March 4, 2021

Rare Book and Manuscript Library at University of Illinois (UIUC) Acquires Isaac Newton Manuscript

From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois has acquired a manuscript written by Sir Isaac Newton that provides instructions for making the philosopher’s stone, a substance thought to have special powers of transformation.

The “Opus Galli Anonymi” is Newton’s Latin translation of a French work on making the philosopher’s stone, with corrections and notes by Newton based on his own scientific work. The library bought the manuscript at auction for $275,000, thanks to a donation by Jim and Lionelle Elsesser of St. Louis, who are Illinois alumni and supporters of the University Library.

One of the strongest areas in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s collection is the history of science, said Lynne M. Thomas, the head of the library.

“We have a lot of materials on early scientific work,” she said. “We are at our heart an agriculture and engineering school. Our collections of early books dealing with agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, science and engineering are quite strong. It’s been an area of interest and expertise for our faculty for more than a century.”

The history of science, natural history and mathematics collection holds more than 7,000 volumes and the mathematics collection is ranked as one of the three most significant in the U.S. Among the documents in the collection are a nearly comprehensive collection of early works by the Greek mathematician Euclid and Newton’s “Principia Mathematica.”

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The manuscript is made up of four sheets of paper folded in the middle to make eight leaves. It must be translated into English, it needs some conservation work and it must be fully catalogued and integrated into the collection, Thomas said. The most important consideration is how to house the fragile document so that it is stable and wear and tear on it will be minimized, she said.

“Because we know lots and lots of people will want to see this, we’re going to work with the conservation department here at the University Library to make sure we’re housing it in a way that will maintain its physical integrity as well as make sure it’s publicly available to as many people as possible,” Thomas said.

It won’t be on display but will be housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library collection and will be available to view upon request. Access to it will be somewhat restricted, as is the case with items that are quite fragile and valuable, Thomas said.

The manuscript will eventually be digitized so scholars can access it online. However, many will still want to see it in person. There are physical attributes that can’t be conveyed well digitally, Thomas said, such as the quality and thickness of the paper, an indication of how expensive it was to produce; the type of ink used; and the color.

Learn More, Read the Complete Acquisition Announcement

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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