It doesn't add up

January 1, 1999

David Singmaster calls for an inquiry into Keele University's sale of a collection of old maths books

From 1968 until recently, Keele University housed England's leading collection of old mathematics books outside London, Cambridge and Oxford. But the collection has disappeared and no one is admitting where.

How do we know? A researcher rang Keele to arrange to use the collection only to be told that the collection was no longer there. On further investigation John Fauvel of the British Society for the History of Mathematics was told that it had been sold to an American for Pounds 1 million in conditions of great secrecy.

I have since investigated and it seems the books might still be in the country and that public pressure could prevent an export licence being granted and the collection taken abroad.

The Turner collection, as it is known, was assembled over 50 years by Charles W. Turner, an official in the Scottish Education Department. David Ingram, former head of the physics department at Keele University, lived in the same road in Wimbledon as Turner and remembers him as a man devoted to his books.

Old scientific books were not in great demand at the time and Turner acquired some 1,400. Of these, the most interesting are eight books from Isaac Newton's own library, some of which he extensively annotated. In particular there is the Clavis Mathematicae (Key to the Mathematicks) of 1652, which Newton read as a student. There is also his copy of Robert Boyle's Medicina Hydrostatica with annotations and Newton's characteristic dog-earing, where the corner of the folded-over page would point to the part of the text that interested him. There is a page of Newton manuscript, containing draft lecture notes about rainbows on one side and discussion of biblical chronology on the other.

There are many examples of Newton's works, including all three editions of the Principia, the first English and Latin editions of Opticks, and a first edition of Arithmetica Universalis.

It is one of the finest collections of mathematics (including physics, astronomy, surveying, navigation and commerce) books formed in this century.

In the 1960s, Turner "decided to present his valuable collection to a university library which had not had the opportunity or the good fortune to acquire such an important special collection".

At a result of his friendship with Professor Ingram, who had admired the books as a boy, Turner gave the collection to Keele in 1968. It was immediately recognised as being of national, even international, importance, and received grants to catalogue and conserve it. The only other English catalogue of a special mathematics collection is of the Mathematical Association's library at Leicester.

Discovery of the sale of the Turner collection has sparked outrage. Keele's senate voted against selling - with some social scientists in favour - but the university council came to the opposite decision.

I have spoken to librarians at Trinity College, Cambridge, the University of Cambridge, the Bodleian Library, the Royal Society, the London Mathematical Society, the University of London, and University College London. All have expressed surprise and outrage at the sale.

Keele University has said the collection was offered to institutions in this country. The British Library, which denies it got an offer, knew of the sale. It has said that the loss of the collection "would be a matter of profound regret". But it seems that the BL cannot object to the sale of a collection, only to the sale of individual items worth at least Pounds 39,600.

Keele says that the collection is still available for research in this country - just ask the owner - but the university cannot reveal who the owner is. And why the application for an export licence?

Many familiar with the collection think it is worth several million pounds. A single Principia recently sold for Pounds 200,000. Perhaps Keele's auditors and the Higher Education Funding Council should investigate this?

While recognising Keele's problems, it is possible to dispose of unwanted collections without causing an uproar. I am distressed by the inability of the British Library and the Export Licence Unit to intervene. Why can they not protect a collection of items? Why is their jurisdiction restricted to individual works?

David Singmaster is retired professor of mathematics in the school of computing, information systems and mathematics, South Bank University.

* Should the Turner collection be allowed to leave Britain? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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