Saving John Stuart Mill’s library

I learnt early last week of a campaign, led by members of Somerville College, Oxford, to preserve the library of John Stuart Mill, much of which is now in a state of disrepair:

Somerville is home to the Library of the great Victorian liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill: an extraordinary collection of about 2,000 volumes, many of which record irreplaceable annotations that are currently a hidden treasure largely unknown to academics. The collection was a gift to the College in 1905 by Mill’s stepdaughter Helen Taylor, as Mill had asked the scientist Mary Somerville to be the first signatory on his petition to Parliament regarding women’s suffrage in 1867.  J.S. Mill holds a very important place in world history, and is considered by many to be ‘the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century.’

The campaign initially sought to raise £10,000, but has already surpassed this target and is now hoping to raise £13,000 by next week. The money will be spent on restoring the most delicate volumes in the collection. The total cost of saving the library is expected to be in the region of £50,000.

I’m delighted that these steps are being taken as the Somerville College collection is not only important to the intellectual history of J.S. Mill, but of his father James Mill, too. Many of the books in the collection originally belonged to the senior Mill, and some contain his underlinings, marginalia, and other annotations.

In the course of my PhD research on James Mill, I published online a transcription of his commonplace books, four ledgers of manuscript material held in the archives of the London Library which were donated by J.S. Mill sometime in 1872. The commonplace books were transcribed by the late Robert A. Fenn of the University of Toronto in the 1980s and 1990s. When I recovered Fenn’s transcripts from his old Macintosh computer in 2009, I discovered that he had also gone through the Somerville College collection fairly exhaustively, transcribing the passages Mill marked and the notes he had made. In total, Fenn identified 66 different works containing material belonging to James Mill, including books by William Blackstone, Ralph Cudworth, David Hume, James Harrington, John Milton, Adam Smith, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire.

I am making available to download Fenn’s transcriptions in the hope it will be of interest to others. As ever, I remain indebted to Julia Fenn and Larry Johnston for permission to publish this material.