The Observatory Library


page under construction


Prior to 1811 and the arrival of John Pond as Astronomer Royal, there was no Observatory library that was handed on from one Astronomer Royal to the next. Pond’s predecessor Maskelyne had an extensive personal library. Bar just a few titles that were left for Pond or retained by the family, most of his astronomical and mathematical volumes were sold at auction after he died. By 1813, many of these soon found their way back to the Observatory.

When the Royal Observatory was shut down in 1998, the more historic books in its library were transferred to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in its capacity as guardian of the former home of the Royal Observatory. Despite having been started under Pond, this collection of books is named after his successor George Airy and since 1981 has been known as the Airy Collection of Rare Books.


The origins of the Library under Pond

Amongst Maskelyne’s records is his list of all the ‘Books bought or given me since my first coming to the University Novr 5 1749’ (WSHC 1390/13). Following his death, his library was valued on 7 March 1811 by the bookseller Thomas Paine at £530 (NMM/REG/9/37). It is not clear at present if this was a valuation for the whole library or just the part that was sent to auction. The library was sold by Leigh and Sotherby in a three-day sale of 757 lots that commenced on 27 May 1811 and raised £451.18.6. A copy of the auction catalogue which claimed to be ‘of the entire and very valuable Astronomical and Mathematical library’ survives among Maskelyne’s papers and has been annotated with the hammer price of each lot. An interesting (though uncorroborated) claim was made about the auction in the September 1820 edition of The Philosophical Magazine and Journal.

‘On the death of Dr. Maskelyne in 1811 some of his friends informed Mrs. Maskelyne that his library, which contained a judicious selection of the best books connected with astronomy in all languages, would be a valuable acquisition to the Doctor's successor, whoever he might be. She therefore offered the whole library to Government on a fair valuation. The members of administration to whom this proposal was made were at first disposed to accede to it: but, on consulting Sir Joseph Banks on the subject, who, as President of the Royal Society, was one of the visitors of the Observatory, he depreciated the value of the library, and persuaded them to decline the offer. The consequence was, that the library was sold by auction, and agents employed by Sir Joseph selected during the sale those books which they thought most valuable.’

Although published under the anonymous authorship of ‘A Correspondent’, Howse has identified the author as Olinthus Gregory (Nevil Maskelyne, 1989). Published as part of an attempt to smear Banks following his death in 1820, how much weight it should be given is left for the reader to judge in light of what follows below.

The complete list of books left by Mrs Maskelyne for the Observatory according to the inventory that she retained (NMM REG09-000037). Reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC 3.0) courtesy of Cambridge Digital Library (see below)

The inventory of ‘Printed Books Manuscripts and Pictures left and presented by Mrs Flamsteed at Flamstead House for the Use of the Royal Observatory’ which was retained by Mrs Maskelyne but checked and signed for by Pond, records that the only books she left for him were: the published observations of Bradley and Maskelyne, Copies of the Nautical Almanac for the years 1767–1814, three different editions of the Tables Requisite and several volumes of tables (NMM Reg/9/37). Of these, the first volume of Bradley’s observations was presented to the Observatory by the University of Oxford on 13 July 1798, and the second was presented by the University on 21 March 1805 (RS MS372/169/4). Pending a proper audit, it would appear that very few of the items left by Mrs Maskelyne were actually gifts from her. Click here to view the entire inventory.

Two other contemporary versions of the inventory have survived and are preserved in the archives of the Royal Society. One was delivered by Mrs Maskelyne to Joseph Banks in his role as President of the Board of Visitors on 15 April 1811 (RS MS372/168). The other seems to be a draft from which the copies given to Banks and retained by Mrs Maskelyne were made. Unlike these other two inventories, the draft does not list the pictures, but importantly, lists the books and manuscripts on a closet by closet and a room by room basis and carries the following signed note of the last page (RS MS372/167):

‘The above collection of Books and manuscripts were safely delivered to my care by Mrs Maskelyne. John Pond’.

