The O’Donoghue donation on mineralogy and gems

As part of my internship at Cambridge University Library, I have been assigned the task of cataloguing the Michael O’Donoghue donation on mineralogy and gems. Michael O’Donoghue was Curator of Earth Sciences in the British Library and has himself written numerous books on gemstones and crystals; he donated his collection of 2,223 documents to Cambridge University Library between 2006 and 2008. A good part of it has already been processed, but more than a thousand are still in the basement, waiting to be catalogued.

You never know what you are going to find in a donation and this one is no exception to the rule. The subject stays the same – mineralogy in general and precious stones in particular – but the forms it comes in are infinitely varied. We have books of photographs, books about famous jewels and jewellers (Cartier, Chaumet, Fabergé), catalogues of gem collections, manuals for gem identification or gem cutting, dictionaries and encyclopaedias, minutes of various mineralogy-related congresses, publications on the mineral resources of different countries or regions, biographies and autobiographies of prospectors… The places of publication are varied, so are the dates: most of the books were published in the second half of the 20th century, but many are also from the 19th century, leather bound and in various states of preservation. Working with those, you start picking up what were the big names at the time: James Dwight Dana, Charles William King, George Frederick Kunz, Edwin William Streeter, whose books have been republished several times in the course of the century, all seem to have been prominent mineralogists.


A shiny plate in “Little Belt mountains” (CCB.53.218)

Maybe the donation’s main interest lies not in the subject itself however, but in how this subject has been studied and represented from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The great majority of the publications composing the donation are illustrated, either by photographs or drawings, and as you go through the collection, it is the entire recent history of book illustration that you see unfolding before your eyes. It starts in the 19th century with beautiful hand-drawn and colourful plates representing various precious stones – Little Belt mountains (CCB.53.218) even has a shiny illustration picturing inlaid ore in a stone. Some of the strangest and most fascinating to me are the hand-drawn pictures of observations done under a microscope (such as in British petrography CCB.53.202, or The geology of New Hampshire, part IV, CCB.53.268) which, although their purpose is to accurately represent scientific results, look to layman like me more akin to futuristic cities on an alien planet. Photography progressively replaces sketches as the years go by; specific techniques like photomicrography make their appearance (CCB.53.205), and soon photographing gemstones becomes an art, eliciting the publication of manuals (CCB.53.132) entirely dedicated to it. Illustrations sometimes come in surprising forms as well: some of them are not printed on the pages of the book itself, but rather glued to them (CCB.53.219), or slipped in a pocket at the back – this is often the case for folded maps, of which there are a great many in the donation.

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Examples of hand-drawn microscope observations (CCB.53.202, CCB.53.268)


An interesting illustration from “Birthday book of gems” (CCC.53.258)

When I visited the Legal Deposit department here in the University Library, I was told that the reason we preserve everything, including non-academic documents, is because you never know what future generations will find interesting. Anything could potentially become a subject of research, in fact, it is probably the books that we find the least useful now that will be of greatest interest in a few centuries – although they might equally prove to be of no value whatsoever. The Michael O’Donoghue donation has its fair share of unusual documents whose quality is sometimes dubious, but which may become of interest as the years go by – or not at all. We have for example quite a few advertising brochures for gem or jewel related events or companies, or adverts interspersed in other documents: The 1980 South African directory of jewellery & precious metals (CCB.53.226) contains an advert with this magnificent caption “When a woman dreams of things that keep getting bigger…it means that she is very pleased with herself – and feels she is destined to receive diamonds!”. Some of the books are very serious essays on mineralogy; but we also have a few children’s books (CCB.53.253), novels of no great literary quality which are here only because they happen to mention diamonds (like the Dick Francis novel Straight), frankly cheesy books of jewel photographs like Jade for you, Rubies & Roses, Birthday book of gems (CCC.53.258), probably my favourite because it’s just so strange as you can see from the picture above, and finally, random material that does not seem to fit into any category : museum flyers or guides, dissertations on very specific gem-related subjects that nobody else seems to have (CCA.53.111). Some of them might actually be of great importance for research, like photocopies of handwritten lab reports bound together, documents produced by gem-cutting corporations (CCA.53.114), a NATO brochure on the mineral resources of its member states (CCA.53.99) and fascinating little colour-sample slides neatly organized in a binder.


One thing I particularly like to stumble upon when browsing the donation are marks of the personality of previous owners: newspapers clippings glued on blank pages (CCC.53.218), ex-libris (i. e. ownership labels from previous owners) (CCC.53.259), a wide variety of pieces of paper that were probably used as bookmarks and pop up unexpectedly between the pages, sometimes clashing amusingly with the book they are in (such as an envelope with Paddington Bear on it in the very serious Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, volume 5, 1843 (CCC.53.226)), delicate XIXth century handwriting in the margins (CCD.53.70) – I like to think that in a hundred years, when the art of handwriting is lost to the machine, people will marvel at this more than anything else. And finally my utter favourite, from The amir’s ruby (CCD.53.74):

bookSome of these documents are not catalogued yet. If you want to consult them, do not hesitate to come knocking on our door at European Collections and Cataloguing (UL South Wing 1).

Anne-Laure Lacour, French intern at Cambridge University Library

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