This article was written by Robin E. Rider, History of Science & Special Collections Librarian, for the Spring 2014 Friends of the UW–Madison Libraries newsletter. Please note that Rider’s article came out early 2014, and the Books of Nature exhibit opened March 17th for your viewing pleasure. The exhibit will run until August 1, 2014.
This Saturday, April 26, 2014, the Caxton Club of Chicago and the Bibliographical Society of America, in conjunction with the Department of Special Collections, will host an all-day symposium entitled Bibliography, Collections, and History of Science. The symposium is free and open to the public.
Speaking in the morning session will be three historians of science: Nick Wilding of Georgia State University, about a much publicized (and, he argues, forged) copy of Galileo’s Starry Messenger; Michael Shank of UW–Madison, about the twin careers of Regiomontanus, Renaissance astronomer and printer/publisher; and Florence Hsia, also of UW–Madison, about the 17th-century Bodleian librarian at Oxford and his collection of works about Chinese science and learning. The afternoon section brings together two collectors of rare books in science and medicine, a well-known New York book dealer, and the librarian responsible for the history of science rare book collection at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City.
Download the full program (PDF) for what promises to be a lively symposium on copies, collections, and history of science.
This event marks the first time that the symposium on book history jointly sponsored by the Caxton Club and the Bibliographical Society of America will take place outside Chicago. We are delighted to welcome their members to the campus and the libraries.
Bibliographical Society of America
The Bibliographical Society of America is “the oldest scholarly society in North America dedicated to the study of books and manuscripts as physical objects.” The society was established in 1904 and is dedicated to promoting bibliographical research and issuing bibliographical publications. In addition to publishing many important monographs such as Joseph Sabin’s Bibliotheca Americana (1936) and Frederick Goff’s Incunabula in American Libraries (1940), the Society has published since 1907, the quarterly journal Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. Other Society activities include meetings, conference, lectures, and fellowship programs.
The Caxton Club
The Caxton Club of Chicago dates back to 1895 and the interest of fifteen Chicago bibliophiles who wanted to support the publication of “fine books in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement.” The founders were collectors, publishers, designers, and librarians whose primary goal was to publish high quality books primarily for their own libraries. The name of the organization honors the first English printer, William Caxton, who printed the first book in England in 1477 and published Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a year later.
Books of Nature: An Exhibit of Science and Natural History Books from Special Collections
To complement the symposium, the Department of Special Collections will feature a large exhibit celebrating its own collections for history of science. Indeed, the department itself owes its origin to the university’s purchase in the mid-1940s of a major collection for history of science, assembled by the inventor and entrepreneur Chester Thordarson. The Thordarson collection is perhaps best known for its magnificent set of the double-elephant folio Birds of America by Audubon. But its strengths extend to other areas of illustrated natural history and sciences both pure and applied, as well as lavish Rivière bindings, long runs of English almanacs beginning in the early 17th century, and many Icelandic titles. E.B. Fred, president of the University of Wisconsin at the time of its acquisition said later that the Thordarson collection “was the best investment the University ever made.”Even if you do not know about the Thordarson collection, you may be familiar with what Thordarson called his “wild summer home” in Door County: Rock Island, which he owned.
Building on the Thordarson collection, the regents of the University of Wisconsin acquired in 1951 the Denis Duveen collection on alchemy and early chemistry. Their decision, and the debate surrounding it, made front-page news in the Capital Times for January 13, 1951, and brought several thousand more rare titles in science and the occult. The collection was full of high spots. Some are small but exceedingly uncommon books of secrets; the collection also features a rare hand-colored treatise (1595) by Heinrich Khunrath about alchemical theory and practice, highlighted in the gold and silver so prized by alchemists. Special collections and the UW digital collections produced an online digital facsimile of Khunrath’s work some years ago.
The UW–Madison Libraries continued to acquire, both by gift and by purchase, rare book collections and noteworthy individual titles in support of history of science. Many of these acquisitions were cataloged in 1965 in Chemical, Medical, and Pharmaceutical Books Printed Before 1800, in the Collections of the University of Wisconsin Libraries, as edited by John Neu, longtime bibliographer for history of science in the libraries and active for many years in the Friends as well. Through Neu’s work in bibliography and collection development for history of science, the collections continued to grow, and he forged connections with notable collectors like William Reeder, who remains an active member of the board of the Friends, and William Cole, much of whose impressive collection focused on chemistry in the 18th and 19th centuries is now part of Special Collections.
Building on such strong foundations John Neu and I have been honored to secure other related collections for Special Collections. These holdings anchor and enrich an active program of research and teaching in history of science on campus. Increasingly, course assignments and class sessions in Special Collections encourage undergraduates to engage with rare books of science, teaching them to tease out meaning from text, to be sure, but also from images and paratextual content. Student response to such a learning experience is heartening. Evaluations of a recent undergraduate course on the Scientific Revolution included the comment, “Absolutely loved the Special Collections aspect of the course.”
With such riches to choose from as the George W. White collection on glaciers and glaciology, deep collections of works by Robert Boyle, Linnaeus, and Joseph Priestley, the Daniel M. and Eleanor Albert collection of optics and ophthalmology, Ronald Numbers’ collection on science and religion collection, the Schadewald collection on pseudo-science, and more, our task in curating the exhibit for spring 2014 will be the difficult but happy one of selecting among the many strengths in history of science in the holdings of Special Collections. We hope you can join us for both the symposium and the exhibit.
The exhibit, Books of Nature, will be up until August 1, 2014.
Any questions? You can call Special Collections at (608) 262-3243 or visit at 990 Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin, 728 State Street, Madison, WI 53706 (the elevator to the right goes up to the 9th floor!).