Hunter's Book Collection: The man and his time

My project was born from an interest in William Hunter's vast and varied book and manuscript collection, and how this collection is representative of Hunter as an individual, as a collector, and as a member of eighteenth century society.

page from a manuscript. Shows record of book purchasesFirstly, what I found particularly interesting - not to mention heart-warming - were the personal details that emerged which gave us an insight not only into Hunter as a book collector, but also as a person - and which highlighted the similarities been eighteenth-century book collectors and book-lovers today! In the opening entry to his 1779 catalogue of his library Hunter writes: 'My library at present consists of the following number of shelves of books, (besides a heap on the floor not put up)'  - and a pile of books on the floor, perhaps beside ones bed, is not an unusual finding amongst avid readers today!

a photograph of an opened manuscript.  Both pages are filled with hand written Chinese characters, each accompanied by a translation in LatinSecondly, the varied topics and forms of dictionaries in Hunter's library were remarkable. Not only did Hunter's library hold English language dictionaries such as Samuel Johnson's famous eighteenth-century dictionary, and dictionaries of a range of European languages and Latin, it also held more unusual dictionaries. Some covered more unexpected languages, such as the two Turkish dictionaries found in the collection, or the visually striking Chinese-Latin dictionary, while others covered topics that today would not be expected to be presented in the form of a dictionary, such the dictionary of the people and places found in Horace.

Finally, this project raised some important issues regarding archival research and the instances in which results can only be hypothesised on rather than stated with certainty. Archival research often leads to more questions than it does produce answers; it is a paper trail that leads in unexpected directions. One key problem is that documents can go missing, or may never have been produced at all: in this study, not every book acquired has written evidence of the process taken to acquire it, nor whether Hunter specifically desired its acquisition. This leads to one of the central issues of research into Hunter's book collection: the presence of a book or manuscript in Hunter's library is not evidence that Hunter wanted the item to be part of his collection, and it certainly cannot be taken as evidence that Hunter read the text in question.

Francesca Mackay, MPhil in English Language; PhD in English Language

video of Francesca's talk

Gallery Talk at the Hunterian Associates Open evening,Hunterian Art Gallery, October 2012