Untold lives blog

01 February 2016

Tracing Hans Sloane’s Books: A PhD Placement Opportunity

Look at the following five images taken from books in the British Library.  Which of them belonged to Hans Sloane (1660-1753) – physician, naturalist, scientific networker and omnivorous collector?


  Title page of  De Rosa Hierichuntina

Joannes Sturmius, ‘De Rosa Hierichuntina ...’ (Louvain, 1608), 966.b.39.(1.)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Title page of  ‘Libellus ... de non irascendo'

Plutarch, ‘Libellus ... de non irascendo ...’ (Basel, 1525), 527.e.3.(1.)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


British Museum stamps in ‘Istoria de la China ...’

Matteo Ricci, ‘Istoria de la China ...’ (Seville, 1621), T 8687  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Title page of 'Quaestio medica’

Jean François Vallant, ‘Quaestio medica’ (Montpellier, 1727), 1185.c.25.(1.)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Title page of  ‘De febris pestilentis cognitione & curatione’

Gerardus Columba, ‘De febris pestilentis cognitione & curatione’ (Messina, 1597), 1167.h.7  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Trick question; they all did!  These are just a few examples of the various signs of ownership, inscriptions, tell-tale stamps and marks that have enabled British Library curators and researchers to identify some 32,000 books that had previously been part of Sloane’s library.  All are listed on the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue, a major resource for the study of the composition and provenance of one of the most important libraries of Enlightenment England. 

Home page of the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue

 Home page of the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue Noc

Bequeathed to the nation at his death in 1753, Sloane’s vast collections formed the nucleus of the British Museum.  Besides the printed books, Sloane’s ‘museum’ comprised: printed ephemera and handbills; medieval and early modern manuscripts; prints and drawings; coins and medals; pre-historic, classical and Egyptian, Romano-British, medieval and oriental antiquities; and natural historical specimens (invertebrates, insects, minerals, fossils, plants) gathered from around the world.  These were subsequently divided between the Natural History Museum and British Museum and, more recently, the British Library.  Sloane’s library, estimated to contain around 45,000 printed volumes, formed the largest part of his collections.  However, it was not kept as a discrete, named collection but was scattered across the British Museum’s book holdings (now at the British Library).  During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, furthermore, a number of Sloane’s books were sold off during a series of duplicate sales and are now dispersed among libraries around the world.

Sir Hans Sloane portrait

Sir Hans Sloane, Bt, by Stephen Slaughter; oil on canvas, 1736; NPG 569, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The task of tracing these books began with a Wellcome Trust-funded project in 2008 and has since been continued by dedicated volunteers.  There is now an opportunity for a current PhD student to be involved in the final stages of this valuable scholarly endeavour as part of a British Library placement scheme.  The Sloane placement offers a student the chance to make a material contribution towards the completion of the project in a variety of ways:

  • searching remaining, broadly subject-related shelfmark ranges (law, education/universities, literature, theology) to identify evidence of provenance
  • adding in the region of 500 new entries to the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue
  • conducting first-hand work with Sloane’s own handwritten catalogues to identify further books where physical evidence of provenance has not survived
  • pursuing a small project on the provenance of some of Sloane’s books.

There is also scope to write for the British Library’s Untold Lives blog and to submit an article to the Electronic British Library Journal.

The deadline for applications is 4.00pm, 19th February – so don’t delay! 

James Freeman
Curator of Incunabula and 16th-Century Books


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