This post was written by Katherine Harrington, the Archive Cataloguer of the Royal Society, who will be participating in History day on the 27th of November.

The Royal Society’s Library cares for a renowned book and archive collection relating to the history and development of science. The Society itself is a fellowship of some of the world’s most eminent scientists and the UK’s national academy of science.

The Society’s printed collections comprise almost 77,000 titles covering all branches of science, dating from the 15th century onwards and with particular strengths in the 17th and 18th centuries. The donation in 1667 of the library of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, accounts for many of the books which predate the foundation of the Society in 1660. From the 1680s to the mid-19th century it was the Library’s policy to acquire every important scientific publication. Historically Fellows of the Society have also donated their own works, a practice which continues to the present day.

The subjects covered by our collections extend beyond areas you might anticipate to include subjects such as travel, expeditions and philosophy. The current collections policy focuses on history of science books which place the major original works into historical context, as well as biographies of scientists from 1660 onwards.


Portrait of an unnamed sailor described as ‘Coxswain to Admiral Legge (1766-1835)’ with details of artificial or prosthetic arms designed by Oliver. Plate 12 from Improvements in naval architecture, by Oliver Lang (Woolwich, 1853). RS.10560 © The Royal Society

The journal holdings of the Society mark the beginning of scientific journal publishing and this year we are celebrating the 350th anniversary of the world’s first scientific periodical, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Through purchase, gift and exchange the Society created a comprehensive collection of science journals until the late 19th century. Today our journal acquisitions focus on history of science journals.

We hold an important collection on science policy comprising over 10,000 items in the form of books, journals and grey literature from a variety of sources within the UK, EC and of international origin. This collection has been established to support the Royal Society’s key role in providing independent scientific advice to policy makers.

The Society’s archives provide an unrivalled record of the development of science. In addition to holding the Society’s Charter Book and administrative records, the archives feature correspondence and manuscripts detailing the development not only of the Society but of the practice of scientific enquiry itself.


X-ray image of Lord Kelvin’s left hand with signet ring by A. A. Campbell Swinton captured at the Royal Society’s Soiree, 6 May 1896. RS.9842 © The Royal Society

The work of many distinguished scientists is represented within the archives and our collections notably include the correspondence and manuscripts of Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke and John Herschel, amongst many others. We also hold the personal papers of some of the 20th century’s leading scientists, including Howard Florey, Otto Loewi, Henry Dale, Patrick Blackett, John Vane, and Thomas Gold.

We are currently involved in a number of academic research projects including: ‘Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: the economic, social and cultural history of a learned journal, 1665-2015′ in conjunction with St Andrews University; ‘Constructing Scientific Communities‘, examining citizen science in the 19th and 21st centuries with Oxford University; and ‘Making Visible: the visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society’, with the University of Cambridge.


Watch a series of short films about some of our collection treasures via the Objectivity youtube channel, including the first book to be photographically printed and illustrated, Photographs of British algae: cyanotype impressions, by Anna Atkins (London, 1843)

For a further taster of our collections try searching our online catalogues and check out the Repository for regular and informative blog posts. The Society’s collections are open to researchers and the general public Monday to Friday, 10-5pm. Readers are required to register in order to access materials. Free public WiFi is available and all reader desks are equipped with power sockets.

If you have any queries do not hesitate to contact us via or visit our stall at the upcoming IHR history libraries and research open day.