William Hunter’s Library: Provenance

Blog post by Michelle Craig, Project Assistant, William Hunter’s Library: A Transcription of the Early Catalogues and Leverhulme PhD Candidate

Now the Hunterian Transcription project is ending, we can begin to take stock of the project’s goals and outcomes. The project has aimed to resynthesise the books in Hunter’s library at his death. Why is this important or necessary when the university library has a ‘Hunterian collection’, purposefully named to hold Hunter’s books? It is a question of definitions: we have to understand the distinction between Hunter’s book collection, and the Hunterian book collection, both in terms of contents but also in terms of each individual book’s provenance.

In his Scottish will that named the University of Glasgow as his beneficiary, Hunter stipulated that his trustees should add books to his collection after his death. Just as his collection was fluid in his own lifetime, after the collection came to the university it was also under a state of flux, both in where it was stored, how it was organised, and what it contained. Today the ‘Hunterian’ collection is stored together in a number of packed shelves. Since Hunter only rebound some of his books with his distinctive Hunter horn tool, we are unable to able to see at an outward glance which of the volumes belonged to him.

Hunter Tool

The publication dates for volumes now in the Hunterian collection, some published long after Hunter’s death in 1783, testify that books were added to the collection later. For books published before this date when he was still alive, copy specific evidence plays a large part in identifying provenance and later acquisition. For my PhD research, which is examining provenance and use in Hunter’s book collection, and what that can tell us more broadly about his place in the European Enlightenment(s) and the republic of letters, I am examining every book for provenance and copy specific information. From carrying out this research, it is clear that books have seeped into the collection that belonged to his nephew, Matthew Baillie, and his demonstrator, William Cruickshank, to both of whom Hunter left his library to for 15 years before its move to Glasgow. Many other later donations are recorded with a note in the individual book, usually with the donor’s name and the date of donation.


Sp Coll Hunterian Ei.1.16(i) from the author to ‘Mr Cruikshanks’

Other books were bought by the trustees of the collection. Dibdin noted in his discussion of the Hunterian Library in 1838 ‘that a sum of money will regularly be devoted to what is both useful and necessary, in the enlargement of the Library’. In some cases, the University of Glasgow Hunterian Library is recorded as a subscriber to new publications.

Ab.2.19 subscribers

The Hunterian Museum as a subscriber to Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.1.19


Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.2.19: Alexander Wilson, American ornithology, or the natural history of the birds of the United States: illustrated with plates engraved and colored from original drawings taken from nature ( Philadelphia, 1808-1814)

Other examples are slightly less obvious and we have to rely on Hunterian Library records for information. These records can tell us what books were added, when, and by whom. One example includes a donation of an illuminated Bible, now MS Hunter 493, and around thirty early printed books, a number of which are incunables (for shelf-marks, see ‘Ettles’ or ‘Brown’ in the Glasgow Incunabula Project website provenance index). They were donated by Miss Marjory Ettles in 1852, from the library of her late-brother in law, Inspector General of Hospitals, and a graduate of the university, Dr Ebenzer Brown.

MR 37-14

MS MR 37/14: Letter from Miss Marjory Ettles. Stirling. 3 March 1852. Concerning the donation of a Bible [MS Hunter 493] and thirty early printed books, including incunables

With these problems in mind, especially in regards to books published before Hunter’s death, it is important to try to ascertain what exactly was in Hunter’s library on his death in 1783. Cross-referencing MR3, the catalogue used to create a list of books in his library for the trustees, against the current library catalogue can therefore get us closer to this goal. We can use it to start unpicking the vast number of books on the shelf, definitively saying that Hunter owned the majority of them. In looking at what Hunter owned, it also allows questions to be asked about these later donations to the library and how the early Hunterian library functioned. This project should therefore be a used not only as a springboard for talking about Hunter as a book collector, but also to think about his collection after his death and the effect and importance these decisions and later donations had in shaping the current Hunterian library.

Find out more about the ‘William Hunter’s Library: a transcription of the early catalogues’ project

Follow the project on Twitter at #WHL1783

Project blog posts

Project homepage

*new* Download draft versions of the MR 3 transcription in Word and Excel

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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