Two years into a massive six-year editing assignment, the enormity of which is exceeded only by its obscurity, Daniel N. Robinson describes himself as "a man who is paid for his hobby."
Robinson, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, is editor-in-chief of an ambitious project to publish 100 volumes of the best unpublished manuscripts and rare books from the library of Britain's Royal Society.
It is an assignment that literally "consumes every waking hour" and will include such esoteric topics as the thinking on the meaning of sunspots in 17th century Ireland and the state of metallurgy in 18th century England.
Chartered by Charles II in 1660, the Royal Society included as fellows most of the leading scientific minds of the last three centuries.Its library contains more than 40,000 rare books and 60,000 handwritten letters, diaries, reviews and manuscripts from the likes of Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley.
"It is an absolutely precious library used only by furrowed-brow types in the late afternoon," says Robinson, whose research into the history of ideas and the history of psychology has convinced him that western civilization peaked a century ago. "It is as filled with gossip and backstabbing as it is with genius, but I have never come away empty."
Only once, in the late 1800s, has even a catalogue of the Royal Society's rare books been published, and there has never been a catalogue of the manuscripts, letters, papers and diaries.
"To go into the history of the Royal Society is to learn something about the human race," says Robinson, "Their awareness of history, which few of us have any more. Their sense that what they did mattered and would matter after they died. The affect of morality, politics and religion on sicence.
"It is something of a dinosaur. The world is quickly running out of patience for such elitist institutions as the Royal Society. Were there people kept out for bigoted and political reasons? Yes. Were people let in for frivolous reasons? Yes. But by and large,it included the best scientists of the age."
To prepare for his project, Robinson and his wife spent four months in London going through the card catalogue of rare books and manuscripts at the Royal Society, compiling, in the process, a stack of notes a foot and a half high.
"I have personally fingered every card in the Royal Society card catalogue," say Robinson. "I am one of only two or three men in the world who can make that claim.
"When you take the choicest of the rare books, there are at least 50 volumes that you would want to do, and from the 60,000 manuscripts, papers and letters, there are at least another 50 volumes of publishable material. It gives us an insight into the scientific community that would simply not be available in the material already published."
When the Board of Governors of the Roayl Society met to consider the the project with Robinson as editor-in-chief and the Washington-based University Publications of America as publishers, one of the governors inquired why the job wasn't going to a British editor or publisher.
"Because none ever asked," he was told.
At this point, Robinson is still going over his notes, culling and sorting material and deciding just what his 100-volume project will include.
"We'll have at least several volumes devoted to invention," he said.
"There will be a volume on electricity before Franklin, volumes on pharmacology and surgery, probably a half dozen on astronomy and navigation. There will be two volumes on meteorology and the weather and possibly a separate volume on ship building.
"Of course we'll have a volume on contributions from the colonies. The famous Cotton Mather was a frequent contributor to the Royal Society. The Byrd family of Virginia contributed works on snake venom, roots and herbs that could be grown in the New World."
After selecting the material, Robinson will face the task of locating historians to write prefaces and edit each volume. "It will be a question of finding the professor who will write the preface to the volume on sunspots in 17th century Ireland or metallurgy in 18th century England," he explained.
A burly, bearded man, Robinson, 42, taught at Princeton and Amherst before coming to Georgetown, where he teaches the history of psychology, the philosophy of psychology and introductory psychology. Of the three schools, he says he prefers Georgetown. "It takes the teaching of young men and women very seriously," he said.
A fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Society, a native of New York City and a graduate of the City University of New York, Robinson lives with his wife near Frederick, Md., in a 19th century farmhouse that he is in the process of restoring, and he takes frequent trips to Europe.
"My two favorite cities in the wrold are London and Vienna," he observed. "It's been pointed out to me many times that both are centers of empires which no longer exist."
A specialist in neuropsychology and philosophy of the mind, Robinson studies the history of science because "when you study the history of science, you're studying the human mind. What makes us is our mind. One way of unerstanding the human mind is to look at what it had done, the best examples of what man is and what he has done. When I study the history of ideas, I am studying human psychology."
Convinced that the Victorian era was actually the last period of urbanity in the history of the west, Robinson spent the two years before getting started on the Royal Society project editing and writing prefaces for a 28-volume series entitled "Significant Contributions to the History of Psychology, 1750-1920."
That effort, recalled Robinson, stemmed from one of his earlier projects, a book on the intellectual history of psychology. "While preparing for the book, I discovered how difficult it was to track down some of the most standard material," Robinson said. "Works that were the leading testimony of their day were reduced to a single ragged copy sequestered in the Library of Congress."
The 28 prefaces have been gathered into one collection called "The Mind Unfolding" in which Robinson argues that "most of what contemporary social science has to say was said far more articulately 100 years ago by better minds with a much greater capacity for self-criticism.
"What these 28 volumes reveal is that no problem associated with psychology in the 20th century can be found that wasn't stated more clearly and with as much relevant factual support in the 19th century. In this respect, the so-called modern social sciences are a dreary footnote to that earlier time."
A current project, "Significant Contributions" ultimately will be expanded to include 50 volumes, and work is in progress now for an additional six volumes on the issue of insanity and jurisprudence.
Neither that nor the 100 volumes from the library of the Royal Society are expected to hit the best seller lists. "Significant Contributions" sold about 300 sets at a cost of $800 each to libraries around the country, and as far as Robinson is concerned that was doing well.
As for the Royal Society project, he says, "There are about 3,000 university libraries in this country. If we can sell to 10 percent of them, the project will break even."
With publication four or five years away, it's difficult to predict exactly what each volume will cost, Robinson says, but assuming a stable economy, probably about $30 a volume. "I would assume there would be some sort of discount for an institution that purchases a full set, but $25 to $35 a volume is a reasonable estimate."