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Royal Society Library

Address. 6 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG [Map]
Telephone. (020) 7451-2606
Fax. (020) 7930-2170
e-mail. [library@royalsociety.org]
Internet. https://royalsociety.org/collections/

Governing body or responsible institution. The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge
Function. Research library.
Subjects. The history of science and scientific institutions, with special emphasis on the Royal Society; biographies of scientists; science policy.

Access. Open to researchers for reference. They should contact the library before their first visit. - Opening hours: Monday to Friday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Special facilities. Photocopying and microfilming; microform reader-printer.
Travel directions. Nearest underground stations: Piccadilly Circus or Charing Cross.


1.1 The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge is the oldest scientific society in Great Britain and one of the oldest in Europe. Founded in 1660, it had begun with small, informal groups who met periodically to discuss scientific subjects. In 1662 Charles II granted a charter to the Royal Society. Among the early members were Bishop John Wilkins, Joseph Glanvill, John Wallis, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Kenelm Digby and Christopher Wren, who wrote the preamble to its charter. Isaac Newton was elected to the Society in 1671, and Edmund Halley, the astronomer, in 1678. Its publication, Philosophical Transactions, begun in 1665, is one of the earliest periodicals in the West.

1.2 The Society first met at Gresham College in Bishopsgate until 1710, with a sojourn at Arundel House between 1667 and 1673 after the Great Fire; it then moved to Crane Court, Fleet Street; in 1780 to Somerset House; in 1856 Burlington House; and in 1967 to Carlton House Terrace. The library dates from its foundation and has always played an important part in its life (see below, 4.2 , Bloomfield, pp. 342-344, upon which chapter 1 of this article is based). It has been built up by purchase, donation and exchange. As a result of past benefactions, the scope of the rare books holdings is much wider than pure science, though reduced by dispersals (see below 1.5).

1.3 The first books came from members of the Society who presented copies of their publications, e.g. Sir Kenelm Digby or Robert Boyle. Soon, the Society received a considerable number of donations. The first substantial addition to the Society's store of books was made in 1667 by Henry Howard, 6th Duke of Norfolk (1628-1684), the so-called Norfolk or Arundel House Library. Of the c. 4,000 vols donated perhaps 500 still remain. The library had been collected by the Duke's grandfather Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (1586-1646) during his time as Ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire. It included the library of Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530), the humanist and friend of Dürer (who had designed the bookplate for him). This collection had been rich in incunabula, c. 40 of which remain, and other rarities. Almost all non-scientific works were sold either in 1873 by Bernard Quaritch or in 1925 by Sotheby's (4 May; see below 4.2, Hall, p. 42), the last portion mostly going to the British Museum. Traces of the Pirckheimer Collection have recently been found in the Museum's Department of Prints and Drawings (see Handbuch-entry by David Paisey, 2.5 who mentions an edition of Helius Eobanus Hessus, Nuremberg 1527, from the Quaritch sale). The proceeds of the 1925 sale went into a separate fund to be used for library purposes.

1.4 Other libraries, or parts of libraries, were bequeathed by George Ent, FRS (164?-1679, c. 500 books), by John Aubrey, FRS (1626-1697), Henry Dircks (1806-1873), civil engineer (c. 200 books and pamphlets) and Henry Browman Brady, FRS (1835-1891), naturalist and pharmacist (c. 180 books and pamphlets). During the 19th century the library continued to grow, both by purchase and donation. In 1861 the Council voted to allow the Library Committee £500 (twice the sum normally voted for purchase) in order to purchase the library of Alexander von Humboldt then being sold, although there seems to be no record of whether the Committee actually bought items from it (see below 4.2 , Hall, p. 36; see also Handbuch-entry for the British Library 1.81). The library still holds a number of works by Humboldt published in Germany (see below 2.7). 1.2

1.5 The library was catalogued several times (see below 3.2 ), first in 1681 as the Bibliotheca Norfolciana, including books no longer in the library, and afterwards in 1825, 1839 and 1883. In 1832 Anthony Panizzi, then assistant Librarian at the British Museum, was asked to produce a classified catalogue which he published - after some argument with the Committee about the classification scheme - in 1839. The catalogues reflect the Society's decisions to concentrate on pure sciences, medicine and gineering. Accordingly, non-scientific portions of the library were dispersed in 1713, 1745, 1872/73 and finally in 1925 with the sale of part of the Arundel Library. Since 1847 the Society had become primarily orientated towards natural science rather than towards learning in general and, accordingly, the general catalogue of 1883, which was replaced only a hundred years later, was called Catalogue of the scientific books in the library of the Royal Society. In 1950 it was decided that the library should concentrate on its role as a unique resource for historians of science and biographers of scientists, with particular emphasis on previous Fellows. A five-volume Book Catalogue of the Royal Society was published in 1982 by University Publications of America and the catalogue is currently being converted to electronic form (see below 3.1).


