In 1858 the Australian Museum acquired William Swainson’s collection of books. The story behind the books and the man who collected them can now be explored in a new section of the AM website.

I agree entirely … as to the advantages that would accrue to our Museum from the possession of Swainson’s library W.S. Macleay, Australian Museum Trustee, 1857

In the mid nineteenth century, as the Australian Museum grew, so too did the need for a library which could support the research of natural scientists, who may have been unable to access physical specimens but could study illustrations and descriptions in books. When William Swainson’s widow offered her late husband’s collection for sale to Sir William Denison, Governor of New South Wales and Australian Museum Trustee, he was quick to recommend its purchase. Swainson had been widely known in the scientific community and his collection of books was important for his own writing and illustrating.

Various lepidoptera with names hand-written by Swainson
Various lepidoptera with names hand-written by Swainson, Pl. 6 in Part 1 of a descriptive catalogue of the lepidopterous insects contained in the museum of the Honourable East-India Company by Thomas Horsfield, 1828. Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum

Books in the collection

At the time of the collection’s acquisition, the Library is thought to have held perhaps 100 titles, so the total of 227 volumes originally purchased was a very substantial addition. Of those, 164 volumes in 77 titles are still held by the Australian Museum Research Library in the Rare Books section. Some of the Library’s greatest treasures are included in this collection.

A formal catalogue of the Library’s books was first produced in 1883 but the books from Swainson’s collection were not specifically identified. Fortunately, the painstaking work of identifying the surviving volumes was carried out by Matthew Stephens as part of his research for his doctoral thesis, The Australian Museum Library: its formation, function and scientific contribution, 1836-1917, presented in 2013. This has enabled the librarians to include notes in the current catalogue for all books known to be part of the collection and has facilitated examination of the books.

The books bear evidence of Swainson’s close study, with many hand-written notes and comments. Pencil sketches and colouring of plates in otherwise uncoloured publications have also been found, which are believed to be by Swainson himself.

Title page of A General Synopsis of Birds, Vol. 1, Part 1
Title page of A General Synopsis of Birds, Vol. 1, Part 1 by John Latham, 1781, with additional background and colouring thought to be by William Swainson Image: Australian Museum Research Library
© Australian Museum

William Swainson’s own publications

Swainson was also a prolific author and illustrator of zoological works. Although none of his own publications were included in the collection offered by his widow, the Museum has since acquired many of these. While his illustrations were more modest than those produced by John and Elizabeth Gould, they were nevertheless highly regarded. He is also recognized as the first to use lithography for zoological illustrations, a technique which was later widely adopted.

Trichoglossus Swainsonii, Swainson’s Green lory in Zoological illustrations
Trichoglossus Swainsonii, Swainson’s Green lory in Zoological illustrations, Second Series, The Birds, by William Swainson, 1832-33 Image: Australian Museum Research Library
© Australian Museum

William Swainson’s life

Born in London in 1789, Swainson left school early, having ‘not the least aptitude for the ordinary acquirements of schools’. However, he proceeded to build a career as a natural scientist by virtue of close observation, specimen collection, and sketching in the field, together with study of the books that he collected. He moved amongst and corresponded with the leading naturalists of the day until he departed for New Zealand in 1840. At a time when species classifications were being regularly disputed and continually revised, he was a somewhat controversial figure. Nevertheless, the value of his book collection was readily recognised by the Museum Trustees and it remains an important part of the library.

Explore the website

More information about the collection and Swainson’s own works can now be found on the website.