Two Nineteenth-Century Expeditionary Libraries

Guest blog: Innes M. Keighren

THE DECISIONS we take about the books we pack when we travel are often informed by three factors: 1) practicality (“Will this book help me to travel safely, agreeably, and productively?”) 2) pleasure (“Will this book provide entertainment or diversion when required?”) and 3) portability (“Can I accommodate the space and weight of this book?”). These same considerations were entirely familiar to travellers in centuries past.

In approaching the ways books were read by British travellers in the nineteenth century, I propose to draw on two examples: first, the en route reading practices of the scriptural geographers Edward Robinson and Eli Smith as they sought biblical truth in the Holy Land and, second, the shipboard library of the Arctic exploration vessel HMS Isabella.

Books in the sand

“Plan of Jerusalem, sketched from Sieber and Catherwood, corrected by the Measurements of Robinson and Smith”, by Heinrich Kiepert. From Biblical researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petraæ (London: John Murray, 1841).

For the scriptural geographers Edward Robinson and Eli Smith, travel and text were intimately related. The purpose of their journey, to locate biblical sites in the present-day Holy Land, necessitated travelling not only with books to hand, but often literally with books in hand. In their account, Robinson and Smith were assiduous in detailing the contents of their travelling library. Doing so was both practical (they were effectively ‘field testing’ books for the purposes of recommending them to other travellers) and rhetorical (as evidence of their scholarly credentials):

First of all we had our BIBLES, both in English and in the original tongues; and then RELAND’S Palæstina, which next to the Bible is the most important book for travellers in the Holy Land. We had also RAUMER’S Palästina, BURCKHARDT’S Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, the English compilation from LABORDE’S Voyage en Arabie Petrée, and the Modern Traveller in Arabia, Palestine, and Syria. Were I [Robinson] to make the journey again, considering the difficulty of transporting books, I should hardly add much to the above list, excepting perhaps a compendious History of the Crusades, and the volume of RITTER’S Erdkunde, containing Palestine in the second edition (I, 48).

Complaints about portability notwithstanding, theirs was a relatively small library: six texts and a number of bibles. Nevertheless, this catalogue of in-the-field reading matter was an important warrant of their status as credible scholars. Their need for a travelling library was further evidenced by their working method. They had adopted a specific principle to guide their investigations: “to avoid as far as possible all contact with the convents and the authority of the monks”. Better, they thought, to “examine everywhere for ourselves with the Scriptures [and other texts] in our hands”. Books, then, were not just empirical sources, but were part of a rigorous method allowing them to make ready checks on the veracity of these portable authorities. Confirming (or correcting) the work of others was the means by which Robinson and Smith could quantify their intellectual and geographical contribution on the spot.

Books on the water

“A bear plunging into the sea”, by John Ross. From A voyage of discovery, made under the orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty’s ships Isabella and Alexander (London: John Murray, 1819).

While a travelling library may have been useful for Robinson and Smith, its heft presented practical problems. Questions of transportability mattered less for those who travelled by sea, and shipboard libraries were commonplace by the nineteenth century. The reading material available to the officers and crew of naval ships and to civilian passengers on commercial vessels reflected practical requirements of navigation, the needs of correct scientific investigation, and concerns about the morals and the morale of the crew.

In his account of the unsuccessful 1818 Arctic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, John Ross offered a detailed description of the provisioning of his vessel, HMS Isabella. Under Ross’s direction a number of books were supplied for “the use of the officers, and quarter-deck petty officers.” The ship’s library included travel narratives, scientific texts, and astronomical and navigational guides, together with “Thirty Bibles and sixty Testaments.” All told, the library held twenty-five titles across fifty-four volumes. Of the ship’s compliment of fifty-four men, fewer than twenty had access to the library by dint of their rank. The ship’s crew had to make do with the religious tracts or their own private collections.

The library’s narratives fell, broadly, into two categories: those such as Alexander Mackenzie’s Voyages from Montreal (1801) and Samuel Hearne’s A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay (1795), related specifically to the territory the expedition was to navigate, and those, such as Thomas Falkner’s A Description of Patagonia (1774) and William Dampier’s Voyages and Descriptions (1699), to be read for pleasure and for the examples they might provide for seamanship, observation, and description. Volumes on mineralogy, geology, and botany constituted the ship’s scientific collection. Isabella’s library was, together with sixty or so scientific instruments recommended to it by the Royal Society, part of the expedition’s scholarly apparatus.

That Ross took the trouble to detail his ship’s library and scientific collections was partly for the sake of credibility. In the leadup to the publication of his narrative, Ross’s own observational skills had been called into question in a dispute over the existence of a mountain range that had seemed to make the Isabella’s passage through Lancaster Sound impossible. With his own aptitude and leadership in doubt, Ross’s decision to offer a full-scale account of the literary and scientific equipment of the expedition was part of a deliberate (although ultimately inadequate) strategy to show careful planning, sound scholarship, and the production of relevant knowledge at sea. For Ross, books had a potential practical value in affording protection against criticism.

Where next?

Because reading (and, more specifically, citation) was so centrally implicated in the demonstration of credibility on the part of nineteenth-century travellers, we know in very many cases what travellers read, why they read, and (sometimes, but less often) with what effect. Whilst a significant body of scholarship exists on the way travels were mediated as they became text (in the processes of authorship, editing, and publication), more work needs to be done on the mediation of travels by texts and how reading, whether en route or in situ, informed the nature and practice of travel itself.

Innes M. Keighren is a historical geographer with research interests in geography’s disciplinary and discursive histories, in book history, and in the history of science. He is based in the Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Bringing geography to book: Ellen Semple and the reception of geographical knowledge (London, 2010) and co-author of Travels into print: exploration, writing, and publishing with John Murray, 1773–1859 (Chicago, 2015). His most recent book is an edited collection about the geographical significance of the popular TV programme, Landscapes of Detectorists (Axminster, 2020).

2 thoughts on “Two Nineteenth-Century Expeditionary Libraries

  1. you could save some space by packaging Portability with Practicality. More usefully, and leaving aside the usual critical appetite for responding with ‘why not this or that’, I wonder whether there is scope for enquiring about contemporary critiques of the subjects’ choices?


  2. Yes, it would be helpful to position travellers’ choices in the wider critical context. Did they disproportionately select books that had met with a positive critical reception at the time of their publication, or did other factors (more practical or more subjective perhaps) matter more in terms of their selection? For some travellers, like Maria Graham, the absence of books was actually helpful in that it encouraged her to spend more time writing and less time reading.


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