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The Field Museum isn't just home to specimens and artifacts: it's also home to the books and manuscripts that have shaped our understanding of the world's natural history. Today, we look at some of the 7,500 books in the Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room!
To learn more and to see some of these items online, be sure to check out the Biodiversity Heritage Library!

Thank you to Christine for all of her help in making this video! And to Gretchen and Diana in the library for their support.
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Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Editor, Graphics:
Sheheryar Ahsan

Producer, Camera:
Brandon Brungard

Interview with:
Christine Giannoni
This episode is filmed at and supported by The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
Emily: So we are here in the rare book room with Christine.  What do you do here in the library?

Christine: I am the museum librarian and head of library collections here at the Fiels Museum.

E: We're in a particular room in the library, this isn't what the rest of the library looks like.

C: So we are in the Mary W. Reynolds rare book oom, and this is about 750 volumes of rare materials that are most easily describes as the history of natural history and early travels and voyages about natural history.

E: So these aren't just like the oldest books you have in the collection?

C: Exactly.  So people often think that rare books are all old, but not necessarily.  There are several different criteria that make up rare books; so something could be a very rare association copy, have a very important first owner, it could have high market value, or there could be very limited numbers of a particular book that were ever created.

E: So you've pulled some things out  that we can go look at today.

C: Yes, I did.

E: I'm super excited.  Let's go.  Christine, so what makes this rare book rare?

C: So, one of those other criteria that makes a material rare is when it is something that is completely unique, so something that maybe like a handwritten manuscript.  In this instance, these are actually original pattern and proof plates that are part of this book that was published in 1887 called American Medicinal Plants.  And this one done by Charles Mitzpah, who was an early curator at the department of botany here at the Filed Museum, and all of these went into the final work here which you see is a multiple part work.

E: So this is the original painting that he sat down and did by hand, and this is the plate reproduction of that thing.

C:  Yes, and sometimes with these there are multiple versions of these within this particular volume.  So the final version may have ended up in the book but there may have been an earlier copy inside of here.

E: But it's only, this is the only place that you can see this particular work.

C: Yes, exactly.

E: So that's one criterion, but how old it is can also be a criterion for being in the rare book room.

C: Right, so for that, 1801 is often times the cut off, so anything published prior to 1801 is often considered rare and would we found inside of a room like this.

E: And you have a book that's older than 1801.

C: Yes I do.  So this is actually from 1554, it was created by a man named Ippolito Salviani, and thi was one of hte earliest books in natural history, filled with species descriptions of fish from the Mediterranean region.  And what's interesting about this is it's one of the first books where the illustrations were doing by copper engraved when wood cuts were very popular at the time, and this really makes these images pop out at the users.

E: And so is this something that somebody could see online?

C: Yes you can actually see this online, but what we've discovered over the years is that seeing them online often sparks people to wanna see them in person.

E: So they might not necessarily be like an ichthyologist studying fish curious about the fish in the Mediterranean in the 1500's, but they might wanna know about the artist of the engravings.

C: So this is a book called The Investigations and Studies in Jade.  It is filled with all of these images of lovely jade objects: ornaments, jewelry, things like that.  And this is number 96 of only 100 that were created.  So this was actually published in 1906  The jade collection itself is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Then they created two volumes, this is only one of the volumes, that has all these lovely images in it, and what's also pretty interesting about this, is that once they published these books they destroyed the plates that they used to make this book so that they could never make any more of them.

E: Wow, that's amazing!  But also like a lot of pressure.  You're like "Aw please I know."  Well this is beautiful.  Is there like a functional reason it has to be this big?  Or was is just because they wanted to make a point?

C:  Uh, they could be, or you wanna show the objects in their original size, things like that.  They really pop out that way.

E: Wow.  Really cool book.

C: So this is Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.  So,  this is arguably one of the most important texts in the history of natural history.

E: So what makes this copy more rare than like, the copy that I got that was printed in the 80's?

C: So this is a first edition from 1859.  Good way to tell that you have  first edition is that if you go to page 20 of the book, you'll see right here that the word "species" is misspelled.  It's one of the indicators. 

E: Do you know how many copies were issued in the first edition?

C: So there were about 1250 that were originally issued.  This has actually been documented as part of the Darwin Census Project, which was out of Cambridge University and the Huntington Library, so we actually have two copies of this work, and both of them were documented in this census.

E: Well that's amaing.  I didn't know that they did a census on books like they do the census on people.

C:  Yes they do.

E: Well I guess if you're Darwin.  The final book that we're gonna talk about isn't jut special in one unique way.

C: Yeah it's special in several different ways, it hits several different criteria.  One: it's size, this is double elephant folio of John James Audubon's Birds of America.  So, this is our volume two.  So the other aspect of this is that this is filled with colored illustrations, and this also does have a  high market value.  So this is a twelve year publishing enterprise that started in 1826 and then continued over that span of time.  If people wanted to own these particular volumes they would subscribe to them.  What they would receive in the mail would be five plates, then when they had what was considered to be a complete volume they would take it to a book binder who would put it together into one particular volume.  So a complete set is four volumes, we do have all four volumes.  Where our volume is even more special it that our set has what are called composite plates, and it has all thirteen of those composite plates.  That means that-again, over this twelve year publishing enterprise there may have been particular bird species that were misidentified or some other reason that they may have been put together sort of with unassociated species.  So, for example, we have this particular plate of the Louisiana tanager and the scarlet tanager, adn you have these four birds right here, and then on the very next plate, which is the composite; so this particular species was previously on a different plate, and then he realized later on that he really belonged in this grouping of birds, so he was added on later.

E: So they were like, "Oh, shoot, I can't just like open up the digital project file and Photoshop that thing in, I gotta like re-press the whole thing."

C: Exactly.

E; So how did we end up with one of the most unique complete copies of Birds of America?

C: It was actually purchased at auction on our behalf in 1969 and then donated to the institution, and that's how the room is now named the Mary W. Reynold rare book room, because it was through the generosity of her that we have this beautiful set.

E: And why does this book need to be as big as it is?

C: Because Audubon wanted to have these illustrations in the life size of all of the species.

E: So if you had like a scarlet tanager, which you wouldn't have  a dead one, but you held it up it would match.

C: Yes.

E: I wouldn't recommend doing that.  So now that we've seen some of the books that you pulled, if somebody were interested in looking at some of those materials, where could they go?

C; So yes, we have been working very hard over the last ten years through our partnership with the Biodiversity Heritage Library to digitize the contents of their room.  We are at over 50 million pages of digitized literature, uh, that we are making freely available on the web.

E: I love it, I  use the Biodiversity Heritge Library all the time when I'm looking up, even if it's like old museum bulletins or beautiful illustrations for videos that we've made or, like, a read this account about freshwater bivalves in the button industry from 1908, don't know how I would have found that anywhere else.

C: Yeah, it's a massive resource.

E: I love it so much, so you should go check it out.  Well thank you so much for taking the time today.

C: You're welcome.