Short Take: Rare Views of Natural History

Kathryn Sweney

The UND Writers Conference starts tomorrow. Its theme—“The Art of Science”—is the perfect excuse to point out a book that is the very embodiment of that theme: Tom Baione ed., Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library (New York 2014). Check out some of the images in their online exhibit here.

The forty essays in this collection each focus on one of the library’s rare books, ranging from the earliest printed sixteenth-century zoologies to twentieth-century works in anthropology, paleontology, earth science, and astronomy. Books were selected that contained unusual or interesting illustrations that deserved notice from both a scientific and an aesthetic perspective. The more than 200 illustrations make this an art book as much as an exploration of the natural sciences.

The essays point out what is unique about each book, and its contribution to the science of its field. Here are three typical examples.


• In the essay “On the Strangeness of Hooke’s Micrographia,” David Kohn notes that Robert Hooke “definitely grasped that fossils are the remains of extinct beings and expressed an evolutionary view of life more than a century before Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin expanded on these notions” (17).


• In “The Uranometria Star Atlas,” Michael Shara writes that Uranometria by Johannes Bayer was the standard for all later star atlases and the first to cover the entire sky (9).


• Christopher J. Raxworthy writes about an early and comprehensive book on reptiles, published in Paris in the early 1800s. “It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the Erpétologie générale, to the field of herpetology. This series set a standard for herpetological reference, with copies deposited in many of the major scientific libraries of the period, and because of the accuracy of the species descriptions, it continues to be widely used and cited today” (106).

The American Museum of Natural History Library collection, started in 1877, now contains more than half a million volumes in addition to 22,000 journals and numerous special collections of photography, art, and other artifacts related to the disciplines of natural history. This book is a chance to examine some of the rarest and most beautiful scientific illustrations in that collection. A portfolio edition of the book is also available that contains 40 frameable prints.

Kathryn Sweney is the managing editor of North Dakota Quarterly.

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