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Joanna Corden

The Hooke Folio - what happened next?

Following the initial purchase at very short notice of the Hooke Folio, the Royal Society has now begun to conserve the manuscript in both physical and digital format, and to use it to head a programme of educational development and promotion.

 Jean Dekin in her lecture discussed the invisibility of the archivist except in time of crisis for the institutional memory – and the events surrounding the discovery and purchase of the Hooke Folio was definitely one of those occasions!

What we now call the Hooke Folio was a volume which was discovered in the autumn of 2005 as part of an estate valuation and put up for sale at auction by Bonham’s in Bond Street in March 2006.

Historians of science were invited to authenticate it, among them Professor Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary College London. She thought it so important both for the Royal Society and the history of science that in January 2006 she brought it immediately to the attention of the President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, who launched the Society’s successful appeal to secure funds to purchase the Folio. The public, the Fellows and finally a grant from the Wellcome Trust produced the £1 million pounds needed. The auction was in March 2006, with the announcement of the sale to the Society taking place during the auction, though legal arrangements were not completed until May, when the Folio was handed to the President at a high profile event at the Society.

What was the importance of this Folio? It is a body of long lost work by the 17th century experimentalist, astronomer, microscopist, engineer, architect and surveyor Robert Hooke, who was also Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society from 1662, and covers the period when he took over as the Royal Society’s Secretary after the death of Henry Oldenburg, the first Secretary, in 1677. It includes notes he took from Oldenburg’s original rough notes of meetings, and his own draft notes for his period as Secretary.

So how did we feel when this important £1 million pound volume finally returned to the Society? Our first reaction was one of dismay. There were many loose pieces of paper with interesting or important information on them, which had simply been removed without any effort made to note between which pages they had been found. The second was that in the five months since we had seen it, the physical condition had deteriorated considerably – the binding had come apart from the contents, and the contents had split into three bound parts. This was perhaps not surprising, given the number of people who had been allowed to not only see but handle it.

Our first task was therefore to digitally photograph the folio, as a record of how it had come to us. The second was to send it for conservation, to be taken apart from the remaining binding, and each sheet repaired as necessary. Here we hit an unexpected snag – the insurance company simply did not understand the requirements of conservation (for instance, the insistence on locking everything up in a safe overnight, which is very difficult to do if pages are being washed or cleaned and flattened) but eventually a compromise was reached and we were able to send it to an outside conservator, Graeme Gardiner of Preservation Solutions. It was also decided to keep the Folio as one volume, and have it rebound after conservation.

The next step was to decide how to exploit the Folio. This led to two projects. The first was to appoint a team led by Professor Lisa Jardine from CELL at Queen Mary London to develop the Folio educationally. Two graduate students transcribed the whole volume, using the images made when the folio had first returned, in the process casting a new light on the workings of the Society and relations between the Fellows in the process.

The Folio provides a fascinating view of Robert Hooke himself, his relations with others in the scientific world, and the work of the Society. It is the ‘missing link’ in the Society’s own records. Not the least interesting result, to me as archivist and records manager, is the glimpse it provides into the work of my 17th century equivalent, and the difficulties experienced in trying to cope with the system established by Henry Oldenburg himself from its very first meeting in 1660.

First there were the rough notes; these were then written up to form the formal record of the scientific meetings, as found in the Journal Books; letters of importance sent to the Society to be read at their scientific meetings or to be published were kept, and copied for safety in the series called Letter Books; discoveries or experiments of importance were recorded in the Register Books.

Not even Oldenburg himself managed to keep to his own system. Hooke’s comments on reading Oldenburg’s early draft minutes were scathing; for June 1670, a crucial meeting was held regarding the famous pocket watch, and two others, for which draft minutes exist but which are not in the official minutes - Hooke writes in the margin ’NB Oldenburg entered not the last 3 meetings, but only the last nonsense’. The debate surrounding Newton’s telescope can be seen in a new light, with Hooke being asked to report on it. Again, a long passage relating to the discovery of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of protozoa in pepper water is missing entirely from the official minutes.

Record keeping was clearly also a problem for Hooke himself; from his appointment in 1678, Hooke starts well, taking clear minutes of proceedings then passing them to the scribes to write up officially as required by the Society. Then weeks go by as the minutes are not passed on; gaps are left in Hooke’s own notes with instructions to a transcriber to consult him for further materials, such as detailed descriptions of experiments and sketches of equipment. These gaps are never filled in the official record. He also failed to copy papers to the Register Books. Finally the situation became so serious the Society sacked Hooke in 1682 from his post as Secretary.

Apart from the academic work on the Folio, once the cleaned and conserved pages were returned to us still unbound, they were again digitally photographed. This was necessary as we needed a completely visible original which was then worked on with Dr Jan Broadway from CELL to encode it in XML and the Transcriber’s Workbench Software developed by Mind Magic Ltd.   The online interface was developed by Dr Broadway using PHP, MySQL and Javascript. It is now possible to see either an original page from the Folio, or side by side with the transcription, or just the transcription, or search by key word or name or date. Educational materials are being created to provide scholarly perspective and context, and are aimed at a more academic user.

The second project was concerned with engaging the public’s attention, with ‘Turning the Pages’, which is a more ‘popular’ online version. This involved the transcription of ten particularly interesting pages, together with details and images about the personalities involved, and a brief history of the Society. There is both an online version, and a station set up in the Society so that users can try touching the screen and turning the pages themselves. Both have proved extremely popular.

The latest development so far has been the ‘Blog’ provided by our two graduate students, as they write about points of interest which have arisen in the course of their work on the Folio. This has been very popular, with such diverse subjects as snake venom or travel to St Helena discussed under headings such as social history, travel, medicine, alchemy, biology and botany, using events mentioned in the Folio to enlarge on our knowledge of 17th century events, people and life.

There will be further developments, but what has happened so far has been very encouraging. Not only has an important part of the Society’s record of its own activities been saved and conserved, but it has provide a focal point for further research, and has been effective in inspiring interest in the period from both an academic and non-academic audience.