- Published date:
A catalogue and virtual reconstruction of Sir Hans Sloane's dispersed library.
Evidence of connections to slavery, profits from slavery or from colonialism
The British Library has made a commitment to its staff and its users that it will become an actively anti-racist organisation, and will take all the necessary steps required to make this promise a reality.
Some items now at the British Library, previously owned by particular named figures cited on these pages, are associated with wealth obtained from enslaved people or through colonial violence.
As part of the Library’s ongoing work to interpret and document the provenance and history of the printed collections under our care, curators in the Printed Heritage Collections team have undertaken some research to identify these. The aim is to share knowledge with researchers, so that they can judge whether these aspects are important to their understanding of the circumstances behind the creation of individual collections. The Library is committed to openness around the provenance of the collections in our care and we recently published the initial findings from this research.
However, we acknowledge that the presentation of these findings has caused confusion and concern, which was absolutely not our intention. We have therefore temporarily removed the document and the research will be re-published on these pages once a review has been completed.
Sloane and his Collection
Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) was an Irish-born physician. While in medical practice in London, he amassed over 47,000 books. His library, which included printed material and manuscripts, as well as his large collection of objects, specimens and curiosities, was bought from his executors under the British Museum Act of 1753. These formed the backbone of the Museum’s early collections. Originally shelved by Sloane roughly in order of acquisition, once in the Museum his books were ultimately spread throughout the Museum Library’s classification system and interspersed with other collections and later acquisitions.
So, despite being the British Museum Library’s largest single foundation collection, Sloane’s library became effectively invisible. It was not until 1941 (Finch, Jeremiah S. “Sir Hans Sloane's Printed Books." The Library 22.1 (1941): 67-72) that the alphanumeric marks used by Sloane to identify and locate his books were formally recognised. Sloane’s own manuscript catalogue was not identified until the 1960’s (now Sloane ms 3972C, 8 vols, Sloane ms 3972D, Index, 2 vols). Medical books in Latin were catalogued elsewhere, in an interleaved and annotated copy of J.A. van der Linden, Lindenius renovatus, Nuremberg, 1686, BL 878.n.8. (N.B. This book is fragile and the microfilm surrogate must be consulted).
Sloane’s library was recognised in his lifetime as one of the largest and most significant of the time, used and visited by scholars and royalty. Its content was wide-ranging, with a very strong focus on medicine and the sciences, but strong also on economic matters and travel. It is also remarkable now for the amount of ephemeral material that was collected and retained: pamphlets on trade and finance, political broadsheets, advertisements for medicines and quack doctors. Satirical attacks on Sloane from his contemporaries often accused him of collecting anything (even those things not worth collecting); this means that his library contained things which are, in many cases, now the only surviving copies.
Within his library can be found books from other libraries such as those from earlier and contemporary collectors: John Dee, Thomas Browne, Ben Jonson, Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and many fellow physicians. Books were predominantly acquired through booksellers in Britain or agents abroad, at auction, by legacy or by donation. In some cases, the provenances of these books reveal the intricate intellectual and social networks that Sloane lived in; paying attention to them can therefore illuminate aspects of early eighteenth-century life which lie beyond the page.
The Catalogue: a 'Virtual reconstruction' of Sloane's Library
The Sloane Printed Books Catalogue allows us to see Sloane’s books together for the first time since the eighteenth century, and to evaluate the collection. We can see his development as a collector, from his specialised interests as a medical student to his almost omnivorous later acquisitions. At Sloane’s death, his library was estimated to contain 50,000 volumes of books and manuscripts, of which approximately 47,200 were printed items. This figure may well turn out to have underestimated the number of bibliographical items, since many volumes contain several publications, and the collection included a considerable amount of unbound single-sheet material. The online catalogue lists (September 2019) over 42,000 bibliographic items; work continues to identify Sloane’s books and add to the database.
It is important to ask exactly what this project is aiming to do; it explores the catalogue as something other than a straightforward reconstruction, since it holds in one place things which were physically and chronologically dispersed during Sloane’s lifetime (books which were donated, lent to friends, or subscriptions which continued to come in even after Sloane’s death). Moreover, it is necessary to recognise that the boundaries of the ‘library’ are in some cases arbitrary, and that for Sloane they may have been more fluid: even our categories of ‘printed books’ and ‘manuscripts’ are not watertight.
