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Messages from the margins: Augustus De Morgan’s annotations online

Augustus De Morgan

Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s curator of rare books and university art, scrolls through the digital library of Augustus De Morgan to see what books the mathematician and mathematical historian annotated, when and how.

If a company wanted to produce a comprehensive digital collection of early mathematical texts, it would not restrict itself to the library of a single individual. It might begin with such a collection as a good foundation, let’s say, in London, the library of Augustus de Morgan (1806–71) at Senate House Library or of John Thomas Graves (1806–70) at University College London, but would then branch out widely to partners to fill gaps.

Of course, the company might decide not to bother, on the basis that Early English Books Online (EEBO) which contains more than 25,000 English texts from 1473–1700, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, an extension of EEBO to 1800, Early European Books (EEB) and Google Books would gather everything between them, leaving no market. So it’s impressive that Brill, in Leiden, decided to digitise the library of mathematician and mathematical historian Augustus de Morgan, whose books constitute the founding collection of Senate House Library.

Excellent as De Morgan’s mathematical library is in terms of its 4,000 or so titles, ranging from 1474 to 1870 and including some rare and even apparently unique editions, it is not the largest mathematical collection around. What renders it unique is his annotations in the books, regarded as an enhancement even immediately upon his death in 1871. And what makes that remarkable is that annotations were not then regularly regarded as adding value; rather, the reverse.

Appreciation of De Morgan’s is a sign of his importance in his field. Annotations are a copy-specific feature which surrogates can convey superbly, which is why it is a landmark that De Morgan’s have for the first time been made available in entirety to those unable to travel to central London.

De Morgan’s annotations cover a range of features, sometimes more than one in a single annotation: the content, quality, or importance of a work (especially frequent); the source of acquisition; rarity; provenance; notes about the author; features of the physical book (to be found primarily in the earliest of his books); and, less often, the connection between De Morgan and a book. He would sometimes annotate a book, return it to his shelves, and take it out and add another annotation months or years later.

To gain a sense of his personality and knowledge as expressed through the annotations, they must be allowed to speak for themselves. The most famous appears in his first edition of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus (1543) and is noted both in Owen Gingerich’s census of copies of the Copernicus (Leiden, 2002) and in David Pearson’s Books as History (London, 2008):

‘Aug. 4, 1864. I have this day entered all the corrections required by the Congregation of the Index (1620) so that any Roman Xian may read the book with a good conscience.’

Is this a sign of an overgrown, erudite boy having fun? The digital or actual reader can peruse the volume to testify to the truth of De Morgan’s statement.

My favourite annotation appears in a rather fragile duodecimo volume, the earliest of five editions of Edmund Wingate’s logarithms in De Morgan’s library (Arithmetique logarithmetique, Paris, 1625).

‘Galloway [the Scottish mathematician Thomas Galloway] collected Keplers; I collected logarithms: Galloway had this book, which I had not: I had a Kepler, which he had not: I proposed an exchange: he demurred, saying that the book was a favourite of his father-in-law (Wallace). I rejoined that I was more nearly connected with Wingate than his father-in-law with him, for that my great-grandfather had published an edition of Wingate’s Arithmetic, which is a much closer connection, looked at as a matter of science, than the mere marriage with a man’s daughter.  He rather doubted this, at first, but by help of a Kepler in the background, he was prevailed upon to see it, and the exchange was made.’

Did Galloway later repent having been persuaded by De Morgan? At any rate his ultimate pliability had a happy result. De Morgan’s books were kept together institutionally when he died, as he had desired, whereas Galloway’s were auctioned off by Sotheby’s.

A typical annotation indicating De Morgan’s awareness of the reception of books appears on Anthony Hall’s Commentarii de Scriptoribus Britannicis (Oxford, 1709). One hears De Morgan speaking through it.

‘This book has always had a bad name: I never could tell why. Hall was a man of learning and industry: and had nothing to do but see Leland’s MSS properly printed. But when it was printed, Tanner [antiquary Thomas Tanner, 1674–1735] was meditating what he afterwards performed in his Bibliotheca, and was topped by this publication, at which he was naturally rather sore. Now nothing gives a book so bad a name as the world knowing that such a publication has arrested a better performance: and such a man as Tanner speaking against such a work as this was enough to damage it seriously.’

Finally, a brief and serious annotation on Johannes Widmann’s Rechnung auf allen Kaufmannschaften (Leipzig, 1489), an early publication on commercial arithmetic, reads: 

‘This book has a use of + and – forty years earlier than any one mentioned as yet. See sheet o leaf 7, r.3, B.8, C.1.’

Is he right? De Morgan wrote an article on the matter and has been followed. A later mathematician and mathematical historian, James Whitbread Glaisher (1848-1928), who, like De Morgan, wrote prolifically and was interested in the matter, disagreed with him in an article in 1922. 

Frequent as comments have been about De Morgan’s annotations, nobody has yet studied them in detail. Perhaps their breadth is a deterrent, with some falling into the realm of historians of printing and publishing to evaluate and others requiring the knowledge of mathematical historians.

The cataloguing of De Morgan’s library, undertaken over a decade ago with the help of the Vice-Chancellor’s Development Fund, enables users to see what books he annotated, when, and how (for example, a table of contents pasted into a volume of bound pamphlets; a note written on to a title page). The database reveals the content of each annotation to facilitate analysis, for example on how De Morgan’s annotations in the books he possessed interact with his own publications. Researchers, please make use of it!   

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

For an introductory discussion of De Morgan’s annotations, see Karen Attar, ‘Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871), his Reading, and his Library’, in The Edinburgh History of Reading, vol. 2: Modern Readers, ed. Mary Hammond (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), pp. 62–82].

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