Sir Isaac Newton Manuscript Acquired

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

News release courtesy of the Illinois News Bureau:

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois has acquired a manuscript written by Sir Isaac Newton that provides instructions for making the philosopher’s stone, a substance thought to have special powers of transformation.

The “Opus Galli Anonymi” is Newton’s Latin translation of a French work on making the philosopher’s stone, with corrections and notes by Newton based on his own scientific work. The library bought the manuscript at auction for $275,000, thanks to a donation by Jim and Lionelle Elsesser of St. Louis, who are Illinois alumni and supporters of the University Library.

One of the strongest areas in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s collection is the history of science, said Lynne M. Thomas, the head of the library.

“We have a lot of materials on early scientific work,” she said. “We are at our heart an agriculture and engineering school. Our collections of early books dealing with agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, science and engineering are quite strong. It’s been an area of interest and expertise for our faculty for more than a century.”

The history of science, natural history and mathematics collection holds more than 7,000 volumes and the mathematics collection is ranked as one of the three most significant in the U.S. Among the documents in the collection are a nearly comprehensive collection of early works by the Greek mathematician Euclid and Newton’s “Principia Mathematica.”

The newly acquired Newton manuscript “provides additional context for scientific exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the fact that it was not considered unusual for a scientist of Newton’s perspective to explore alchemy side by side with the physical and mathematical work he was doing,” Thomas said. “It is interesting seeing science and legend side by side.”

The philosopher’s stone was thought to be a substance that would turn base metals into precious ones, such as lead into gold, and also cure illness and grant immortality.

“This is evidence of (Newton) going down a scientific cul-de-sac that didn’t produce the intended aim but that led to information on how scientific failures lead to new discoveries,” Thomas said

Lionelle Elsesser said she is “excited about the sense of history, uniqueness and rarity of the material. I hope it does play an important part in someone’s scholarship. We couldn’t be more delighted with the acquisition.”

Jim Elsesser said the acquisition is appropriate as Newton was known as the father of chemistry and Illinois has a strong chemistry department.

“You can’t help but be moved. To see a document like this, written by Newton, you have to be impressed,” he said.

The couple said the University Library was an important factor in their education and careers. Jim Elsesser received degrees in business at the U. of I., and Lionelle Elsesser received hers in library and information sciences.

“The Library is one of the jewels in the crown for the university,” said Lionelle Elsesser. “When you are in school, you kind of take it for granted. It’s when you leave – for us, anyway – you realize, ‘Wow, that was some library.’ It’s really magnificent.”

The Elsessers made a $500,000 donation to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library to be used for materials for special collections. The library has not yet determined what to acquire with the remaining amount of the donation. Thomas said the Elsesser’s donation allowed the RBML to consider items that are not usually within its price range to acquire.

“It’s fantastic to have the freedom to leap on this wonderful thing and get it for the collection,” Thomas said. “It’s both wonderful and daunting simultaneously, because you want to do right by the donors and make sure they’re happy with the choice we’ve made, and you want to get something that’s a good, strong addition to the collection and makes sense in the context of what we do.”

The manuscript is made up of four sheets of paper folded in the middle to make eight leaves. It must be translated into English, it needs some conservation work and it must be fully catalogued and integrated into the collection, Thomas said. The most important consideration is how to house the fragile document so that it is stable and wear and tear on it will be minimized, she said.

“Because we know lots and lots of people will want to see this, we’re going to work with the conservation department here at the University Library to make sure we’re housing it in a way that will maintain its physical integrity as well as make sure it’s publicly available to as many people as possible,” Thomas said.

It won’t be on display but will be housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library collection and will be available to view upon request. Access to it will be somewhat restricted, as is the case with items that are quite fragile and valuable, Thomas said.

The manuscript will eventually be digitized so scholars can access it online. However, many will still want to see it in person. There are physical attributes that can’t be conveyed well digitally, Thomas said, such as the quality and thickness of the paper, an indication of how expensive it was to produce; the type of ink used; and the color.

“You can’t feel a digitized object. You can’t smell a digitized object. The tactile experience of handling something that was handled by Sir Isaac Newton is something you can’t replicate with a digitized copy,” she said.

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library will host a public event in the summer or fall to unveil the manuscript.

“This was a wonderfully serendipitous thing, where an item of great relevance to scientists and also a point of interest to the general public becomes available. It also has a lot to tell us about how scholarship worked and about creating science at a level of technology radically different than ours,” Thomas said.

“We are deeply grateful to the Elsessers for their gift,” she said. “They made it possible for us to return an important scientific document to the public domain. They have benefited the public through their generosity.”

Math Librarian Honored with Professorship

The University Library has named Timothy W. Cole, head of the Mathematics Library, for the Elaine and Allen Avner Professorship in Interdisciplinary Research. Cole holds this honor as of April 16, 2018, continuing for five years.

The professorship was established with a gift from longtime Library Friend Allen Avner in November 2017. Cole will carry out research in fields connected to the application of information technologies in interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary fields of research.

“Elaine and Allen Avner were pioneers in the application of computer technologies to learning systems,” said William Mischo, head of the Grainger Engineering Library Information Center. “I’ve had several wonderful conversations with Allen over the enhanced role that information and digital library technologies play in the research and instructional mission of the University of Illinois. Tim’s work exemplifies the role of the library as a major player in emergent and interdisciplinary research and, through Allen’s generosity, this professorship will provide resources to expand these conversations.”

