The Society has the second-largest specialist collection of astronomical rare books in Britain – the largest in England – with about 4,000 items published before 1851. They include many of the ‘standard’ works from the development of astronomy from the late Middle Ages and a large number of less well known books and tracts on events such as apparitions of comets. One of the glories of astronomical literature is the sequence of atlases of the constellations dating from 1482 up to the mid-19th century and many of these are in the collection. Other books cover the construction of the Heavens (what were then termed ‘world systems’; we should now call this cosmology) with illustrations of the various conceptions of how the Universe was seen. Illustrations from these rare books are available through our arrangement with Science Photo Library for commercial use in books, magazines and TV programmes.
Although the emphasis is on astronomy, works are also held in related fields such as mathematics, surveying, navigation, etc. A major collection subsumed within the collection is most of the Library of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society, a society set up by the Huguenot silk weavers of that area of East London and taken over by the RAS, with its books, in 1846. We would be very grateful to be advised of any identifiable Spitalfields books held in other Libraries, as a number were sold or given away.
Loan of rare books
The RAS Library will consider requests from recognized museums and other reputable organizations for loans of rare books, archives and other items.
Such loans will normally be approved for a period of up to six months, subject to satisfactory arrangements for transport, conditions of display, security and insurance. All costs of such loans shall be met by the borrower. Such loans shall clearly be credited to the Royal Astronomical Society at the point of display and in any associated written material such as catalogues, website, etc. Where possible, RAS members shall be allowed a substantial discount on entry to the relevant exhibition. Loans of original manuscripts will be approved only in exceptional cases.
Some examples from our collection
De Revolutionibus (1543)
De Revolutionibus Diagram
Track of Eclipse, Halley (1715)
Hyginus chart: Delphinus (1482)
Flamsteed, Atlas Coelestis (1781)
Galileo, Moon drawings (1653)