarian who entered his name (and presumably packaged up the books to send off to Darwin at Down House). But you can see Darwin’s autograph signature several lines above, showing that he did come into the library on other occasions. Further scrutiny of the lending registers might reveal much more about the books he was consulting in the period before he published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

The exhibition ‘Edward Lear and the Scientists’ is open to the public from 29 August to 26 October 2012; see our exhibition website for details of how to arrange a visit.

  • Great post, Felicity – really interesting! I really want to come up and see the exhibition. I lovely the Gleanings from the Menagerie, it kept me in the Book Room far longer than intended on numerous occasions.