Robert Simson’s Books at the University of Glasgow

One of the many delights of working on the Books and Borrowing project is the discovery and inclusion of more borrowing registers as we progress. From our original fourteen, we have gone to eighteen. Our latest arrival, the Simson Borrowing Register, is linked to the Glasgow University Library and we thank the Archives and Special Collections team for digitising it for us. It joins our student, professorial, and Hunterian Museum registers from the University of Glasgow.

portrait of Robert Simson
Robert Simson
after William Denune
line engraving, published 1812
NPG D5990, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Robert Simson (1687-1768), professor of mathematics at Glasgow from 1711 to 1761, borrowed books from the university library on a few occasions, including Johannes Kepler’s letters, Newton’s Principia, and the catalogue of the Advocates Library. He had an extensive library of his own which he used in his work so it is not surprising that he makes few appearances in Glasgow’s professorial borrowing registers.

An excellent summary of materials relating to Simson and his bequest to the university is available as a ‘Book of the Month’ entry from the University of Glasgow library.

Simson is best known for his work on classical geometry. His Sectionarum conicarum libri V, published in 1735, introduced a treatise by Apollonius of Perga on conic sections.

His edition of Euclid’s Elements of 1756 was influential. Both it and Conic Sections appeared in many editions, but he also contributed papers to scientific journals and amassed sixteen volumes of manuscript ‘Adversaria on mathematical subjects’ between 1716 and 1767 (now GUL, MS Gen. 256-71).[1]

borrowing register entry showing loan of Simson's Conic Sections
Ethics student John Morehead borrows Simson’s Conic sections, 5 March 1759, with Simson’s approval, GUL, Student Borrowing Register 2, f. 33v

Simson died in 1768 and his will instructed that his trustees were to

To give over & deliver … to the College of the University of Glasgow  – All my Library of printed Books Which I hereby Leave, Legate & Bequeath as a free Donation to the said University & Members of the same to be placed & deposited in their publick Library, there for ever to remain for the use of the said University of Glasgow – In testimony of my great regard & esteem for the same, But with this restriction & condition always – That none of my Books shall at any time be lent out to any person or persons whatever without an express order in Writing of the Dean and Faculty of the said University for that purpose and receipts by the respective Borrowers for returning the same in a short space without delay,  – And that not above Ten Volumes of the said Books shall be out at one time…

Rules for borrowing books from Simson's bequest
‘Rules to be observed in lending Dr Simsons books’, Simson Register, f. 4
1 No Book to be lent but by a written Authority of the Dean of Faculty
2 The Books so lent to be kept out of the Library only for a short time
3 Not above ten Volumes to be out at one time

I think Simson’s directives can tell us a quite a bit about how professors were using the university’s collection in the mid-eighteenth century by taking out too many books and keeping them for too long. This was not unusual: in some instances, books were only returned after the borrower’s death. Hercules Lindsay, Regius Professor of Civil Law from 1750 until his death in 1761, borrowed, the second volume of the Theodosian Code on 31 December 1751. This was returned with the rest of his loans on 24 May 1762. Lindsay borrowed the first volume of the same work on 19 March 1756 and retained it along with the second volume for the rest of his life.

The 850 books bequeathed by Simson are still in the library and are easily identified in the collection with a distinctive shelf mark. Unsurprisingly, given Simson’s interests, his library was rich in mathematical and astronomical books, including his own works. Although I’ve only begun to transcribe the Simson material, it seems these proved to be reasonably popular with Glasgow’s professors. Records of the Simson books include the letters written to request books and the permissions granted by the College Senate. This will allow for more exploration of the institutional relationships between borrowers and institutions discussed by Dahlia Porter in a previous blog post.

letter granting permssion for Prof. Jardine to borrow 'Saunderson's Algebra'
Glasgow College 2d Decr. 1796
By minute of Senate of this Day Professor Jardine obtained Leave to borrow from D.r Simson’s Collection of Books, Saunderson’s Algebra
Pat Wilson Cler Sen
Mr Muirhead







[1] E. I. Carlyle and Ian Tweddle, ‘Simson, Robert (1687–1768), mathematician’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)., accessed 25 May 2022.