THE BRITISH SOCIETY FOR THE HISTORY OF MATHEMATICS
John Fauvel communicates the following message
Turner Collection 1968-1998 R I P
A study in university management of historical resources
As you may have seen in the UK press just before Christmas, there has been
an appalling failure of stewardship at an English university. Keele
University, the custodian of a major collection of historical mathematics
texts, has sold the collection secretly to a London book dealer for one
million pounds. This sale took place under conditions of deepest secrecy
last summer. The collection had been built up over fifty years by a civil
servant, Charles Turner (1886-1973), who gave it to Keele University in
1968. He chose Keele, through his friendship with the professor of physics
there, as it was a relatively new and not well-funded university which "had
not had the opportunity or good fortune to acquire such a special
collection". So far from cherishing, promoting and safeguarding the
collection in its stewardship, however, Keele has without warning or wider
consultation treated it as an asset for secret disposal into unknown
private hands. It is not now known where the collection is, who it was
sold to, how much of it is still together, who owns the books now, what
countries the books are in, and whether there will ever again be any public
or scholarly access to any of the books.
The collection includes sixteen incunabula, at least eight books from
Newton's library, some fifty editions of Euclid over four centuries, and a
further 1400 or so books, many of them rare and significant. A fuller
description of the Turner Collection, and the treasures that have been
disposed of, may be found
on the BSHM's Web Page, at
These events have led to concerns in a number of quarters. This message is
just a brief notification to alert you to the problem, outline some of the
issues involved, and indicate what is being done. Some of the issues which
Keele's behaviour has raised are as follows:
1 The irrevocable and secret conversion of a public asset into a private
possession is something which many people find deeply offensive.
2 Keele sold the Turner Collection under conditions of such secrecy that
no-one else had an opportunity to try to get the money together. Keele did
not contact any of the bodies with a legitimate interest in helping to keep
the Collection in the country, such as the London Mathematical Society, or
the British Society for the History of Mathematics.
3 Keele have claimed a legal entitlement to sell the Collection, which
they may well have since it would never have crossed Charles Turner's mind
to put safeguards in place against such a possibility. However, there are
many other stakeholders in the Collection whose interests have been damaged
by Keele's selfish, reckless and precipitate action.
4 A major such stakeholder is the community of museums, galleries and
libraries for whom Keele's action has very disturbing consequences. The
disposal of a major donation with no attention to the donor's wishes and
intentions has serious implications for other institutions reliant on the
generosity, altruism and trust of benefactors.
5 The evidence indicates that Keele sold off the Turner Collection at very
considerably less than its market value, whether through naivety or for
some other reason. Whatever the reason -- and the secrecy must have
contributed to this result -- serious questions are raised about the
financial governance of the University of Keele.
6 The criteria used to justify disposal. Keele claims as justification
that the Turner Collection was under-used, and that other such collections
exist. Neither of these arguments is correctly posed, and neither leads to
the conclusion that Keele wants to draw. (The same argument would lead to
the conclusion that the University of Keele should be shut down because
there is a university at Luton.)
7 The effects on scholarship are already apparent. The sale was revealed
only when a scholar sought to visit the Collection, and one of the unique
books (Newton's annotated copy of Oughtred's Clavis) was on the point of
being studied by a research student in connection with her PhD when the
disappearance of the Collection became known.
8 Knowledge of the dispersal of the Turner Collection took some months to
emerge, although many Keele academics were aware of what was happening, due
to a formidable blanket of secrecy imposed by the University, a ban on any
communication with the outer world on the subject under pain of dismissal.
9 Keele seem now to have developed their policy of secrecy into one of
duplicity on this issue. Various claims made by the University have to be
viewed with scepticism. For instance, in the Guardian the Keele Librarian
Martin Phillips was quoted as saying "other academic institutions had been
contacted before the collection was sold." Despite intensive efforts, no
evidence has come to light to support this claim: certainly none of the
obvious institutions were consulted or even informed.
10 And of course there are further issues for the governance of
universities in Britain today. Presumably most folk privy to the decision
did not want to do it, but were persuaded to overlook their scruples on the
grounds that this would solve a problem in the University's financial
situation. That it may have created rather bigger problems for the wider
community of scholarship, education, and stakeholders would not be a
consideration for an accountancy-driven management.
What is being done? Several reports appeared in the press before
Christmas, there were radio interviews with David Singmaster and J V Field,
and an article by David Singmaster will appear in the THES shortly (or has
done already, depending on when you read this message). Attempts to raise
public awareness of the sale of the Collection and its implications will
continue, as will attempts to find out who bought it and where the books
now are. While it seems too late to re-establish the Collection as an
accessible scholarly and educational resource, it may still be possible to
exert some pressure to prevent anything like this happening again, and to
encourage those responsible for the sale to reconsider the wisdom of their
actions and be more forthcoming about helping the scholarly and educational
communities replace the lost public resources.
The Vice-Chancellor of Keele is Professor Janet Finch, CBE, Keele
University, Staffordshire ST5 5BG.
John Fauvel (Open University, Milton Keynes, UK)
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