Greetings! The Smithsonian History, Art, and Culture digital collection recently added a number of titles from the special collections housed at the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. Continue reading
Since starting my internship on January 10th, I have searched through hundreds of 18th-early 20th century books for period dress and steampunk-like technology, sorted thousands of papers with exhibit-related information, and worked on catalog entries for around 120 Heralds of Science. While I have enjoyed all the work that I’ve done so far, one of my favorite tasks has been enhancing the catalog records for the Heralds of Science collection. This collection is composed of what Bern Dibner deemed the most important texts in science, and includes multiple incunabula in the library.
Bern Dibner’s copy of Johann Prüss’s Ortus Sanitatis, donated with most of the other Heralds as part of the gift that founded the Dibner Library, is at first glance unassuming despite its 1497 publication date. A sizable volume with a faded green leather cover much younger than itself, it appears almost plain next to many of the other Heralds with their elaborately gilt-tooled covers and ornate designs. Once opened, though, the care taken in the book’s binding and conservation immediately becomes visible. Gilt-tooled leather accents beautifully marbled endpapers that are marked with two different bookplates. These plates distinguish the book’s history of ownership, or provenance.
James Franck Bright (1832-1920) was a British historian and Master of the University College at Oxford. Jacobi (James) P.R. Lyell (1871-1948) was a solicitor, book collector, and bibliographer who focused on the Medieval period. Who owned the text earlier than that seems to be a mystery, though they have left their marks!
Typical of many incunabula, hand-drawn initials and rubrication appear throughout the text; like most hand-created items, they bear signs of human error. In this book, the rubricator obviously tried to move along too quickly. His mistakes are visible in ink smudges, or on the occasional chapter title where part of the opposite page sticks to once-fresh paint.
The most interesting thing about the text, at least to me, is its variety of bizarre illustrative woodcuts. The first half of the text, “De Herbis,” contains many woodcuts of various plants. Three more sections follow, including the next section, “Tractatus de Animalibus,” which focuses on animals both real and imagined. Prüss immediately catches the reader’s attention with a detailed, labeled woodcut of a human skeleton, then continues with hundreds of odd woodcuts, some of which depict animals that the artist had clearly never seen.
Since I can’t read Latin (something that I’ve learned will likely have to change!), I have little concept of why these strange things are in a book that otherwise seems quite concerned with identifying herbs and their purpose. However, I’m glad they are; they provide a fascinating window into the mindset of people living around 500 years ago, especially when considered next to the ink stains, handwriting, and bookplates.
—Betsy Hagerty, Smithsonian Libraries intern
Situated at the center of the world’s largest museum complex, the Smithsonian Libraries is a vital part of the research, exhibition, and educational enterprise of the Institution. Each Smithsonian scholar engages in an individual voyage of discovery using the artifacts and specimens of the Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with the Libraries’ written and illustrated record of the past. The Libraries is uniquely positioned to help scholars understand the continuing vitality of this relationship, via exceptional research resources ranging from 15th-century manuscripts to electronic journals.
John James Audubon The birds of America : from drawings made in the United States
and their territories, 1840-1844, Ruby throated hummingbird.
The Spencer Baird Society Resident Scholar Program
Stipends of $3,500 per month for up to six months are available to support scholarly research in the Special Collections of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries in Washington, DC and New York, NY, in an extensive range of subject areas. Historians, librarians, doctoral students, and postdoctoral fellows are welcome to apply.
These collections include rare books in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History (pre-1840 works on topics such as botany, zoology, travel & exploration, museums & collecting, geology, anthropology, and James Smithson’s library); World’s Fairs printed materials from the 19th and early 20th centuries (located at the Dibner Library, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and National Museum of American History libraries); manufacturers’ commercial trade catalogs at the National Museum of American History Library; rare materials in the history of ballooning, rocketry, and aviation from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries at the National Air and Space Museum Library’s Ramsey Room; European and American decorative arts, architecture, and design collections from the 18th to the 20th centuries at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library’s Bradley Room; and rare materials on the history of art and artists, exhibition catalogs, catalogues raisonnés, and artists’ ephemera at the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library.
This award is supported by the many annual donors to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
Johannes Hevelius, Machinae Coelestis Pars Prior [and Posterior] [Celestial machines, or astronomical instruments], 1673-79, Four male figures (including Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, and possibly Ptolemy and Aristotle) contemplate a celestial globe; allegorical figures surround them.
