Dispersal of the Macclesfield Library


Selling the Family Silver – sale of the Macclesfield Library

Patrica Fara and Roger Gaskell, ‘Selling the Family Silver: country house libraries and the history of science’ Endeavour, 29 ( 2005), pp. 14–19.

This article, written with Patricia Fara, fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and author of Newton, the Making of Genius (Macmillan, 2002), discusses the dispersal of the Macclesfield Library removed from Shirburn Castle. The scientific books mostly come from the library of William Jones (1675–1749), who in his turn had acquired the library and papers of John Collins (1625–1683). At the time of his death, Jones’ library was regarded as the finest scientific library in England. Over 3000 early scientific books are being sold by Sothebys’ in London in one of the most, if not the most significant dispersal of a private scientific library in Britain in the last 50 years. Yet despite the public outcry over the wretched Keele affair, this massive blow to the history of science in Britain is passing almost un-noticed by the history of science community and the public.

We have shown how important this library is as an archive of unique documents – books with specific bibliographical features, provenances and notes as well as whole manuscript treatises – and argue that it should have been kept together. The total sales price will not be so very great compared with other things with less historical context or dubious national importance for which public (that is lottery) money has been found. We ask why there has been no public debate about the loss of this extraordinary library.

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