Paradigm, No. 27 (February, 1999)

The Turner Collection, Keele, 1968-1998:

a study in university management of historical textbook resources

John Fauvel

Colloquium members may have seen a flurry of press activity just before Christmas, with headlines such as "Fury at £1m sale of Keele mathematics collection". This scandal -- the secret disposal into private hands of one of the country’s best history of maths resources -- was unearthed a few days earlier, by various people including Paradigm Board member John Fauvel, who immediately alerted other interested parties, and there is widespread outrage and disgust at Keele’s actions. Colloquium. members have been instrumental since in pursuing through the book trade and other sources what happened to the Collection. At the time of writing, we’ve tracked down the London dealer who has put in for an export license for items from the Collection, but it is not clear whether the Collection as a whole is still in the country and can be saved.

There has, in short, 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 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.

These events have led to concerns in a number of quarters. 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, or the Textbook Colloquium.

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 less than its market value, whether through naïvety 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 underused, 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. Another book was about to be needed by a scholar writing an entry for the new DNB, for its unique annotations by the subject of the entry.

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.

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.


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