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Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

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Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

The Seven Year Itch; or, A Sabbatical in Search of a Bibliographer

August 2nd, 2023

A séance with L.E. James (Jim) Helyar, our late fellow librarian, and bibliographer of KU’s foundational Ralph N. Ellis collection of ornithology, is in order.

In our recent attempts to catalog mysterious heretofore unidentified bibliographical puzzlements in our Ellis collection backlog, we nailed the identity of a royal folio without a title page that had stymied Jim: he knew it was related to Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, but not how. Even though Jim was closer to solving this who-done-it than he knew, he wrote in notes left behind that “I don’t immediately see anything under Wilson or Bonaparte which corresponds.” “I suspect it’s something that ‘every [ornithological bibliographical] schoolboy knows’, but not me.”

Apparently, Jim was thrown off by the “Wilson/Bonaparte, American Ornithology” notes written at the bottom of the vulture plate shown below, so in fact who-done-it was not exactly who Jim thunk done-it. This messy (both physically and bibliographically) volume turned out to be an imperfect variant of one of our exceedingly rare ornithological tomes: the royal folio edition of Scottish naturalist Captain Thomas Brown’s Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucien Bonaparte, published in Edinburgh in 1835 (Call Number: Ellis Aves H76). This volume was created as an atlas to accompany a much earlier text, Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, first issued in Philadelphia between 1808 and 1814. In his notes Jim mentions Thomas Brown only as one of the artists credited for the “Wilson derived illustrations.”

Color illustration of a vulture standing on grass with mountains in the background.
A plate in Thomas Brown’s Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Prince of Musignano. With the addition of numerous recently discovered species, and representations of the whole sylva of North America superbly illustrated with 124 large copper plates engraved by Lizars, Scott, Mitchell and others all beautifully colored by hand. Edinburgh: Frazer & Co., 1835. Call Number: Ellis Aves H161. Click image to enlarge.
This image has handwritten text.
Close-up view of the handwritten note at the bottom of the vulture plate in Thomas Brown’s Illustrations. It reads “Wilson, A, & C. L. Bonaparte. American Ornithology. 4 vols. See VIII 90.” Call Number: Ellis Aves H161. Click image to enlarge.

I have created a small exhibition of the two copies, plus my start on what could be an arduous time-taking continent- and/or world-crossing project, to complete a census, not altogether do-able, ideally, entirely on-line or by phone. I was tempted at first to try the on-line and phone route, but same as with Jim perhaps … oh, the press of time …

The exhibit is free and open to the public in the North Gallery through September 16.

Sally Haines
Special Collections Cataloger

Sweet and Saur

October 17th, 2016

Many a 20th century herpetologist credits his or her early interest in herpetology to the books of Raymond Ditmars. He published eight books on amphibians and reptiles for children and adults alike and, although many professionals consider him merely a popularizer and a showman, his scientific and public contributions to herpetology were substantial. When he was hired as Assistant Curator in charge of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo in 1899, his personal collection of reptiles formed the nucleus of the zoo’s collection. Later on in his career, he was active in developing techniques for curing reptile diseases, produced nature movies, created a clearing house for distribution of antivenins produced in Brazil, and co-founded an American antivenin institute. He was a popular lecturer as well.

Raymond Lee Ditmars. The Book of Prehistoric Animals, 1935. Call number Ellis Omnia D50, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

Raymond Lee Ditmars. The Book of Prehistoric Animals, 1935. Ellis Omnia D50

Although this volume (and several others authored by Ditmars) is from the Ellis Collection of natural history, the Department of Special Collections also has a collection of children’s literature, more than 7,000 volumes from the late 18th to early 20th century, including lots of natural history. In fact, books for children, from a 16th-century gardening manual to 20th-century science fiction, turn up in almost all of our collections, and in them, herps abound.

Sally Haines
Rare Book Cataloger

Adapted from her Spencer Research Library exhibit and catalog, Slithy Toves: Illustrated Classic Herpetological Books at the University of Kansas in Pictures and Conversations

The Garden of Health: Gart der Gesundheit, Hortus Sanitatis

April 4th, 2016

The herbal is a medical garden in book form–hence the titles Hortus Sanitatis and Gart der Gesundheit–and as such contains data on the appearance, gathering, preparation, and use of medicinal plants. Remedies from the animal and mineral kingdoms are often included as well. Although the works shown here are from the early part of the Golden Age of the Herbal (roughly 1470-1670), these practical manuals have been popular with scientist and non-scientist alike since antiquity, and a stroll through any bookstore today will attest to a resurgence of that popularity. The Department of Special Collections has a rich and growing garden of herbals spanning six centuries.

Page from herbal book. Call number Summerfield E60 v. 1_1, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.   Page from herbal book. Call number Summerfield D291, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Left: Otto Brunfels, Herbarum vivae eicones, [1532], call number Summerfield E60 v.1. Right: Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus, De medicinali materia, [1542], call number Summerfield D291 item 1. Click images to enlarge.

Page from herbal book. Call number Summerfield C1125, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.   Page from herbal book. Call number Summerfield C2114, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Left: Christovam da Costa, Trattato  . . . della historia, natura, et virtu delle droghe medicinali, 1585, call number Summerfield C1125. Right: Incipit Tractatus de virtutibus herbarum, [1509], call number Summerfield C2114. Click images to enlarge.