From it we discover that in 1811, all the original manuscripts and observations of Flamsteed, Halley and Bradley were stored in the Great Room (the Octagon Room). The inventories given to Banks and retained by Mrs Maskelyne differ from one another in both their ordering and content; that given to Banks indicating that a small number of additional books had been left. All three make reference to the Bradley Manuscripts. Two refer to them as the ‘Original Observations and Calculations’, whilst the third refers to them as the ‘Original Manuscripts and Observations’. This is all rather curious as following Bradley’s death in 1765, his observations were claimed from the executors by the Board of Longitude. This claim was abandoned in 1776, after Bradley's son-in-law, Samuel Peach, presented them to Lord North, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, who in turn presented them to the University on condition that they should be printed and published. Click here to read more. The manuscript observations were returned to Greenwich in 1861. In the meantime however in March 1843, Airy ‘wrote to Dr Wynter (Vice-Chancellor) at Oxford, requesting permission to see Bradley’s and Bliss’s manuscript Observations, with the view of taking a copy of them’, a wish that was apparently granted (autobiography). This request seems slightly odd since those of Bliss were supposedly already in the ownership of the Observatory having been acquired for it by the Board of Longitude in 1768 (RGO14/5/167&8, see also Board of Visitor Reports 1843–1846) . It is possible however that they were in Oxford at the time when Maskelyne died, not only because they don’t appear in the inventory, but also, because they appear to have been lent to the Clarendon Press so that they could be published in conjunction with the second volume of Bradley’s Observations (which was published in 1805).

Title page of the 1827 catalogue. Reproduced courtesy of the Wellcome Library

Despite its apparently small beginnings, when an inventory was taken of the books in the Observatory library in 1827, it ran to 66 printed pages. Click here to see the full inventory as published. How these books arrived in the library is a subject for further research, though some details are given in the 1811 and later minutes of the Board of Visitors, including the fact that some were indeed purchased during the sale of Maskelyne’s library (RGO6/22).

The first mention that the Observatory should start building a library comes on 25 April 1811, when at a meeting of Council of the Royal Society, it was proposed by the President in his role as Chairman of the Visitors that he should visit the Secretary of State of the Home Department with a view to putting a request to the Prince Regent  

‘to order that the warrant for repairing and supplying Instruments to the Royal Observatory should be extended likewise to the supply of Books for the formation and increase of an astronomical library.’ (RGO6/22/63)

It was also agreed that the Royal Society should provide the Observatory with a complete a run as possible of Philosophical Transactions from the stocks that it held.

At the Visitation of the Observatory held on 7 May, the President informed the Council that he had seen the draft of a Warrant from the Prince Regent to enable the Board of Ordinance to purchase books for the Observatory and that although it was not yet signed; the Prince Regent had signified that it would be. In light of this, Council were of the view that the opportunity of purchasing books at the sale of Maskelyne’s library should not be lost and requested Pond to select and purchase such books as he thought necessary if sold at a reasonable price. Although not all the minutes have been examined for details of purchases, an examination of those for the four years 1811–15 shows a total expenditure on books of £733.2.8., the following bills having been presented to Council for payment by the Ordnance.

1811, July 11 £133.19. Mr Mackinlay’s bill for the purchase of books at the sale of Dr Maskelyne’s Library (RGO6/22/66)

1811, November 21 £194.19. Two bills for books from unspecified suppliers (RGO6/22/68)

1812, May 14 £19.7. Edward Troughton’s bill for the supply of Bodes and Flamsteed's celestial atlases and Smiths Optics (RGO6/22/71)

£41.16. Bill from Mr Priestly (RGO6/22/71)

1813, February 25 £68.1.2. Bill from Messrs Dulan & Co (RGO6/22/74)

£93.14. Bill from Richard Priestly (RGO6/22/74)

1813, March 18 £146.18.6. Bill for books from Dr Maskelyne’s Library purchased by the late Mr J. Mackinlay (RGO6/22/74)

1815, January 26 £168.14.6. Bill from Messrs Dulan & Co (RGO6/22/81)

1815, March 9 £12.12. Bill from Richard Priestly (RGO6/22/82)


Total, 1811–1815 £880.0.2.

