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History of the Library

Portrait of Lewis Evans by W. E. Miller, c. 1920. Oil on canvas.

Portrait of Lewis Evans by W. E. Miller, c. 1920. Oil on canvas.

In 1924, along with his collection of early mathematical instruments, the Museum’s founding benefactor Lewis Evans gave a unique library of contemporary books and manuscripts which he had built up to support that collection. The first Curator, R. T. Gunther, as he expanded the Museum’s coverage into other areas of instrumentation (optical instruments, laboratory apparatus, etc.), followed Evans’s dictate that library material was an essential accessory to the scholarly collection of objects. The Lewis Evans library thus provided the focus around which a broader Museum library grew, through many individual purchases and donations and through the acquisition of a number of significant collections.

When the Radcliffe Observatory moved out of Oxford in the 1930s, the Museum received not only its historic instruments but also its important collection of early astronomical pamphlets, prints, and printed ephemera, part of its archive, and a selection of its books. Other library collections which have been absorbed include Gunther’s highly idiosyncratic library and archive; the Stapleton Collection of rare books and manuscripts on Islamic alchemy, presented in 1947, and augmented later; many of the older books and some archives from the former University Observatory; a collection of early scientific books from University College in 1962; and in the 1970s the library of the Royal Microscopical Society.