Although well-known in agricultural history circles the Perkins Agricultural Library remains something of a hidden treasure within the Hartley Library’s Special Collections. The Perkins Digitisation Project aims to remedy this by both increasing awareness of the collection and improving access. Catalogue records for the books are being added to WebCat, and these will contain links to freely available digital copies. Where none can be found, the Perkins books will be assessed by Conservation staff, and condition permitting, digitised by the Library Digitisation Unit. The online copies will be made available through WebCat and the Internet Archive’s Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Consisting of 2,000 books on British and Irish agriculture printed before 1900, the collection was presented to the University College of Southampton in 1946 by Walter Frank Perkins, an Honorary Treasurer of the College and a former M.P. for the New Forest. Perkins collected a wide range of books on farming, including practical handbooks, textbooks, studies of crops and livestock as well as books on the development of agricultural chemistry.
Initially the digitisation project will focus on nineteenth-century publications, online access to earlier titles already being available through the subscription services Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online. The areas to be targeted have been identified with the help of Dr Malcom Hudson and Dr Nazmul Haq from the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, and include pamphlets on the economic aspects of farming and studies of individual crops. Many of the books contain information of potential interest today on crop varieties, yields achieved and environmental conditions of the time. The agricultural handbooks also have value as historical sources, describing contemporary agricultural practices and various aspects of rural life. The series of county agricultural surveys sponsored by the Board of Agriculture between 1793 and 1817 is especially important in this respect.
Perkins clearly preferred to collect books in a pristine condition, but some still show traces of their previous owners – annotations include recommendations of the best cider apples to grow and recipes for horse powders. Samples of alpaca wool are the most unusual find to date. They accompany a letter dated 1846, from William Danson of Liverpool, asking the recipient to consider using alpaca in the manufacture of velvet, and are found within William Walton’s A Memoir Addressed to Proprietors of Mountain and other Waste Lands, … on the Naturalization of the Alpaca (1843).