Work on the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue contributes to a developing digital heritage community. Some of Sloane's books may be found among the 400,000 volumes of out of copyright texts which, in partnership with Google, the British Library has digitised. This digital content is freely available online via Explore the British Library Some examples of Sloane's books available to inspect as digital items are:
- Pharmacopoeia Londinensis Royal College of Physicians of London (1627) interleaved with copious manuscript notes by Turquet de Mayerne
- Salomon Trismosin's collection of treatises on alchemy translated into French as La Toyson dor ov La flevr des thresors ... (1612)
- A defence of tabacco: vvith a friendly answer to the late printed booke called Worke for chimny-sweepers, &c. (1602) by Roger Marbecke
Sloane Printed Books Catalogue
The preface to the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue outlines the history of Sloane’s library, illustrates the marks used to identify his books (these are primarily alphanumeric identifiers which probably indicated locations), and describes the functions of the database. Although the database is continually updated and expanded, the preface is currently not amended, and the following notes provide supplementary information and additional bibliographical references.
- The database was mounted on the BL website in 2008, containing then about 13000 entries from a local database which had been in use for several years previously. Every effort has been made to ensure consistency, and to update older records
- In recent years, we have upgraded many records [AC1] to include references to Sloane’s catalogues (Sloane ms 3972C and Lindenius renovatus). We have used these catalogues to add Sloane’s alphanumeric identifiers to records for items where the identifier is no longer present on the volume. The presence of the black ‘Museum Britannicum’ stamp, together with a reference in Sloane’s catalogue, is an almost certain identification of Sloane’s copy. The alphanumeric identifiers can also help to indicate when Sloane acquired an item and sometimes the source of his acquisition. For further detail see the article by Amy Blakeway, below
- ‘Unlocated’ items. An estimated 10,000 volumes from Sloane’s library were sold by the Museum as duplicates between 1769 and 1832. If Sloane’s copy of an item listed in his catalogues cannot be identified in BL collections, it may have left the Museum as a duplicate. In this case, it is recorded in the database as ‘unlocated’
- Sloane books can be found in other libraries. Some items sold as duplicates have entered other collections and their location is noted in the database. Many more ‘unlocated’ books are undoubtedly held by other libraries
- Previous owners. Evidence of former owners is noted, usually in the form of name found on the item. Where possible, references to biographical sources such as ODNB or Munk’s Roll are added and use to normalise the form of name, but this section is far from complete
- Genre/subject field. There is no systematic subject access to the catalogue. This field has been used, however, to note books in minor languages, or unusual topics, and to highlight particular genres such as maps, atlases, dissertations, periodicals and newspapers. Sloane’s interest in minority languages is particularly striking: Breton, Bulgarian, Iloko, Lappish, North American Indian languages, Quichua, Tamil, and Venetian argot are only a few examples of the range he collected
- Binding and condition. Bindings are recorded only if they are significant, unusual or clearly contemporary with the printing of the text. Most of Sloane’s books have been rebound, either in the process of creating pamphlet volumes in the early days of the Museum, or as part of repair procedures. As a result, the proportion of his books in contemporary bindings is quite low. The number of contemporary vellum bindings is particularly low
The Sloane Printed Books Catalogue includes a select list of references to Sloane’s collections.
- Amy Blakeway, The Library Catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane: Their Authors, Organization, and Functions, Electronic British Library Journal, 2011
- Michael Hunter, Alison Walker, Arthur Macgregor (eds.) From books to bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and his collections. London: British Library, 2012
- Júlio Costa, ‘Sloane’s Portuguese Books’ Electronic British Library Journal, 2015
There is a wider library bibliography on the Reconstructing Sloane website. This website is designed to be a homepage where various work on Sloane comes together, whether it is taking place in the British Museum, British Library, Natural History Museum, or further afield. It is a helpful, and important, reminder that the library did not exist in isolation, but was an intrinsic part of a large collection.