Adapted entry from the catalog for the exhibition, All that in this delightfull Gardin growes, Department of Special Collections, 1983
Sally Haines, Rare Book Cataloger

All Creeping Things: A History of Herpetological Illustration

May 26th, 2015

All Creeping Things: A History of Herpetological Illustration, Spencer Library’s newest exhibit, opened on May 14, 2015. Guided by Special Collections Librarian Karen Cook, students Megan Sims, Sydney Goldstein, and Ryan Ridder created and installed the exhibit for an exhibit planning and design course (MUSE 703). Whitney Baker, Head of Conservation Services at KU Libraries, Special Collections Librarian Sally Haines, and Caitlin Donnelly, Head of Public Services at Spencer, also assisted the students with their project.

The exhibit was developed in conjunction with the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles conference being held at the University of Kansas in July and features herpetological illustrations from seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century books in Spencer Library’s Special Collections. Spencer has put on a few iterations of a similar exhibit for previous conferences. Each student had a unique perspective on their experience creating the exhibit.

Ryan Ridder

“One of our goals was to be distinct from Slithy Toves [a previous exhibit, by Sally Haines] and to present images that viewers familiar with that exhibition, and associated book, might not see as often. We ended up repeating a few irresistible images – the giant salamander, Agassiz’s turtles, and the famous frontispiece to Rössel von Rosenhof’s frog volume – but everything else you see is different. We thought touching on embryological illustrations would give our exhibit another unique slant.”

Photograph of Megan and Ryan installing books

Megan Sims and Ryan Ridder installing books in the cases. Click image to enlarge.

Sydney Goldstein

“I found this class to be both an overwhelming and an incredibly eye-opening experience. Coming from a graphic design background I’ve never gone through the steps of curating an exhibition or working off the computer. It was fun to rummage through a variety of books to select illustrations, figuring out how they will fit in the cases, selecting wall graphics, and working in a group. The most rewarding part was applying our vinyl title graphic ourselves. Overall, a great experience!”

Photograph of the MUSE 703 group hanging vinyl

Megan, Sydney, and Ryan hanging the vinyl title graphic.

Megan Sims

“I have installed many exhibits according to specific designs from clients, but this was my first experience selecting objects, designing signs and labels, and fabricating book mounts and wall graphics for an exhibit. Both the physical process and communication were challenging at times, but seeing the finished product was very rewarding. I’m excited for the conference members and the Lawrence community to see this exhibit!”

Photograph of the MUSE 703 exhibit team in front of title

Ryan Ridder, Sydney Goldstein, Megan Sims, and curator Karen Cook. Click image to enlarge.

All Creeping Things is free and open to the public through August 2015.

Megan Sims
Museum Studies Graduate Student

Love Apples: Guess the Fruit

March 30th, 2015

The first fruits (berries, botanically speaking) of these vines to be eaten in Europe were probably yellow varieties: “golden apples” the Italians called them. The Italians loved them, but the rest of the world needed more convincing of their merits because they were thought to be either poisonous or aphrodisiac “love apples”, not too surprising considering their resemblance to other dangerous members of the same plant family.

At any rate, as late as the nineteenth century in America Dr. George Washington Carver, interested in improving nutrition among the poor, got up on a stage and ate these in public in order to prove that they were not poisonous.

In the annals of medical mysteries there was a case involving one of these ‘berries’ that killed off some folks; mystery solved when it was discovered that its stems had been spliced to the stems of one of the poisonous members of the family, jimsonweed, not with any mal-intent (pun intended), apparently, just the desire for bigger, better, and juicier.

They should have waited; genetic engineers are now splicing away, but at the genetic level. But … caveat emptor:  in 1992, just prior to the mounting of the Haunted Forest exhibition in which this label originally appeared, the first President Bush announced that the government would allow the sale, without government testing – by 1993 – of the Flavr Savr, courtesy of Calgene, Inc. of Davis, California. Long story short, the experiment failed: rising costs prevented the company from becoming profitable, and the Flavr Savr was gone by 1997.

Have you guessed the identity of the fruit whose vine is pictured below?

The name of this common berry is… TOMATO (highlight the blank space to the left to reveal the plant’s name).

Plate for Solanum lycopersicum  (tomato) in  Kniphof's Botanica in originali seu Herbarum vivum (1757-1767).

Our mystery berry: Solanum Lycopersicum. Johann Hieronymus Kniphof (1704-1763). Botanica in originali
seu Herbarum vivum
. Hallae Magdeburgicae, 1757-1767.  Centur. 4, 1758. Linnaeana E15 Click image to enlarge.

This unusual-looking botany book is one of the earliest, if not the first work of any extent, to use the process known as nature printing, by which a plant is laid out flat, blackened with printer’s ink, and placed between two pieces of paper to which pressure is applied. The ink imparts an impression of veins and fibers which is then colored by hand. Like a number of the works shown in this exhibition, this is one of considerable bibliographical complexity and it exists in fewer than fifteen copies, not all of which are colored and no two appear to be alike. This herbarum vivum is notable for being perhaps the first botanical plate book to cite Linnaeus’s Species plantarum, 1753, in which binomials were first used consistently for naming plants.

Title page, featuring nature printing, for Centur III-IV of Kniphof's Botanica in originali seu Herbarum vivum

Title page for Centur III-IV of Kniphof’s Botanica in originali seu Herbarum vivum.
Hallae Magdeburgicae, 1757-1767.   Linnaeana E15 Click image to enlarge.

Sally Haines
Rare Books Cataloger

Adapted from her Kenneth Spencer Research Library exhibit, The Haunted Forest: New World Plants & Animals (1992).