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History of our Library

Our natural history library is the best in the region and is a must-visit venue for all naturalists.

Our collection of books about the natural world was started in 1829 when the Society was founded, and in the succeeding years has served as a reference library for Society members and researchers. Following the re-development of the Hancock Museum a specially designed library was created to house our books in the Great North Museum: Hancock and this is now open to the wider public.

The library’s first books were presented by our founder members. Since then donations have been the major source of acquisitions and several large and valuable bequests have made it one of the richest collections of natural history books in the country. The library also contains modern works that have been acquired mainly by purchase. We take part in an exchange network with other societies and institutions throughout the world, which has enabled the Society, in return for its own Transactions publications, to acquire runs of more than seventy periodicals.

In 1867 Sir W G Armstrong (later Lord Armstrong) presented an important and varied collection of books. Subsequently some of the principal bequests brought the Society the libraries of W C Hewitson (in 1878, ornithology and entomology), Joshua Alder (in 1881, mainly molluscs and other invertebrates), Thomas Bold (in 1893, mainly entomology), Joseph Wright in 1922 and Harry Tully in 1951 (ornithology). It has an important collection of Thomas Bewick’s drawings and watercolours presented to the Society from the estate of his daughter Isabella who died in 1883.

Our Oldest Books

The oldest book in our collection is one by Brasavola, A.M., of 1545. Brasavola was one of William Turner’s much admired teachers when he studied at Ferrara. Bound in contemporary full vellum, the title and an old press mark are written on the spine; the title is also written on the bottom edge (which was common practice when books used to be stored horizontally).

Some additional, older works contained within the library are Pierre Belon’s Histoire de la Nature des Oyseaux of 1555 and William Turner’s A New Herball of 1568 and there are manuscripts and illustrations relating to many of the early members of the Society.

From 1884 to 2006 the library occupied a large and handsome room at the front of the Hancock Museum (now a cafe), which was retained for the exclusive use of Society members. Bookcases, once occupied only the north wall in the room and later filled it rather too fully, but the atmosphere of quiet and scholarly elegance remained. Following the redevelopment of the museum 2006-2009 the library was re-housed in a specially built area on the top floor of the new extension at the rear of the museum (for more information, please click here). Our books have also been joined by those from the library of the Society of Antiquaries and the University’s Cowen archaeology collection. Since 2009 our collection has been open to the public as a reference library.

Our collection is particularly strong in material relating to the natural history of the north of England. The Society now has a deliberate policy of trying to acquire all important works in this field, including works by, and biographical material about, local naturalists. We hope that our members will continue to tell us of such books as they are published.

The library is a useful reference resource for the geology of the region and for the identification of the flora and fauna of the British Isles, and keeps the important reference works including the Memoirs of the Geological Survey, Flora Europaea, The Synopses of the British Fauna, the British Entomological Society’s handbooks for the identification of British insects, and handbooks of the Birds of the World and Mammals. To a lesser extent it tries to provide guidance on the natural history of other countries that our members are likely to visit; so, for example, there are field guides to the birds of most parts of the world. There is also a modest collection of books on ecology and conservation as well as sets of the publications of the British Museum (Natural History), the Ray Society and the Collins New Naturalist series. There is also ethnographical material  relevent to the collectons in the Museum. Today about half of the books acquired are gifts; it is hoped that this will continue, and that the long tradition of bequests by members, who are themselves collectors of important modern or historical books, will be maintained in the future. If you would like to donate books to the library either now or at a future date, please get in contact with us.

Our Collection

Our collection of books belongs to the members of the Society. The Society has a Library Committee which cares for this collection, processes new books, makes purchases on behalf of the Society and keeps the catalogue up-to-date. The day-to-day running of the Library itself is carried out by a Librarian, employed by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums Service, which manages the museum.