Help Save Mill’s Library


There are efforts afoot to preserve John Stuart Mill’s personal library, currently housed at Somerville Library at Oxford University. It is “an extraordinary collection of about 2,000 volumes, many of which record irreplaceable annotations that are currently a hidden treasure largely unknown to academics.” Somerville College acquired the library in 1905 as a gift from Mill’s stepdaughter Helen Taylor.

Much of the Library was formed by J. S. Mill’s father James Mill, the economist and political philosopher, and it covers a broad range of topics from poetry and the classics to economics and political thought.  Notable among the volumes are Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, inscribed by the author to J.S. Mill, and an inscribed copy of Darwin’s The Descent of Man.  Annotations by both J.S. Mill and his father pepper many of the books, including Voltaire’s Oeuvres, Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Emerson’s Essays, and offer valuable insight into their thoughts and analysis of the texts. 

Now Somerville needs help maintaining its collection:

The Library is in desperate need of conservation.  Easily identifiable on the shelves by loops of ribbon which both warn visitors of their condition and help secure weakened bindings, about 130 volumes are in a state of serious decay and require restoration.  The priceless Tocqueville volumes, for example, have begun to fall apart, as have the Essays of Emerson.  We are also very concerned that many of the annotations, typically written in pencil, are very faint and they are at risk of further deterioration without conservation. We have enlisted the Bodleian’s guidance and professional advice and with the support of Somerville students, alumni and Mill’s admirers around the world, we hope to preserve this unique Library for future generations. 

The costs of restoration and preservation will be substantial; they are currently estimated at approximately £50k. Our priority for this project is the conservation of some of the most delicate volumes, which we can address with £10,000 and your help!  A very generous benefactor has offered to match every gift pound for pound up to £5,000, so any donations to our cause will double in value.  Alongside our conservation efforts, we are also planning a larger project that will include some digitisation of the annotations to preserve them for further research.  If you have any questions about the overall project, or would like more information, please do get in touch.

You can learn more about the restoration project, as well as donate to the cause, here.

(via Dale Miller)

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David Boonin
David Boonin
6 years ago

What would Peter Singer do?Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

Say screw the library and donate it to Oxfam instead?Report

Philippe Lemoine
Philippe Lemoine
6 years ago

This is largely irrelevant to the topic of this post, but reading it reminded me that I once found a webpage that described the content of Nietzsche’s library. It was really fascinating but, unfortunately, I can’t find it again. So I wanted to ask if someone knew where I can find it and, while I’m at it, if they know of anything similar for others philosophers, writers or scientists. Perhaps there could even be another post to ask people that question, since I’m probably not the only person who would be interested.Report

Dennis Schulting
Dennis Schulting
6 years ago

From the Oxford University Financial Statements 2013-14 :
“The University made a surplus of £38.9m in 2013/14 and income continued to grow, increasing by 8.1%. In 2013/14, the University received profit from the sale of its stake in games and technology company NaturalMotion totalling £33.6m and after excluding this one-off item, the increase in income was 5.0% compared to 2012/13. Excluding the income from NaturalMotion and the value of donated heritage assets (£0.9m), the net surplus for the year was £4.4m (2012/13 £32.2m before donated heritage assets).”
I’m sure the university has enough money to solve the relatively small problem of the conservation of Mill’s library. And otherwise some of the university officers could surely part with some of their idiotically large annual incomes.Report

Anne Jacobson
Anne Jacobson
6 years ago

Let me dstinguish myself with a dollop of pedentry. I think the phrase should be either ‘the Somerville library’ or ‘Somerville’s library’, like ‘the Princeton library’ or ‘Princeton’s library’. Somerville College owns the library, as Princeton University etc, etc.
I assume I wouldn’t have noticed this had I not held a number of positions at that college, and I expect there are a few other people who might be jangled by your useage.Report

Dale Miller
6 years ago

Somerville headed the donation page they created “Save John Stuart Mill’s personal library!” (This is the page to which Justin’s link goes.)Report

M
M
6 years ago

Dennis: the University of Oxford is a federated university comprised of nearly 40 colleges and permanent private halls. Each of these is an independently registered charity in the UK, and is responsible for raising its own funds and maintaining its own college grounds, facilities, libraries, etc. (and while some of the colleges are extremely well endowed — St John’s, Christ Church, Magdalen, etc. — most of them have much more modest finances). So the University’s income has no bearing on whether a particular college can afford to do this or that.

I’ve been in Somerville’s Mill Library. I got to see Mill’s first edition of Hume’s Treatise, containing Mill’s many marginal annotations. The library’s holdings are worth preserving.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

A few points in response to Dennis Schulting:
1) Oxford’s operating surplus of £4.4 million (excluding, as per the quote, a one-off income that goes to reserves) is less than 0.5% of its turnover of c. £1 billion. That’s if anything a dangerously low surplus to be running given that (i) universities use operating surplus to generate capital funds for capital expenditure; (ii) if you’re substantially endowment-supported and you’re not running an operating surplus in non-recessionary times, you’re going to erode your endowment in the long run. So the data in Prof.Schulting’s comment doesn’t seem to support his point.
2) Oxford’s operating income for 2013-14 includes some £30M of philanthropic income. Without that philanthropy, the University would have been running a deficit. So I don’t think it makes sense to say “Oxford therefore can afford to do without philanthropy in a given matter”.
3) In any case, this is an appeal by Somerville College, not by the University of Oxford. The Colleges of Oxford are separate legal institutions from the University, connected together with it via many links of governance and shared staff but with their own trustees and their own financial statements. Somerville is one of Oxford’s poorer colleges, with a turnover in 2013/14 of c. £9M and an operating surplus of around £500,000.
4) Somerville’s operating income for 2013-14 includes over £1M of philanthropic income; without that income, it would have made a loss of £500,000 last year. So again, it doesn’t make sense to say that it should cover this from its own finances rather than seeing it as something that it can look to cover philanthropically. Obviously any given expenditure of this level it could absorb internally, but unless it makes a sustained effort to identify costs that it can support philanthropically, it will fail financially.
5) Prof. Schulting doesn’t give data to support his “idiotically large annual incomes” comment, nor an indication of what he thinks counts as idiotic. At least at Somerville, though, the highest-paid person is probably Alice Prochaska, the Principal. I don’t think her salary is public, but if it’s in line with other colleges it’s probably around £70,000-£80,000 p/a (about the same as we pay full professors). Asking her to cover this project personally sounds a bit extreme.Report

Brett de Gaynesford
Brett de Gaynesford
6 years ago

Oxford is a decentralised institution. It is made up of about 36 separate colleges, each of which is independent, self-governed and financially autonomous. Each has its own endowment (and there is a large disparity between endowment size), its own charitable status and its own students, who are all part of Oxford University. Somerville College depends on philanthropic income, without which it would run an annual deficit. Core activities, such as teaching, student support and building maintenance come first. And yet the Mill Library is very important and needs to be preserved and conserved. Hopefully this explains a little about why it is a philanthropic project.Report