The Linnaean Society Library

Visiting other libraries can be a great source of inspiration to a librarian, giving you ideas to copy and making you jealous of the lovely things that other libraries have. Over the past twelve months I have hosted visits to my Library by three separate groups of librarians, during which I told them about our library service and showed them our collection. The most recent of these was on Tuesday this week.  Yesterday I sat on the other side of the fence, joining a group visiting the Library of the Linnaean Society of London.

Portrait of Carl Linnaeus.  Original in Linnaean Society of London

Carl Linnaeus on his wedding day
Click to enlarge

I read Wilfrid Blunt’s 1971 biography of Linnaeus not too long ago, so I knew a little about the man, but I had not visited the Linnaean Society before.  It is one of those Learned Societies housed in the rather lovely Burlington House in London’s Piccadilly. It is an interesting example of an institution founded around a collection – Carl Linnaeus’ own collection of his published books, his library of books, and his notebooks and specimens.  When Linnaeus died in 1778 Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society and longtime correspondent of Linnaeus, made an offer for his collection but at that time Linnaeus’ widow decided to give the collection to her son. Sadly he too died just five years later, so the collection was offered to Banks again. This time he was not in a position to purchase it but recommended it to his young protege James Edward Smith. Smith persuaded his father to put up the money for purchase, not without some difficulty. The collection arrived in London in 1784 and in 1786 Smith was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The Linnean Society was founded in 1788. You can read more about this story in a lecture by Mark Seaward on the Joseph Banks Society website.

My visit to the Society comprised a very good introduction to the man and the society, a tour of the Library collection and a bit of archival scholarship thrown in for good measure. We started off in the Society’s meeting room, where we were told about Linnaeus and the Society that bears his name.  I spotted a plaque on the wall from 1 July 1958, commemorating 100 years since the day when Darwin and Wallace’s paper was read out to the Society members. At the time I didn’t realise that the visit was taking place on Darwin Day, so this was very appropriate.

Plaque from the Linnean Society meeting room

Memorial plaque

In the meeting room there a number of portraits, pride of place going to those of Darwin and of Wallace. I particularly liked the portrait of Wallace, painted by Roger Remington in 1990 or thereabouts.

Next we went down into the basement, into something like a strong room, with a heavy door and carefully controlled temperature. There were about a dozen shelves of books by Linnaeus and a whole lot more with the rest of his library, the earliest volume dating back to 1488. We were shown a copy of the 12th edition of one of his works, with interleaved blank pages containing his notes of corrections and additions to be made for the following edition. He was clearly a methodical and meticulous man. We also saw a first edition of his Systema Naturae – it is a very large format book, with pages like charts. Someone commented that the pages would make great posters.

Systema Naturae

Close up of Systema Naturae

Next to come out were the beetles. Not live ones, obviously.  These were Linnaeus’ specimens so they were well and truly dead, and dried. Apparently once dried then the specimens can last for a very long time. We also saw some beautiful butterflies, but I decided to scare you with a photo of the beetles instead.

Beetles from the Linnaean Society
Click to enlarge

We then left the basement and went up to the main Library upstairs. Now, that’s what I *call* a Library – a beautiful double height room with a sculpted ceiling.

The Library of the Linnaean Society of London
Click to enlarge

Here we were treated to a display of some of the Library’s treasures, including Edward Lear’s book of parrots. Lear was an accomplished painter as a well as a writer, it seems. Sometimes I wish I worked in a botanical or zoological library – they have such beautiful books. Those floras and, er, whatever the zoological equivalent is (do they call them faunas?). I remember when I was a library student we were treated to a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens Library in Edinburgh and I was astounded at the beauty of the drawings they held. I recall that the Zoological Society of London Library also has some fantastic visual material. The closest I ever got was when I worked in a hospital library and we had some colour medical atlases. The most gruesome were A colour atlas of Accident and Emergency medicine and A colour atlas of genitourinary medicine.

One of Edward Lear’s parrots
Click to enlarge

An Indian reed
Click to enlarge

Flora Graeca
Click to enlarge

One of the most interesting items on display was  a book of ‘cyanotypes’ by Anna Atkins. Cyanotype is a photographic printing process, the origin of blueprints. Anna Atkins, an English botanist and photographer, used this process for capturing botanic specimens.

Book by Anna Atkins
Click to enlarge

Not content with delighting our eyes and our sense of history, the Librarian then introduced Isabelle Charmentier, a historian working on Linnaeus, who explained her research into “the writing technologies of Carl Linnaeus“. Briefly, and as far as I understood it, she has explored the way that Linnaeus collected information in his various notebooks. At one time he used a blank notebook, reserving chunks of pages for groups of species. Of course, if he underestimated how many pages he would need for a particular group then he would have a problem. Later he moved onto using looseleaf pages. He might still have problems if he needed to insert a new species into an already-crowded page, but at least he could always add an additional page. Later still he used index slips – one for each species. This was apparently the first use of what we now call index cards. Just think what he could have done if he had had Filemaker Pro?

