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Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Opens “Nature of the Book” 

Join us for a virtual tour on Tuesday, November 15th

The Smithsonian Libraries and Archives presents a new exhibition, “Nature of the Book,” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History November 11. “Nature of the Book” will be on display through March 17, 2024.

What makes a book? Throughout history, books were handwritten, printed, bound and decorated using a wide variety of materials from the natural world. From leather coverings and paper derived from plants to mineral pigments and innovative recipes for inks, the early book was a combination of natural materials in the hands of skilled artisans. Influenced by the scarcity and abundance of commodities, global trade and economics, thrift and fashion, books could vary greatly in terms of materials, construction and purpose.

A table top is covered with materials used to make books. The include a waspnest, type, an egg, and other natural materials. A small book is on either side.
Throughout history, books were handwritten, printed, bound, and decorated using a wide variety of materials from the natural world.

“Our research process involved teasing out the rich complexity of the history and materials used in hand bookbinding,” said Vanessa Haight Smith, head of preservation services at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives and co-curator of “Nature of the Book.” “The exhibition gives us the opportunity to discuss that the use of natural materials and techniques haven’t followed a linear path; rather, they are intertwined and layered crossroads of global products and ideas.”

“Nature of the Book” explores books of the hand-press era (from the use of moveable type in Europe in about 1450 to the rise of mechanization in the 19th century) through the myriad natural materials—animal, vegetable and mineral—that went into their making. From essential ingredients like flax, leather, copper and lead, to the unexpected, like wasps and seaweed, the exhibition shows what the use of these materials can tell people about the book, touching on questions of use, process, global trade and economy.

18th century book illustration of two wasps nests and a wasp on a piece of wood.
The paperwasp’s habits of chewing wood fiber to create pulp for nests would eventually inspire thedevelopment of wood pulp paper in the 1800s. Jacob Christian Schäffer sought alternatives to linen rag paper. He published his findings, which included 82 handmade paper samples from a variety of local natural sources.

“‘Nature of the Book’ delves into the material components of books from the expected, such as parchment, paper and leather, to the unexpected including semi-precious gems, arsenic and cochineal insects,” said Katie Wagner, senior book conservator at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives and co-curator of “Nature of the Book.” “This exhibition appeals to newcomers to the topic as well as to bibliophiles.”

On display will be Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (London, 1729–1747), Francisco Hernández’s Nova plantarum (Rome, 1651) bound in tawed pigskin leather, Hokusai’s Hokusai Manga (Japan, Late Edo period, 1780–1868), John Addington Symonds’ Wine, Women, and Song (London, 1884) in an exquisite jeweled binding and a gold illuminated partial Qurʾan (Qajar-period Iran, c. 1800s).

Pig farming provided a source for sturdy bookbinding leather in Germanic Europe. Pigskin was often tawed, not tanned, resulting in a whitish appearance. Though printed in Rome, this book was likely bound locally by its Austrian owner.

Bookbinding to etching, papermaking to hand-coloring, typesetting to marbling and watermarking to gold tooling, “Nature of the Book” invites visitors into a fascinating exploration of the craft, innovation and ingenuity of hand-press bookmaking of centuries past. It tells a story of local resources and resourcefulness as well as global influence—from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa—that was essential to the Western book that is commonplace today.

To celebrate the opening of this new exhibition, we’re taking you on a free, virtual tour! Register now to get a closer look with Katie Wagner and Vanessa Smith in our next online program, November 15th at 6pm ET.

“Nature of the Book” is made possible through the support of The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Advisory Board.

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