“It will be a singular honor to serve as the inaugural Allen and Elaine Avner Professor in Interdisciplinary Librarianship, and I am most appreciative of this opportunity to further my research into the novel ways libraries can apply technologies to better support interdisciplinary scholarship and pedagogy. This professorship recognizes the importance of multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary approaches and will facilitate new and ongoing national and international collaborations, not only with library colleagues, but also with domain scholars in an array of disciplines. Looking beyond the parochial engenders more effective research and leads to outcomes that benefit not only our Library alone but also this campus and other research libraries and institutions more broadly,” said Cole. He added, “Truly an exciting opportunity!”

The appointment was open to any Library faculty member at the associate professor or professor rank.

“Tim was selected in a highly competitive process,” said John P. Wilkin, dean of libraries and university librarian. “Throughout his 25-year career, Tim has consistently demonstrated a singular vision for the role of information technologies in academic library services; the external reviewers were full of praise for Tim’s scholarship and contributions to the profession.”

Cole received his BS in aeronautical and astronautical engineering in 1978 and his MS in library and information science in 1989, both from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At Illinois, he has been on the Library faculty since 1990 and the affiliated faculty in the School of Information Sciences since 2009. From 1978 until 1988, Cole worked as a propulsion systems engineer, including three years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In 2017, Cole was honored with the Frederick G. Kilgour Award for Research in Library and Information Technology from the OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. and the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA), a division of the American Library Association.

The Investiture of Lynne M. Thomas

From left to right: Barbara M. Jones, Lynne M. Thomas, and John P. Wilkin

On April 6, the University Library celebrated the investiture of Lynne M. Thomas, who joined the Library as the head of its esteemed Rare Book & Manuscript Library September 1, 2017. She now holds the title of Juanita J. and Robert E. Simpson Rare Book & Manuscript Professor.

Endowed chairs are the highest honor the university can bestow on faculty members. Named positions like this enhance the Library’s services, programs, and reputation by recognizing and fostering the considerable research contributions of its faculty.

Given that the goal of the professorship is to enhance the scholarly research of faculty by providing them with additional resources, it was appropriate to have Paul Ellinger, associate chancellor and vice provost for budget and resource planning, as a special guest at Professor Thomas’s investiture.

Another special guest included Professor Thomas’s mentor and former colleague, Barbara M. Jones, who served as head librarian of rare book and special collections at Illinois from 1996-2003. Dr. Jones hired Thomas as a graduate assistant during her tenure. Dr. Jones’s dedication inspired the gift which endowed her position in 2002 which, at the time, was the Library’s first faculty chair.

“I return to a Rare Book and Manuscript Library that has flourished and grown in the twenty years since I first left its ranks, through the careful stewardship of the former faculty, staff, and students who served these collections, this campus, and our wider community admirably over that time,” said Professor Thomas. “I promise to repay that work to the best of my ability as I continue that tradition.”

The professorship was established through a significant estate gift from longtime Library friends Robert Simpson and his wife, Juanita. Robert was a University of Illinois alumnus with a BA in English Literature, who went on to a successful sales and manufacturing career in Ohio. The endowment—a permanent trust invested to provide a long-term source of funding—will continue to be used to finance the perpetual needs of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

“I am deeply grateful to the Simpson family for choosing to support the Library, and endow this position in particular. Their investment in the work that I do here in the RBML, and the generations of stewardship for these publicly-available collections that it represents, is a charge that I will work every day to continue to be worthy of,” said Thomas. “It’s good to be home.”

2018 Image of Research

The Scholarly Commons of the University Library and the Graduate College partnered to host The Image of Research, a competition celebrating the diversity and breadth of graduate student research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Graduate and professional students at Illinois were invited to submit entries consisting of an image and brief text articulating how the image relates to the research. Entries were judged by a multidisciplinary panel for connection between image, text, and research; originality; and visual impact.

Awards were presented at a reception on April 4, 2018, in conjunction with Graduate Student Appreciation Week at Illinois. Finalists are posted at

The Image of Research is supported by a generous gift to the Scholarly Commons from the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. For more information about the competition, please visit

Three Hugo Award Nominations for Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas, head of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library, has been nominated for science fiction’s most prestigious award—the Hugo Award. Thomas, already a five-time Hugo Award winner, joined the University Library in July 2017.

Hugo Award finalists were announced on March 31, 2018. Thomas is nominated for Best Editor, Short Form; Best Semiprozine (a non-professional periodical publication) for Uncanny Magazine; and Best Fancast for the Verity! Podcast.

Thomas is the co-editor-in-chief and publisher of Uncanny Magazine with her husband Michael Damian Thomas. Six of the 18 short fiction finalists on the Hugo Award nomination ballot are from Uncanny: one nomination for Best Novella; two nominations for Best Novelette; and three nominations for Best Short Story.

“I am humbled and pleased to be honored by the science fiction community for my work on Uncanny Magazine and Verity!” said Thomas.

Past Hugo Award wins for Thomas include Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It (Best Related Work) in 2011; SF Squeecast (Best Fancast) in 2012 and 2013; and Uncanny Magazine (Best Semiprozine) in 2016 and 2017. In addition to these five wins, Thomas has garnered 14 Science Fiction/Fantasy nominations since 2011. A comprehensive list of her awards is found in the Science Fiction Awards Database at

The fan-nominated Hugo Awards are sponsored by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS). Winners will be announced at the 76th World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, CA, in August. For more information about the Hugo Award, visit