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 »

Balancing the Books in Rare Books

As the old Sam Cooke song goes: Don’t know much trigonometry Don’t know much about algebra, Don’t know what a slide rule is for But I do know that one and one is two, And I do know something about early printing and history. And books of firsts are always fun. So there is much to love about Luca Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita (Summary of arithmetic, geometry, proportions more »

Unearthing an 18th-Century Librarian-Gardener

Rare book cataloging can require some detective work. A recent case for me involved a record of ancient coins in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, transferred to the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library for cataloging from the National Museum of American History’s National Numismatic Collection. This is also a tale of how a book can reveal unexpected histories.

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 »

America’s First Known African American Scientist and Mathematician

At the beginning of February, Black History Month, the former slave Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was much in the news. The most prominent African American of the 19th century, he first moved to Washington, D.C. in the early 1870s after his home in Rochester, New York burned down. Here he published his newspaper, The New National Era. From 1877 until his death in 1895, Douglass lived and worked in a stately Victorian house, 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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