One of Linnaeus’ notebooks
Click to enlarge

A looseleaf notebook
Click to enlarge

Index cards
Click to enlarge

This was truly a fascinating visit, and I am indebted to the Librarian and Deputy Librarian, as well as Dr Charmentier, for their time and erudition. Thanks also to the CILIP ARL group for organising the visit.

Note added 14 Feb.  I forgot to say that more information is available on the Library’s website, including digitised versions of 16 of Linnaeus’ manuscripts and images of his specimen collections 

I was very pleased to be able to take photos during the visit, though at one point the phone on my camera got confused and this photo appeared by mistake.


What is this photo of me doing here?

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
This entry was posted in History, Libraries and librarians. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Linnaean Society Library

  1. cromercrox says:

    Thanks for this, Frank. The Linnean is one of my favourite libraries. At various points in the past I have been a Fellow of the Linnean (I might still be one – who knows?) which allowed me to borrow books from the Library. Fellows can borrow more or less anything indefinitely unless it was owned by Linneaus. I remember carting books home in plastic bags on the No. 9 bus (I lived in Chiswick at the time.) I have spent considerable blocks of time there researching and writing three of my books – Deep Time and Jacob’s Ladder and Before the Backbone, all of which which required consultation of rare, archival and ancient material not easily accessible elsewhere. The librarians were always helpful and more knowledgeable about the subject than I was, so they made useful and often vital suggestions for reading matter.

    I have mixed feelings about the ground-floor meeting room. The seating is (to me) about the most uncomfortable I’ve ever encountered, and yet it’s the only lecture hall in which I have fallen asleep (twice.)

    The meeting at which the papers of Darwin and Wallace were presented (neither man was there in person) is, interestingly, not actually in the present quarters of the Linnean. Things have moved around: I believe the actual space is in what is now a part of the Royal Academy, which takes up a biggish part of Burlington House.

    Yes, the zoological equivalent of a ‘flora’ is indeed a ‘fauna’.

    • Frank says:

      Thanks for the clarification. They did mention that the lecture had not taken place in thatactual room, but I wasn’t sure where it was as I read that the Society moved into Burlington House in 1857.

      I’ve been working on some writing myself recently and I know what it feels like to know that the answers to all your questions are going to be available in the library, probably.

  2. John Gilbey says:

    Nice article, Frank.

    I have some experience of creating cyanotypes if you ever want a modern one… They are great fun, but require a good deal of patience!

  3. aeon says:

    As a constant lurker on OT, I took special delight in this post. It’s really a pleasure to be reminded of some collections I did not yet visit, and the Linnean is quite on top of my wishlist.

    By the way, do you have such a list? It would be quite interesting, I think, to get your professional two cents here. I’m willing to trade for my highlights list. 😉

    • Frank says:

      Thanks, aeon.

      I must confess that I do not have such a list. For most of my career I have been more involved in the information provision – i.e. current information – rather than the special collections/archives side of libraries. To me something ‘old’ is something pre-1945. A special collections person recently informed me that nothing in my library qualifies as a rare book as that designation is reserved for items pre-1850!

      My outings to historic libraries are therefore limited, though I am beginning to take more interest. I will have to make up a list of my favourite places.

      • aeon says:

        Pardon my french, but the pre-1850 rule seems pretty stupid considered the rarity of some books and journal issues.

        Especially war-time “created” rarity: in periods when printers drove a hard bargain for every sheet of paper, sometimes very limited numbers were printed. Some of them are incredibly hard to come by, even in times of the internet. (I once tried tried to obtain a copy of a some WW2-period floristic works by Perrier de la Bathie which (for some reason beyond my wikipedia knowledge) were not printed in France, but in Pondicherry. Hard to say how many survived, but there are some, thanks to dedicated librarians!)

        If your interest in thee olde books are awoken, and you like botanical stuff, you might find pleasures in the work of Walter Lack. He published some nice exhibition catalogues and pop-science works on historical botanical literature. I can especially recommend one about the Vienna collection – and, of course, a visit to the Austrian national library. It’s a pleasure palace for book lovers.

        And it’s a truly democratic institution by imperial decree. (Does that make any sense? I’ll try to explain: since it’s early days everybody, from the milk maid to the emperor, can visit, and is handed out nearly every book. I had some 16th century publications on my table when doing research there!)

        • Frank says:

          Well, I guess ‘rare’ is a movable feast, but the pre-1850 thing is a useful working definition. The National Library of Scotland has a longer account of what rareness is.

          I also see from the latest CILIP Update that a new edition of the Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections is being prepared. There is a blog that provides news of progress. The new directory will be worth a peruse if you want to find unusual materials.

Comments are closed.