The Dibner Library Resident Scholar Program
Stipends of $3,500 per month for up to six months are available to support scholarly research using the history of science and technology rare books and manuscripts at the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Historians, librarians, doctoral students, and postdoctoral fellows are welcome to apply.
The collection of the Dibner Library contains over 20,000 rare books and 1,800 manuscript groups covering a wide variety of subject areas and time periods. The strengths of the collection are in the fields of the physical sciences, particularly mathematics, astronomy, classical and Renaissance natural philosophy, theoretical and experimental physics (especially electricity and magnetism), engineering technology, as well as scientific apparatus and instruments. The periods covered range from early printed works of ancient Greek and medieval scholars through the Renaissance and Early Modern eras up through the 19th century. The collection includes significant holdings of works by Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Sacrobosco, Regiomontanus, Apian, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, Laplace, Euler, Gauss, Oersted, and many others. The core of the holdings of the Dibner Library is the approximately 10,000 rare books and manuscripts that were generously donated by the Burndy Library (Bern Dibner, founder) to the Smithsonian Institution on the occasion of the nation’s bicentennial. The Dibner Library is located in the National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington, DC.
The Dibner Library Resident Scholar Program is supported by the family of Frances K. Dibner.
For further information about the Resident Scholar Program, including application forms and procedures, please visit the SI Libraries’ website.
Additional inquiries may be addressed to:
SILResidentScholars@si.edu or Smithsonian Institution Libraries / Resident Scholar Programs / P.O. Box 37012 / NMAH 1041 MRC 672 / Washington, DC 20013-7012. The Margaret Henry Dabney Penick Resident Scholar Program will be on hiatus during 2012. Resident Scholars are required to be in residence during the award period, which must be taken during the 2012 calendar year. All application materials must be submitted by March 15, 2011.
The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, located in the National Museum of American History, Behring Center, in Washington, D.C., has reopened after a recent renovation. One of the Special Collections in the Libraries system, the Dibner Library was established in 1976 with a gift of thousands of rare books and manuscripts from the Burndy Library (the personal library of electrical engineer, inventor, and philanthropist Bern Dibner). The crown jewels of the Dibner Library are known as the Heralds of Science, a group of 200 landmark publications in the history of science and technology, including first editions by such renowned authors as Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Galileo.
The reopening of the Dibner Library was celebrated with a symposium, The Era of Experiments and the Age of Wonder: Scientific Expansion in the 17th-19th Centuries, held on March 4-5, 2010. During the Symposium, Richard Holmes, winner of the 2009 National Book Critics Circle award for best non-fiction work, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, delivered the seventeenth Dibner Library Lecture.
Within the span of about a month, the Dibner Library received two separate inquiries about our lone manuscript page from the draft of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. His popularity is unsurprising, especially during this anniversary year: 2009 is the year Darwin would have been 200, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species, events which are being actively commemorated here.
One inquiry was from a gentleman named Milton D. Forsyth, Jr., who has been tracking down all extant leaves of the first draft of the Origin within his reach; the other from David Kohn, Director and General Editor of the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Manuscripts Project (currently called the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution, a project linked to the Biodiversity Heritage Library). Both were seeking pages of the original draft, so I was disappointed to see the note on the back by Darwin’s daughter Henrietta Litchfield, describing the page as containing “the passage… from Chapter VII, p 264 of 5th edn, 1869…”
Mr. Forsyth’s inquiry came first, so I sent him copies of the draft and the disappointing note and asked him to be sure to alert me to any interesting discoveries, should he have any… and he did just that. Henrietta Litchfield’s note did allow some room for interpretation, and happily Mr. Forsyth did not take it as fact, and looked into the matter further. His knowledge of the existing draft pages and the editorial changes that occurred with later editions led him to determine that our leaf is indeed one of only 45 extant sheets from the original Origin manuscript, a fact happily confirmed by Dr. Kohn after reading Forsyth’s analysis. The true origin of our Origin page was apparently buried for a long time, since, as Mr. Forsyth notes, according to a published record of the sale, the manuscript page which sold at auction at Sotheby’s, London, in July 1958, was described as “p. 264 of the 5th ed. 1869.” It may be that Bern Dibner did not realize the gem he had.
Our single manuscript page will be a part of the Darwin Manuscripts Project’s planned edition of all locatable manuscript pages of the Origin of Species’ first edition. The Project was just given grant funding to digitize Darwin’s Library, including the extensive marginal notes in his own hand. Press releases detailing the scope of this project can be found here and here.—Kirsten van der Veen