Basil Harrington Soulsby was born near Christchurch, New Zealand on 3rd November 1864. After his father’s death he moved to England and was educated at Cheltenham College and at Corpus Christi, Oxford. He also spent some time at Tübingen and Göttingen Universities in Germany before beginning a career as a schoolmaster. In 1892 he changed careers and entered the library service of the British Museum in Bloomsbury as an Assistant in the Department of Printed Books. He progressed to taking charge of the Map Room, and later of the Copyright Office. He was also Deputy Superintendent of the Reading Room for a time.
He transferred to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington in 1909 and from 1921 he was appointed Assistant in charge of the General Library. His main task was to continue Woodward’s Catalogue of the Natural History Library in five volumes, and one supplementary volume. At the time of his death he had almost completed the second supplementary volume. Soulsby was an active member of the Library Association and in 1902 he held the position of Honorary Secretary of the Library Association. He was also a member of the Hakluyt Society and contributed translations, introductions, bibliographies and indices to many of the Hakluyt Society’s books. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society on 24th May 1930, recommended by S.F. Harmer, (President of the Linnean Society), J. Ramsbottom, Botanical Secretary, Linnean Society and Lionel Walter Rothschild.
Basil was determined to improve the collection of Linnaeus’s works within the NHM, and spent many of his holidays touring Sweden and Germany looking at Linnean collections and acquiring material for the NHM library collection. He spent a thousand pounds of his own money on books written by Linnaeus, his students, and contemporaries. He also obtained a number of theses or dissertations produced by students of Linnaeus at Uppsala University. His friendship with Dr. J. M. Hulth, the Chief Librarian of the Royal University Library at Uppsala University, gave him unrestricted access to the Linnean collection at Uppsala University. By the time he retired he could claim that the Linnean Collection at the NHM was the “next best in the world” to that of Uppsala University in Sweden. He retired in 1930 but was asked to produce a revised second edition of A Catalogue of the Works of Linnaeus (and publications more immediately relating thereto) preserved in the libraries of the British Museum(Natural History) (South Kensington) published in London by the British Museum in 1933.
The first edition of the Catalogue prepared for the Linnaeus Bicentenary in 1907 consisted of 580 entries on 27 pages. The second edition contains nearly 4,000 entries over 300 pages and included an introduction, bibliographical notes and an index. Sadly he died on 14th January 1933, just before publication of his great work which was acknowledged as the most “complete review of the writings of or on Linnaeus which exists”. At the time of his death he was checking the final proofs of this great work. Little is known of his personal life but he was described by Swedish colleagues as a “man of amiable disposition and pawky humour”.
A Catalogue of the Works of Linnaeus (and publications more immediately relating thereto) preserved in the libraries of the British Museum(Natural History) (South Kensington), London, British Museum, 1933.
London Gazette 14th April 1933
Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London no 145, 1934.
Svenska Dagbladet, 25th January 1933. Mr Basil Soulsby passes away.
Written by Diane Tough (Former Head of Cataloguing, NHM Library & Archives)