Chronological outline and analysis by language

2.1 The library holds c. 150,000 vols, the periodical collection comprises c. 100,000 vols. In the general collection there are c. 40,000 vols printed before 1950. There are 46 incunabula, and c. 20,000 vols have been published before 1857. Pamphlets are bound in a miscellaneous collection of 1,400 vols. No accurate breakdown by language has been undertaken, but of the printed material by far the majority is printed in English or Latin. There are also substantial holdings in other languages, especially French and German. As a proportion of the whole, German-language holdings would be about 3 per cent, and German imprint holdings perhaps 5 per cent.

Subject outline

2.2 The holdings include all pure sciences, natural history, medicine, engineering and technology, expeditions and travel, and smaller collections on biography (especially of scientists), British history, travel and topography, as well as antiquities. German imprints date from the 15th to the 19th century, with prominent examples from all subject areas collected by the library, the number of publications having considerably increased since the late 18th century. This was especially due to a great number of tracts, partly published by foreign members of the Society. The number of foreign members had steadily grown during the 18th century culminating in about 160 in 1770, but declining again to c. 40 during the 19th century (see below 4.2, Lyons Appendix III). Among the numerous German members were Carl Friedrich Gauss, Albrecht von Haller (of Swiss origin, Professor at Göttingen University), Alexander von Humboldt, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Johann David Michaelis, Christoph Jakob Trew and Carl Wilhelm von Siemens, whose works are all held by the library.

2.3 There are several early imprints from the Norfolk library (s. above 1.3). The Liber secretorum [H]y[pocratis] (Venice 1497), ed. by al-Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammed ibn Zakariyya, bears a Pirckheimer bookplate. German imprints to be noted are Paracelsus's De meteoris liber unus (Basel c. 1570; no. 2195), his Chirurgia magna, ed. by Philipp Aureolus (Strasbourg 1573; no. 3006) and Regiomontanus's calendar Also ist begriffen körczlich diss kalenders nucz ([Nuremberg 1474?]). Albrecht Dürer's Della simmetria dei corpi humani (Norfolk no. 3068) was published in Venice in 1594.

2.4 Astronomy is one of the fields collected by the library from the beginning. Early editions to be mentioned are Ptolemaeus's Omnia, quae extant, opera, ed. by Hieronymus Gemusaeus (Basel 1541), his Magnae constructionis ...libri XIII (Basel 1538) as well as three other Basel imprints, Johannes de Sacro Bosco's Libellus de sphaera, ed. by Melanchthon (Wittenberg 1563), Regiomontanus's Algorithmus demonstratus (Nuremberg 1534) and his Tabulae directionum et profectionum, with a preface by Melanchthon (Augsburg 1551). The library also holds Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, libri VI (Basel 1566) and Kepler's Astronomia nova ..., seu physica coelestis (Prague 1609) as well as his Epitome astronomiae Copernicae ...conscripta (Linz 1618). The 17th century is represented by Johannes Hevelius's Cometographia (Danzig 1668), his Machinae coelestis pars prior (Danzig 1673) as well as by several other Danzig editions, or by Tycho Brahe's Tabulae Rudolphinae (Ulm 1627) and his Historia coelestis (Augsburg 1666). The 18th century is represented by Leonhard Euler's Theoria motuum planetarum et cometarum (Berlin 1744). The library also owns several other works by Euler from St. Petersburg, London and Edinburgh presses.

2.5 A notable feature of the library are its works on mathematics. Among early works from German and Swiss presses are a Greek edition of Euclid's Elementa (Basel 1533), Dürer's Unterweysung der messung, mit dem Zirckel un richtscheyt (Nuremberg 1525), or Heizo Buscherus, Arithmeticae libri duo (Helmstedt 1590). Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (FRS 1673), whose correspondence with members of the Society regarding the priority in the discovery of the Calculus during the years 1711/12 was published under the title of the Commercium Epistolicum (London 1712), is well represented by his Opera omnia (Geneva 1768) and 8 other items either in Latin or printed in German-speaking countries. Of special note also are works by Carl Friedrich Gauss, of whom the library holds 22 items, e.g. Works (Göttingen 1863-1903) and many 18th-century items published at Helmstedt or Göttingen. His Intensitas vis magneticae terrestris ad mensuram absolutam revocata appeared in an English translation in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (vol. 11). Other mathematicians to be mentioned are Abraham Gotthelf Kaestner, professor at Göttingen University, of whom the library holds 8 items, mostly printed in Leipzig, or Johann Andreas von Segner (8 items).

