What are the quickest ways of getting into a librarian’s bad books?

Well, there are the usual clichés – the short sharp ‘shush!’ accompanied by the Librarian Death Stare for inveterate natterers – and there are the bizarre outliers, such as the bacon rasher bookmark and the Orton-Halliwell school of dustjacket defacement. But if there’s one small habit guaranteed to raise your friendly librarian’s blood to boiling point, it’s marking your current page by turning down the corner, a practice generally known as dog-earing. A practice that looks much like this, in fact:


Miscellanies dog-ear


So, who’s the Fellow of the Royal Society responsible for the above mutilation of one of our books? Step forward Sir Isaac Newton, long-serving President (1703-1727) and one of the Society’s most eminent figures, but, as has been noted recently, a serial offender in the area of page-corner tampering. To be fair, the book (Samuel Foster’s Miscellanies: or, Mathematical lucubrations, 1659) was part of Newton’s personal library, and only reached the Royal Society in the early 1950s via one G H Wyatt, a collector who had acquired it following the dispersal of Newton’s collection from its long-term home at Barnsley Park in Gloucestershire.

We have four books from Newton’s library in our collection. One – a 1700 treatise on numismatics, presumably purchased by Newton to assist in his duties at the Royal Mint, where he was Master from 1699 – bears few marks of his ownership, but the other three contain extensive marginal annotations, handwritten indexes and contents lists, as well as the dog-earing. Here’s his index to the 1610 Basle edition of the Artis Auriferae, a collection of tracts first published in 1572 and dealing with alchemy, a subject of deep interest to Newton:


Artis Auriferae TP


Along with alchemy, Newton collected reading material on occult philosophy and ritual magic, and this forms the subject matter of the most heavily-annotated of our four Newton library books, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia (Cologne, 1533). Here’s a composite of three astrological images from the book:


Agrippa composite


and here’s the inside of the front board, again featuring Newton’s notes on the contents of the volume:


Agrippa front board


No prizes to the owner of Barnsley Park, one James Musgrave, who has plonked his armorial bookplate squarely down in the middle of the great scientist’s handwriting – I think I shall have to lie down in a darkened room for a while to lower my librarianly blood pressure at this point.

Finally, it’s those dog-ears again – a double example in this case:


Agrippa double dog-ear


A book I’ve been browsing, The Library of Isaac Newton by John Harrison (1978), claims that the dog-earing

‘was executed with precision. The upper (or lower) corner was turned down (or up) so that its tip should pinpoint exactly a previously ordained part of the printed text – a sentence, phrase, or even a single word … Though booklovers may deplore this ugly habit – Heinrich Zeitlinger of Sotheran’s termed it ‘naughty’ – it clearly reflects Newton’s attitude that books are working tools to be used as convenient and to destruction.’

Well, I think we may have to disagree on that one, Mr Newton. Modern-day visitors are most welcome to come in and look at Newton’s naughty habits – his books are currently on display in a case on the landing just outside our Reading Room, alongside his telescope and sundial. From there, you can pop in to the Library and get your hands on our books, read them and even borrow the modern ones. But please don’t dog-ear them – it’s a habit of historical interest when found in the former possessions of a genius, but present-day culprits will not be treated quite so understandingly. The Librarian Death Stare is an actual thing, you know…


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