HARTFORD, CT, September 20, 2011 – The Watkinson Library is recognized as a home to rare books and other unique artifacts, with the earliest dating back to the 12th century. But few are aware that the Watkinson houses an impressive collection of materials that are highly regarded in the field of ornithology, or the study and identification of birds.
Chief among these materials is a copy of Birds of America by John James Audubon, a 19th century ornithologist for whom the Audubon Society for bird ecosystem conservation is named. Birds of America is considered one of the rarest books in the world, with less than 120 copies in existence today. Published between 1836 and 1839, it includes 435 engravings that were hand colored and bound in four volumes. It is often referred to as the “Elephant Folio,” because of its remarkable size – over three feet tall and two feet wide – due to Audubon’s preference for illustrating each specimen to scale.
Birds of America is on permanent display in the Watkinson Reading Room in conjunction with the field guide exhibition entitled Searching the Skies, Searching the Stacks: Bird Field Guides in the Watkinson Library. The exhibition runs from August 15 through November 30, and is free and open to the public.
Mary Jordan ’11, who curated the exhibition, was unaware of the Watkinson’s subject specialty when she began working there during her junior year at Trinity. “We received requests for articles daily on obscure topics about birds I never knew existed,” Jordan said. “I did not have any special interest in birds before working at the Watkinson, but I was amazed by how large the collection of field guides the library has.”
The event marks the first occasion that a single student has curated a Watkinson exhibition. “We gave Mary this assignment…[and] had previously decided to do an exhibition of field guides, because we wanted something that wasn’t too scholarly and would have a broad appeal,” said Sally Dickinson, associate curator and preservation librarian for the Watkinson Library.
The works for this exhibition were selected from the Watkinson’s extensive ornithological collection, which had a fortuitous beginning thanks to Gurdon Wadsworth Russell, an 1834 graduate of Trinity College. In 1900, Russell donated two books to his alma mater by John James Audubon, one of them being Birds of America.
The copy that Russell donated is particularly valuable, as it was originally owned by Robert Havell, the English engraver of the series. Russell followed up this gift in 1909 when he donated 275 volumes of natural history books published in the 18th and 19th century to Trinity for the institution’s collection.
In addition to Birds of America, much of the exhibition on display pulls from materials donated to the Watkinson by Ostrom Enders, who was a trustee of Trinity and the Watkinson. He and his wife, Alice Talcott Enders, donated more than 6,000 volumes to the Watkinson, and created an endowment for the library with the specific purpose of developing its existing ornithological collection.
The result is an impressive breadth of ornithological materials from which Jordan could pull for the current exhibition. She arranged the texts in categories – among them bird watching and photography, field guides published in foreign languages, and modern field guides – each of which reinforces the pervasiveness of this scientific and recreational activity.
In addition to the categorical sections, the exhibition focuses on the works of two of the leading figures in the field of ornithology: Audubon, and Roger Tory Peterson. A long-time resident of Old Lyme, Connecticut, Peterson was a 20th century ornithologist and environmentalist who created his own identification system for birds, and who many regard as the creator of the modern field guide.
“Peterson made bird identification simple using arrows in his drawings to point to important features of the birds so that the guides could be used by a layman,” Dickinson explained. “Before this people had to identify birds through verbal descriptions, which was difficult.”
Although Audubon and Peterson came from two different eras, their work shares an incredible attention to detail and artistic craftsmanship resulting in what can be described as practical works of art. “Even with the use of photography today, some guides still use the meticulous images that naturalists like Peterson and Audubon created,” said Jordan.
Jordan is hopeful that the exhibit will open visitors’ eyes to the wide variety of texts that the library possesses. “The Watkinson is unusual and different from the rest of [Raether] Library because most of the books are kept in the stacks for their preservation, so visitors rarely understand how incredible of a collection Trinity has,” Jordan said. “This exhibition gives a small glimpse into the treasures kept there.”
The Watkinson Library is located in the Raether Library and Information Technology Center on the Trinity campus, and is open Mondays through Fridays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
For more information about the Watkinson, visit http://www.trincoll.edu/Library/Pages/Watkinson.aspx
For a map of the Trinity campus, visit http://www.trincoll.edu/Admissions/campusvisit/Pages/map.aspx