Monoceros: What Conrad Gessner’s discussion of the unicorn tells us about natural history in Renaissance Europe

This post was written by James Truitt, intern in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. In August, the National Museum of Natural History opened Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend, an exhibition about the tusked whale monodon monoceros sometimes called the unicorn of the sea. Most of the exhibit focuses on narwhal biology, arctic ecology, and Inuit culture, but one section breaks from the polar theme to explore another legacy of more »

Beer on Board in the Age of Sail

Brewing and seafaring are mainstays of ancient human endeavors. Beer was first fermented by at least the 5th millennium BC in Mesopotamia. From the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of the Fertile Crescent, the grain beverage either traveled along trade routes or was spontaneously developed in other ancient civilizations (including Egyptian, Grecian, Roman, Norse, Aztec, Chinese) before landing in northern Europe in the early medieval period. Producing beer became a more »

Hawaiian Fishes: From science to souvenir

Hawaiian fishes is a diminutive book in our Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, but its flashy red cover with gilt lettering certainly catches the eye. The interior, 12 plates of flamboyant tropical fish, is just as engaging. The book certainly piqued my interest when it was featured by the Biodiversity Heritage Library in social media posts last week.     It was produced by the Island Curio Company in more »

A Zinnia Grows in Space

National Garden Month blasts off with zinnias, written by Robin Everly and Julia Blakely. Smithsonian Libraries, most days, is like a typical library system — we assist staff and visitors with information needs, purchase books, check in journal issues, digitize, catalog, and of course, shelve books. However, the Smithsonian being the Smithsonian, sometimes your ordinary day turns upside down into something else. It’s what makes working here so fun and interesting. Such a day occurred November 10, 2016, when a Smithsonian Gardens’ horticulturist contacted our librarian in the Botany and Horticulture Department about attractive 19th-century books featuring information about zinnias. He was working with a National Air and Space Museum (NASM) film crew on an educational program about Astronaut Scott Kelly’s growing zinnias on the International Space Station (ISS). The botanical librarian, along with our catalog librarian in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, came up with some stunning botanical illustrations and set up a display in the rare book reading room for the filmmakers. From these more »

Looking Closely: Two Women in Book History

The Smithsonian Libraries does not contain an overwhelming number of notable bookbindings in its collections. Unlike some other research institutions, fine or interesting covers are not a collecting focus or reason for acquiring a title. Many of our books have had a hard life, well-used over the decades by staff and researchers in the museums’ departments. These survivors have often been rebound in library buckram (sturdy but oh so boring) or been more »

Catesby in the Classroom: Students Explore the Intersection of Art and Science

In the early eighteenth century, English naturalist Mark Catesby set foot in a New World. After spending the better part of ten years, spread across two separate trips, exploring and documenting North America’s rich biodiversity, he would eventually publish his research and original artworks as the first fully illustrated book on the flora and fauna of North America.    Published over eighteen years between 1729-1747, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and more »

The Wondrous Winter Wonderland that was 16th-Century Sweden

An entry into this magical season can be gained through the Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples) by Olaus Magnus, first published in Rome in 1555. It is a work greatly valued by Smithsonian curators and researchers and other scholars, since the author – a true Renaissance man – wrote down his geographical, anthropological and naturalistic observations of a land unknown to much of Europe of the time. In more »

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