Cataloguing of the Mackay Collection is complete – an intern’s journey through the world of rare books

Carina Müller, visiting intern from TH Köln

Carina Müller, visiting intern from TH Köln

So let’s tell you something about me first. I’m a German student, studying Library Science at the TH Köln in Cologne and got the chance to work as an intern at the University of St Andrews Library. Since the beginning of October I have been working in both the main library and in Special Collections and was fortunate to start working on the Mackay Collection in Special Collections in December.

Some of the books in the collection. The picture shows nicely the different binding types. All the works have classmarks with a “Mac” prefix.

Some of the books in the Mackay Collection. The picture shows nicely the different binding types. All the works have classmarks with a “Mac” prefix.

Engraved portrait of Euclid from Leeke & Serle's 1661 edition.

Engraved portrait of Euclid from Leeke & Serle’s 1661 edition.

The collection is named after its former owner, the mathematician John Sturgeon Mackay, an alumnus of the University and a mathematical master at Edinburgh Academy. One of his particular interests was geometry, especially Euclidean geometry. This is represented in his collection as many of the books are Euclid items in various languages. In 1923 the books were presented to the Library in his memory, by his brother Robert Mackay. In the collection are 52 mathematical volumes from the 16th-19th centuries; 7 of these are pre- 1851 and 36 are pre- 1801.

I’ve been tasked with cataloguing the books according to the DCRM(B) standard (also known locally as Phase 2 cataloguing), as only 9 books were previously on the Library system and findable via searching the online catalogue SAULCAT. My goal was to update the 9 existing records and to make all of the material searchable, so that interested people could easily find the books and would finally be able to see this impressive collection held by Special Collections. Cataloguing these books took a while, but much of the time was spent finding out more about where the books came from, which led to some interesting discoveries.

Viviani's presentation copy of his Enodatio to Edmond Halley from the Mackay Collection.

Viviani’s presentation copy of his Enodatio to Edmond Halley from the Mackay Collection.

My first week actually started with a great find! The discovery I’m speaking about is Viviani’s Enodatio, which he presented to Edmond Halley. Vincenzo Viviani was an Italian mathematician and Galileo’s last pupil. Halley, an English astronomer is best known for having predicted the return of the comet which was later named after him (Halley’s Comet).

I started with the small books, mostly consisting of 19th century books and wanted to tackle the more difficult (and probably also more interesting) books at a later time. At first glance the book didn’t seem such a rare treasure, but as I opened the book and took a closer look, I was proven wrong.  The book is not only a first edition, but on the pastedown you can find a dedication to Halley! It is very exciting to catalogue a book that was once actually in the possession of this famous astronomer royal! A very promising way to start my internship!

This collection has so many interesting books and if you are interested in mathematics and geometry, especially the early Greek works, you should definitely check out the collection! Viviani’s Enodatio isn’t even the only editio princeps as the folio books were almost always first editions of the works! It is not easy picking out a particular book from this lovely collection, but here are a few that caught my eyes.

The two title pages of the 1670 Des unvergleichlichen Archimedis Kuñst-Bücher from the Mackay Collection

The two title pages of the 1670 Des unvergleichlichen Archimedis Kuñst-Bücher from the Mackay Collection

One of them was Des unvergleichlichen Archimedis Kuñst-Bücher by Archimedes and published in 1670. It’s not (just) because it is in German that I like this edition so much, but it also has a beautiful engraved additional title page. This edition is the first German translation of the seven main works of Archimedes and it contains the first printed statement of the heliostatic world-picture, a theory first put forward by Aristarchus in a lost work and referred to in this book by Archimedes.

Detail from the engraved frontispiece of David Gregory's 1703 Greek and Latin Elements

Detail from the engraved frontispiece of David Gregory’s 1703 Greek and Latin Elements from the Mackay Collection.

Another item which is worth mentioning is the 1703 Euclidis quae supersunt omnia, which was published in Oxford. The Mackay Collection holds quite a few editions of Euclid’s Elementa, but most of them are separate editions and this book is the first complete edition of Elements in Greek and also the most complete edition to date. Not only that, but it’s also one of only 750 printed copies, of which 250 were large paper ones.

Musical diagrams found in volume 2 of John Wallis's Opera mathematica (1693-1699) from the Mackay Collection.

Musical diagrams found in volume 2 of John Wallis’s Opera mathematica (1693-1699) from the Mackay Collection.

In the collection are also some multi-volume sets, including the three volume set Opera mathematica by John Wallis, which was published between 1693 and 1699 in Oxford. John Wallis, a Savilian professor of Geometry and early member of the Royal society, was one of the leading mathematicians in the 17th century. He was friends with Newton and urged him to publish his theories before others claimed his works and the discovery of “fluxions” by Newton was actually first mentioned in Wallis’s Opera. What I especially like about these volumes are the various topics, from mathematics to music and next to grammar. I must admit that I didn’t expect this variation in a mathematical collection!

Detail from the 1533 Greek editio princeps of Euclid's Elements from the Mackay Collection.

Detail from the 1533 Greek editio princeps of Euclid’s Elements from the Mackay Collection.

Title page of the 1533 Greek editio princeps of Euclid's Elements

Title page of the 1533 Greek editio princeps of Euclid’s Elements

Another rare treasure which is in the possession of the library is the first printed Greek edition of Euclid’s Elements published in Basel in 1533. This work was edited by the famous Basel-professor of Greek Simon Grynaeus the elder and served as the basis for all later texts and translations of the Elements until the 19th century. It is one of the most important publications in the history of science and stands out as the first edition to print the geometrical diagrams within the text. The commentary to the first book by the Greek philosopher Proclus is considered to be one of the most valuable sources for the history of Greek mathematics, therefore influencing all modern thought. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Euclid’s Elements has been estimated to be the world’s most widely printed book, second only to the Bible.

Detail from the 1594 Arabic edition of Euclid from the Mackay Collection

Detail from the 1594 Arabic edition of Euclid from the Mackay Collection

The collection does not just feature books in Romanic and Germanic languages, as it in fact also holds the first Arabic edition! Published in 1594 in Rome, this is the only Arabic edition to be published before the 19th century. The Elements circulated in manuscript throughout the ancient and medieval world in Greek, Latin and Arabic. The text was translated into Arabic first (around 800) and the first Latin translations from the 12th century were largely based on the Arabic texts. Not easy to read!

In conclusion I can just say that the Mackay Collection really will make the heart of all mathematicians out there jump with joy. Just have a look at these books – now you can actually find all of the editions on SAULCAT.

-Carina Müller

Intern visiting from TH Köln

4 responses to “Cataloguing of the Mackay Collection is complete – an intern’s journey through the world of rare books

  1. What a fun experience! I love seeing the crispness of the pages even after all this time, and the lovely ink illustrations. I toyed with the idea of pursing a Master’s degree in library science, so I can vicariously live the dream through your blog post. Thank you for sharing you experience.

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