2.6 Holdings of physics include Leibniz's Hypothesis physica nova (Mainz 1671), Leonhard Euler's Dissertatio de principio minimae actionis (Berlin 1753), Goethe's Zur Farbenlehre (Tübingen 1810) and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's (FRS 1793) Vertheidigung des Hygrometers und der de Lüc'schen Theorie vom Regen (Göttingen 1800). There are two other London and Oxford publications by him in the library. Early publications on chemistry appeared in the form of alchemical works, e.g. Georg Agricola's De re metallica libri XII (Basel 1657), with other works by him published at Wittenberg (1695) and Magdeburg (1697), Abu Ali Ibn Sina, Artis chemicae principes, Avicenna atque Geber (Basel 1572) or Paracelsus's De meteoris liber unus (Basel c. 1570). Examples to be noted from the 18th and 19th centuries are Georg Ernst Stahl, Experimenta, Observationes ...chymicae et physicae (Berlin 1731) and Leopold Gmelin, Handbuch der theoretischen Chemie (Frankfurt 1827-1829). Mineralogy as a related discipline is represented by Athanasius Kircher, Iter exstaticum coeleste ...& synopsis mundi subterranei (Würzburg 1660).

2.7 Among the fields traditionally supported by the Society and its library are natural history, expeditions and travel. Here, Alexander von Humboldt (FRS 1815) is to be mentioned. In 1836, he wrote to the Duke of Sussex, President of the Royal Society, urging that magnetic observing stations should be established in the British possessions in North America and elsewhere (see below 4.2, Lyons p. 275). Humboldt was awarded the Copley Medal by the Society in 1852. By him the library holds Ansichten der Natur (Stuttgart 1849) and Kosmos - Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (Stuttgart 1845-1858). Of his travels (Voyage de Humboldt et de Bonpland, Paris 1814-1819) there are only French and English editions in the library. Humboldt's Bericht über die Naturhistorischen Reisen der Herren Ehrenberg und Hemprich durch Aegypten, Dongola, Syrien ... (Berlin 1826) is an example of contemporary travel literature. Johann Reinhold Forster also deserves mention here with his Enchiridion historiae naturali inserviens (Halle 1788), although most of his publications are in English as his Voyage round the world ...during the years 1772, 3, 4 and 5 (London 1777). (For his son Johann Georg see below 2.8). Carl Friedrich P. von Martius, a well-known botanist, contributed Beiträge zur Ethnographie und Sprachenkunde Amerika's zumal Brasiliens (Leipzig 1867).

2.8 Works of biology date from the 17th to the 19th century, starting with Conrad Gesner's Historia animalium (Frankfurt 1620-1621) and his Opera botanica (Nuremberg 1751-1771); his works were first published in Zürich 1551-1588. 18th-century authors include Christoph Jakob Trew (FRS 1746), of whom there are 6 botanical works published in Nuremberg, or August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof's famous Insekten-Belustigung 1. [-4.] Teil (Nuremberg 1746-1761). Major German botanists of the 19th century are well represented, such as Carl Friedrich P. von Martius, of whom the library owns 21 items, e.g. Systema materiae medicae vegetabilis Brasiliensis (Leipzig 1843). Christian Gottfried Nees von Esenbeck is represented by 4 items, e.g. Das System der Pilze (Bonn 1858). Goethe's work Zur Morphologie (Stuttgart 1817-1823) should also be mentioned here. Examples of floras are Johann Georg Gmelin's Flora Sibirica (St. Petersburg 1747-1749) and Johann Georg Forster's De plantis esculentis insularum Oceani Australis (Berlin 1786). Among writers on the history of zoology or natural history are Ludwig Ruetimeyer (9 titles) and Ernst Haeckel, of whom the library owns 23 items printed before 1900, e.g. Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte (Berlin 1868).

2.9 Medicine, too, is well represented, with works of Greek and Arabian authors such as Galen (Opera omnia, Basel 1538; another edition of his works published in Venice in 1549 comes from the Norfolk library), Hippocrates (De hominis aetate, [Geneva] 1571; Opera omnia, Frankfurt 1624) or Avicenna (Venice 1500; Basel 1572). Ancient or medieval (Arabian) medicine was handed down in German-speaking countries mostly by Basel or, later, Frankfurt editions. Among 18th-century editions from German or Swiss presses there are c. 30 titles by Albrecht von Haller (FRS 1749), e.g. Bibliotheca anatomica (Zürich 1774-1777), Bibliotheca chirurgica (Bern 1774-1775) or Icones anatomicae (Göttingen 1756). Christoph Jakob Trew is represented by Programma quo de completa ...omnium corporis humani partium repraesentatione (Nuremberg 1733). An example of pharmacological literature is Philipp Friedrich Gmelin's Specificum antidotum novum adversus effectus morsus rabidi canis (Tübingen [1750]). There are also numerous 19th-century examples written in German discussing specific problems, such as Carl Ludwig Merkel, Anatomie und Physiologie des menschlichen Stimm- und Sprachorgans (Leipzig 1863).

