Lasting Legacies: Philip Mills Arnold Semeiology Collection

Detail from Ars Magna, by Athanasius Kircher, 1646. This book discusses the magic lantern, an early type of image projector. From the Washington University Libraries Philip Mills Arnold Collection.

In anticipation of the official opening of the newly transformed Olin Library on May 1, 2018, we would like to preview some of the new spaces and exhibitions. Lasting Legacies, the inaugural exhibition of the Thomas Gallery on Level 1 of John M. Olin Library, pays tribute to seven influential Washington University alumni whose work has enriched their respective professions and communities.

Lasting Legacies, celebrates their unique passions, diverse accomplishments, and intellectual curiosity, and will be on view through fall 2018.


Philip Mills Arnold’s yearbook photo from his junior year at Washington University in St. Louis. Washington University Archives, Publications-Hatchet.

History of the Arnold Collection

The first of the alumni featured in the Thomas Gallery is book collector Philip Mills Arnold. Arnold received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Washington University, where he was a member of the alchemist club and honors societies for both math and engineering. An avid learner with many academic interests, he began collecting books on the theory of colors while he was still a student. This collection eventually expanded to include books on all means of communication outside of language, leading to a sizable collection on semeiology, the study of signs and symbols.

This diverse collection covers a multitude of areas, including cryptography, the decipherment of ancient languages, stenography, memory and mnemonics, paleography, philosophy of language, shorthand, signs and symbols, telegraphy, shorthand, universal writing, and languages for the deaf and blind. Because semeiology is such an interdisciplinary field, these books would normally be scattered in different sections of the library or even different libraries altogether, but Arnold’s unique collection brings them all together in one place.

A page from Chirologia by J.B (John Bulwer), a book about communication by sign language and gesture. From the Washington University Libraries Philip Mills Arnold Collection.

Arnold donated his collection in 1969, but would continue to add to it until his death in 1994, sending a suitcase of new purchases directly to Special Collections every few months. The collection is currently over 2,300 books, manuscripts, ephemera and other items, ranging from 1476 to the present day, and continues to grow thanks to a sizable endowment that Arnold left the library.

A page from Polygraphiae by Johannes Trithemius, 1518. This is the first printed book on cryptography and is so comprehensive that it became the basis of subsequent works. From the Washington University Libraries Philip Mills Arnold Collection.


View the Collection

Come by Olin Library to see a portion of the Arnold Collection on display in the new Thomas Gallery. The Thomas Gallery fosters discovery and inspiration through the display of Washington University Libraries’ vast and distinct collections. The exhibition space is stewarded by the Department of Special Collections and is a lively pathway that spans the distance between the north and south entrances of John M. Olin Library.

To learn more about the Philip Mills Arnold Semeiology Collection, you can look through our online exhibit, or view a PDF of the collection catalog. You can also search through the manuscript portion of this collection in the Philip Mills Arnold Papers finding aid.

A page from Prodromvs coptvs sive ægyptiacvs by Athanasius Kircher, 1636. This text is concerned primarily with the Coptic language and the institutions of Coptic Christians. It is also one of several of Kircher’s books to draw attention to the importance of Egyptian hieroglyphs. From the Washington University Libraries Philip Mills Arnold Collection.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.