More books continued to be added after the 1827 catalogue was produced. In 1828 for example, a bill for £65.1s.0d was submitted for books supplied to the Observatory by Dulan & Co of Soho Square between March and July. In this instance the actual bill survives and itemises the individual books (RS MS371/72).


The Library grows under Airy

Although Airy took charge of the Observatory on 1 October 1835, he remained living in Cambridge until the end of the year, leaving the Observatory in the hands of his newly appointed First Assistant, Robert Main, to whom he sent copious instructions. In early 1836, Airy appears to have conducted an audit of the library, which he found deficient (RGO6/72/32). In a letter to Charles Wood at the Admiralty, dated 29 February 1836, he wrote:

‘The Observatory Library is in a bad state. The number of missing books (from the Catalogue made in 1827) is great: and there appears to have been a total neglect, as to keeping up sets of books &c. for several years. May I request you to inform me whether a large sum of money – say £100 can be placed at my disposal ... .’

Wood replied the follow day saying that there would be no difficulty in giving him £100 (RGO6/72/33). Without sight of Airy’s audit (possibly contained in the copy of the 1827 catalogue held at the National Maritime Museum (PBG0889) that previously belonged to the Observatory), it is impossible to know how many books were missing, but it has to be said, that any more than a dozen books being unaccounted for would undoubtedly be described as a great number by Airy!

In the last quarter of 1837, Airy employed an ocassional clerk, W Constantine to catalogue the library for which he was paid £2.2s a week. He was subsequently kept on to carry out other duties. On 23 May 1838, Airy was authorised by the Admiralty to keep him on at the same rate until the end of September 1838 (RGO6/72/88&89).

In a letter dated 8 June 1839 to John Quincy Adams at Harvard, Airy wrote:

‘There is a Library, covering the walls of a room twenty feet square. It consists principally of the Transactions of Societies, and of mathematical and astronomical works, works on the literature of astronomy, Voyages, &c. In these respects it is a very good library; it has been collected partly at the expense of government, and partly from the presents of private persons and official bodies.’


The location of the Library prior to Airy’s retirement in 1881


The location of the Library at Greenwich after Airy’s retirement


The Library of the Nautical Almanac Office


The move to Herstmonceux


Segregtation of the rare books


The Sotherby's sale of books from the Library, 25 June & 9 July 1984


The move to Cambridge and the proposed integration with the Institute of Astronomy Library


Transfer to the National Maritime Museum

When the Royal Observatory was shut down in 1998, the more historic books in its library were transferred to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in its capacity as guardian of the former home of the Royal Observatory. Despite having been started under Pond, the collection of books became known as the Airy Collection of Rare Books. According to George Wilkins, the name Airy Collection was introduced at the beginning of 1981 by the then librarian, Janet Dudley, (who had been appointed in 1978) as Airy had collected many of them during his period as Astronomer Royal. Now known as the Airy Library Collection, it is incorrectly described in the Museum Blog as having started as the personal library of Airy. It is understood from another blog entry to include all those books in the library that were published up to and including 1881 when Airy retired.


Library catalogues

1827 (published catalogue)

Catalogue from Airy's time (3 volumes, undated) RGO6/831, RGO6/832 & RGO6/833.

Second catalogue from Airy's time (2 volumes, undated) RGO6/834 & RGO6/835.

Catalogue from c.1902-c.1904 (RGO7/297)

?? Catalogue of rare books compiled by auction house (Goringes of Lewes?) prior to closure of Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1998. Copy at National Maritime Museum / Royal Observatory Greenwich.