2.10 During the 19th century England attracted a number of continental civil engineers such as (Sir) Carl Wilhelm von Siemens (FRS 1862), who in 1869 founded the Landore-Siemens-Steel-Works. Siemens, whose publications Electrical resistance thermometer and pyrometer (London 1875) is held by the library together with other works in English, had offered the Society a dynamo to permit electric lighting for the meeting room as early as 1879 (see below 4.2 Hall, p. 36). His scientific works were published in London in 1889.

2.11 A considerable part of the German holdings are publications from other learned societies, among which figure (in alphabetical order) Berlin, Göttingen, Halle, Leipzig, Mannheim, Munich and Vienna. Most publications are in Latin, but there also are works in German or French. Berlin is represented by the Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften (e.g. Jugement de l'Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles-Lettres, Berlin 1752); Göttingen by the Academia Georgia Augusta (e.g. Catalogus praelectionum publice et privatim ...per aestatem 1747, Göttingen 1747); Halle by the Academia Fridericiana whose Index plantarum of the botanical garden (1797; repr. 1977) is held by the library; Leipzig by the Fürstlich Jablonowski'sche Gesellschaft, whose Preisschriften appeared 1847-1905 in 18 vols. Mannheim deserves mention for the Societas Meteorologica Palatina, whose Monitum ad observatores Societatis appeared in 1780, and Vienna among others for the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, by which was published e.g. Bemerkungen und Anweisungen für die Naturforscher, welche die Expedition von ...Novara ...begleiten (Vienna 1857).


3.1 Modern catalogues

Clark, Alan J.: Book Catalogue of the Royal Society. 5 vols. Frederick, Maryland 1982 (University Publications of America)

[printed author-name card catalogue]

Card catalogue

[1981-1990; author-name catalogue; since then computer catalogue (CAIRS) with retroconversion programme]

The incunables are recorded in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC).

3.2 Historic catalogues

Bibliotheca Norfolciana. London 1681

[with appendices listing the Ent library and miscellaneous author donations; includes books no longer in the library]

Catalogue of the Library of the Royal Society. London 1825

[Panizzi, Anthony]: Catalogue of the scientific books in the Library of the Royal Society. London 1839 [classified]

[Panizzi, Anthony]: Catalogue. Supplement. London 1841 [miscellaneous literature, by authors]

Catalogue of the scientific books in the Library of the Royal Society. General catalogue. London 1883

[author catalogue]

Catalogue of the periodical publications in the Library of the Royal Society. London 1912

[alphabetical by title]


4.1 Archival sources

The Archives collection includes both the extensive official records from the Society's beginning, including documents relating to the library, and miscellaneous MSS, chiefly the scientific papers of Fellows, of which there are large and important collections. Both categories, particularly the first, include printed (though mostly unpublished) material.

Bluhm, R. K.: A guide to the Archives of the Royal Society and to other manuscripts in its possession. London 1956; repr. from: Notes and Records 12, no. 1 (1956) pp. 21-39

Moore, Keith; Sampson, Mary: A guide to the archives and manuscripts of the Royal Society. London 1995

4.2 Publications

There are numerous publications about the history of the Society starting with Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society (London 1667). Of modern publications the following should be noted:

Lyons, Sir Henry: The Royal Society 1660-1940. Cambridge 1944

Purver, M.: The Royal Society. Concept and creation. London 1967

Publications about the library:

Sherrington, C.: The Society's library. In: Notes and Records of the Royal Society 1 (1938) pp. 21-27

Hall, M. B.: The library and archives of the Royal Society 1660-1990. London 1992

See also: A directory of rare book and special collections ... 2nd ed. London 1997, pp. 342-344

[to which chapters 1, 3-5 of the present article are indebted]


Buchanan-Brown, J.: The books presented to the Royal Society by John Aubrey. In: Notes and Records of the Royal Society 28 (1944) pp. 167-193

Lists of donations 1660-1687 in Thomas Birch's History of the Royal Society (to 1687), London 1756-1757; 1769-1869 in: Philosophical Transactions 59-159; 1869-1896 in: Proceedings of the Royal Society pp. 18-59; 1897-1975 in: Year Book of the Royal Society; 1975-1991 in: Additions to the Royal Society's Library, nos 1-36; 1992-1994 in: News from the Royal Society Library, nos 37-42; 1994- in: Bibliotheca: News from the Royal Society Library and Archives, no. 1-

October 1998

Karen Kloth

Holger Hanowell

Quelle: Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland. Digitalisiert von Günter Kükenshöner.
Hrsg. von Bernhard Fabian. Hildesheim: Olms Neue Medien 2003.