Books as Tools

Thomas' Rylands Early Printed Scientific Books

In his memoir of the Warrington wire-manufacturer and polymath Thomas Glazebrook Rylands (1818-1900), R.D. Radcliffe wrote:

Of his library he was justly proud. It consisted for the most part of books which he was wont to call his ‘tools’, and included nearly every important publication dealing with the subjects upon which he had worked. 

(Memoir of Thomas Glazebrook Rylands, of Highfields, Thelwall, Cheshire, 1901, p. 41)

After Rylands’ death in 1900, he left 2700 of these ‘tools’ to University College Liverpool (now the University of Liverpool). On receipt of the bequest, the then Principal of the University, A.W.W. Dale agreed that for science and arts students alike, books are fundamental ‘tools’. He argued that all students should, therefore, have some understanding of the history of printing. As such:

a College Library is incomplete if it does not illustrate the stages of development, and the successive processes, through which the art of printing has passed (iii)

Rylands’ collection was particularly important in ensuring that the Liverpool College Library was appropriately furnished to illustrate the earliest stages in that development. The Rylands bequest included 19 medieval manuscripts and 72 incunabula – making it the biggest single donation of early printed books ever given to the University of Liverpool. 

This exhibition was based on a cataloguing project and explores some of the many ways in which Rylands’ books have been used as tools. We focus on a small section of the bequest to show how the very earliest printed books supported Rylands' attempts at encyclopaedic mastery of two of his keenest interests - Geography and Astronomy.